Rice Wine in Ha Giang aka 'Happy water'
Rice wine is to Vietnam what Whisky is to Scotland. It is a ridiculously popular drink all over Vietnam and the degree of connoisseurism it evokes in the locals is unbelievable. After just a few shots you will begin to hear tell of the mystic qualities of this particular Ruou and why it is the best that no one else can produce.
A Truly Local Product
You’ll even be told of how this humble liquid, fermented from only rice, will not taste the same should you attempt to take any back with you. ‘It doesn’t travel well.’ or ‘The plastic bottle turns it sour.’ are the usual justifications for this.
Each village, town, province has its own special kind made from the local water, fruits and herbs. Some are said to be good for your eyes, your back, your bones or more private parts, whereas others are steeped in legend and drunk for pure enjoyment.
All this talk of rice wine is confusing because in Ha Giang it is mostly corn wine that is drunk.
A Word of Warning!!
Before we begin, you should know that drinking and driving in Vietnam is illegal. Vietnam is different to the majority of countries in that the permitted level of alcohol in the blood when operating a motorized vehicle is ZERO %.
What is it?
Well, it is what is says it is: Rice wine, Corn wine (alcohol) made from rice / corn.
How is it made?
Basically, a little yeast is put in with a little rice / corn and left to get to work. Over the course of a week or so the yeast devours the rice / corn and produces a liquid alcohol. This liquid alcohol is not very potent, so it is them distilled to get a higher alcohol content. Often this natural distillation is carried out 2 or three times and will result in an alcohol content of no more than 17-18%. More than enough to make it a worthwhile tipple.
How do you drink yours? The different types of water, corn and yeast used as well as the slight differences in method all produce distinctly flavoured pure corn wine. Any chemicals used in this process will change the colour of the final product from milky yellow to a purple.
Then, people will infuse this spirit with fruits of herbs. In some cases the dead carcasses of animals, snake and crow being favourites, are left to stew in ‘wine’ as it is believed they can have medicinal properties. Snake being ‘good for the man’ and crow being ‘good for bad backs’ Take your pick.
Nearly every corn wine / fire water / happy water whatever you want to call it, that you drink in Ha Giang will be corn spirit / ruou ngo.
Base Spirit, Distillate
This uses rice (gao) in the production. Please note that the word for uncooked rice is ‘gao’ and cooked rice is ‘com’.
This is made using corn / maize ‘Ngo’
It isn’t that common for the locals in Ha Giang to add any of the fancy flavours that you will find the lowlanders doing.
They don’t really go much for: Ginseng, apple, plum, medicinal herbs, Tiger, crow or snake.
They seem happy enough with a 20 litre jerry can of the pure distill, which they can gulp down.
Where can you find it?
Everywhere. You will see Ruou for sale in small convenience shops, at restaurants, street stalls and markets. Many families will keep a jerry can, yes, a jerry can, with the odd 20 or 30 litres in. Just in case they have unexpected guests.
When travelling around Ha Giang, expect to be offered some at any time of the day. Also, expect to see men inebriated at any time of the day, especially if it is a market day. Often, they will need their children or wife to push them home or if that fails they will take a nap on the street.
How is it Drunk?
Usually, everyone will drink together. One drinker will stand, make a toast and then invite everyone to empty their glasses after all touching glasses. Occasionally, two or three people will have a private toast and drink a shot.
One real issue is that, as a guest, you will most likely be invited to drink by everyone around you. This can result in you drinking 6:1 or 10:1 or more depending on the size of your group. A recipe for disaster.
Shot Glass or Baby Bowl?
In most regions, Ruou is drunk from small shot glasses. However, when drinking rice wine in Ha Giang, you will often see the local ethnic people using baby bowls. This is because shot glasses were traditionally unavailable, whereas baby bowls are something that are used every day.
One consideration is that you are expected to fill a shot glass when pouring and empty it in one when drinking. This is not the same with the baby bowl, unless, your host (drinking nemesis) declares the intention. Quite the art, it is.
Drinking Etiquette - How to be Uber Polite
When drinking Ruou you can take a few steps to blend in with the locals and make it seem like you are an old hand. Here are some tips:
7 Golden Rules of Ruou
Should you be careful?
Yes, Yes and YES! You can easily take a little too much of this. If you are not used to drinking Ruou then it can get away with you.
Many westerners are more able to tolerate Beer than Rice Wine because it is what they are used to. This stuff can catch you out.
Luckily, a lot of it is so disgusting, it puts you off drinking too much.
Oh, and remember, don’t drink and ride!