“Một! Hai! Ba!”
We chorused before draining our shot glasses together.
My father and I joined my mother and her coworkers’ picnic in Thac Ba Lake when we went to North Vietnam last November. On a cold Thursday morning, we piled into a boat and travelled to a little island in Thac Ba, where, hours later, we would all get tipsy from drinking too much rice wine.
Thac Ba Lake is a popular tourist destination in Yen Bai, a quiet Vietnamese province with sprawling rice fields. The locals refer to the man-made lake as a mini Ha Long Bay, one of the most famous attractions in Vietnam. Like Ha Long Bay, Thac Ba is a body of water peppered with tiny lush islands that are perfect for lunchtime picnics, alcohol optional (or not).
From my previous trips to Vietnam, I learned that the Vietnamese love to drink and make merry. The backpacker’s district in Saigon is lined with sidewalk bars where people sit on low plastic chairs to drink bia hoi. But after my last visit, I reassessed the drinking culture in Vietnam: The Vietnamese don’t just love to drink and make merry, they freaking love it. When my mother was away, she would send me photos of herself and her coworkers, sitting cross-legged on the floor around a table of food. In some of these photos, each one of them holds a shot glass filled with drink, raised in a toast.
The picnic at Thac Ba Lake is the most memorable lunch I have ever been invited to. Imagine this: We were in the middle of a forest in the middle of an island in the middle of a lake. We had roasted suckling pig and barbecued meat and vegetable salads and fresh spring rolls and sticky rice that you roll into balls using your palms. We had bananas and yellow watermelons for dessert. We drank wine, quite a lot of it, as we tried to knock down the rocky language barrier between us.
Mr. Cuong, my mother’s boss and our host, asked me to join their post-lunch round of drinking. I gamely accepted, telling myself that the best perk of traveling is meeting new people and building connections, fleeting or otherwise.
The talkative Mr. Cuong repeatedly filled my shot glass with rice wine. The school staff and the other teachers introduced themselves to me by first, offering me a toast; second, downing our shots in one throat-burning gulp; and lastly, firmly shaking my hand as they told me their names. That is how you make friends in Vietnam.
Some travel websites suggest that wine is a unique Vietnamese souvenir to bring back home. When we went to Mr. Cuong’s house the next day, I saw a big jar of wine sitting atop a cupboard. There was nothing remarkable about that jar of wine, except for the huge snake coiled at its bottom. You are drinking the essence of a dead reptile, I thought. The whole thing was fascinatingly weird, but at the same time, sad. It reminded me of Voldemort and animal poachers. My mother later told me that she once saw a tiger cub inside a vat of wine. The superstitious logic behind this is: If you drink animal wine, you’d be as strong/sexy/vivacious/fierce as that animal.
On the other hand, the rice wine or ruou that we drank at the picnic was probably 90% alcohol, 10% rice extract, and hopefully, 0% animal essence. My father didn’t like it, so he fake-napped on the picnic blanket as the lunch hour passed. But since I have an elementary taste for alcohol (beer and “girly” cocktails are my go-to drinks), I can’t say if the wine was good or bad. All I know is drinking 10 shots of ruou put me under a smiley, chatty state—happily drunk on wine, friendship, and the overwhelming goodness of the day.