Rules of Thirst

There’s a man at your wedding table with a slightly manic look on his face. His eyes are fixed on the plate and upturned bowl contraption that he’s shaking in a frenetic ellipse before the fixed, lusty gazes of everyone else at the table. Something is knocking about inside.


The plate spinner puts his apparatus down in time for the big reveal — a decapitated chicken head pointing beak-first in the direction of this round’s loser. After a little squabbling over who the beak is pointing at, the loser picks up his shot of rice vodka to loud cheers. He drinks it down in one.


Your typical wedding features a bit more of this, a random guy assaulting your table with an outstretched beer can, yelling “Tram phan tram,” or 100 percent, and the bride and groom trying to make their rounds while still saying sober enough for their wedding night duties. They typically brandish a cup of strawberry Sting for their toasts, and avoid the guy with the beer can.


What the Beer Can Guy Wants

He wants to drink to your health, and if he can make you throw up while doing so, so much the better. When he says “tram phan tram” or “lac keu” — ice and glasses — he expects you to smash your can against his, enthusiastically yell “vo” and drink whatever you’re holding down to the very bottom. Maybe 90 percent will work. Anything less is unacceptable.


These are the rules of drinking in Vietnam.


They’re not always fixed. “You can bargain,” Tuong Anh says, “ok, 50 percent. The rule is how much they drink you have to drink.” She thinks a moment. “But I think the bargain is for the lady.”


The rules also differ from region to region. Some drinkers we interviewed said coming late to an occasion requires the latecomer to drink three glasses of rice vodka, while others said five. One said you should bring a bottle if you’re coming late — and if it’s a nice bottle you don’t have to drink at all! Although that kind of defeats the purpose.


There were also some differences of opinions on the penalties. Some say there are stiff penalties — such as excommunication, never being invited around again — for failing to respect the rules of engagement. This can get quite tricky when you just want to go home, and you’re faced with the mandatory seven shots of rice vodka before you can leave early.


Others don’t think such consequences were a worry. “You just have to talk with them, tell them you have to go,” Vinh says. “There’s no problem with that.”


Games, Games and More Games

While the chicken head spin might be the most notable in this category, there are Vietnamese drinking games that you’re more likely to see at a club, quan nhau (street pub) or someone’s house. One of these might seem familiar — spin the bottle. But the rules of this version owe more to the aforementioned spin game than to western high school slumber parties.


There are dice games and cards just like in the west. They mostly take the form of high-number-low-number, everyone rolling a die or turning over a card at the same time. There is also the finger-throw, where everyone around the table has to extend either one or two fingers towards the middle at the same time. The ones who pick the less popular number of digits have to drink.


There are also some that are a bit more saucy. One involves a paper napkin being passed from one mouth to the next. At the end of a pass, both parties must have a bit of paper on their tongue — or else they drink. Who cares if you can’t hear anyone above the roar of club music?


Chasers and Kit Kat

“Kit Kat is hip. Kit Kat is ‘in’ this year.”


Van Anh also tells me about chasers like hot vit lon (duck embryo) and hot pots, although they’re more for the older set. The younger people like sweet, which is one of the reasons they’re skipping on the game where you pass one glass of rice vodka around the table, drinking it before you pass it onto the next person. Younger people tend to prefer mixing their drinks with Coca-Cola or Sting.


But this doesn’t mean the next generation of drinkers is slowing down. “People have to push you — ‘drink, drink, drink!’” Tuong Anh says. “I hate that. I say, ‘Ok, let me drink, I cannot finish that.’”


She adds: “Vietnamese have this habit of drinking until they die. They think they’re not with their friends unless they keep drinking… They keep drinking until they fall down.”


Western Drinking Games

Thumb Master

While sitting with friends and drinks, the ‘thumb master’ (anyone who takes the initiative) puts their thumbs on the corner of the table nonchalantly. The last person to hook their thumbs onto the table has to take a drink.


Flip, Sip or Strip!

Those kooky western imperialists are at it once again with this hedonistic time-killer. The first player takes out a coin and calls heads or tails. If the coin flips onto the side they called, they pass it. If it flips wrong, they have to “sip or strip!” — down a shot, or take off an article of clothing — and flip again.


Edward 40 Hands


A ‘game’ in which each player straps on two 40-ounce beer bottles, duct tape-style, one in each hand. The fun comes in the restrictions — they’re not allowed to remove the bottles until they’re finished. Want to go to bathroom? Chug or learn a new skill.

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