While beer and imported spirits are drunk throughout Vietnam, the traditional tipple is ruou can, or rice-distilled liquor. Until recently, ruou can was regarded as decidedly downmarket, the preserve of labourers, farmers and ethnic minorities. Nowadays, however, it’s becoming popular among the middle class and especially young urban sophisticates – including a growing number of women – as city-centre bars and restaurants begin to offer better quality ruou can.
Recipes for ruou can are a closely guarded secret, but its basic constituents are regular or glutinous rice, the latter of which is said to be more aromatic and have a fuller, smoother taste. Selected herbs and fruits are sometimes steeped in the liquor to enhance its flavour and, supposedly, to add all sorts of medicinal and health benefits. You’ll also see jars containing snakes, geckos and even whole crows. Traditionally, the basic ingredients are heated together and buried in the ground for a month or more to ferment. Nowadays, more modern – and hygienic – techniques are used to produce ruou can for general consumption. Look out for the high-quality rice-distilled liquors marketed under the Son Tinh brand (
The ethnic minorities of the northwest (Thai and Muong) concoct their own home-distilled ruou can, sometimes known as stem alcohol. Visitors are often invited to gather round the communal jar to drink the liquor through thin, bamboo straws. In more traditional villages it’s regarded as a sacred ritual, which it would be an insult to refuse. You will hear the toast Chuc suc khoe (your health) and, for more serious drinking sessions, Tram phan tram (down in one)!