Saturday , April 20 2019
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A love of beer in Vietnam

Vietnamese enjoy beer at a party.Vietnamese enjoy beer at a party.
Vietnamese enjoy beer at a party.Vietnamese enjoy beer at a party.

Finally…..

A topic worthy of prolonged philosophical discussion and deep reflection….

Beer!

Vietnam jumped into the top 50 beer guzzling countries in the world last year, knocking back over four billion liters, with nearly half of all adults sucking on the suds at one point or another.

Regionally, Vietnamese are the third-largest consumers of beer in Asia, behind only China and Japan.

That four billion liters sounds like a lot of beer, doesn’t it? Since 2005 per capita consumption has doubled because the standard of living has increased so dramatically in Vietnam.

I had a feeling Vietnam’s beer performance would be impressive before digging into the numbers because I often see beer being bought by the case in beer bars here. No fooling around ordering onesy-twosy bottles or cans – or even a bucket of five – they go right for the entire case of 24 – straight down to business, no time wasted.

Speaking of business, that’s one of the reasons why this love of beer surprises me. Most of the Vietnamese people I know are hustling to make a buck and get ahead – they’re short on beer-drinking time, or so I would have thought.

I don’t usually give out stock tips, but any potential investor would be attracted by the golden future of beer in Vietnam, and there is no shortage of big international breweries moving into this space to get a piece of the action.

Admittedly I’m an aficionado, going late afternoon every day to my favourite little local beer bar (“quán”) and meeting up with the gang. They holler at me in Vietnamese and I listen, and listen some more, then throw in broken sentences where I think appropriate. They squint and struggle to understand, correct my faulty pronunciation, and around and around it goes.

I don’t understand much of what is said but that doesn’t stop us. I’ll catch on sooner or later – probably later. Plus, with sign language, school French, and English, the messages get through.

However, I’m pleased to report that my “beer Vietnamese” is quite fluent. I can order bottles or cans, ask for ice and snacks with the best of them, and join the chorus of “một, hai, ba, YO!”

But the topic of beer really wasn’t at the top of my list of things to write about until I recently went to Thailand and it changed in an instant when I saw this:

To my dismay the above sign was placed on the fridge door in a local Thai convenience store. Bear in mind that the Thais are generally not a very strict bunch so a lot of rules and regulations go unenforced.

When we do see such a clear statement of policy and procedure, in both the Thai and English languages, they’re serious about it.

I panicked for two reasons in that convenience store:

First, my phone had somehow jumped one hour ahead of the local time so I ended up accidentally rifling around in their fridge pulling beer out at the forbidden hour of 4:30 pm. Yikes! I swear I didn’t want to drink the beer before 5, which is clearly not acceptable. I just wanted to buy it.

If customers can’t purchase mid-afternoon it would seem that they can’t drink either, unless they built up a stock during the morning schedule, which I had not. Either way, the staff sympathetically set me straight on the timing and I returned later to buy my beer within the indicated time window.

The other reason I was so surprised was because I recently heard that there is a draft law circulating in the Vietnamese government with similar regulations, which I had already dismissed as an evil, baseless rumour.

But now I fear something may be cooking in the Vietnamese government, much more than just a passing thought.

We’ve all seen the precedents among the more developed countries in the region: They put new policies in place designed to improve quality of life, then other countries follow. Think Singapore, Malaysia, and now Thailand.

For example, Goods and Services Tax (GST), no smoking rules, increased highway tolls, fuels, annual license fees, and increases in the cost of tobacco and alcohol as well as laws regarding consumption.

And usually, what goes around also comes around, sooner or later.

Since I saw that sign in the Thai convenience store I’ve taken the whole topic very much to heart.

It reminds me of England where I lived for a couple of years in the 1980s. They had archaic laws going back to war days forbidding sale or consumption outside core hours, which were similar to the Thai sign above: 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, then 5:00 pm until 10:00 or 11:00 pm depending on the city and area.

Those laws weren’t effective and have since been abolished. Instead of curbing consumption the net effect was people drank more, for the simple reason that they were rushed.

The more they rushed, the drunker they became until they ended up drinking much more than they normally would have.

I was always amazed at how clogged the streets of London were at 4:55 pm each day, only to find them practically empty a few minutes later when the pubs opened. Whenever I stepped into a boozer just after 5:00 pm it was already packed to the rafters!

I lived in Switzerland too, where it was not uncommon to see people chugging beer at 7:30 am when I went for my morning coffee. So there are two examples from Europe where customs are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Fortunately, some of those in the Vietnamese government who are against this proposed law have cited the risk of power drinking as detailed above, so it may not go anywhere after all.

Besides, all this depends on the enforcement of such a law. Surely authorities couldn’t go around every beer joint after 10:00 pm to make sure they’ve stopped selling. Even if they did, I can imagine they would often bump into friends and join in the fun.

An amount of time would have to be allocated to finishing the last round after it would be served, including plenty of time for choruses of “một, hai, ba, YO!” along the way.

Since practically every drink from a glass in Vietnam is preceded by the “một, hai, ba, YO!” cheer it could take a long time to empty those last glasses.

If and when such a law is implemented, I’ll try to summon extra energy and stay up late to observe the proceedings at the new closing times, which would be past my normal bed time!