I’m just finishing my first package of quail eggs at an al fresco District 3 drinking spot when the rain starts coming down. Staff scramble to extend the retractable awning as customers cover their food and beer and run for cover. Nobody complains or sulks. Everyone is laughing. A few stare at the lone Westerner huddled in their midst, clutching his Bierre Larue.
With the awning up, the staff darts around, wiping down plastic chairs and aluminum tables. Clearly, if you had reservations, you are in the wrong place. However, if you’re looking for something different, pull out a plastic chair and prepare to nhau. There’s no better place to learn than Ho Chi Minh City.
A Ruou-Fueled Introduction
The first thing to know is that there are two types of quan: quan an and quan nhau. The former is essentially a restaurant, while the latter is the Vietnamese version of a beer hall. While some quan nhau-especially large, multi-story ones-serve everything from clams to kangaroo, many specialize in a staple. On this rainy evening, I’m meeting my friend Hai and his roommate Adam at Lau De (306B Dien Bien Phu, District 3), where goat is the house specialty.
No matter the size or specialty of the quan, explains Hai, one thing remains consistent: food, drink and conversation share equal billing. Savoury (often barbecued) meat, salty seafood, heaps of greens and snacks sold by roving street vendors are meant to be shared, fuel for good conversation and a means of bracing your stomach for the deluge of beer. The relationship is so indivisible that the word nhau also functions as slang for the kind of eating, drinking and talking that goes on at the quan.
Though it’s not uncommon for locals to drink in excess, there is an art to keeping yourself upright during a marathon nhau session. Beer is often inexpensive, so it tends to go fast. (Our Bierre Larues tonight run just 9,000 VND, or 50 cents.) Also, once you’ve established that you’re staying, it’s standard practice for wait staff to pop bottles until you tell them to stop, particularly when a crate of beer is placed at the foot of your table.
Rice wine is another menu item that requires caution. It turns out the staff at Lau De are Hanoian, and they’ve brought with them ruou ong khoai, or bee wine. The deep ochre nectar has a slightly floral aroma, and the taste is a mix of vanilla and burning. Between dirt cheap beer and ruou shots, maintaining the balancing act between food and drink can take some practice to master (as the massive headache I will awake with the following day will prove).
One tool in the fight for sobriety is hotpot. However, there’s room for surprise even when it comes to this ubiquitous DIY dish.
“What is that? Liver?” asks Adam as Hai shovels a plateful of ingredients into the hotpot.
“It’s brain,” says Hai.
“Brain is the best,” Hai assures us. “It melts in your mouth.”
And he’s right. It’s no sweet bread served at a chi-chi bistro, but after a few minutes simmering in the hotpot, we’ve got ourselves a delicacy. Bon appetit.
Nhau for the Intermediate
Inspired by my brief encounter with bee wine and pig’s brain, I head out with my friend Christian, who has his masters in Southeast Asian Studies and speaks Vietnamese fluently, to learn a bit more about the quan life.
On a Thursday evening, we convene a party of eight at Lucky Beer (325 Vo Van Tan, District 3), a quan nhau known for the quality of its 5,000-VND bia hoi (fresh beer). Looking around the joint, there’s a question that’s nagging me: Where are all the women? Christian’s answer is inflected with nuance: “A ‘traditionally good’ Vietnamese woman would not go to quan nhau.”
While more liberal women nhau, the quan remains an overwhelmingly male institution. Christian adds that the crowd at a quan nhau will vary depending on a few factors, from the type and strength of rice wine served to the cut of the wait staff’s uniforms (Indeed, at one quan popular among gentlemen located at 302 Dien Bien Phu, the wait staff seem to share one common endowment–technically two.)
A young Vietnamese friend named Nam also helps to explain the demographics, telling me that people typically begin to nhau at 18 or 19, although the more affluent of this generation often prefer modern and international venues like KFC and Gloria Jean’s Coffee. However, certain quans are considered better regarded than others; one just up the street at 121 Vo Van Tan, Nam says, is usually packed despite relatively high prices.
But for the ingénue, Lucky Beer provides plenty of opportunities to broaden the palate. The house does wonderful things with peppercorn, and some of us have even developed a taste for the kidney and liver Nam ordered. The spicy fare and light beer has us out late, and by evening’s end we’ve engaged in all manner of discourse: our respective country’s views on the Cold War thaw, the existential dilemma of the international citizen and the relative strength of Borat versus Bruno.
By the time we leave, the atmosphere is still lively and I’m reminded of something Hai, who used to live up north, told me at Lau De about quan culture: “People in Hanoi are light years behind. People in Saigon know how to live.”