Many people go to Vietnam for the food, beaches and history. My wife and I went there to drink.
It was that liquid pilgrimage that found us rumbling down a windy dirt road in Vietnam’s northern mountains on a crystal January day.
Our target, Vietnam’s homemade rice wines and Sa Pa, a stunning mountain town less than 200 miles northwest of Hanoi, near Lao Cai.
Once a 19th century retreat for the French elite, today it is home to mostly ethnic minorities like the colorful Black Hmong and Red Dzao, who have been making rice wine in the same simple fashion for generations.
Indeed, rice is the crop of life there. Nearly every inch of available land is used to cultivate it.
For the Black Hmong, according to our guide, a young Hmong woman from the area, accepting rice wine in a buffalo horn is a vital part of their courting ritual.
In Sa Pa’s mountainous environs, steep valley walls are terraced with the crop’s beautiful geometries.
Small wooden huts dot the valley floor, revealing a communal life that, despite motorcycles and the occasional satellite TV, still churns at its own pace.
In one such village, Ta Van, we found Huong Van Thi tending to a large steaming pot of rice.
Huong’s family has been making rice wine as far back as anyone can remember. Her neighbours claim it’s some of the best.
They should know. They buy 70 litres of it a week.
Inside her wood-slatted shack, the air was thick with yeasty smoke. Huong threw long sticks into a small fire as she explained her provincial technique.
First, she boils rice in a huge metal pot, then ferments it with yeast and lets it sit for two weeks.
The fermented rice is boiled again and alcohol rises from it as steam.
A pan of cold water on top of the pot cools the rising steam, condensing it into a warm potent liquid ready for drinking.
Others make it faster, but Huong claims her slow fermentation “makes the wine taste and smell better, with no side effects, no headaches.”
Our first taste came straight from the pot. It was warm, smelled of flowers and went down easily.
Local residents pay 10,000 dong for a litre, about 62 cents at 16,000 dong to the dollar. We gladly paid a little more.
We had gone to Sa Pa by overnight train from the capital of Hanoi, where life moves at breakneck speed.
Vietnam’s economy has almost doubled in the last 10 years, and on Hanoi’s leafy boulevards it shows.
The occasional Porsche or Hummer mixes with the swarm of motor bikes. A Louis Vuitton outlet competes with its knock-off neighbours and still has customers.
So it makes sense that while tourists flood the country in search of 50-cent beers – and find them – there is an emerging class of Vietnamese seeking a more refined tipple.
“In our restaurant, a Vietnamese spends so much more money than a foreigner,” said Marcus Madeja, owner of Highway4, a stylish chain that brews more than 20 unique Vietnamese liqueurs.
“Four lads can drink four bottles of liquor while a foreigner is already looking at the card, ‘Oh, that’s US$3, I’ll take the French fries for a dollar fifty.'”
Highway4 is the love child of the Swiss-born Madeja and his Vietnamese wife, Thoa Vu Thi.
Their Son Tinh brand of aperitifs claims to blend native rice wines with Swiss engineering. That pitch may sound like a car commercial, but the results are very good.
An apricot liqueur was pleasantly tart with a touch of sweet and a light floral scent.
An herbal variety blends more than 20 roots and purports to be a recipe stolen from Emperor Minh Mang’s cellar in Hue.
(Mang, a 19th century monarch who enraged Europe by booting out Christian missionaries, mythically had a 500-woman harem and likely needed a tonic or two to sire his more than 100 children.)
Of course, few Vietnamese have the luxury of making their own love potions. For that, many still turn to traditional elixirs like snake wine or snake blood.
According to lore, snake blood delivers an amphetamine-like shock to the heart and snake wine connects jumper cables to the loins.
People also believe they clean the blood and soothe lower-back pain.
Snake wine can be purchased in most parts of the country. Blood is a bit harder to find. In the snake-rich Mekong Delta we got our fix of both.
Thuy Van is a dusty canteen in the small, bustling river city of My Tho, about 40 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
Past rows of giant amber liquid-filled jars stuffed with cobras, scorpions and black bird heads, we found the proprietor, Nguyen Yan, tending to a giant blue tub brimming with water snakes.
Nguyen gave us a toothy smile and stuck his arm deep into the writhing pile of snakes.
He is choosy, and he rejected a few sub-par reptiles before finally emerging with a satisfactory specimen.
He casually walked to the kitchen, picked up a pair of scissors, snipped the snake’s head clean off and stretched its open neck into a plastic cup.
Nguyen then handed the snake to a young woman, leaving her to finish draining its blood while he snipped fresh ginger into long, thin strips – the sole addition to the glasses of blood.
At our table, the blood was served in a small pitcher with shot glasses. Still warm and slightly thick, it tasted of brine and light smoke.
My lips tasted of fire, a flame that would not extinguish for hours. My heart raced, but managed to stay in my chest. My wife wisely sat this one out.
Still reeling from the snake blood, we discovered nothing is wasted.
A steaming metal pot arrived with heaping plates of whole scallions and watercress, then smaller dishes of spicy fish sauce and fresh cut green chilies.
In the pot, a fragrant rice porridge, smelling strongly of ginger and lemongrass, showed giant chunks of button mushrooms and our newly departed snake.
His bones came separately, deep-fried. Locals eat them like potato chips.
To finish the meal, shots of snake wine were served. The name is a misnomer.
The liquor is made from rice and has the horsepower of a whiskey. Snakes or other animals are added later to soak in the brew.
It’s pure firewater, and by Vietnamese standards, it’s not cheap.
A quarter litre of the good stuff goes for 70,000 dongs.
For real players, a Costco-size jug of King Cobra runs 11,500,000 dongs – over US$700. But considering that it has enough firepower to sire a small village, it’s not a bad deal at all.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved by New York Times Syndication Sales Corp. This material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.