During a journey into local food and drink culture, Tom DiChristopher learns how to nhau with the best of them.
There’s no better place to live the Quan Life than Ho Chi Minh City
I’m just finishing my first package of quail eggs at an al fresco District 3 quan when the rain starts coming down. Staff scramble to extend the awning as customers cover their food and beer and run for cover.
Nobody complains or sulks. Everyone is laughing. A few stare at the lone Westerner huddled in their midst, clutching his Bierre Larue.
With the awning up, the staff darts around, wiping down plastic chairs and aluminium tables. Clearly, if you had reservations, you are in the wrong place. However, if you’re looking for something different, pull out a plastic chair and prepare to nhau. There’s no better place to learn than HCM City.
A ruou-fueled Introduction
The first thing to know is that there are two types of quan: quan an and quan nhau. The former is essentially a restaurant, while the latter is the Vietnamese version of a beer hall. While some quan nhau—especially large, multi-story ones—serve everything from clams to kangaroo, many specialise in a staple.
On this rainy evening, I’m meeting my friend Hai and his roommate Adam at Lau De 306B Dien Bien Phu, where goat is the house specialty.
No matter the size or specialty of the quan, explains Hai, one thing remains consistent: food, drink and conversation share equal billing.
Savoury (often barbecued) meat, salty seafood, heaps of greens and snacks sold by roving street vendors are meant to be shared, fuel for good conversation and a means of bracing your stomach for the deluge of beer.
The relationship is so indivisible that the word nhau also functions as slang for the kind of eating, drinking and talking that goes on at the quan.
Though it’s not uncommon for locals drink in excess, there is an art to keeping yourself upright during a marathon nhau session. Beer is often inexpensive, so it tends to go fast. (Our Bierre Larues tonight run just VND9,000).
Also, once you’ve established that you’re staying, it’s standard practice for waitstaff to pop bottles until you tell them to stop, particularly when a crate of beer is placed at the foot of your table.
Rice wine is another menu item that requires caution. It turns out the staff at Lau De are Hanoian, and they’ve brought with them ruou ong khoai, or bee wine. The deep ochre nectar has a slightly floral aroma, and the taste is a mix of vanilla and burning.
Between dirt cheap beer and ruou shots, balancing food and drink can take some practice (as the massive headache I will awake with the following day will prove).
One tool in the fight for sobriety is the hotpot. However, there’s room for surprise even when it comes to this ubiquitous DIY dish.
“What is that? Liver?” asks Adam as Hai shovels a plateful of ingredients into the hotpot.
“It’s brain,” says Hai.
“Brain is the best,” Hai assures us. “It melts in your mouth.”
And he’s right. It’s no sweetbreads served at a chichi bistro, but after a few minutes simmering in the hotpot, we’ve got ourselves a delicacy. Bon appetit.
Nhau for the intermediate
Inspired by my brief encounter with bee wine and pig’s brain, I head out with former AsiaLIFE staff photographer Christian Berg, who has his masters in Southeast Asian Studies and speaks Vietnamese fluently, to learn more about the quan life.
On a Thursday evening, we convene a party of eight at Lucky Beer (325 Vo Van Tan, D3), a quan nhau known for the quality of its VND5,000 bia hoi (fresh beer). Looking around the joint, there’s a question that’s nagging me: where are all the women? Christian’s answer is inflected with nuance: “A ‘traditionally good’ Vietnamese woman would not go to quan nhau.”
While more liberal women nhau, the quan remains an overwhelmingly male institution. Christian adds that the crowd at a quan nhau will vary depending on a few factors, from the type and strength of rice wine served to the cut of the waitstaff’s uniforms (Indeed, at one quan popular among gentlemen located at 302 Dien Bien Phu, the waitresses seem to share one common endowment.)
Current staff photographer Nam Quan also helps to explain the demographics, telling me that people typically begin to nhau at 18 or 19, although the more affluent of this generation often prefer modern venues like KFC and Gloria Jean’s.
However, certain quans are better regarded than others; one just up the street at 121 Vo Van Tan, Nam says, is usually packed despite the fact that their prices are high by quan standards.
But for the novice, Lucky Beer provides plenty of opportunities to broaden the palette. The house does wonderful things with peppercorn, and some of us have even developed a taste for the kidney and liver dish that Nam ordered.
The spicy fare and light beer has us out late, and by evening’s end we’ve engaged in all manner of discourse: our respective country’s views on the Cold War's thaw, the existential dilemma of the expatriate and the relative strength of Borat versus Bruno.
By the time we leave, the atmosphere is still lively and I’m reminded of something Hai, who used to live up north, told me at Lau De about quan culture: “People in Hanoi are light years behind. People in Saigon know how to live.”
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