Rule #1. Never drink alone.
I’m not sure if this is true in other parts of Vietnam but in the Mekong Delta, you should never drink alcohol alone. Even if you’re having a beer with dinner at a restaurant with your friends, you should always toast with someone before you take a sip. Like I mentioned in this post about drinking culture in Vietnam, drinking in Vietnam has a very communal aspect to it.
I love that people never let you drink alone here. Sure it can be a pain when you’ve just bit into a chili and your mouth is on fire and you feel like you can’t take a sip of your beer without being rude, but for the most part, I like the communal aspect of it.
I’ve found that drinking with others really helps to cultivate your relationships here. While it’s your choice if you want to drink or not, drinking is a very big part of building business, professional, and personal relationships, much like in China or Japan. I hate to say it, but the fact that I drink, has made a difference with my relationships with others here. I think you can still make very good relationships without drinking, just remember if you’re working in Vietnam, than outgoing and friendly personalities will get you very far here. People really like if you take the initiative and invite others to drink with you.
Having grown up in a Chinese/Vietnamese family, my family really enjoys drinking together so the drinking culture in Vietnam wasn’t much of a shock to me. Still, sometimes I really don’t want to drink that much at a work party. You can either refuse alcohol and tell people you don’t drink, but once you open that door and allow someone to put alcohol in your cup, then it’s hard to go back.
And at least in Vietnam, the beer is pretty light. In the Mekong, they serve everything with ice. Even beer. So if I find myself at a party where I’m expected or feel pressured to drink, I make sure to put lots of ice in my cup and very little beer so by the time I have to drink, my cup is mostly water and very little beer. When the whole table toasts, you usually just need to take a sip of your drink but if someone invites you to drink one on one, then oftentimes, you’ll drink from the same glass. Your partner drinks 50% and you’ll also drink 50%. OR you’ll both drink 100% of your respective glasses.
I’ve been working in Vietnam for almost 8 months now and I’ve learned some tricks along the way to deal with the excessive drinking that can sometimes occur at work gatherings:
- Eat before a work party. Even if you know they’re going to serve food, it’s better to have some food in your stomach when you show up because you never know when people will start toasting each other.
- Always come armed with a water bottle. Especially if they bring the vodka or rice wine out. If it’s a big party, then I usually don’t have any problem refilling my shot glass with water without anyone noticing. If anyone sees you though, then they might make you drink 3 in a row which has happened to me. And remember that poker face! If you’re drinking water, you have to remember to make it appear like you’re drinking vodka. I always make a “this is gross” face after I down my water-filled shot glass and then I chase it with more water or water-downed beer. It works every time.
- Negotiate. If someone invites me to drink 100% of my glass and I don’t want to, I negotiate. If there’s one thing that I have down pat with the Vietnamese language, it’s the numbers. People really appreciate if you can speak Vietnamese here so I’ll negotiate different percentages in Vietnamese and people will laugh and usually accept. I usually start with 10%. The most I’ve ever had to drink when I negotiate is 50% of my glass.