Deep in the heart of the city, every city here it seems, lies a network of alleys set back from the busy main streets. Narrow, winding paths, hardly big enough for the scooters and pedestrians that share them, and far away from the stretches built up for tourists. These are the places where Vietnam’s best tastes can be found.
Yes, the food in Vietnam is unparalleled. But what of the drink? The thirsty traveller will be pleased to know there’s more here than cheap beer. There’s much better, in fact. There’s rice wine.
But over on those touristy streets, you might be forgiven for thinking rice wine is sold exclusively with a cobra snaked in the bottom of small glass bottles. Or perhaps by the shot, with a few starfish or other unlikely creature floating in the plastic jar. You would, thankfully, also be wrong.
Made by fermenting rice and boasting anywhere from 30-60% alcohol content, rice wine or ruou in Vietnamese, is more akin to spirit than wine and is well worth discovering on your next trip to Vietnam. To do just that, there’s nowhere better than one of those little winding alleys.
An oasis of calm in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Drink Vietnam is a small museum of traditional Vietnamese medicine. More than 200 herbal teas and infused rice wines line the walls here and as the sun starts to set in Saigon, it’s the latter that intrigues me.
I step in to the lobby of Nguyen Shack Saigon where the museum is found, to discover jars filled to the brim with rice wine and a generous pile of medicinal herbs, roots, flowers or fruit. Steeping in the potent liquor for a week, a month a year or more, the flora release their healthy properties into the rice wine. Bitter melon to boost the immune system, chrysanthemum to protect the heart, galangal for nausea, the list goes on.
It’s a lot to take in and as I scan the room, I’m greeted by a staff member who offers a bit of history to help set the stage. Rice wine has a long history in Asia, with ruou thuoc, “medicine wine,” having been used for generations in Vietnam. The museum features a variety of traditional infusions, along with a few blends and an invitation for guests to sit, sample and create their own custom mix.
“My favourite rice wine infusion is my personal Vietnamese absinthe. I got inspired by the Swiss absinthe and tried to find all the same products or the equivalent. The taste and property are similar to the original one, with an Asian touch. Some guests have told me that it tastes even better,” says Maxime Godin-Murphy, who co-owns the Nguyen Shacks along with the founder, his wife Theu.
He sees a future in rice wine that extends well beyond medicinal uses alone. In today’s cocktail culture, where drinks need to be as creative as they are balanced, a base liquor like infused rice wine offers a bevy of possibilities. Swap in a black tea and orange peel infusion to create an Old Fashioned-inspired tipple. Mix a coconut infusion to kick up your next pina colada. The list, again, goes on.
“With the infused alcohol we also have a section infusing all the tropical fruit we can find in Vietnam. Perfect to use in a creative cocktail,” Maxime tells me. Better yet, “When people visit the museum, they can try the products and if they like something in particular we can package it to bring back home.”
Bottles range in size, making it easy for any traveller to bring home a little taste of Vietnam and remember those hot nights under the hazy sky. Free of the menacing eyes of cobras.
To sample, mix and purchase for yourself, head to Drink Vietnam in Nguyen Shack Saigon at 6/15 Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam