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Spirits in Southeast Asia

August 23, 2019

Recently the Nikkei Asia Weekly published an article entitled State Tries to Dampen Vietnamese Love for Alcohol. Therefore, this commentary will focus on consumable “alcoholic spirits” rather than the “ghost spirits” that occupy daily lives in most southeast Asian countries. The Vietnamese Government is attempting to tighten up the controls on alcohol consumption but the history of the country indicates it will be a massive undertaking given its past, going back to the Chinese, French and Russian eras. Vietnam was the ninth largest worldwide per capita consumer of alcohol in 2017 but the government is trying to bring the explosion in demand back down to earth.

Alcohol consumption is a significant part of Vietnam’s culture which also reflects an influence from their heritage. As the economy has soared, so has the alcohol consumption per capita.

In a hot, humid climate, it should come as no surprise that beer is the beverage of choice. Vietnam’s Saigon Beer-Alcohol-Beverage Corp. (Sabeco) is controlled by ThaiBev out of Bangkok where it features its famous Chang (elephant) beer. ThaiBev’s market share in the 10-member Asean Nations has risen to 24% while at 43% of Vietnam beer consumption makes it the dominant force in that market.

Although Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, in its current identity, is seldom anything but hot, Hanoi can be cold in the winter. The author recalls sharing a bottle of cognac with a former North Vietnamese General who directed the fuel supplies to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. As the author played a far less significant role for the other side in the final two years of the war, the conversation became more open as the cognac diminished over the course of the evening.

The general disclosed when the U.S. B-52 bombers dropped their payloads on suspected portions of a pipeline the North had built to the outskirts of Saigon, the Viet Cong would ignite existing pools of fuel to fool the pilots such that they would declare success and leave. Also, any direct hits on their pipelines were extinguished and the steel pipe replaced with bamboo sections until new pipe could be brought from the North. Ultimately, the U.S. declared victory and went home to leave it to the southerners who fell apart two years later. That story would never had been told without the addition of the cognac spirit.

Bangkok-based and Thai-owned, ThaiBev, has bold plans to build on the alcohol predisposition of the Vietnamese coupled with their increasing disposable income.

ThaiBev’s Chang (elephant) beer was always the beer of choice at the King’s Cup Thai Elephant Polo tournaments as shown on the poster several years ago. Below, we have The Mercedes/Elephant Story score board with two whiskey labels to the right and ThaiBev’s Chang Beer featured above Sara Story Design’s team. Accordingly, alcohol played a significant role in coaxing timid horse polo players to jump on a massive elephant and try to connect with a standard polo ball so far away.

One should note that Bangkok Hospital was ever-present with standby ambulances should the players be over-served and lose their place in the saddle. Falling out of the saddle was never an issue for fearless Katie Story. 

In actual fact, the author had to accompany one of the Sara Story Design players to Bangkok Hospital when she was hit in the eye with a mallet. Although the lady led an FBI swat team, she was very shy about disclosing her age to the Thai nurse who admitted her to the hospital. Serving as the Thai translator, the author chose to pick a year that the young lady would find acceptable. No worries as she competed the following day. The Sara Story Design team was known to employ an “alcoholic spirits” strategy on their male opponents the evening before a match. Come to think of it, The Elephant Story team preceded them in that maneuver a number of years before.

If you have ever been to more sophisticated horse polo matches in Europe, you would find plenty of “spirits” but they would be far more refined champagnes as compared to a tankard of Chang beer. On the other hand, The Thai King’s Cup Elephant Polo match would occasionally locate a fine champagne label to host a team which would make that team the most popular one on the pitch. Nonetheless, there seemed to be more excitement and higher noise levels at elephant polo matches particularly when the spirited elephants trumpet after a goal.

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