Eating and drinking, for no particular purpose

By Connla Stokes   October 29, 2016 | 03:00 pm PT
All you need, besides good company, is beer, delicious food and a sense of freedom.

In Ho Chi Minh City, and other parts of Vietnam, when somebody says it’s time to nhau, it’s a clarion call to go “drinking and feasting”. Pressed to explain the concept further, a man from Da Nang once described “nhau” as “eating and drinking for no particular purpose.”

No one has to be celebrating a birthday. It doesn’t have to be a national holiday -- or even the end of the week. It could be a run-of-the-mill-Tuesday evening but somebody wants to eat, drink and be merry, and that somebody needs company -- a gang of friends, a bunch of colleagues, brothers, sisters, neighbors, whomever.

Two is enough to nhau, but three’s better, and the more, the merrier.


Cheers: Men toasting with rice wine during a party at a restaurant in Hanoi. Photo by AFP

But to be clear, people don’t brave the crosstown traffic to nhau in a fancy restaurant -- too stiff, too stuffy, too alienating for those unacquainted with fine-dining conventions Nor can you nhau at a noodle joint, where you’re expected to slurp your bowl down and skedaddle to make way for the next hungry punter. If it that all sounds like the Vietnamese equivalent of after-work drinks, or heading down the local pub, you’re underestimating the importance of feasting. Even if they plan to get blind drunk, nobody in Vietnam cares to imbibe without food of some description on the table. When people agree to nhau, a venue may be selected for the quality of its food rather than a convenient location. Forget TripAdvisor certificates — in a sprawling city, famed for its chaotic roads, if someone rides a scooter for 8km to a particular eatery, the owner should feel free to brag.

To nhau you need an airy space, plenty of time and, above all else, a feeling of freedom. Every table should feel like they can stay as long as they want, drink as much as they want, sing, and laugh, and shout as loud as they want…

So typically, people will head to a quan nhau (a tavern of sorts, preferably one that spills out onto a pavement), where they will be seated in plastic chairs at fold-up tables and presented with a single, exhaustive menu. A quick meeting -- one perhaps chaired by a dominant character -- on a serious topic is held: what will we eat? But whatever is ordered, the ensuing feast is invariably heavy on protein and light on carbs. Rice would only rob you of room for beer.

As the evening unfolds, every dish lands without ceremony in the middle of the table. The commensal spirit of such gatherings is innate to Vietnamese. No one orders their own steak-frites or the catch of the day.

There are also no individual orders of beer -- it’s one commercial beer or another for everyone. After a crate has been dragged to the table, cylinders of ice are placed in glasses even if the bottles have been refrigerated. Sacrilege? Elsewhere in the world, sure, but in Ho Chi Minh City, a) the ice keeps the beer cold in spite of the soupy heat and b) if challenged to consecutive bouts of tram phan tram (“100%” the vernacular for bottoms up), even a beer snob can warm to the virtues of a watery beer.

In parts of the city, a busker might wander past the most popular quan nhau, strumming as he strolls, hoping a table of revelers will coo him over to croon a sentimental ballad. But with or without music, come 9 p.m., each quan nhau invariably has an infectious air of festivity, and flustered staff will be run off their feet until every table has eventually had its fill of food, and beer, gossip and stories, teasing and taunting…

Which brings us to the final act: settling the bill. Invariably, someone will seize it and make a gallant attempt to pay for everyone, but generally the rest of the table will have none of it. Let’s all chip in, someone will reason, and nhau again soon.

And they will; later that week or the following week, whenever somebody wants to eat, drink and be merry (for no particular purpose) and that somebody needs company.

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