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Noon-time, tippling time: a Hanoian tradition

(No.2, Vol.3, Mar 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Cartoon: Duc Lai

Just as I stepped off the train at five in the morning, my friend greeted me at the Hanoi station and whispered enticingly, ‘At mid
day, let’s go drinking with the whole gang! I’ve already called them for a rendezvous.’
I was taken aback, ‘Isn’t there a regulation forbidding the drinking of beer and alcohol during working hours and the noontime siesta?’
My friend smiled and winked, ‘It’ll be a long time before such a ban’s enforced.’
In March 2012, the government’s Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc directed the localities and divisions to develop a series of solutions to reduce traffic accidents. Among them was the ban on cadres consuming alcohol during the noontime siesta.
This so-called prohibition immediately generated dissenting reactions. My friend, a civil servant in Hanoi City, posed a question, ‘According to that regulation, from now on, if government civil servants like me want to entertain guests, then are we supposed to just go in the afternoon?’
Hearing that, my friend’s wife looked askance at her husband and gave a prolonged sigh, ‘How miserable for wives! That means that from now on husbands will have another reason not to eat dinner at home,’ she said.
Another friend cheered when he heard the regulation, ‘Cadres and civil servants are forbidden to drink beer and alcohol in the mornings or during siesta.’ His reason: ‘Once, I went to an agency in Cau Giay District. It was about 3 p.m., yet the face of cadre sitting behind the reception desk still glowed red and his breath reeked with booze. After checking the seven or eight documents that I presented him, he totally forgot everything and had to ask me all over from the beginning.’
The friend suggested that if there is to be such a prohibition, then it should go further to forbid ‘eating breakfast during working hours’. Since many cadres, after eating breakfast, go on to add ‘coffee and pickled eggplant’, each time it’s not until 9.30-10 a.m. that they finally head back to the agency.
A businessman asserted, ‘In Vietnam, especially in Hanoi, without drinking it’s impossible to do work with partners. Tippling wastes a lot of my time and wears me out. Moreover, it carries with it latent potential dangers.’
‘However, for the sake of my work and to show respect, I cannot refuse. Now that the government has issued such a prohibition, I’m glad since it will create a valid reason to refuse without insulting my boss, friends or partners,’ he continued.
A friend of mine, a true Hanoian, said, full of pride, that siesta drinking is a unique feature of Hanoian ‘culture’; just as ‘Western Vietnamese’, as soon as one wakes up and opens one’s eyes, are seen dozing off from booze, while ‘Saigonese’ drink in the evenings, quite possibly all the way up to the second or third watch of the night.
But here, I’ll just speak of the ‘tippling side dishes’.
Unlike Hue people, for whom ‘tippling side dishes’ often means gossip about girls and boasting, or Southerners, for whom it means bantering about all things from the skies above to the depths of the sea, for Hanoians ‘tippling side dishes’ typically centre on tales of agencies or bad-mouthing leaders. The first time that I drank during siesta with Hanoians, I couldn’t hide my shock when, for two hours on end, a dozen or so men at the table dished about their agency and the sins of their boss, along with the sort of stories, circumstances, and language that I could never have imagined even in my dreams.
Although I found listening to them interesting one, two, or three times, by the fourth I got tired of it. I spoke up as a ‘village outsider’, I request that you stop – don’t talk about the agency or badmouth your leaders anymore. From now on, anyone who does will be fined VND100,000.’
Right away, one of them, as soon as he was reminded, stood up and pulled out 10 VND100,000 bills from his wallet, saying ‘I accept ten punishments so that I may let my mouth go off to my heart’s content.’ I extended my hand and accepted his defeat.
On days when stories about the agency and badmouthing the boss get old, Hanoians’ ‘new side dish’ becomes politics. ‘Do you know?’ a man sitting across from me said, his face suddenly becoming stern. Then came a series of ‘news’ about minister A and deputy minister C along with a concatenation of bizarre related stories that he spouted as though he were a family member of the individuals in question or at least a leader with the calibre of a massive organization. That’s how it went on as I gaped, swallowing this story and the next.
Seeing that, my friend sitting next to me patted my shoulder and whispered, ‘Just drink. Don’t listen to that guy. If you don’t believe him, in just a bit, when we go back, sit down with the old woman who sells refreshments in front of our agency and check it out.’ Why is it that, during siesta, Hanoians don’t tell funny stories or talk about girls, or even speak ill of their wives, but rather speak entirely about the agencies, the leaders, politics and distant international affairs?
I asked all of the people I knew. Everyone just said ‘Because Hanoians like to…,’ but as for the reason that Hanoians have such a predilection, none could explain. Nevertheless, in regards to badmouthing leaders, I received an interesting answer: In all three regions –¬ North, South and Central – how many are really content with their agencies, content with the management or their boss’s treatment? But, perhaps, since Hanoians are ‘deferential’, they are afraid, and so in meetings they always glance at each other, leaving what needs to be said unspoken. Hence, they become frustrated. And when frustration can no longer be pent up, it’s necessary to go out to the bars and drink to let loose the constriction; that’s all.
Since the day that Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc demanded that cadres not drink alcohol in the mornings and at noontime, according to what we recorded, the state of drinking in the mornings and at noontime in Hanoi still has not changed at all relative to before. With a wink, my friend doubted the plausibility of the prohibition, ‘They may ban drinking, but what will happen to them if the people, cadres, and civil servants continue to drink booze? Who will monitor it? Who will handle it, and how?’ As of now, these remain open-ended questions.
‘The prohibition, its plausibility, and its assimilation into life will eventually be just like the previous ban on smoking in public places and nothing more. Hanoi’s civil servants have and are drinking booze as they have always done for so many years before. The number of traffic accidents in our country continues to rise from one year to the next,’ my friend sighed.

By Hoang Van Minh
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