Murray Melymick with his friends Hải and Hoàng. He believes that the culture of drinking in Việt Nam is much more positive than in his native Canada. Photo courtesy of Murray Melymick
While countless studies have been conducted on alcohol consumption by the general populations of Việt Nam and other countries around the world, data-driven facts about the drinking habits of Việt Nam’s expat community in particular are harder to come by.
"I definitely drink more in Việt Nam, but usually it’s on a full stomach, compared to back home drinking at the club with no food,” said Murray Melymick, an expatriate from Canada. "You could say back home it’s who can drink the most, but here it is who can eat and drink the most."
"Having a nap here when wasted is encouraged. Do that at home and you’ll be abused."
This marriage of food and drink in Việt Nam is known as nhậu, and it revolves around a group of friends eating and drinking together - and the data suggests it's a growing trend across Vietnamese society.
The Lancet, a peer-reviewed weekly medical journal, published a study in 2019 from 189 countries around the world, comparing rates of alcohol consumption.
Their data showed a 90.2 per cent increase in alcohol consumption per capita in Việt Nam between 2010 and 2017. In 2017, on average, each person in Việt Nam was drinking 8.9 litres of pure alcohol per person a year, or roughly three glasses of bia hơi a day.
By 2020, data from the General Statistics Office show that the number had risen to 15.6 litres per person per year, or around six glasses of bia hơi a day.
Infographic. VNS Seán Nolan
In comparison to the UK, which is often associated with a binge-drinking culture, the average was 9.7 litres per person in the same period.
However, one British expatriate agrees that people's relationship with alcohol is different in Việt Nam.
"In England, you’re just sledging pints," Ezra Luckcock said. "No one has drinks with dinner, which is when I get the bulk of my drinking done these days. Việt Nam’s diluted alcohol content, small glasses and oppressive heat have tamed me."
Socialising in Việt Nam often involves 'đi nhậu', which means eating and drinking, with a lot of toasts raised. VNS Photo Seán Nolan
Unsurprisingly though, not everyone has found that their increased alcohol intake has been a positive experience.
One expatriate living in Hà Nội, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that he has become dependent on alcohol in recent years. What started as a way to meet new friends has become a recurring nightly trip to the bia hơi.
"Alcohol hasn’t ruined my life per se, but it has played its part in destroying friendships, wearing away my physical and mental health, and impairing my ability to make good, mature decisions," he said.
Like all dependencies, the reasons behind it aren’t black and white. Often, they are tied into issues more complex than 'beer is cheap', though that undoubtedly plays a part too.
"For me, it’s not about combatting mental health issues or difficult times," he said. "I actually drink more when the going is good because of the false sense of invincibility it gives me.
"Every day, from about lunchtime, I long for that sense of balance a few drinks gives me."
"Whenever I do try to knock it on the head for a bit, I’m always asked why I’m not drinking. It’s a question I find really hard to answer.
"I always worry that, by explaining the reasons for not doing it, I’m going to come across as 'boring' or a 'killjoy'."
When asked which demographic drinks more, Vietnamese or expats, Nguyễn Thị Minh Loan, a waitress at Công bar in Tây Hồ Province, Hà Nội, was unequivocal.
"Expats!" She said with a smile, without pausing to think about her answer.
While it's impossible to make sweeping statements about whether the Vietnamese or expat community drink more, it's almost beside the point - although drinking habits are influenced by culture and society, in the end, it really does come down to the individual - cheers! VNS