Vietnam Has a 'Hangover'-Themed Bar (and a Binge-Drinking Problem)

In roughly 20 years Vietnam went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to a place where drinking until you puke is such a large part of the culture that many bars have "puke sinks" built into them.

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Oct 9 2014, 9:00am

There’s no word for “hangover” in Vietnamese, which is surprising given the country’s culture of binge-drinking. There is, however, a beer club called the Hangover IV. It's basically a giant copyright infringement staffed by uniformed waitresses doling out limitless quantities of beers, with two backlit cartoon posters from the regrettable film (Zach Galifinakis with a monkey, Ken Jeong as the King of Hearts). The walls are pasted with Orwellian slogans extolling the virtues of beer on neon signs and mismatched posters:

“Good people drink good beer.”

“Keep calm and drink beer.”

“You can't buy happiness, but you can buy beer, and that's kind of the same thing.”

The Hangover IV opened about a year ago, right around the time that “beer clubs” started flooding into Ho Chi Minh City. “Beer clubs” are the Vietnamese alternative to bars. For generations, men here mostly drank at testosterone-soaked restaurants where girls served warm beer over ice to groups of friends and co-workers who drank in unison—often counting out each drink. “Beer clubs” are different in that they serve huge quantities of beer from chilled plastic towers while ear-splitting music plays in the background.

They also appear designed to make you drink until you puke.

On a recent Friday night at 9 PM, Hangover IV was packed to capacity. A well-endowed female DJ spinning VinaHouse jerked her hips on an elevated platform while a young magician dressed entirely in black pulled a handkerchief from his eye. At least four tables had birthday cakes on them and everyone appeared to be in great spirits—posing for photographs, handing out slices of cake, and inviting strangers to clink glasses and pound a beer.

It’s all fun and games until you get to the bathroom, which has a big plastic sink with a faucet and a wide drain.

When asked about it, Tam, a waitress who'd been working there for ten days, scrunched up her nose: “You mean the lavabo?” A manager came over and confirmed that's what they were calling it—the Vietnamese term for “puke sink,” if you will.

By 11 PM I caught two young men projectile-vomiting into the lavabo. A cartoon sign loomed over them featuring a man with his head on a toilet.

“This is called HANGOVER,” it read.

In a week, I tracked down six similar beer clubs in Saigon—all of which contained puke sinks labeled bồn ói/nôn.

This wasn't always the case. Vietnam went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to a place with binge and purge birthday parties in roughly 20 years. Not everyone's happy about that. In fact, most people here hate the direction Vietnam's drinking culture is headed, but no one knows what to do about it.

On a policy level, official responses to binge consumption come across as pretty tone-deaf. At least one public health official admitted that reckless drinking has resulted in a lot of wife beating and motorbike crashes. But legislation has only gone as far as seeking to ban beer sales after 10 PM, on the sidewalks, and to pregnant and breastfeeding women. Those draft laws were pilloried in newspaper editorials and struck down in the National Assembly.

Most recently, some genius floated a new law that seeks to mandate air conditioning in beer halls, which only makes the binge-drinking experience more comfortable. And of course, none of these efforts begin to touch on the national enthusiasm for getting shitty-drunk.

Here’s an example: On August 12, at a karaoke parlor/restaurant in rural Binh Phuoc Province, the deputy director of the Department of Foreign Affairs smashed a beer glass over the head of the Deputy Director of the Department of the Interior. As he ran out of the restaurant screaming and bleeding from his head, the deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shouted insults after him.

The fight started when one forgot to clink glasses with the other. It was noon on a Tuesday. They had just completed an official training. Both men later apologized. They were drunk.

That story's not typical per se (it made national news). But it also happened a year after the deputy prime minister asked officials in the provinces to start enforcing a 2012 ban on drinking during working hours.

“Getting out of your turn to drink can be very, very difficult compared to being in Australia,” said Lukas Parker, an assistant professor of marketing who has been conducting covert research for the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's campus here. “That pressure to kick up is very strong,” he said.

And it's getting worse. Parker has been studying consumer behavior in beer clubs like the Hangover IV. The evil (or brilliant) thing about these new clubs, he said, is that they eliminate people's ability to keep track of what they drink.

At the Hangover IV, as in many of Vietnam’s other beer clubs, pretty beer girls and waitresses rush toward you when you enter trying to get you to buy whatever brand is printed on their cocktail dress. Once you order, they keep coming around to refill your glass.

To be fair, Vietnamese people drink about half as much beer as Americans do, though the gap narrows significantly every year. The problem is how the beer is consumed when they drink.

Vietnam is now the third-largest beer consumer in Asia behind Japan and China—despite the fact that the average Vietnamese worker earns much less. A retired construction project manager from Hanoi told me he began seeing puke sinks roughly ten years ago in drinking restaurants in the Mekong Delta, where they were called —the word rowers grunt to keep time and the sound people make when they puke.

The double-meaning is not a coincidence. Just as the rower must pull his oar, so must each down his glass in time.

“Just thank God you don't have to do official business here,” he said.

That said, the mention of puke sinks brought an Irish friend who spent two decades in Hanoi back to the “Army Bia Hơi”—so named because it sold cheap drafts next to the Museum of the Army. Before closing a few years ago, he said, the place catered to “comb-overs” looking to get annihilated. As such, every other bathroom stall contained nothing but a chin-high sink.

“Whenever you went in there, you'd just find puke plastered everywhere but the sinks,” he said with a touch of whimsy. “It was the kind of place that always smelled like beer, vomit, dog meat, and purple shrimp paste... but it was fun.”

Follow Calvin Godfrey on Twitter.

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