And, even more about the drinking customs in Vietnam.
I do enjoy heading out to a bia hoi in Hanoi, and love some of the traditions that go along with serving in Vietnam, but my favorite part of the culture of beer drinking in Vietnam is toasting!
Toasting Beer in Vietnam
Drinking beer in Vietnam is all about the tradition of toasting, and all the formalities that go along with it. In Dong Ha, drinking beer is just about one of the only things to do in the evenings. Going to “dinner” often means heading to a seafood joint on the river front, or another restaurant, to drink beer, with a few dishes of food on the side.
A plastic crate (called a “can”) of large bottled beer is automatically delivered to your table, warm, along with short glasses and a small bucket of ice. Yep, ice in beer. I love it. As beers are drunk, the empties are returned to the can, and counted at the end of the night to determine the bill.
The new trend in Dong Ha is to drink a case of canned beer instead of bottles, though, because of rumors of the quality of the beer in the bottles, particularly the brands brewed in China. There is a general understanding in Vietnam that the Chinese are trying to poison them, with the beer, meat, vegetables – you name it, and China is adding poison. With cases of beer, the empties are thrown ceremoniously on the ground. The number remaining in the case at the end of the night is used to calculate the bill.
The glasses are continually refilled throughout the night with ice and beer, traditionally by the youngest female, of course. The key to avoid getting drunk is to keep your glass filled with ice and melting ice, otherwise it is very easy to quickly lose your senses – because of the toasting.
There are group toasts often dedicated to a particular purpose, like “cheers to a new case of beer,” “cheers for the new dish of food,” “cheers to friends,” etc. You name it, they come up with a reason to cheers. Then, there are private toasts – generally two or three people in the group will have a private cheers, followed by some hand shaking. The most important thing to remember is that each cheers is followed not merely by a sip of beer. It is assumed you will tram phan tram (pronounced “champ pun champ”), which means 100% or bottoms up. Sometimes, I can get away with a 50% because I am a girl, a trump card I like to bring out only when it suits me. Eric is not so lucky, and is always expected to drain his glass.
If someone from another table stops by to toast with you, it is customary to return the favor a little later. If someone from the other side of the table comes over to private toast, it is customary to return the favor. Everyone is expected to drink, everyone is expected to toast, and everyone is expected to have fun. On a good night, you might find yourself doing 20 or 30 bottoms up in about two hours – hence the need for lots and lots of ice.
One of the traditions which seems to be losing favor with the younger generation is the hierarchy of toasting. The goal is to place your glass lower than they person you are trying to show respect to, based on age or job title. The Communist Party officials always are at the top. Otherwise, most people will try to show one another respect in a way that ensures each toast gets lower and lower until sometimes you can no longer toast over the table – you need to move to the side.
I was left with quite the conundrum during one of our visits to Dong Ha to teach in 2009. I found myself toasting with a young mistress of a high ranking Communist Party official. She was younger than me, and I was a teacher (at the time a position of respect), but she was the mistress of a powerful man in the local community. We each continuously tried to show the other respect until we were practically toasting just above the ground.
When there are no specific cheers called out, the drinking mantra is “Mawt, Hai, Ba, Yo!!!!!” or “1, 2, 3 Drink!!!” which became the inspiration for our Western owned Dong Ha establishment. It is easily one of my favorite ways to say cheers. At a birthday party we attended in Dong Ha, various groups tried to out do each other by yelling a more enthusiastic “Mawt, Hai, Ba, Yo!!!!!” It is never a dull night drinking in Dong Ha.
Drinking Customs in Vietnam
I can describe the serving and drinking customs and traditions, but nothing can truly describe the atmosphere of a night of drinking in Dong Ha – the cheers, the laughs, the smiles. It is fast moving. There is often talk of people’s “beer capacity,” or what we refer to as tolerance in the States.
Our first night in Dong Ha I felt like I drank more and ate more in an hour than I ever have before. I looked at my watch and was stunned it was not even 7:30 – we left the hotel an hour before, and I was feeling a bit tipsy.
By the end of the night, we had made new friends (Tam’s friends are our friends), and found ourselves on the back of a couple of motorbikes heading to the hotel, with a couple of guys we had been drinking with, while wearing no helmets. That is just what the drinking culture in Vietnam does to you.
Although my waistline generally protests, it is one of my favorite things about Vietnam.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.