(A version of this story originally appeared in the Sept.-Oct. 2005 edition of Zymurgy Magazine)
Ruou-ing the Day in Sa Pa
Drinking snake wine and driving a motorbike on unpaved mountain roads in northern Viet Nam’s Hoang Lien mountains in Sa Pa sounds like a bad idea. But I’ve never been accused of being too smart.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Much like the French require a table wine at meals, hill tribes of northern Viet Nam prefer ruou gao, or rice liquor, as their daily staple. It is consumed by men and women alike, with every meal, including breakfast. If the concept of drinking hard liquor with breakfast appalls the American sensibility, traditional Viet Namese medicine must surely send us into fits of hysterics.
Waiter, There’s a Snake In My Wine
Our first day in the northern provincial capital city, Sa Pa, we decided to take it easy and stroll a few kilometers to a H’mong village called Cat Cat, said to have a pretty waterfall. On the way, we noticed a house with an open front door that seemed to invite us inside. I stepped in and asked for ruou. A young lady nodded. We sat on little plastic chairs at a little plastic table on a little wooden veranda overlooking what must be one of Viet Nam’s most breath-taking mountain views.
The lady dipped a small beer glass into a container that resembled a gigantic pickle jar and drew a fresh serving of ruou ran, the medicinal snake wine of Viet Nam. It is usually translated as wine, but is more accurately called a spirit. The mistranslation is presumably a holdover of the former French colonizers’ predilection for wine, but the ‘snake’ bit is no mistake. The plastic liquor container held several snakes of various colors and sizes.
Snake wine is just one of Viet Nam’s endless variety of medicinal rice liquors. The base is normally the same, a strong distilled rice fermentation. But what goes in it depends on the condition to be treated. Snakes, geckos, seahorses, and starfish are especially effective in stimulating the male libido, while ginseng and mushrooms improve intelligence and longevity. The usual instructions are to drink a glass in the morning and one in the evening for a few weeks.
As I sipped a slow glass of ruou ran our presence attracted a number of local women offering us products of their specialty craft: woven and embroidered silk clothes, purses and blankets. It was a nice opportunity to chat with the locals except we didn’t speak a word of Viet Namese or any of the local hill tribe languages and they knew only enough English to name their price. We haggled a bit and settled on some pillow cases and a little mouth instrument that is something like a jaw’s harp. I was hoping that one of them might be able to show us some home-distilling, but the language barrier was too great.
A Village Distillery
But back to Sa Pa to continue our search for authentic village ruou production. The day after visiting Cat Cat, we rented motorbikes and hired a guide to show us some remote villages and help us find a proper village distillery.
Mt. Fan Si Pan (which I like to call Mt. Fancy Pants since the villagers wear exactly that), Viet Nam’s highest peak at 3143 m., flanked us to the right on the opposite side of a steep valley terraced up and down with rice paddies. The road alternated between bumpy dirt, rocks, and mud. I rode in search of ruou, and with the help of our friendly guide Thom, I found it.
We parked our bikes by a bridge and walked to the Zao village of Ta Van. We followed a footpath through rice paddies speckled with animals: black cows with flat scythe-shaped horns, dogs, pigs, and rows of ducks, to name a few. Eventually we came upon a cluster of buildings resembling barns. These were traditional Zao dwellings. Two-story, wooden-plank constructions.
It was in one of these houses that we were introduced to Mr. Son, a distiller of ruou. He runs a humble, rustic distillery, producing about 60 liters of rice liquor per month. It took but a few minutes for him to show us his set up and describe the process, which Thom translated into basic but adequate English terminology.
A round, shallow pan about two feet across rested on a round earthen fire pit. The pan contained the mushy remains of rice that was distilled three days earlier. This was bound for the intestines of his farm animals, but Mr. Son appeared to be in no hurry to feed them. Behind the fire pit was a rectangular open-topped cement water tank with a spigot outlet near the bottom on one side.
Son explained the brewing and distillation process: steam 15 kg. of rice. Place it in the pan with 30 yeast cakes, cover with a bamboo lid and allow to ferment for 8 days. Then fit a section of wooden barrel around the top of the pan and top it with a lid. Insert PVC tubing through a hole near the top edge of the wooden cylinder. Run this PVC down through the water tank and connect to the inside of the spigot near the bottom of the tank. Boil the fermented rice with fresh water for about two hours until all the alcohol steams off, exiting through the PVC piping, precipitating as it is chilled by the water tank and draining out the spigot into a one liter jerry can at the bottom. One batch produces 15-16 liters of ruou gao, plain rice liquor.
This rice spirit is produced and consumed by men and women alike in the rural mountain communities of Viet Nam’s minority peoples like the Zao.
Son grows the rice himself but buys (or rather, his wife buys) packaged yeast cakes in the Sa Pa market. A bag of yeast costs about 12,000 dong and has enough cakes for four batches. One liter of the finished product sells for 10,000 dong. Which means that after expenses, the Sons make a little under $10 per batch of ruou, or $40 per month at Son’s rate of four monthly batches. In a country where the annual per capita income is just $480, this is a decent supplement to farm earnings.
Mr. Son was sure to mention that his ruou did not taste sour and would not cause a headache. But we warned us to be careful in town because unscrupulous or perhaps just ill-informed ruou vendors might cut their beverages with dangerous liquids.
(Caption: A ruou pharmacy with all the usual fixins’ – goat heads, geckos, ginger root and dried sea horses.)
Tram Phan Tram
At the time of our visit, Ta Van, like the rest of Viet Nam, was preparing for the new year’s Tet celebration. In previous year’s Son has prepared as many as 60 liters of ruou for this celebration but this year he was a bit behind schedule and hadn’t managed to store any away at all. He estimated that his village would drink about 100 liters of it during the week-long festival. I didn’t get a village head count, but considering that these villagers drink ruou at every meal during normal times, they must be gulping the stuff down when they ring in the new year. As they say in Viet Namese: tram phan tram, which means ‘100%’. In other words: ‘Drink it up and don’t leave a drop!’
We spent the rest of the afternoon motorbiking further and further down the valley. The road worsened the farther we went. My butt hurt, but my hands and wrists hurt even more from steadying and steering the bike over rocks, around boulders, and alongside passing four-wheel-drive vehicles. The latter were a particularly tricky proposition. On one side, a fearless ton of metal hurtling towards me. On the other, a sheer drop over the side of a cliff. My strategy: don’t think about it, just keep moving ahead, enjoy the scenery and look forward to the next sip of ruou.
We eventually reached Bang Ho, a village of Tay and Flower H’Mong people. This turned out to be more of a rest stop, and an opportunity to chug a can of the Viet Namese equivalent to Red Bull – a nasty little sugar soda with some energy drugs in it. That and a Choco-Pie did the trick and after a half hour or so of playing with village kids we headed back to where we parked the bikes and readied ourselves for the long uphill trek back to Sa Pa.
One Part Dried Twig, Five Parts Rice Liquor, & You’ll Feel Much Better
Just as we reached the bikes I noticed some women chopping twigs and sun-drying them on an outside patio. Thom inquired but wasn’t able to translate the name of the plant for us. He was, however, able to tell us that whatever the plant, it was to be added to ruou as a medicinal ingredient. Medicinal rice liquor seemed to be every where we looked.
Ha Noi Rocks
It was tempting to stay longer in Sa Pa, but Ha Noi beckoned. We took a day train and watched the rice paddies roll by. Meanwhile I chatted with an American in the cabin next to ours. By a stroke of luck, Earnest happened to be recently retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Commission, and he had been responsible for enforcing international bans on trafficking in protected wildlife. I had been very curious about the status of the animals used in ruou and Earnest just happened to know all about it.
Cobra turns out to be the only problematic animal. This also seemed like the most common type of ruou; it was displayed prominently by vendors everywhere. According to Earnest, if a snake even looks like a cobra, it is illegal to export it. Luckily I had thus far refrained from buying a bottle of cobra wine. Everything else, he said, is okay. Trade in pangolin, rhino and tiger is also problematic but apparently they don’t use those in Viet Nam.
Three Bahs in the Bay
‘Bah’ means three. Our guide in Ha Long Bay (which Americans know as the Gulf of Tonkin, where the Vietnam war touched off) was named Bah; My age is ‘bah bah'; and I am holding a can of ‘bah bah bah’ beer.
In Ha Noi, we headed for a few of the ten or so brewpubs that have sprouted up in the last decade. Somewhat to my surprise, the customers in these pubs are almost exclusively Viet Namese. The phenomenon was explained to me as follows:
Many communist Viet Namese had been to East Germany and other beer drinking countries during the communist era. When these types returned home they couldn’t find the kind of beer they had come to enjoy. When the free market started gung ho in Viet Nam, the untapped market for European beers burst wide open and more than a dozen brewpubs opened in quick succession. The market shook out a little and is now more or less stable at about eight or nine brewpubs in Ha Noi.
(Caption: It is common to see beer and liquor placed as offerings on Buddhist shrines like this one in the lobby of a combination hotel/internet cafe/bar.)
We had a hell of a time finding these places. They weren’t listed in phonebooks, and asking around produced no results. Finally, we stumbled upon Legends, which apparently was the first brewpub on the Ha Noi scene. A German man named Werner Jung oversees brewing, but the company is, like all the other brewpubs, owned by a Viet Namese. Werner only brews lagers, including a standard pilsner, a dark lager, a weizen, and a Christmas bock, all brewed with imported German malt and hops.
Werner was generous with his beer and his time. In fact, he confided, he really doesn’t have much work to do these days. After establishing the recipes and getting the system set up and in good running order, he trained a local staff person to conduct most of the brewing. Nowadays his job is mostly quality control. And so we sat and chatted and checked the quality of his beers.
Their business is doing well and expanding. They opened location number two in 2001 at a prime corner location in the heart of the Old Quarter. Between the two existing locations they can seat more than 500 people and they are opening location number three any day now.
Another brewpub nearby within the Old Quarter is, in what must be an intentionally ironic marketing ploy, called Red Beer. The place is painted red and features a strapping young man raising a pint designed in a style reminiscent of communist propaganda posters. The pub had only one beer on offer during our visit, called, of course, Red beer. Billed as a Belgian style red ale, it tasted more like a medium-bodied lager to me, with just enough caramel malt to lend a reddish hue. It was served at near freezing temperatures which made it difficult to tell just what it really did taste like. The communist style mural entirely covering a two-story wall made it a worthwhile 15 minute pit stop.
Painted ostrich egg lights adorn the bar at King Pilsner.
Tennis with King Pilsner
Easily the most exciting of the three brewpubs we visited was King Pilsner. The brewer, another German, was wintering in Japan, but company chairman Mr. Binh was more than happy to spend the afternoon giving a tour and drinking liters of beer with us.
Binh raised a nest egg doing food and liquor import-export and used this seed money to open a fine two-story, multi-building brewery-restaurant-tennis court-office building complex. He describes his motivation for opening a brewery as a combination of dissatisfaction with the quality of beers available in Ha Noi and an analysis of market readiness.
Tennis and beer . . . why not? Binh’s philosophy behind this unusual pairing is that start-up restaurants need differentiation to succeed. His hope is that people will come for the tennis and wind up trying the food and beer. It was hard to tell how well this was working. The two tennis courts had waiting lines, while the restaurant was nearly empty on a Friday afternoon. On the other hand he has fifty employees, so something must be working.
We didn’t have time for a meal, but the all-Viet Namese menu looked tempting. We did taste the beer though, and it was fantastic – certainly the best I tasted in Viet Nam.
Binh calls his trademark product King Pilsner. That may sound a little boring, but this is no ordinary pilsner. King Pilsner is really more like a bottom-fermented porter, a ruby-black, roasty creation with a caramel colored head, that drinks clean and snappy like a pilsner but clocks in at a healthy 5.6% ABV.
In addition to the trademark black-colored King Pilsner, Binh also serves a Marzen, a Dortmunder Export, and ‘fruit beer’. The language barrier prevented us from determining whether the latter was an ale or lager, but the cherries in it were understated and presumably it was the low 3.5% ABV that made Mr. Binh repeatedly refer to it as the ‘Ladies Beer.’
All the beers were excellent, and with Mr. Binh as our host, it was we who felt like Kings. His hospitality was abundant. Eventually we stood, somewhat unsteadily, to go, and loaded ourselves up with his brochures and promised that we would encourage our few Ha Noi acquaintances to visit his brewpub forthwith.
There are various levels to Viet Nam’s drinking culture. There is the ruou, which is traditional and used as much for its medicinal properties as its intoxicating effects. Then there is the recent brewpub phenomenon, concentrating on western style lagers and ales and catering to wealthy, world-wise customers. But the masses of Ha Noi’s male population seem to subsist on the product of a different kind of microbrewery: bia hoi.
I have heard that there are hundreds of bia hoi breweries in Ha Noi, and there are certainly many hundreds of bia hoi outlets, which are called simply enough, bia hoi. Literally, fresh beer, or morning beer, bia hoi is, from what I could gather, technically a lager, brewed with as much as 50% rice adjunct. And while a handful of foreign beer aficionados might disdain such a brew, preferring to drink their more expensive all-barley beers nose held high in the air, Ha Noi’s populace has no such concern with beer esoterica, nor do most of the budget backpacker tourists. Indeed, it is hard to argue with a 20 cent liter of beer. It is even harder to argue with 5 liters of beer for a buck. So no one does. Instead, they drink it with gusto.
This ‘fresh beer’ is so called because it is delivered in plastic kegs each morning to retailers where it is drunk until it is gone, to be replaced with a fresh keg the following morning. The kegs are dispensed with the simple help of gravity. A hose is attached near the bottom and out comes the beer, unless a thumb or some other obstacle prevents the flow.
I saw this procedure in action on my first day in Ha Noi. I picked a direction and started walking in search of a bia hoi. I was utterly incompetent in my lack of even the most basic phrases in Viet Namese, but I was only after a beer which I figured couldn’t be too hard.
A Handsome Pig
I wandered streets crowded with open-fronted shops selling everything from chickens and noodles to leather coats and dishwashers. The open market has hit Viet Nam with ferocity. Manufactured goods are plentiful and cheap. Cases of canned, massed-produced lagers filled many of the stores to their ceilings. I persevered through this marketing madness and after nearly an hour came upon a woman sitting just barely inside a room that opened out into the sidewalk. She sat on a yellow and green plastic keg and held her thumb over a plastic tube emanating from another plastic keg. A tray appeared in front of her and, removing her thumb, she deftly filled each glass with frothy yellow beer.
I found one empty stool in the noisy, crowded room and a glass of beer appeared immediately. From among the rambunctious crowd a man sitting nearby greeted me in English. He asked my name and nationality, and then told me how good looking I was. Then he asked my age, to which I replied ‘bah bah.’ The only Viet Namese word in my lexicon means three. I learned it by reading the guidebook’s advice on how to order one of Viet Nam’s main industrial beers called 333, or ‘bah bah bah.’ I thought he must not have been impressed by my linguistic attempt because he responded by saying “You are a pig.”
This was confusing. Was I an attractive pig? He must have noted the concern registering on my face so he explained that according to the Asian calendar, 1971 is the year of the pig, and hence I am a pig for being born in that year. He bought my round, I slurped it down hastily (for I was parched and slightly uncomfortable), and bid farewell. My first encounter with bia hoi was a bit overwhelming and I was ready for a nap back at the hotel.
Hide and Seek
The following afternoon I picked a different direction, hoping to find an area whose concentration of bia hoi establishments was better than one per hour. I lucked out, discovered numerous bia hoi and tested several of them. Eventually, after becoming lost in the back streets of Ha Noi, I stumbled upon a bia hoi production plant. Thrilled with my good fortune, I sat right down among dozens of men watching TV in a large open warehouse style room, and I waited for a beer. None came. Eventually a man sitting nearby waved to get my attention and motioned toward a kiosk against the far wall. I approached the booth and held out my dong (ahem, that’s the name of the currency in Viet Nam). The woman took what she needed and gave me a token. I returned to my chair amid the long communal tables and held the chip up high hoping some kind server would see it, take pity, and give me a beer.
My devious scheme went exactly as planned and I was swooshing down a ricey pilsner in no time.
As I swilled, a little girl, presumably one of the proprietor’s, was having fun shyly approaching me, putting her hands to her face like ‘hide and seek’, running away, and then returning to start over again. I could think of nothing better to do at this moment than enjoy the game, so I decided to repeat my own game – the token procurement one – relax a while, and hope that eventually I might figure out how to get a tour of the brewery.
After a couple attempts at conversation with anyone who would listen, I realized I was getting nowhere using English. I could just barely spy the brewery works through an open door in the corner of the room. Judging by the large, stark, red letters, I guessed that the words painted on the wall above the door were a warning something along the lines of ‘Woe to Ye Who Enter Here (especially nosey foreigners!)’. Feeling a bit out of my comfort zone with the huge language barrier, I took the cowards way out and just peered through the door a bit. It looked like a brewery. The yellow stuff in my glass tasted like beer. Given the previous day’s successful handsome pig encounter, I decided to just call it a day.
Icy Ricey Beer
I found a number of ways to enjoy bia hoi over the next two weeks. First and foremost I learned that it is important to drink it early in the day or else risk being disappointed later on. To bia hoi drinkers, freshness is crucial. No one wants to drink it if it is even a day old. So most shops only buy one keg per day. They know it will sell out before evening, but to buy a second keg would risk having some left at the end of the night, translating into a loss. And so people drink bia hoi early and often. Customers seem to have no problem drinking liters of it during breakfast and lunch.
Viet Nam also has dozens of industrial breweries. They churn out myriad lagers usually containing a high percentage of rice adjunct. The bottled results are plentiful and available everywhere. To my palate they were bia hoi’s lesser cousin. However, one must drink something with dinner, so I tried it the way locals drink it – with ice.
A nice glass of rice adjunct pilsner filled with ice cubes. Sounds like a beer snob’s nightmare. But that’s the thing I like most about drinking beer in foreign places – it’s foreign. Experiencing the unexpected broadens the mind as well as the palate.
My favorite way to drink iced rice beer is with a plate of snails, oysters, crabs and fried fish. To properly enjoy this, one must be seated on a tiny plastic stool placed on the sidewalk, the smell of fried food wafting from miniature grills strewn up and down the street in every direction. Piles of shrimp shuckings and various shells must lay in a heap dumped disconcertingly close by on the curb only a foot or two from the dining area. Iced rice beer is just the thing for circumstances like these.
One Night Five Times
In Ha Noi, Highway 4 is a good restaurant specializing in these medicinal spirits. Although their clientele is mainly Viet Namese, they try to cater to the special needs of tourists as well, offering tasters of the various liquors. I tried a sampler tray called the Sex Machine – four shots of ruou that are guaranteed to get it up, including my favorite one called ‘One Night Five Times.’ But the Dam Duong Hoac was interesting too, in that it contained the testicles and penis of a goat.
One final worthwhile destination for the beer activist. Koto Restaurant is a showcase of culinary expertise developed by former street children. These kids were hawking newspapers and shining shoes until Koto took them in, trained them as chefs and professional servers, and employed them at their restaurant. Young people who graduate from the Koto training program are now highly sought after by top end restaurants around Viet Nam. The Koto Restaurant serves a range of Viet Namese beers and is well worth a visit. The walls are lined with pictures of famous people who have visited, such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton.