Bottles and cans, just clap your hands, just clap your ha-ands…
So now I’ve covered the journey to and from Vietnam with an emphasis on booze that you can get nearly anywhere in the world, let’s get down to the subject of actual Vietnamese booze, starting with beer.
They do make nice lager in Vietnam. I tried a number of varieties, including Saigon (which comes in green (4.3% ABV) and red (4.9% ABV) varieties), Bia 333 (5.3%), Hanoi (4.2% I think) and Phong Dinh (check). It can be quite hard to find a cold beer, and what starts as cold doesn’t stay that way for long, but nevertheless, it’s readily available (in all kinds of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and on the street) and when you’re used to Manchester prices, it’s also cheap. Prices vary between 9000 Vietnamese Dong (that was for a bottle of Phong Dinh in Can Tho) at one end of the spectrum and 30000 VND for a 330ml can of Tiger or Heineken at the other. Really, there’s no need to be paying ‘premium’ prices for brands you’ve heard of when you can get a bottle of Saigon for 12000. Bear in mind, £1 was about 32000 dong.
|just enough for a brew|
All those zeros get confusing after a while, and you’ll find yourself rejecting the chance to eat in a particular restaurant because Saigon is 30000 dong, and you’re used to paying only 12000. It’s still less than a pound.
From here on in I’m going to move to a system that my friend Paul invented for coping with all those zeroes – replacing ‘thousand’ with ‘kilo’ and ‘million’ with ‘mega’ (Paul works in programming), so for our purposes a pound is now 32 kilodong. Got it? Let’s move on.
It’s all bottles and cans in Vietnam. Apparently you don’t buy anything on draught because they water it down and the water’s not safe to drink. It’s not a problem though, because the problem never came up. And anyway, if I got a problem, a problem got a problem till it’s gone. An added bonus is that because it’s all cheap, you can even justify drinking stuff out of the minibar. I don’t think I’ve ever used a minibar before for anything other than keeping my own drinks cold, but at 60p for a can of Bia 333, well, you might as well, because when you get back to your hotel after a couple of hours pounding the concrete in 35 degree heat, you’re ready for the refreshing rasp of an ice cold beer.
I’ve never really thought about it before, but ice cold beer hits the spot in hot weather in a way that other ice cold drinks can’t. Sure, coke is fricking awesome when it’s ice cold, but there’s something about it that doesn’t match up to a beer. What it is, is that coke (and other soft drinks) are sweet, so once the initial refreshment has subsided, your mouth feels all sticky and you want another drink. Beer on the other hand, is sharp tasting, but not sweet at all. This means the liquid leaves your mouth feeling refreshed and satisfied – with the added bonus of ‘buzz’. Though you may still want another one. And that’s my scientific explanation for the day.
A bit of advice here (should you be in Vietnam), for if you are offered a drink, say on a tour or something. It works like this: if they put it in your hand, it’s free. If it is offered to you on a tray, you’ll be asked to pay – but later. That almost rhymes. I’ll see if I can work on that. If handed to me, then free this drink be. If offered on a tray, I should expect to pay. There you go.
We drank a lot of beer in Vietnam – every day, except I think, two days when we were on a cruise around Halong Bay. I’m pretty sure beers were 60000 dong on that boat, so we weren’t having any of that. We had a couple of cocktails in happy hour, when it was two for one, but you had to have two of the same cocktail. Mrs Cake pointed out that this didn’t make sense since all the cocktails were the same price, but them’s the rules, so don’t go breaking em.
|ah, sweet Glenfarclas|
I think we overpriced ourselves a little on that trip, booking one of the more expensive cruises, because when we got there we were surrounded by lawyers and people who were clearly more affluent than us, people who weren’t concerned to be paying a premium on their drinks. We’d be there at dinner, drinking our free water, saying no whenever the waiter asked if we wanted to order drinks, while they’d be buying cocktails and bottles of wine. It made me feel a bit cheap. At least I had my Glenfarclas downstairs in the cabin.
When it came time to embark on the cruise, I started to think that maybe I ought to have bought a full size bottle of something in Duty Free at Manchester, instead of the half bottle. I was having little fantasies about turning our deck into the party deck – like it was a teen movie from the 80s. Everyone would be hanging out with us, and I’d be the centre of attention, wearing shades even though it was night time and divvying out generous measures of scotch. We’d all be wearing Hawaiian shirts and passing doobies around, while a conga line weaves in and out of the cabins. At least part of that fantasy is Teen Wolf, I think.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. It was a pretty sedate cruise, and our neighbours were a polite family from Germany and a really annoying, noisy family that we assumed was from the US. One of them was a camp little lad who sang tunelessly to himself (you could hear it through the walls), and said everything five times:
“Dad, this is wet. This is wet, Dad. Dad, this is wet. This is wet. Dad, this is wet. Dad; it’s wet”.
The teenage daughter could be heard to be losing the cabin keys every single time it was time for them to leave the cabin. The mother was ok, but the dad was a bit of a dick who wouldn’t set a good example for his kids by wearing a life jacket during the canoeing excursion.
So no partying on deck two, then. That was ok. I find socialising with strangers tiring, and all I wanted to do was lounge around with the missus and a glass of the good stuff.
Yes, I am hardcore
Ok, what else should you be looking for when you go booze touring in Vietnam? Well, they have a much wider selection of alcohols than I expected, and it’s cheaper and more readily available than in Malaysia, which was the last [and only other] place we [have] visited in Southeast Asia. I remember paying the equivalent of £10 for three 330ml cans of Jaz lager there, on the island of Tioman. You could get twenty bottles of Saigon for that price in Vietnam.
They don’t encourage drinking in Malaysia, being that it is largely a muslim country. That’s actually a good thing since health and safety is pretty much non-existent – with all the holes in the pavement and rubble around there’s a good chance you’d break your leg if you went out and got shit-faced. Not so in Vietnam; there’s plenty of cheap booze and all you need do is make sure you look out for mopeds. Crossing the road takes a bit of practice, but the general rule is just keep going.
On our first full day we met our friends Paul and Victoria in HCMC. They happened to be there at the same time as us, so it was great to be able to meet up and go drinking.
They were staying in the backpacker district on Bui Vien, where it’s all happening. Street bars overflow into the road, people go up and down selling all kinds of crazy stuff (I was offered weed twice, sex once, my fortune and a neck massage… this last one from a guy. Who’s this? I asked Paul as I felt some hands on my neck – because when people do that, you just assume it’s someone you know. I dunno, he said. Oh! It’s a guy.)
So we went out drinking, and decided to try some of the local stuff. First up was Vietnamese vodka. It came in a surprisingly generous measure, but as soon as I tasted it I understood why; it tasted like vodka but appeared to be watered down. Later (at a different place) I asked if they had anything stronger, explaining that the Vietnamese vodka appeared to be watered down. The waiter looked puzzled and suggested Vietnamese whisky. That was satisfactory. I don’t know which brand it was, but it was fine. At least I remember it that way, which is to say I don’t really remember it at all. I later discovered that the vodka would have been Hanoi vodka. It was available all over the place, and turned out to be only 29% ABV. I wouldn’t be buying that to take home.
I didn’t really expect that there would be much choice in the way of Vietnamese vodka, but at Hanoi Airport, I found I was wrong. We were due, in a couple of days, to head to the largest island in Vietnam, Phu Quoc and, not knowing how much booze was going to cost, or even how readily available it would be, Mrs Cake and I figured it might be useful to take some with us. The Glenfarclas was on its last legs by this point, and we needed something that Mrs Cake could drink (ie: mix) anyway.
On perusing the various shops in the airport, I passed over the Hanoi vodka, and soon found a brand by the name of Nep Moi, at 77 kilodong and 39% ABV. That’s about £2.41 for 60cl. I was reluctant really because I was aware that asian palates can vary quite significantly from our western ones (see Baiju), and you just never know with vodka, do you? Especially at under £2.50. I reasoned it out though, and figured if it’s shit, I can just pour it down the sink for that price.
So I was on the verge of buying it when Mrs Cake found another variety, Lua Moi at 84 kilodong. At the time, that was £2.61, and it was an impressive 45% ABV. We immediately had a winner.
I waited until the first day in our beach front bungalow on Phu Quoc before breaking the seal on that one, and I was immediately impressed. Yes, it’s strong, which goes in its favour, but in terms of flavour, there is none of that bitterness that so many cheap vodkas seems to have – and that surprised me because when I say “cheap” vodkas, I’m referring to your Red Squares and Smirnoffs, brands that retail from £10 to £18. Lua Moi was really cheap by comparison.
I’ll tell you something else, I’m going to say this vodka was so good that I’m going to rank it 2nd behind Stolichnaya in the all time vodka hierarchy, and to be fair, considering the value factor, it may be even better than that. I can’t say without a direct comparison, and I do love Stolichnaya, but value isn’t the most important consideration anyway. I’d happily place a £100 bottle at number one if I liked it enough.
I relied on the Lua Moi for the entire week that we resided on Phu Quoc. I did start to wonder, would I drink and enjoy this if I were at home, and had all my other bottles to choose from? The answer, I determined, is yes - probably early on Friday evenings, which is when I normally go for the vodka if I want it neat.
Before Phu Quoc though, I unexpectedly got the chance to explore some more unusual Vietnamese drinks, when we did a two day tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is the main agricultural area of Vietnam where they grow millions of tonnes of rice and fruit. It didn’t sound that interesting in the guidebook, but yes, it’s good. You basically tootle up and down the river in various sized boats, occasionally pausing to don one of those comical conical hats. There’s not a lot of wildlife to see, because if it moves, I think they eat it, but you know, they make up for it with houses on stilts, floating markets and the like.
The first stop was a factory, where they seem to make everything – sweets, rice paper, snake… related… things… alcohol, and snake-related alcohol. Our guide, Xuan, let me try their banana wine (which was nice) as well as the snake wine. That’s the snake wine you can see there in the big jar with snakes in it. You’ll find this stuff for sale all over Vietnam, and when bottled, in most cases the snake will be arranged with a scorpion in its mouth. Judging by episodes of UK Border Force and… that New Zealand one (is it Nothing to Declare?), I’m thinking it would probably be illegal to bring a bottle into the country, not that you’d want to anyway, despite the fact it is supposed to increase one’s virility (no problems there, thanks). Imagine if the bottle broke in your bag, and you had to get the dead snake out of there… ew.
I certainly didn’t want to buy one, but I was glad to be able to try it. I was only given a little, but I think I’d say it tasted a bit aniseedy. It reminded me a little of Hierbas Ibicencas, but I couldn’t give you much more detail than that. It looks like I was the only tourist prepared to give it a go. You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, and yes, I am hardcore.
They call it snake wine, but it’s more like snake spirit really, as its alcohol content is around 45%. So it’s pretty hard with or without the snake. Similarly, the banana wine is also more like spirit in terms of strength. I don’t know why they call it wine.
The next part of the tour involved going to a house to sample some different kinds of fruit, one of which was longan, a small fruit with a large seed that they also use to make liquor. On arrival, our host gave us each a thimble-full, which we were encouraged to neck. I thought it tasted like grappa, and therefore enjoyed it very much. Mrs Cake wasn’t so keen, so I got to finish hers and since I professed a liking for it, I was offered another sample before we left.
After we’d set out on the boat again, I asked Xuan about the longan wine, whether it was available to buy in the shops, and he said it wasn’t; the man at the house distilled his own, but he could probably get some for me. Another tour from the same company had been just behind us, so he put in a call to the other guide, asking if he could pick some up, and how much it was (150 kilodong/ £4.70).
I thought about it for a bit, and figured this was what I was looking for; a kind of alcohol that is exotic and difficult to find. I asked Xuan whether it was safe – having been to whisky distilleries on Islay, and hearing that they have to discard the high and low alcohols during the distilling process to ensure nothing dangerous gets in, I wondered whether they took the same care with a home still in Vietnam? This could essentially be like moonshine and make me go blind. The guy at the house obviously wasn’t blind, I figured (unless he was like Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli) or dead (unless he was like er… Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense), so I rationalised that it was probably all right, and Xuan said it was safe. Even in Vietnam his company would probably get in trouble for peddling lethal poisons to visitors. Possibly.
I decided to go for it, and after lunch the other guide had caught up to us and Xuan presented me with a mineral water bottle filled with longan wine, that didn’t look unlike urine. I opened it and gave it a sniff to make sure. It was the real deal, so I immediately formed a plan to conduct a comparative tasting between it and my £48 bottle of Domenis Blanc e Neri grappa on my return home. You’ll be able to see the results of that in some future post.
I asked Xuan if it were legal to distil your own spirits in Vietnam, and he said it wasn’t, but it turned out he was joking.
Our friends Paul and Victoria had moved on to Laos where, coincidentally they picked up their own bottle of exotic booze in a water bottle. This was supposedly whisky, though you can see from the picture that it is colourless, and therefore unaged – I think we all know what the Scotch Whisky Association would think about that. This bottle actually has a label, and was apparently properly sealed – unlike mine, which was clearly just a re-used water bottle with some cling film and an elastic band over the cap to protect against leakage.
I did eventually take the longan wine over to Paul’s house for him to try, and I got to try the Laotian whisky in reciprocation. I quite liked it, while Paul said he enjoyed the experience of trying the longan wine rather more than the spirit itself.
So, on to Phu Quoc which was a lovely protracted period of drinking casually and relaxing: Saigon beer for lunch and Lua Moi vodka in the early evenings [and at bedtime] for 7 days.
There was a family run convenience store (open 18 hours a day, 7 days a week) just up the road that sold cold beers at a fraction of the price of our resort, and had a surprisingly eclectic mix of spirits on offer. In fact, I was surprised at the number of shops and stalls in Vietnam that sold beer and spirits. I suspect you don’t need a licence over there. I had been reluctant to buy spirits from any of the shops in HCMC or Hanoi (except the fancy liquor stores that frankly looked expensive), figuring that a country that is so renowned for knock off culture in everything [I bought a Vietnam football shirt in HCMC that says ‘Adidas’ on the outside, and ‘Mr JR Hung’ on the label, like it’s someone’s PE kit] is probably the same when it comes to alcohol – is that genuine Johnnie Walker for sale on that stall, or is it poison? I’m pretty sure some of my online research had mentioned that there are a number of deaths caused by drinking dodgy Vietnamese booze every year, so a policy of caution seemed to be the best bet.
Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a go once I saw our local convenience store. It all looked perfectly above board, and since we were there nearly every day buying beer (there was no fridge in our bungalow) and on one occasion a second hand bottle opener, I had plenty of opportunity to scout out its wares. It was there that I found my purchase. It’s a brand called Wall Street, and it’s a blend of scotch whisky and Vietnamese Spirit. I’m not sure what that means as yet, but you can be sure I’ll tell you about it once I open it.
In terms of strength, Wall Street is only 39%, which means the Scotch Whisky Association wouldn’t even consider it to be ‘genuine whisky’. In its defence, nowhere on the box or bottle does it claim to be whisky anyway. It was 225 kilodong or £7.05, so quite expensive really. In a restaurant on the beach though, a single shot of it was 100 kilodong, so that makes the bottle at 75cl excellent value.
Since arriving home, I’ve found that there is a ‘Diageo’ label around the top of the bottle, but what that means I have no idea. There is no mention of it among the brands on their website, and I haven’t found anything out about it elsewhere online so far. Maybe it’s got some Caol Ila in it? I suppose I’ll never find out for sure, but I’ll let you know what it’s like somewhere in the fullness of time.
It was a fantastic holiday then, full of joy, adventure and alcohol. I love Southeast Asia, and recommend it to anyone, except probably my parents. They wouldn’t know what to do – with the heat, with the food, with the mopeds… but I love all that. I love the sweating, the activity, the buzz, the atmosphere. I wish I could live there. But now it’s over. I don’t mind flying for 16 hours when you’ve got your holiday to look forward to when you arrive, but when it’s the other way around and all you’ve got is 50 shades of grey Manchester weather, jetlag, rain and work to look forward to… it’s hard to feel optimistic. Still, at least I’ve got a couple of new bottles of booze to look forward to opening, and I’ll be ordering that Japanese single malt before too long…
Thanks once again for joining me this week. Hopefully you’ve found it interesting and will feel like coming back sometime soon. I’m going out now for dinner and drinks with some very good friends, but I’ll be back next week with whatever I’ve got planned for then. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you later.