"It's nhậu or never, come eat and drink with me..."
An old letter, to no one in particular, about a Vietnamese word that has no English equivalent.
IN HO CHI MINH CITY, and other parts of Vietnam, when somebody says it’s time for a nhậu, it’s a clarion call to go drinking and feasting—not that the word solely means ‘to go drinking and feasting’. There’s more to it than that.
Many moons ago, I recall a man from Danang telling a Scottish friend of mine that “nhậu” meant “eating and drinking for no particular purpose.” But, as all Vietnamese folk reading this will know, there is a purpose (other than eating and drinking)—one that involves life-affirming pleasures, such as spontaneous socialisation, the trading of banter, the teasing of peers, the cracking of jokes, the sound of someone bursting into song; all performed joyously in the key of camaraderie.
I guess what the man from Danang meant was that no one has to be celebrating a birthday, and it doesn’t have to be a national holiday—or even the end of the week. It can be a run-of-the-mill-Tuesday evening when somebody decides they want to eat, drink and be merry, and that somebody needs company—a gang of friends, a bunch of colleagues, neighbours, teammates, classmates (new or old), whomever. Without much notice, they will be summoned and a nhậu will begin.
If some western readers think this sounds like the Vietnamese equivalent of after-work drinks, or heading down the local pub with a gang of mates, you’re underestimating the importance of feasting. Even if they plan to get plastered, nobody in Vietnam cares to imbibe without food of some description on the table. When people convene for a nhậu, a venue may be selected for the quality of its grub rather than a convenient location (forget TripAdvisor certificates—in a sprawling city, famed for its chaotic roads, if someone rides a scooter for 8km to a particular eatery, the owner should feel free to brag).
Now, for the uninitiated, some additional pointers: it only takes two to nhậu, but three’s better, and a simple rule of thumb, the more the merrier. Also, no one braves the crosstown traffic to nhậu in a fancy restaurant—too stiff, too stuffy; too alienating for those unacquainted with fine-dining conventions. Nor can you nhậu at a noodle joint, where you’re expected to slurp your bowl down and skedaddle to make way for the next hungry punter.
For optimal nhậu conditions, you need an airy space, plenty of time and, above all else, a feeling of freedom. Every table should feel like they can stay as long as they want, drink as much as they want, sing, and laugh, and shout as loud as they want. For that reason most Saigonese prefer going to an old school Quán Nhậu (a tavern of sorts, preferably one that spills out onto a pavement), where they will be seated in plastic chairs at fold-up tables and presented with a single, exhaustive menu. Each venue may have its own specialties but the ensuing feast is invariably heavy on protein and light on carbs (rice would only rob room for beer).
As the evening unfolds, every dish lands without ceremony in the middle of the table. The commensal spirit of such gatherings is innate to Vietnamese. No one orders their own steak-frites or the catch of the day. Every participant is part of a chorus. They eat and drink and laugh as one.
There are also no individual orders of beer, and no trace of any six-dollar IPAs—it’s one commercial beer or another for the whole table. After a crate has been dragged to the table, cylinders of ice are placed in glasses, even if the bottles have been refrigerated. Sacrilege? Elsewhere in the world, sure, but in Ho Chi Minh City, a) the ice keeps the beer cold in spite of the soupy heat and b) if challenged to knock it back in one, even a beer snob can warm to the virtues of a watery beer in a glass that’s 33% ice.
In parts of Saigon, a busker might wander past the most popular Quán Nhậu, strumming as he strolls, hoping a table of nostalgic revellers will coo him over to croon a sentimental ballad in exchange for tips. But with or without music, come 9p.m., the best Quán Nhậu will have an infectious air of festivity. Flustered staff will be run off their feet until every table has eventually had its fill of food, beer, gossip and stories.
Which brings us to the final act of the night: settling the bill. Invariably, someone will seize it and make a gallant attempt to pay for everyone, but the rest of the table will often protest. Let’s all chip in, someone might reason, and do this again soon.
And they surely will—later that month, or even the following week; whenever somebody wants to eat, drink and be merry, and that somebody needs company.
Back in my days as a ‘satirical consultant’, I created a concept called The Comical Hat’s Restaurant Rating System for Metropolitan Areas in Vietnam ™©® based on the idea that the further you will ride on your motorbike to eat at a restaurant in any Vietnamese city, the better it is.
Love this! And am now hungry. And thirsty…