HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Drinking for the Sake of Drinking

This article was originally published by Tuoi Tre News at http://tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/city-diary/drinking-for-the-sake-of-drinking-1.79928

More and more beer is being consumed every month in Vietnam. Habeco, or the Hanoi Beer and Beverages Company, sold VND 771 billion (US$37 million) worth of beer in June, up 28% against the same month last year. Habeco's income over the first half of the year was up 10% over the first six months of 2011, and income for the Saigon Beer and Beverages Company (Sabeco) was up 9% against the same period.

If you regularly visit local restaurants and road-side eateries this should come as no surprise. Practically any night of the week (and some afternoons) you can find a table-full of local men (and only men) shouting ‘mot, hai, ba, dzo’ (one, two, three, drink!) and ‘tram mot tram’ until they fall off their red plastic stools. Drinking beer in Vietnam is incredibly cheap. I’m still amazed that bottled water is more expensive than a bottle of beer at most restaurants. As a result it is very easy to drink large amounts of alcohol while spending very little, something you can’t do in, say, the U.S. or Europe.

This cheapness may be one of the reasons behind this heavy drinking, but the whole philosophy surrounding alcoholic beverages seems to be completely different here in Vietnam. Back home in the States it is perfectly normal to go out to a bar, have two or three beers with your friends, and then call it a night. Getting obnoxiously drunk, or even a little ‘sloppy’, as we like to say, is often considered uncouth and immature. There are times when getting drunk is almost a requirement – birthdays, weddings, etc. – but for the most part people don’t go out with the intention of getting heavily intoxicated. Having a couple drinks is social, getting so drunk you fall over is quite anti-social.

Here, though, some people seem to drink simply for the sake of drinking. Groups of men will blow through case after case of beer for no real reason until they are completely out of control. I’m sure we’ve all eaten somewhere where a group of smashed, red-faced businessmen is conversing as loudly as they possibly can, making it impossible to hear the people you are with. The popularity of downing a whole drink (tram mot tram, or 100%) is also part of what, in the U.S., is considered binge drinking, a highly dangerous activity. If you repeatedly chug entire glasses of beer, you won’t realize how much you’ve had until it’s far too late.

And that is where another big difference between drinking in the west and drinking here comes in: driving under the influence. I’m not saying no one in America or the UK or Australia drives after they’ve had a few drinks. It happens, but there are serious consequences if you get caught. You can have your license taken away, and you could even end up in jail if you do it multiple times. A lot of money has been spent on advertising the awful things that can happen if you drink and drive, and it has worked. The concept of a ‘designated driver’ – someone who drives their friends to a bar, doesn’t drink at all, and then makes sure everyone gets home safely – is very popular, and works.

Here, on the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much hesitation when it comes to hopping on your motorbike after having nine beers. I’ve seen guys who can barely even stand up get on their bike and swerve off, an accident just waiting to happen. Perhaps there isn’t any awareness of how dangerous this can be, but driving while drunk endangers yourself and everyone around you. There are millions of taxis in Saigon (a rough guess), surely people could just plan to split a cab after a night of drinking? Driving while sober can be dangerous enough given the traffic conditions here, so why make it harder?

I'm not trying to come off as a prude - I enjoy a cold beer as much as anyone else, and I've had my fair share of drunken nights here. But if I know I am going to be drinking heavily I leave my moto at home and either take a taxi or a xe om. I also try not to binge drink, since more often than not you end up being unable to talk to people because you can barely form sentences. Again, that's not very social. Drinking is fun, but sometimes it's nice to just have a relaxed evening with a couple of drinks, and that's it. Here, that doesn't seem to cut it. It's either tram mot tram, or nothing.
a common sight: an obliterated Vietnamese man


  1. I'd agree with a lot of this but I don't think price has anything to do with it. I'm from Ireland where drinking is insanely expensive (if you're out in bars/clubs/pubs etc) by comparison to say the US. Other countries like Czech Republic have very very cheap beer (and amazing beer at that). You rarely see Czech people stumbling around the streets of Prague every night out of their minds but in Dublin, whole different story. It's most certainly a culture thing I think.

    I've only just arrived in Vietnam yesterday but I know the issue of face is huge here right? Would that be a contributing factor? Especially in regards to 'shouting ‘mot, hai, ba, dzo’ and ‘tram mot tram’ until they fall off their red plastic stools.'? Or i have I misunderstood the concept of face?

  2. Good point - I've been to Prague and the beer was amazing and cheap, yet you didn't see much public intoxication. It is a cultural thing...just not sure why some cultures have it and other don't.

    'Face' is really complicated - I'm still not even close to fully understanding it. Maybe that's part of it - guys trying to show they're manly by skolling beer after beer. Oddly enough I've heard that only a few years ago it was widely unacceptable to be seen drunk in public. My, how times have changed.