In Vietnam, Everyone is Down to ‘Nhau’
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the last five years of living in Vietnam, it’s that when it comes to eating and drinking outside, the Vietnamese don’t need an occasion — everyone is down to ‘nhau’ any day of the week.
Pronounced ‘neow’ and literally meaning ‘together;’ there’s not a town or village in Vietnam where you can’t get involved in one. Considered by many to be a summons to go drinking late into the night, others have more poetically described ‘nhậu’ as ‘the art of eating and drinking, for no particular purpose.’To 'đi nhậu' in Vietnam means no "art-deco gastro-pub concept" is required, in fact, the opposite is preferred — think plastic chairs, open-air and the whiff of a charcoal barbecue. Click To Tweet
While that’s not entirely true — a ‘nhau’ could be called to introduce a new colleague at work, for example — its primary role is to facilitate conversation, which is why there’s always beer involved!
How to Nhau
Previously a social custom dominated by men, today this attitude has changed completely. Everyone can ‘nhau’ to their heart’s content, though a few simple rules do apply.
To be considered a ‘nhau’ there must be at least two people involved, although more is better, and there must be some form of alcoholic beverage on hand. Usually, this is the local beer of the region you’re in, but it might also be homemade rice wine, especially in the north.Older and rural groups will be easy to impress if you can hold your liquor, and they’ll usually be the ones packing the rice wine, so approach these veterans with caution! Click To Tweet
Technically, this means a ‘nhau’ can happen anywhere — the kitchen floor will often suffice for extended families and their children — however, more often it’s about heading out, where the Vietnamese also keep it simple. To ‘đi nhậu’ means no “art-deco gastro-pub concept” is required, in fact, the opposite is preferred — think plastic chairs, open-air and the whiff of a charcoal barbecue.
Most popular are the often family-owned outdoor taverns, called ‘quan nhau’s,’ that hit their peak around dinner time on any given night. Distinguished by their busy wait staff, joined-together fold-out tables, and red and blue plastic chairs, at their zenith they are a cacophony of sights and sounds, and often spill out onto the street.Whether it’s your first or your fiftieth 'nhau', the spirit of the occasion is to interact, and this might be your best chance to do it. Click To Tweet
When it comes to the food, most locals won’t imbibe without something in their stomach, so there’s always a menu to choose from. Since we all became obsessed with sharing our lives on Instagram, food has been at the heart of keeping ‘nhau’ culture ‘cool,’ and has amplified the success of the best neighbourhood ‘quan nhau’s.’
For me, eating while at a ‘nhau’ is a must, but it often happens without. Even when this is the case, side-dishes that encourage more drinking are served; dry, salty and bite-sized. Snails (ốc) are popular, as is dried squid. In more remote areas like the Mekong Delta, I’ve tried the odd fried spider, but this is an exception rather than the rule.
‘Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!’
For some travellers who might stumble across their first ‘nhau,’ the terrain could be a little treacherous. For example, don’t expect a wide range of convoluted craft beer options, or a selection of expensive mixed drinks — it’s a bucket of one commercial lager served with ice, or it’s another.
There’s also a commonly held assumption that all foreigners can drink their weight, so expect to be offered a lot of booze if you decide to settle in. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked how many beers I can drink in these situations, (usually by older Vietnamese men), as a primordial test of my manhood.If things go well, don't be surprised if you're fielding offers to marry somebody's son or daughter Click To Tweet
To ensure a fun night, a good rule-of-thumb is to sit down with your cadre of travellers and raise your first beer to everyone around you. In no time at all you’ll be clinking glasses with strangers, and learning that most familiar of Vietnamese cheers; ‘mot, hai, ba, dzo!,’ meaning: ‘one, two, three, YO!’ which you chant before drinking in unison.
In general, the locals will be happy to see foreigners enjoying aspects of their culture, so a little compliment and a warm smile goes a long way. Bonus points are on offer if you can manage to pronounce some Vietnamese words beyond the usual ‘xin chao’ (hello). I recommend ‘tram phan tram’, or ‘100%’, which is the vernacular for bottoms up!
Another word-to-the-wise is that today’s young, urban Vietnamese are pretty easy-going in these situations, so the ‘don’t be a drunken dick policy’ applies. In the major capitals especially, this generation is likely to be hip to your ‘first world problems,’ so don’t make the mistake of talking down to anyone. Older and rural groups will be easy to impress if you can hold your liquor, and they’ll usually be the ones packing the rice wine, so approach these veterans with caution!
My number one rule to get the most out of the experience is to remember to park your shyness. Whether it’s your first or your fiftieth ‘nhau’, the spirit of the occasion is to interact with people, and this might be your best chance to do it. Certainly, the Vietnamese won’t be as nervous about talking to a foreigner once a bit of Dutch courage is on board. If things go well, don’t be surprised if you’re fielding offers to marry somebody’s son or daughter. At the very least you’ll be adding Facebook friends you’ll hopefully remember forever.
Where to Nhau (for first-timers in Saigon)
Unlike the huge number of western and modern Vietnamese eateries that have sprung up in a city like Saigon, there is no definitive list of the best ‘quan nhau’ in Vietnam. Instead, it’s very much about turning up and ‘going where the people go.’ If they like it, there’s a good chance you will too.
In Saigon, to break your ‘nhau cherry’, I recommend any one of several 5KU Stations spread across the city. As a starting point, these provide cheap beer, a stripped-back but busy urban atmosphere, friendly service and plenty of food options on an English menu. They are not the cheapest, and you won’t be the only foreigner there, but you will definitely have a good time. They also stay open late, after most of the street vendors have shut up shop.
My favourites are in the heart of the city at 29 Thai Van Lung, and just around the corner at 27 Le Thanh Ton, both of which are convenient if you’re staying in District 1. Also worthy of your attention is the location slightly further afield at 112 Hoang Sa, situated along a canal near Da Kao Ward — an area worth checking out too.
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