Rice Wine. I hadn't had rice wine
since the war. I do remember being somewhere in the American South sometime in the
early 70's and being offered White Lightin'. You could either drink it, light it,
make your way in the dark, or strip varnish off an old dresser. Whatever the task
it worked and worked good. On a return trip to Vietnam in 1994, we stopped in a dirt
poor Rhade Montgnard village just as the road started to wind up the mountain to
Dalat. Traveling in Vietnam in
1994 in the countryside was still a big deal to the locals and in this small village
I was welcomed with open arms. We briefly met the village chief who walked us across
the dirt road to another person's home. Inside were a number of Rhade men sitting
around. Seeing me they decided they should fire up the rice wine croc. Now this croc
sat in one corner, stood about two hight and appeared to have been carved from stone.
One of the men poured some water into the stone vessel to prime the pump. There was
some liquid at the bottom from some previous binge and it didn't dawn on me that
it would take several days for this whole mess to ferment. Anyway, most of the men
in the room were already half blasted, on what I couldn't tell. After about a half-hour
a bamboo straw was shoved into the croc. Both my interpreter and driver told me in
whispers that they weren't really going to drink from the bamboo but would fake it.
They were afraid of what was in the croc. I thought to myself, you know, I've spent
a good amount of money to get over here and I'm going to go native. When the straw
was passed to my interpreter he made a big show of sucking and gulping. After a long
draw, he swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and let out a big, noisy "Ahhhhhh". Bad acting at its best. The
straw was handed to me and I took a good hit of diluted, barely alcoholic rice wine.
Over the next hour I traded the straw with every man in the room. Most of them were
already pie-eyed and what they were getting pie-eyed on I could never find. I must
have had eight full water glasses of the stuff and never got a buzz. I left with
most of the men on the floor.
Then I had a chance to sample the real stuff. This happened in the late afternoon after we had spent the day at Khe Sanh and then tried to climb Hill 861. We had a couple of local montangard guides and these guys were real good. Not a whole lot of guiding was needed to get to near the top of Hill 861 but nevertheless these guys were attentive and sharp. At the end of the day, one of the guides invites us back to his home for "cocktails". He lived with his family in a bamboo hootch east of Khe Sanh. As we arrived in the village we began to draw a large crowd of villagers. Our guide asked us to come inside his simple home. He brought out an old plastic gas can which now contained rice wine, hopefully, the container had been rinsed out between the gas and the wine. I didn't ask. I only hoped that it hadn't carried gasoline at one point. My brother's not a drinker and politely bowed out went outside to see all the people who were gathering around. He ended up performing a mini med-cap on some of the local kids. I stayed inside with the guide and we began to trade water glass sized shots of this rice wine, neither one of us speaking the other's language but having a great time like two drunks in a bar. This was the real stuff, incredibly smooth but with a terrific punch. Within forty-five minutes I barely knew my name. My brother poured me back into the Land Cruiser for the trip back to our room in Dong Ha. I was feeling no pain and my tongue felt the size of a football. All I remember is waking the next day with an incredible hangover. Apparently the guide had given me a Care package to take with me for when I awoke I was staring at the nightstand on which stood a small bottle filled with the rice wine. I can't recall which hit the toilet bowl first, the rice wine gift or my stomach.