(This is an excerpt from a much longer article I wrote about exploring the beer frontier in Viet Nam called King Pilsner, Bia Hoi, Snake Wine, and the Sex Machine, a version of which appeared in the Sept/Oct 2005 issue of Zymurgy magazine.
Ruou-ing the Day in Sa Pa
Drinking snake wine and driving a motorbike on unpaved mountain roads in northern Viet Nam’s Hoang Lien mountains in Sa Pa sounds like a bad idea. But I’ve never been accused of being too smart.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Much like the French require a table wine at meals, hill tribes of northern Viet Nam prefer ruou gao, or rice liquor, as their daily staple. It is consumed by men and women alike, with every meal, including breakfast. If the concept of drinking hard liquor with breakfast appalls the American sensibility, traditional Viet Namese medicine must surely send us into fits of hysterics.
Waiter, There’s a Snake in My Beer
Our first day in the northern provincial capital city, Sa Pa, we decided to take it easy and stroll a few kilometers to a H’mong village called Cat Cat, said to have a pretty waterfall. On the way, we noticed a house with an open front door that seemed to invite us inside. I stepped in and asked for ruou. A young lady nodded. We sat on little plastic chairs at a little plastic table on a little wooden veranda overlooking what must be one of Viet Nam’s most breath-taking mountain views.
The lady dipped a small beer glass into a container that resembled a gigantic pickle jar and drew a fresh serving of ruou ran, the medicinal snake wine of Viet Nam. It is usually translated as wine, but is more accurately called a spirit. The mistranslation is presumably a holdover of the former French colonizers’ predilection for wine, but the ‘snake’ bit is no mistake. The plastic liquor container held several snakes of various colors and sizes.
Snake wine is just one of Viet Nam’s endless variety of medicinal rice liquors. The base is normally the same, a distilled rice fermentation. But what goes in it depends on the condition to be treated. Snakes, geckos, seahorses, and starfish are especially effective in stimulating the male libido, while ginseng and mushrooms improve intelligence and longevity. The usual instructions are to drink a glass in the morning and one in the evening for a few weeks.
As I sipped a slow glass of ruou ran our presence attracted a number of local women offering us products of their specialty craft: woven and embroidered silk clothes, purses and blankets. It was a nice opportunity to chat with the locals except we didn’t speak a word of Viet Namese or any of the local hill tribe languages and they knew only enough English to name their price. We haggled a bit and settled on some pillow cases and a little mouth instrument that is something like a jaw’s harp. I was hoping that one of them might be able to show us some home-distilling, but the language barrier was too great.
A Village Distillery
But back to Sa Pa to continue our search for authentic village ruou production. The day after visiting Cat Cat, we rented motorbikes and hired a guide to show us some remote villages and help us find a proper village distillery.
Mt. Fan Si Pan (which I like to call Mt. Fancy Pants since the villagers wear exactly that), Viet Nam’s highest peak at 3143 m., flanked us to the right on the opposite side of a steep valley terraced up and down with rice paddies. The road alternated between bumpy dirt, rocks, and mud. I rode in search of ruou, and with the help of our friendly guide Thom, I found it.
We parked our bikes by a bridge and walked to the Zao village of Ta Van. We followed a footpath through rice paddies speckled with animals: black cows with flat scythe-shaped horns, dogs, pigs, and rows of ducks, to name a few. Eventually we came upon a cluster of buildings resembling barns. These were traditional Zao dwellings. Two-story, wooden-plank constructions.
It was in one of these houses that we were introduced to Mr. Son, a distiller of ruou. He runs a humble, rustic distillery, producing about 60 liters of rice liquor per month. It took but a few minutes for him to show us his set up and describe the process, which Thom translated into basic but adequate English terminology.
A round, shallow pan about two feet across rested on a round earthen fire pit. The pan contained the mushy remains of rice that was distilled three days earlier. This was bound for the intestines of his farm animals, but Mr. Son appeared to be in no hurry to feed them. Behind the fire pit was a rectangular open-topped cement water tank with a spigot outlet near the bottom on one side.
Son explained the brewing and distillation process: steam 15 kg. of rice. Place it in the pan with 30 yeast cakes, cover with a bamboo lid and allow to ferment for 8 days. Then fit a section of wooden barrel around the top of the pan and top it with a lid. Insert PVC tubing through a hole near the top edge of the wooden cylinder. Run this PVC down through the water tank and connect to the inside of the spigot near the bottom of the tank. Boil the fermented rice with fresh water for about two hours until all the alcohol steams off, exiting through the PVC piping, precipitating as it is chilled by the water tank and draining out the spigot into a one liter jerry can at the bottom. One batch produces 15-16 liters of ruou gao, plain rice liquor.
This rice spirit is produced and consumed by men and women alike in the rural mountain communities of Viet Nam’s minority peoples like the Zao.
Son grows the rice himself but buys (or rather, his wife buys) packaged yeast cakes in the Sa Pa market. A bag of yeast costs about 12,000 dong and has enough cakes for four batches. One liter of the finished product sells for 10,000 dong. Which means that after expenses, the Sons make a little under $10 per batch of ruou, or $40 per month at Son’s rate of four monthly batches. In a country where the annual per capita income is just $480, this is a decent supplement to farm earnings.
Mr. Son was sure to mention that his ruou did not taste sour and would not cause a headache. But we warned us to be careful in town because unscrupulous or perhaps just ill-informed ruou vendors might cut their beverages with dangerous liquids.
Pictured to the right: A ruou pharmacy with all the usual fixins’ – goat heads, geckos, ginger root and dried sea horses.
Tram Phan Tram
At the time of our visit, Ta Van, like the rest of Viet Nam, was preparing for the new year’s Tet celebration. In previous year’s Son has prepared as many as 60 liters of ruou for this celebration but this year he was a bit behind schedule and hadn’t managed to store any away at all. He estimated that his village would drink about 100 liters of it during the week-long festival. I didn’t get a village head count, but considering that these villagers drink ruou at every meal during normal times, they must be gulping the stuff down when they ring in the new year. As they say in Viet Namese: tram phan tram, which means ‘100%’. In other words: ‘Drink it up and don’t leave a drop!’
We spent the rest of the afternoon motorbiking further and further down the valley. The road worsened the farther we went. My butt hurt, but my hands and wrists hurt even more from steadying and steering the bike over rocks, around boulders, and alongside passing four-wheel-drive vehicles. The latter were a particularly tricky proposition. On one side, a fearless ton of metal hurtling towards me. On the other, a sheer drop over the side of a cliff. My strategy: don’t think about it, just keep moving ahead, enjoy the scenery and look forward to the next sip of ruou.
We eventually reached Bang Ho, a village of Tay and Flower H’Mong people. This turned out to be more of a rest stop, and an opportunity to chug a can of the Viet Namese equivalent to Red Bull – a nasty little sugar soda with some energy drugs in it. That and a Choco-Pie did the trick and after a half hour or so of playing with village kids we headed back to where we parked the bikes and readied ourselves for the long uphill trek back to Sa Pa.
One Part Dried Twig, Five Parts Rice Liquor, & You’ll Feel Much Better
Just as we reached the bikes I noticed some women chopping twigs and sun-drying them on an outside patio. Thom inquired but wasn’t able to translate the name of the plant for us. He was, however, able to tell us that whatever the plant, it was to be added to ruou as a medicinal ingredient. Medicinal rice liquor seemed to be every where we looked.
Ha Noi Rocks
It was tempting to stay longer in Sa Pa, but Ha Noi beckoned. We took a day train and watched the rice paddies roll by. Meanwhile I chatted with an American in the cabin next to ours. By a stroke of luck, Earnest happened to be recently retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Commission, and he had been responsible for enforcing international bans on trafficking in protected wildlife. I had been very curious about the status of the animals used in ruou and Earnest just happened to know all about it.
Cobra turns out to be the only problematic animal. This also seemed like the most common type of ruou; it was displayed prominently by vendors everywhere. According to Earnest, if a snake even looks like a cobra, it is illegal to export it. Luckily I had thus far refrained from buying a bottle of cobra wine. Everything else, he said, is okay. Trade in pangolin, rhino and tiger is also problematic but apparently they don’t use those in Viet Nam.
(You can read the rest of this story here.)