‘‘Can you drink ruou?’’
It was a question I felt uncomfortable answering.
In the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang, ruou (say ‘‘zee-ooh’’), the locally produced fermented grain liquor, is serious business.
Answering ‘‘no’’ would seriously damage an ego built on tall stories of alcoholic invincibility. Saying ‘‘yes’’ would risk being drunk under a very low table by a tiny, ancient great-grandmother.
She was squatting to one side of the action at the Khau Vai Love Market, and armed with a large bottle of ruou. A seasoned drinker in her 70s (or was it 90s?) was firing jabs of ridicule at the quickly fading men who were approaching their alcohol limit.
I began to realise I had entered a space that separated the old women from the boys. I was poised for fame or failure.
IN THIS northern-most outpost, hugging the border with China, a lack of viable rice-growing land means that corn ruou is the tipple of choice. For the Hmong and other ethnic groups in this marginalised region, ruou is an important social lubricant and a vital economic tool.
“If a household makes ruou they can use it as a strong currency for trading” said Nguyen Ngoi, a nurse at the Lung Tam Community Hospital. “Not every family makes it, but every household has some to drink - often it is seen as more of a priority than rice”, he added only half jokingly.
Corn ruou is made by firstly drying and cooking the kernels. Next yeast is added and it is left for a week or two to ferment, turning the sugars to alcohol. Finally the corn is steamed and the spirit is distilled through a bamboo filtering system built over a large iron wok.
Three kilograms of corn can yield about two litres of ruou according to Mua Thi Vay who lives in Lung Tam Thap village: “Each year I cook 150kg of corn which I buy for 80,000 VND (NZ$5) per kilo. I end up getting about 100 litres of good quality ruou to sell at the market and trade for things I need,” she says.
An added advantage is that the corn remaining after distillation is a nutritious food source for the animals – provided it is served at the right time. “The animals get fat quickly from the left-over corn, but if we give it to them while it’s still hot they get as drunk as my husband does,” Vay says.
One occasion in this part of the world that sees the ruou flowing is the colourful Khau Vai Love Market. Held annually, this festival is more about drinking and flirting than browsing and buying. Different ethnic minorities from all over the region congregate in a tiny hill-top outpost for two days of music, entertainment and courting.
Like mating rituals around the world, young men and women in elaborately decorated outfits huddle together in small groups, building up the courage needed to make the first move. This is where the booze comes in; bottles, shot glasses and plastic flagons are everywhere and make for a festive atmosphere.
WITH the granny’s sights on me and curious children looking on, I did my best to weather the constant barrage of ruou brought by the tiny matriarch, but this session was beginning to turn against me. Once I had reached the point at which I was afforded the bare minimum of respect, I bowed out, trying to smile while shaking my head at the bottles approaching from all directions.
As with many exceptional places around the world, northern Ha Giang is not the most accessible holiday destination. Sardine-can buses and the permits required by authorities who are shaky about foreigners being so close to sensitive border areas weed out only the most determined.
Footprints Travel in Hanoi (footprintsvietnam.com) is one company which runs eco-tours to and around the region in co-operation with the NGO Caritas. The cost of the tour includes a contribution to a community development fund and every measure is taken to minimise the impact on local society and the environment.
Knocking back shots of ruou with someone half your height, a quarter of your weight, and three times your age in such a beautiful place is an uncommon experience.
Every memory retained after the hangover will last a lifetime.