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Ruou Can: Vietnam's Rice Bowl Brew


I have met many sore travelers returning from Mai Chau. They are not sore from trekking, but from the local rice whisky! So on a recent trip there, I was very cautious about this local brew. If there is one thing I have learnt - local brew and trekking don't mix! But in an area like Mai Chau, where the local Thai community is extremely hospitable and generous - nobody can escape the wrath of local rice whisky!

For ethnic minorities, rice whisky - or ruou as its called - is a spiritual drink. When families or tribes gather in times of joy as well as in their times of sadness, they sit on their hunkers, clasp a bamboo shoot and suck a ruou can.

In the Mai Chau region, many travelers are treated to ruou can (pronounced zuh-ooh can.) "Ruou" means wine/spirits, and "can" is the long straw. Typically, a ceramic pot of ruou sits in the middle of the table, and everyone can take sips from the long straws extending from the pot. Which is even more dangerous - as you cannot keep track of what you are drinking!

Alternatively, rice liquor may be served in small teacups - equally dangerous - as one is expected to drink it like a shot. Beware of shouts of "Tram Phan Tram!" as this literally means "100%" or Bottoms Up!

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 at every meal, including breakfast. The ingredients of ruou can include cooked sticky rice brewed with ferment. The whole brew is put into a jar that is covered tightly for 3 months or more prior to becoming rice wine. The ferment must be made from the mixture of bark of ebony-tree and galingale, ginger and guava leaves, which is grinded for water to be mixed with sticky rice powder.

A typical overnight trip to Mai Chau includes a night in a Thai-style wooden stilt house, enjoying traditional music from gongs accompanied by Thai dances, eating steamed 'sticky' rice and drinking ruou. Whilst partaking in the local nighttime festivities, it's easy to forget the physical activities that lay ahead the next morning. The roosters will wake early - and so will you! Followed by a steaming bowl of pho or hearty omlette, you will commence your day of trekking very early.

So be warned: Too much ruou can ruin a happy day. The cultured drinker is the one who knows to drink just enough!