From “Dzô!” to “No!”: The Scourge of Fake Alcohol in Vietnam
Alcohol plays an important social role in Vietnam, from bia hoi in Hanoi to the surge of craft beers and cocktails in Saigon. Its centrality is evident in how it brings people together, either via huge gatherings with the trademark “dzô!” cheers, or simply just something to share a quiet moment with someone special. After all, Vietnam is the second largest consumer of beer and liquor after Thailand in the region, and tenth in Asia overall for alcohol consumption, according to vnexpress.
Although beer is huge in Vietnam, other types of alcoholic drinks, namely spirits, are also popular in the country. From sharing a bottle of whiskey at a club with friends to sipping on a custom cocktail at one of Saigon’s many cocktail bars, alcohol is a big deal and it’s here to stay. However, there’s also a problem with this: not all alcohol in Vietnam is what you think it is.
When The Nights Ended Early
In February 2017, nine people were killed, and a hundred hospitalised, in the northern province of Lai Chau by alcohol poisoning after attending a funeral.
Initial tests showed that the methanol content in the alcohol they consumed was 5,000 times higher than permitted, according to Vietnam News Agency. The incident is considered one of the country’s worst cases of alcohol poisoning.
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Just one month later, an expat and three other Vietnamese were admitted to a hospital in Hanoi with two in a coma and the other two with dimmed vision—all symptoms of methanol poisoning—after they drank alcohol from various street vendors around the city, according to Tuoi Tre.
Incidents like these aren’t isolated cases. According to the Vietnam Food Administration (VFA) under the Ministry of Health, 382 people have been poisoned by unsafe alcohol over the past 10 years, of which 98 have died.
Liquor and “Liquor”
The term “alcohol” encompasses a wide range of chemicals, all closely related to one another and used in different applications. “Real” alcohol, the one that we drink, is also known as ethyl alcohol, as it contains ethanol, which is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and causes intoxication.
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Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is the one that nurses rub on your skin right before giving you an injection; ethylene glycol is also known as antifreeze; and methanol is known as wood alcohol, because it’s a byproduct of the distillation of wood, and is primarily used to make other chemicals. It is also occasionally used to fuel internal combustion engines for race cars.
In other words, none of these, other than ethanol are fit for human consumption. Most alcoholic beverages do contain a minute amount of methanol, but the amount is too little to cause any damage.
In the case of “fake” alcohol, higher-than-permitted levels of methanol are added to the beverage and then bottled, sealed and sold for a much cheaper price than “real” alcohol.
A Permanent Hangover
You may have had a couple of nights when you had one too many drinks and woke up the next day with a hangover. This is common for ethyl alcohol. The effects for methanol, however, are very different.
All it takes is to ingest a small amount of pure methanol—as little as 10ml, which will metabolise into formic acid, which will then lead to neurotoxicity and organ failure. The chemical destroys the optic nerve, which can lead to permanent blindness. Other effects include seizures, kidney failure, coma or even death.
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Dr. Jeremy Ostrander, family doctor at Columbia-Asia Saigon International Clinic, wrote that, “Those patients who develop serious complications from methanol poisoning rarely fully recover and many die from their illness.”
One Problem, Many Reasons
According to Dr. Ostrander, “Here in Vietnam, alcohol is heavily taxed, making the price of imported alcohol very high for bars and restaurants.” As a result, shady bar owners simply fill up real bottles with counterfeit alcohol to save on costs. This counterfeit alcohol is most likely a mixture of ethanol and methanol, or one of any number of other chemicals.
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This also explains the reason why you sometimes find people selling used liquor bottles on the street. They aren’t for decorative purposes.
“To add insult to injury, only a small amount of alcohol in Vietnam is regulated appropriately, inspected or tested rigorously,” he added. “There have also been reports of breweries or distilleries producing thousands of bottles of counterfeit liquor and distributing them.”
According to a report by dtinews last month, yeast and other chemicals with no identifying labels were being sold at chemical stores for VND40,000 (US$1.76) per kilogram.
Another store in Binh Tay Market in District 6 claimed to have various types of yeast ranging from VND 40,000 to VND 70,000 (US$3.08) per kilogram, “A [kilogram] of yeast can make 40 litres of spirit. Just mix the yeast with water, whatever water you want. You can buy aroma[tic] chemicals to make it taste more like famous spirits,” the seller said.
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The Department of Health has ordered related agencies to inspect restaurants and shops to take samples where poisoning cases originated. The Department of Industry and Trade, along with district and communal authorities, have also been inspecting wineries and street stalls that sell alcohol, conducting tests and delivering strict punishment to those caught selling alcohol of unknown origin.
However, it’s not a problem that will go away overnight.
The Other Victims
Other than health complications for consumers, the sale of fake alcohol also has another victim: traditional spirit makers and sellers.
Nguyen Nhu Hai, a traditional spirit seller, said there are four basic steps in the spirit-making process, and depending on the type of spirit, distilling can take anywhere from 30 to more than 100 days.
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“A traditional spirit store can only supply a few hundred litres per month, not thousands of litres like major factories,” he told dtinews. “The fake spirits have a very strong smell and will shock the consumers. It will evaporate and [quickly] lose the aroma if it is poured [on] the ground.”
How to Avoid the Fake Stuff
If you’re planning to go for a drink, only do so at establishments you’re familiar with, and avoid any drinks that have suspiciously low prices—remember, alcohol is heavily taxed here and it doesn’t make any business sense for an establishment to charge dirt cheap prices, especially on imported liquor. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
If you are planning to buy a bottle of liquor, make sure you buy it from reputable sources, such as supermarkets or well-known local stores that have been around for ages, and ensure that the bottles have labels on them. When you’re done with the bottle, damage it safely so it can never be collected and used again.
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And lastly, drink responsibly. Even if it’s “real” liquor, ethanol poisoning can also lead to health complications like lowered body temperatures, seizures, loss of consciousness and even death.
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