When I was in graduate school in New York City, one of my colleagues hailed from Vietnam, and he introduced me to an exotic world (to me, anyway) of flavors and aromas that I'd never previously experienced. That included beverages I'd never encountered, too—both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Some were enjoyed at innocent mom-and-pop cafés, others in unmarked and sketchy after-hours haunts where gambling, imbibing and other activities occurred. I was working on a Ph.D. in anthropology, so I chalked my forays up to "research." The wall-sized photo of Ho Chi Minh City at Pho Saigon Noodle House 2 got me thinking about drinking, Vietnam-style.
I am not a coffee drinker. I like to say it's one of the few vices—the other being smoking—that I never acquired. However, if I were to indulge, it's Vietnamese coffee I'd sip—specifically, what's known as Hanoi egg coffee, or cà phe trung. According to historians, it was created by Nguyen Giang—a bartender at the posh Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in the late 1940s, when Vietnam was still under French colonial rule. It's said that egg coffee was a creation born of necessity, at a time when condensed milk was hard to come by. The yolk is whisked together with sugar, milk and Robusta coffee, then poured into a cup, which is placed in a bowl of hot water to help retain its heat (although it can also be served cold). It's frothy, sweet and bitter and makes for a meal of a drink, but a delicious one.
Fellow foodie and City Weekly contributor Amanda Rock raves about the salted lime limeade with plum at Pho Saigon. It's a popular beverage in Vietnam. It begins with salted, pickled limes called chanh mui, wherein Key limes—lemons are sometimes also used—and rock salt are packed into glass canisters and left in the sun to pickle. To make the limeade, pickled lime is muddled in a glass, then sugar, carbonated water or soda and (sometimes) preserved plum is added.
As for adult beverages, Vietnam's infamous rice wine weighs in at around 30 percent alcohol; keep in mind that most Western non-sparkling wine runs around 11-15 percent. It's a potent, fiery and traditionally macho beverage that tends to be consumed in social settings with barbecued or grilled meats, including seafood and spicy squid jerky.
Still not adventurous enough for you? If you tend to eschew the plum wine offered in many Asian restaurants, and are in the market for something a little more robust and hearty, try cobra wine. Throughout China, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, venomous snakes are steeped in grain alcohol or rice wine, and the result is said to contain medicinal qualities. Good news though: The snake venom is denatured by the ethanol in the wine, so you won't die, though you might wish you had.
Beer is the favored alcoholic drink in Vietnam, but their brews are hard to find here. Most of the popular ones—like 333, Saigon Lager, Castel and Saigon Export—tend to be a bit thin and watery. That's probably a good thing, given that there is no minimum drinking age there. You can use it to wash down a shot of sea horse whiskey. It's 37 percent ABV, infused with farm-raised sea horse and is reputed to have aphrodisiacal effects. Hey, who wouldn't be frisky after drinking sea horse?