While beer remains the standard liquid propellant of a night out in Vietnam, Simon Stanley felt the need for something a little stronger, Vietnamese Rice Wine. Photo by Vinh Dao.
For foreigners in Vietnam, rice wine is often seen as something of a novelty – often one to be wary of, with tales of methanol poisoning abounding. It’s that throat-singeing local blend of alcohol and God-knows-what that gets passed around at ‘traditional’ celebrations by an over-enthusiastic tour guide, or that which lurks ominously in a bamboo skewered pot on the floor of a Sapa homestay as backpackers dance the hokey-pokey around it. For the brave, that first exposure may have taken the form of ruou thuoc – medicine wine – and those cling film-covered jars of dead snakes and scorpions and empty promises of virility, fertility and everything in between, all suspended in…well, again, God-knows-what.
While this is all very fun, you’re unlikely to choose a glass of Vietnam’s most (in)famous spirit as your next aperitif.
Since opening in early 2015, Saigon’s Chi Hoa restaurant has been offering the discerning spirit-seeker a far more palatable taste of the Vietnamese countryside. Visit for the amazing food but be sure to check out their lineup of traditional rice-based tipples. The one that immediately catches our eye is the 100 percent homemade banana wine.
In their ground floor store, where many of their homemade products are available for take-away, Nghiem Xuan Quang, manager and business partner, shows us to a huddle of those ubiquitous plastic ‘sweetie-jars’ with red screw-on lids. Magical concoctions lurk inside. Quang selects one, pops the lid and introduces us to the deep brown elixir.
“This is not a normal banana,” he says. “It is not for eating, just for soaking in rice wine. We leave it for two years. This gives us the brown colour, the caramel colour. It’s a natural process.”
It starts life as your average fermented rice wine, but according to Quang, having infused for so long, a large proportion of the alcohol has evaporated, mellowing the potion from a scalding forty percent alcohol to a perfectly sippable thirty. “It’s like the way they make whisky,” he adds. “It becomes very easy to drink.” And my, it is very easy to drink.
As the AsiaLIFE tasting team readied their glasses, we were secretly expecting a sickly, sugary concoction akin to the free shots handed out at the end of a meal in a cheap Greek restaurant. But no. What we got was heavenly. The first thing to learn about Chi Hoa’s banana wine is that it tastes nothing like banana.
“It’s like a really mellow bourbon,” is my first reaction. The sweetness is subtle, the caramel-like flavour carries a slight smokiness, and the after-burn… doesn’t arrive. Oh boy, that’s good. “How much is a bottle?” are my next words. VND300,000 is the answer (a single shot sells for VND50,000). So are there any other bars or restaurants making banana wine in Saigon? “I don’t think so,” says Quang with a wide smile. “We are the original!”
He then introduces us to a wheat wine spirit from Hanoi, Nep Moi, a high-quality rice/wheat hybrid. For me, however, it lacks flavour. But Chi Hoa are on the case and Quang points us to their home-infused vodkas. Ginger, coffee and basil and cucumber are on offer tonight, all priced at VND50,000 a shot, but Quang disappears briefly to conjure up a hibiscus flower vodka mojito (VND85,000). If you thought you knew mojitos, think again. It’s a knockout.
Our next stop takes us to a traditional street-food restaurant in the shadow of the new Vietcombank Tower. Squatting around the standard plastic table beneath the standard Pepsi awning, before we’ve even been shown the food menu it arrives. Two repurposed 75cl glass bottles filled to the brim with the homemade liquid nourishment that has earned this nameless establishment its unofficial moniker: The Secret Rum Bar. A deep, golden brown colour, it certainly looks like rum. The taste is…okay. Not as sweet as we were expecting. And it’s weak, very weak. At VND100,000 a bottle, it was hardly going to give Captain Morgan a run for his money. We sense danger here, though. Sloshed over ice and topped up with coke, it’s like drinking Haribo cola bottles…and we end up drinking a lot of Haribo cola bottles.
“Gao, gao,” says the owner when we ask how it’s made. He stumbles around a little and I suspect he is also the joint’s quality control officer too. Of course, Vietnamese vodka is going to be made from rice, but it seems the rum is too. A nearby regular cuts in to tell us it’s actually made with fruit – hence the colour. We’re finding it difficult to say which type of fruit, maybe grape or plum, but by now the owner is finding it difficult to say anything.
From his District 2 apartment, Frenchman, cook and former Réunion Island resident Christophe Guillemin has been serving up all the flavours of the Indian Oceans’ French outpost since 2008. Book in for one of his gastronomic Creole dinner parties, delivered and served at your home or venue, and Guillemin will bring along a selection of his much sought-after homemade rum.
A common practice among Réunion residents, Guillemin produces island-style macerations, soaking a range of Vietnamese fruits and dark sugar in a white rum base for up to a year, creating a rainbow of golden, flavoursome indulgences. Passion fruit, lychee and Dalat raspberry are on offer the day I visit. Previous batches have included banana, coconut, lime and mulberries, all sourced locally.
“If you go to the mountains on Réunion island, there are small shops and [here] you will find maybe forty or fifty different kinds,” says Guillemin. “Mint, mulberry, vanilla, sometimes they will have a snake inside…” Sound familiar?
Like Chi Hoa’s banana wine, Guillemin’s creations are extremely subtle in their flavourings, resulting in a supremely smooth and drinkable tincture that’s neither too sweet nor nostril-flaringly potent.
“I take only the fresh fruit for my rum,” he says. “My style is, the more fruit the better.”
Priced at between VND390,000 and VND440,000 a bottle, his current batch is disappearing fast.