Mot, Hai, Ba, YOOOO!!!!! In all the countries that I have visited so far, everyone has their own phrase they say when toasting. In China, when you clink your glasses together, you say, “Gan Bei!” which literally translates to dry glass or in other words, bottoms up!
Vietnam is no different. “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo” translates to 1, 2, 3, yo. And you usually yell it. When I was in Hanoi a few years ago, I first encountered this saying. I was taking an International Business class at the time and working on a project where we had to choose different business sectors in Vietnam to research. I chose to look at Bia Hoi (“bia” means beer and “hoi” means gas) which is a type of draft beer in Vietnam. Bia Hoi are basically little beer gardens where you can get fresh beer for very cheap. As hard work as it was, I had to visit many Bia Hoi in Hanoi as part of my project and learned a bit about drinking culture in Vietnam in the process.
For one thing, people in Vietnam love beer. Take a look at this alcohol map that shows the preferred alcoholic beverage by country. In Vietnam, the preferred drink is beer while many of the surrounding countries prefer hard liquor. When I was in China, “Bai Jiu” was the choice of drink. “Bai Jiu,” which translates to white alcohol is a grain alcohol, mostly made from rice, that is generally 40-50% alcohol by volume. It’s basically like drinking gasoline but people love it in China. It was a nice relief coming to Vietnam to find out the choice of alcohol is beer. Beer that you get at bia hoi tends to be really light and refreshing. Usually around 3% alcohol which is a nice refreshment to have on a hot day in Vietnam.
People, mostly men, frequent bia hoi after their work day to chat, eat peanuts, drink beer, and toast to their heart’s content. It’s like the Vietnamese version of happy hour except that it’s much much cheaper than in the States. It’s cheap even by Vietnamese standards. You can get the same amount of beer in a 12 oz bottle for about 20 cents! When I was in Hanoi I loved going to bia hoi with friends so when I arrived in Tra Vinh and found out there was a bia hoi here, I was excited.
The beer at bia hoi is brewed daily. I’ve gone to the bia hoi in Tra Vinh twice and the beer has tasted different both times. Not in a bad way either. You never really know what you’re going to get which makes things more interesting. The first time I went, the beer was a little sweet and fruity, almost like cider. And the second time it tasted more like a yeasty beer. Since there’s only one bia hoi in Tra Vinh, I sometimes joke that I should dedicate a blog to the brew of the week to cover all the different flavors of the bia hoi beer since it’s different every time you go.
Anyways, when I was in Hanoi, which is in northern Vietnam, you wouldn’t refill your glass until everyone drank all of the liquid in their glasses which put pressure on whoever was the slowest drinker to finish their glass so everyone else could drink more. Here in the Mekong Delta, in the south of Vietnam, it’s customary to fill a glass of beer, choose a partner, and you and your partner will each drink 50/50 of the glass. Drinking in Vietnam has a very communal aspect to it.
I was warned before coming to Vietnam this time around, that I will feel pressure to drink during events, formal and informal. Having never worked and lived in Vietnam for longer than a month, I never really experienced what this would be like except when I was in Hanoi the last time and my dad’s friend, who lives there, invited me and some of my friends out to dinner and subsequently drank my friends under the table. I on the other hand, was merely a spectator that time.
I should preface this next paragraph by saying that my family are big drinkers so I was not entirely shocked with drinking culture here but drinking with your own family and friends is one thing compared to drinking with your bosses and colleagues.
Work life and personal life don’t have as clear of lines here as they do in the U.S. so imagine going to a lunch work function and taking shots with your colleagues and bosses. Or going out to dinner with your colleagues only to end the night with more drinking and karaoke. Sounds fun, right? During the first week of teaching here in Tra Vinh, there was a dorm opening that me and other foreign teachers were invited to. It was a typical Thursday afternoon. We went to the ceremony and then were invited out to lunch afterwards. Some big government honchos were in attendance, including the former Vice President of Vietnam. So naturally, there would be lots of alcohol. And not just beer, there was red wine. And not the gross red wine that you find in cartons in China, but actual red wine. Now I’m a wine drinker, and good wine is not easy to find or cheap in Vietnam so I was more than happy to drink a glass or two for lunch. But this is Vietnam we’re talking about and this is an event with important people from both the University that I’m working at and the Vietnamese government. Soooo… one after the other, we would move from important person to person, fill our wine glasses, yell “Mot, hai, ba, yooooo!” and down our wine glasses in one gulp. Never have I ever taken shots of wine before let alone taken shots with my bosses. By 1 p.m. I was sufficiently happy. It’s a good thing that I didn’t have any more classes to teach that day. Better than vodka I suppose, which I had to down many times for another work function a week ago. Vodka is not my jam.
In any case, I’m sure there are more events like this in the future for me and I look forward to them!