Why Vietnam is Freer than America (Part 3): Booze

Beer Pic 2.jpg

Pictured above is an unremarkable bottle of beer I purchased at a bar in Vietnam. Da Nangers will immediately recognize where that is. If it were in the US, it’d be in the budget beer section next to the Miller Lite or Pabst Blue Ribbon or whatever your favorite run-of-the-mill swill is.

If it were in the US, I also would have had to have shown ID to purchase it—an idea so ludicrous in Vietnam that, were a bar or store to ask for ID, laughter would be the only appropriate response.

Indeed, many of the differences in the way alcohol is treated in Vietnam and the US only serve to show how baffling, backward, and byzantine American liquor laws—and perceptions—are.

As in the US, booze is an integral part of social gatherings in Vietnam. No trip to your favorite local nhậu would be complete without a case of cheap beer, and no trip to the countryside would be complete without a bottle of rice wine while hanging out with locals.

This post is decidedly not about the potential social evils of drinking, with which I’m unfortunately familiar. After all, my father died of alcoholism—a tragic but avoidable fate.

However, this post is about two radically different approaches to managing liquor laws. One is simple and manageable, and the other over-complicates an already complicated and often personal issue.

Simplicity: What a Novel Idea

It’s really easy to get booze in Vietnam. In order to purchase beer, liquor, or wine, you need:

  • Money

  • A way to carry it (like your hand)

That’s all. No ID, no license, no restricting hours of operation most places. Additionally, if you decide you’d like to purchase your drink and have it as a refreshing beverage on a walk, no one would bat an eye.

Similarly, In order to sell beer here, as a restaurant or as any other sort of business, you must follow four steps, one of which is optional:

  1. Buy the beer

  2. Keep the beer cold (optional—you can provide ice with cups)

  3. Sell the beer

  4. Profit!

That is the end of your responsibilities. Simple, isn’t it? It’s wonderful—as the owner of such an establishment, it’s one of the easiest ways to make a profit. Similarly, the wide availability keeps the cost down. Everybody wins.

If you’re a bar or restaurant, selling liquor is only slightly more complicated than selling beer: a liquor license costs about $50, and can usually be purchased quickly. In our case, it was about a day. Many establishments can fly under the radar and probably even do without a license.

spaghetti logic

Compare that to laws in the US, which are a devil’s patchwork of insanity and legalese. Laws vary from state to state and from county to county, making even lifelong residents of a state confused about the specifics regarding the consumption of a substance that predates the USA by many thousands of years.

Let’s take, for example, the laws I’m most familiar with—those in Texas. Just for reference, out of 254 counties in Texas seven are wholly dry, meaning alcohol may not be bought or sold at all (except for some weird loopholes some places where you can get a membership to a private ‘club’ that’s really just a dive bar that only serves Budweiser where an aggressive coke dealer named Juan won’t stop trying to sell his Colombian marching powder to me and I’m thinking dude, chill out and leave me alone, I just wanted a beer because I’ve been driving all day and I have to sleep at that shitty motel across the road). …But I digress.

Other counties are a combination of ‘wet’ (booze is readily available), ‘partially wet’ (some towns in the county ban it), or some hodgepodge combination where you can only get beer and wine, or only beer and wine up to a certain percent, or only beer, or only fermented fucking goat’s milk between the hours of 2 and 4 pm every other Tuesday for all I know.

It gets even more complicated if you want to actually try to sell alcohol in the state. These complications include:

  • Statewide time restrictions. Just as some fun examples, if you like being confused:

    • You can’t buy liquor after 10 pm from a liquor store but can until 1 AM in a bar or restaurant, unless you’re in a designated late-night area (like Austin) in which case you can until 2 AM. This means that all the drunks drive home from the bars at the same time, risking accident or an extremely expensive encounter with the friendly local police.

    • You can’t buy or sell any alcohol before noon on Sunday unless you’re having a wine festival of some variety. Because, you know, you should be in Church. Additionally, you can buy beer and wine from shops on Sunday but not liquor, unless you buy it from a bar and drink it at the bar.

  • Having to get a license to sell alcohol, which includes the stipulation of being a person ‘of good moral character.’ These licenses can be expensive and can take three months or more to process.

  • Being held responsible for giving a beer to a drunk person who, as we all know, can be very damn pushy about wanting another beer. Bartenders or owners can be fined, lose their job, and even spend a year in jail for giving a drink to the wrong guy.

  • The police’s right to determine at any point, with no test necessary, that a person is intoxicated, which gives them the right to cite you for Public Intoxication, which means the state can take up to $500 from you.

These are a very few examples. If these laws sound hard to keep track of, you’re not wrong. Before I start beating a dead horse, just note that the actual alcohol laws of the state comprise 295 god damn pages. If you manage to wade through even a fraction of that, I’ll be amazed.

Though states like Louisiana make things much simpler, convoluted liquor laws are not unique to Texas. They are just one example of the absurd complexity of the American legal system, which is why we have to pay lawyers so much. These laws have changed over the past several decades, usually tending towards liberalization, but the history itself is pretty fascinating.

A Moralizing History or effective propaganda?

America has a long and complicated history with booze. This includes a movement towards abolitionism—the banning of alcohol. Abolition was promoted as early as the 1830’s by many different groups, including women’s rights activists, Christians like Southern Baptists, and even people who would later call themselves socialists and progressives.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason alcohol was banned was due to anti-German sentiment and propaganda leading up to and during the US’s involvement in the First World War.

Hear me out. The year the US entered the First World War? 1917. The year the US passed the Volstead Act, which led to the 18th amendment? Also 1917. Awfully funny coincidence, isn’t it?

Additionally, consider this: the United States was a radically different place in terms of ethnicity a hundred years ago. Newly-arrived Europeans of all varieties had yet to be assimilated. Among those diverse groups, ethnic Germans comprised a huge percentage of the population: German-language newspapers abounded and even German-speaking towns still existed. Even now, Americans of German descent make up the largest ethnic group in the country.

America’s foreign-born population was at its highest percentage in 1910. Its other highest point is now. Eerily similar to now, anti-immigrant sentiment among nativists a hundred years ago was high. The war and propaganda made it easy to direct that anti-immigrant sentiment towards German-Americans.

WW1 Propaganda Poster, courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

WW1 Propaganda Poster, courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

German-Americans also produced and consumed a disproportionate amount of the nation’s alcohol. Thus, it was easy to paint booze—especially beer—as the vice of the evil Hun, who weren’t Real Americans. People took the bait and bit the hook off with it, too. The propaganda was so effective that, after the bill was passed, Congress even overrode President Wilson’s veto and passed the bill into law.

Generations of Scofflaws

We all know how Prohibition went: it was an utter failure. Crime rose, drinking didn’t cease, and the government began to lose its moral authority in enforcing a law people hated, ignored, and openly broke. The law’s demise was celebrated, as you’d expect, with massive parties.

Prohibition only lasted 13 years. However, dumb alcohol laws still abound in the US, as exemplified above.

I can think of none dumber than the drinking age being set at 21. There are arguments commonly used against this rule, and they’re valid: you can drive a car at 16, you can vote, consent to sex, and join the military and get given a bazooka at 18, but you can’t be trusted with a beer. That’s absurd. It raises the question: what is a Real Adult?

There’s another argument that’s just as valid, or even more so, that’s underused. It’s this: everybody knows that kids drink. The college kegger party is an abused trope, but it’s an accurate one. Kids get drunk all the time, especially in college. So, all of these kids are breaking the law and everyone knows it. Who’s more wrong—the kids, the law, or the people who know it and don’t do anything about it? If you’re going to suggest that the law should be lenient or not enforced in certain cases, then what’s the point of having a law?

Do recall that this ‘21 means 21’ bullshit is a relatively new development. In the mid-80s, Washington coerced states to raise their drinking age to 21 by threatening to withhold federal highway funding. That’s right: it wasn’t always this way. The older generation will remember that. Anyone born after 1980 won’t.

The drinking age was 21 after Prohibition until the 1970s, coinciding with a drop in the voting age. The boomer generation fought to lower the drinking age to 18 in the 1970’s with the argument that if you’re old enough to vote and be drafted, you’re old enough to have a beer. Then their kids started to drink and the hippie generation turned into the ‘just say no’ generation when they had the grim realization their kids might have as much fun as they did.

All the 21-minimum drinking age accomplishes is create a generation of people who think of ways to circumvent or break the law without getting caught, just like Prohibition did. Sure, maybe it does reduce car crashes or teen drinking some, but the overall effect is the same: people view the law as an obstacle to get around rather than a correct moral code. That’s certainly how most people I went to college with felt.

It’s easy to forget what losing freedoms looks like, especially if you grew up without them. It doesn’t mean they should be forgotten.

An Easy choice

At the end of the day, a simpler solution is usually the correct path forward. I’m certainly happier with the way booze is handled here. I’d love to see the US come to its senses and return to a simpler system, but bureaucracies and the laws they spawn expand ever outwards like our current model of the universe and are powered by equally unfathomable forces. I’ll remain hopeful for common sense to take hold but won’t get my hopes up. In the meantime, cheers.

Sam McCommon