For foreign smokers, “thuoc lao” would be a special thing to try. It quite popular especially in the north of Vietnam. From small coffee shop or just on the pavement, you can easily catch sight of a middle-aged men, even women, smoke from a bamboo water pipe along with green tea or local beer. It’s one of the Vietnamese custom and you can try it by local way.
What is the Thuoc Lao?
According to Dao Duy Anh, Vietnamese historian and lexicographer, thuoc lao means “drug from Laos” probably came from Laos into Vietnam since a long time ago. In ancient times, most Vietnamese women ate betel nuts, and men smoked thuoc lao. It followed them to every moment, from happy to hard times, even during their lifetime. Normally, Vietnamese use a bamboo water pipe to smoke or chew thuoc lao. Typically, there are 3 main types of water pipe in Vietnam.
Dieu Cay: This is the most popular pipe. Dieu cay means “farmer’s pipe”. It made of bamboo, besides light metal; about 40 – 60 cm long. One end of the stem must be closed and the bamboo eye is always used so that the stem can hold water, the other end will be used for suction.
The position near the closed end of the stem is drilled with a hole to insert the cigarette holder. Cigarettes are places where cigarettes are put in to smoke, often made of wood and metal with a hole for smoking, and is the most important part, creating a crunchy sound when people smoke.
The cigarette holder is tilted towards the top for suction, not perpendicular to the stem for easy smoking.
Dieu Bat: usually made of ceramic or porcelain, which holds water. The cigarette holder locates at the top and punches a nearby hole to insert the cigarette while smoking. Also there is a small hole stay beside the cigarette holder. Smokers use a small hollow bamboo to inhale the smoke.
Bowls are usually made of patterns or engraved with finesse. The dieu bat is placed in a small pot or a big iron bowl. They will keep the ash of water pipe when finised smoking. And water from dieu bat can come out to keep it clean. It is often used to smoke at home as it not convenient to carry.
Dieu Ong or dieu dong: the body is similar to dieu cay but shorter and bigger. It made of precious wood, the bone of an animal or of ivory…It can be put up for standing without holding like dieu cay and carrying like dieu bat.
The pipe is beautifully crafted, exquisitely sculpted. This type of cigarette is only used by the rich. When smoking, the servants lit a fire then give it to the smoker. Wherever he went, the attendant bring Dieu Ong with him.
How to enjoy thuoc lao?
Thuoc lao is rounded to the size of a pinky finger and put to the cigarette. Then burn the tobacco to create smoke, wait for a second then blow backwards to let ash out of the pipe. The smoker inhaled every short breath to get more oxygen for the cigarette to burn evenly and the smoke accumulated in the cigarette before taking a deep breath with a large amount of smoke.
The tobacco has reduced its heat and filtered some of the substance by passing through water contained in the pipe. While smoking, vapors and smoke cause the water contained in the cigarette and gas to make a noise like crunching. This sound depends on the structure of the pipe and the amount of water contained on it.
In addition to smoking, thuoc lao is also used to chew as a way of chewing betel leaves and areca nuts. Chew a bunch of dry thuoc lao in the mouth, keep it between the teeth and cheeks, sometimes chewing to extract water but actually do not swallow the residue.
Some regions, thuoc lao has become famous brands, such as Tien Lang, Vinh Bao, Kien An (of Hai Phong city) … the South has thuoc lao Cai San, Xom Moi, Go Vap …
The harmful effects of thuoc lao is similar to another cigarettes, in addition to creating a polluted, unsanitary odor (the smell of water that is stinking and very durable). It is also addictive, creating a cold. Anorexia nervosa and secondhand smoke are agents of respiratory diseases, including cancer for both active and passive smokers.
In recent years, Thuoc Lao and Dieu Cay are preferred as the souvenir gifts when traveling to Vietnam. It cost from US$20 – 40 to get a high-quality Dieu Cay and 1KG of Thuoc Lao. Quite cheap but very strong feeling, is that correct?