Saigon is known for its nightlife, trendy clubs and smoky bars. It caters increasingly well to the Western version of a good night out, and a similarly increasing number of the city’s young locals are discovering the joys of vodka and a dance floor. But is this how the Vietnamese traditionally party? Good music and shiny glasses of champagne aside, what is it really like to drink like a local?
What is Nhậu?
“Nhậu” is the Vietnamese term for “drink beer (or rice wine) with friends”. People can nhậu wherever they want, really - the whole concept is just as possible in a techno club as it is in the more casual setting of plastic chairs by the side of the road. But the traditional concept of nhậu with your mates is based on sharing good food and good drink with good company, rather than partying. You don’t need to dress up to nhậu, you don’t even need to go out. You can nhậu over a meal; in fact one of the most popular settings for a good evening of “beer with friends” is a BBQ joint or a circle of friends eating hot pot in someone’s house.
The Rules of Nhậu
To nhậu effectively there are a few things to remember, the most important of which was mentioned above - the focus is on enjoying your time with friends. But aside from that…
1. Don’t drink without “dzo” (pronounced “yo”)
One essential factor of Vietnamese drinking culture is the idea of drinking together. “Drink beer with friends” is literally that - to drink as a group, having raised your bottle or glass to good company. The local version of “cheers” is “dzo”, and often follows a countdown of “1, 2, 3...” or in Vietnamese “một, hai, ba…dzo!” The first Vietnamese phrase that most travellers will learn, and one that fills the city’s backpacker strip every night.
2. Mồi (“food to drink with beer”) is essential
You can’t nhậu without nibbles. Mồi is literally food that you drink with beer when you nhậu, and can consist of anything you like. You could eat peanuts or you could eat a pizza, you could nibble on guava or gulp down loads of french fries. The local favourites tend to be mango and salt, big circles of rice-cracker and pan-fried street food or dried beef, but it really doesn’t matter as long as you have something to munch.
3. Learn the choreography
If you happen to be nhậu-ing with people who are older than yourself, there are certain gestures you should use to be polite. According to Vietnamese drinking culture, when offering a beer or food to an older person, you should use both hands, or one hand with the other folded under your elbow. Also use “dạ" when you speak to them, a polite word that effectively works like “please” and “thank you” in English.
4. Ignore the sirens
Beer Ladies, as alluring as they are in their tiny dresses and sparkly heels, never talk to you for the pleasure of conversation. Like the mythical mermaid these ladies have another agenda, and you’ll soon find yourself very drunk and very poor having spent all of your money on the beers they offer you and your group. Beware! But be nice, they’re just making a living after all.
5. Learn how to scull (trăm phần trăm - 100% và năm mươi phần trăm - 50%)
There are two key phrases that define the hardcore nhậu-er, both of which indicate a rapid intake of beer accompanied by yelps of encouragement from your peers. “Trăm phần trăm" and “năm mươi phần trăm", meaning “100%” and “50%” respectively (or just “một trăm” and “năm mươi” for short) are usually used later on in the nhậu session, and require you to scull like you’ve never sculled before. But this is really just an extreme, and the average nhậu session is far more relaxed. Most drink ice with their beer to make it last longer, and if you don’t want to drink something non-alcoholic is just as acceptable as beer. You can still raise a glass of pepsi and shout “dzo”!
6. Be safe
There are a few tips to apply to your drinking session which will make it merrier and last longer. Many locals drink their beer with ice when they nhậu - this prolongs the effect of their beer, keeping them hydrated and tipsy without descending into that ugly side of drunk that usually ends in something very unfortunate. Another tip is to take a taxi. So many people, local and foreign alike, find themselves in horrible accidents after driving home from a drinking session. The old slogan applies - don’t drink and drive! Finally, drink with friends. The whole idea of nhậu is good company, in fact without “friends” there would be no “drinking beer”.
Where to Nhậu
For the most local of nhậu experiences you can’t do better than the myriad of plastic chair shanti bars that pop up every evening on Saigon’s street corners. But these can be a little bit daunting, not always super-clean and the size of most Vietnamese plastic chairs leave the average pair of foreign legs far too cramped for comfort! And not all locals nhậu at these kinds of spots - there are plenty of joints to “drink beer with friends” around the city that are clean, comfortable, and still totally authentic. Here are our favourite five:
1. Saigon Xưa và Nay
37 Nguyen Trung Truc, D1
Hours: 4pm - 10:45pm
Price range: $$
Contact: 08 3822 2337
A wide space open to the street, this spot offers a more traditional nhậu experience. Guests are seated on larger but still plastic chairs, and the food served is all Vietnamese. Beautiful beer ladies serve Sapporo beer and offer you menus in both English and Vietnamese, service is quite fast and the place itself is very popular as a cheerfully tipsy nhậu spot.
2. Quán Ụt Ụt
168, Vo Van Kiet , D1 or 60 Truong Sa, Binh Thanh District
Hours: 11:00am - 11:30pm
Price range: $$
Contact: 08 3914 4500
This American BBQ restaurant is modern and clean, with a rustic decor and the meals are big and delicious. If you are a fan of good, hearty American-style ribs, steak, burger and chips, then you’ll be a fan of this place. Though not as traditional as Saigon Xưa và Nay, Quán Ụt Ụt is still popular for groups of friends to enjoy a drinking and eating session together. They have two venues for your convenience.
3. 5 Oysters
234 Bui Vien, D1
Hours: 9 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Price range: $
Contact: 08 62 91 68 77
This popular backpacker restaurant seems to have no other target market than the very general “everyone who is hungry”. From prim, proper travelling couples to crowds of rowdy backpackers and big tables of Vietnamese families, 5 Oysters caters to anyone who wants good, cheap Vietnamese food and beverages. A range of beers are served as well as wine and cocktails, and a number of Vietnamese dishes are available. It can be fun to order enough dishes to share them all as you nhậu, Vietnam style.
4. 5ku Station
27 Le Thanh Ton, D1
Hours: 4 p.m. - 4 a.m.
Price range: $$
Contact: 0907775487 - 0908295911
Grill your own meat and vegetables at this more authentic nhậu spot, as you enjoy a nice cold beer and a typically Vietnamese crowd. This is a really popular hotspot in Saigon, and is full most nights with big groups of Vietnamese and expats alike enjoying good company. The decor is sparse, like the wooden-chair cafes that line Saigon’s streets during the day, but the beer is cold, the service is good and the food is even better.
5. Barbecue Garden
135A Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1
Hours: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Price range: $$
Contact: 08 3823 3340
This is another open-grill style restaurant with a buzzing atmosphere in a garden full of fairy lights. Deceptively devoid of sound from the traffic that passes by just outside its walls, this restaurant is a great place to nhậu with your mates over a table of delicacies that you grill yourself. You can eat as much or as little as you like, the staff speak sufficient English and the food is reasonably priced.