Friday, April 14, 2006

Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it

The traditional pipe smokers in Vietnam must have been born with iron lungs, says Teddy de Burca Jnr.

Thanks to the power of thuoc lao (the traditional Vietnamese pipe) I have seen hardy men’s eyes glaze over before they fell flat on their faces, foreign tourists upchuck their dinner into the large ashtray-bowl that is always conveniently provided (though it’s for the ash more than the vomit), and once I even saw an old African-American man turn completely white, but I’ll get back to all that later.

Of course “pipe smoking” conjures up agreeable images of distinguished gents in smoking jackets by a fire with an after dinner cognac in hand, or perhaps a gritty old sea dog, who had a girl in every port in his day, but now is content to puff his pipe as he casts his eye over his only true lifelong love, the ungovernable sea – oh ye fickle mistress!

But with Vietnamese pipes there is little refinement. The pipes – like wee bazookas – are called dieu cay, and the process of smoking one is referred to as hut thuoc lao (smoking the pipe) and if, like a hapless cadet with heavy weaponry, you’re unsure of how to use it, it might blow your head off. An after dinner mint it is not.

The pipe is made from a long thick piece of bamboo, usually with a thin coat of varnish, up to 0.7m long, with a hole at one end, where you suck, and a wee cone, or bowl, that juts out, near the bottom, which is where the tobacco is packed in. The tobacco is coarse, thick and black, as if its been burnt and then left to sit in the sun.

The smoker begins by taking a knob of the tobacco and rolling it in the palm of their hand, before packing it in the bowl. Then with a match, the smoker simultaneously lights the tobacco while drawing and exhaling, a la Bill Clinton, i.e. not inhaling into the lungs, to generate a body of smoke inside, which is cooled by water in the pipe.Then you blow the tobacco out and take a blast.

As the smoke is drawn in anger the pipe gurgles and whistles. It’s a sound I came to love when I first landed in Vietnam. It says you’re on the streets, amongst the people, in a bia hoi, sitting at tea stalls. It says someone-somewhere is getting their lungs slowly obliterated.

Of course, you can’t help but admire the panache of the locals smoking it with a fair degree of nonchalance, so it’s pretty easy to think of your glory days of late nights, bongs and pipes and say “step aside wee man”.

But this water pipe may very well be your waterloo. If you do try it, go easy on the tobacco. The more you pack in and the longer you inhale the more likely you’ll experience a head rush. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as you have just flooded your blood stream with a massive whack of nicotine.

One friend has a particularly wicked after-dinner habit of making it look easy to newcomers. Then, of course, as above, they want to try it. One healthy plume of black smoke through the body later their eyes glaze over, their forehead cracks into a sweat, their body slumps back and if you’re unlucky enough, you can start playing, “I don’t think we had that for dinner, did we?”

Which brings me back to the African American man, who from across a restaurant watched my friend puff away on a pipe. The man seemed impressed, walked over, said “how do you do”, eyed down the pipe as though it were a rifle. He told my friend, who still had smoke oozing out of his mouth, as if his innards were on fire, that he hadn’t smoked a pipe since the mid-80s, which wouldn’t stop him taking it to his table and giving it a shot. A minute later when I looked up, he’d turned as white as a ghost, his head was tilted to the side and his arms hung limply.

The Vietnamese waiter said, “Ong gia say nhu dieu do” (Could mean “high as a kite” but also “the old fellow is so stoned he dropped the pipe”). Personally, I thought he was dead. I rushed off to get him a glass of water, but when I came back he’d somehow dragged himself out of the restaurant and skedaddled.

Of course, if all that hasn’t put you off smoking thuoc lao, well then I guess nothing will, so you might as well put this in your pipe and smoke it. Just don’t try standing up too quickly after you do.

Here's a link to a lady after a hard day's work.


elliott said...

A closing quote from the link: "Smoking thuoc lao is addictive, so the effect it will have on your health in the long term is arguably negative."

You think?

Shibes said...

So I got back from a two month trip to Vietnam a few days ago. I had been doing some english teaching at Hanoi Foreign Trade University and I had a blast. One thing I recommend to anybody that goes to Vietnam is to try Thuoc Lao, or better yet, buy your own pipe. I got mine for 20,000 but that was when I first got there, my friends said it should've only cost around 5,000. I carried the huoc Loa on my backpack with me wherever I went, and I could smoke it just as well as the locals. I think the fact that I could do that impressed them and made them feel like I was trying to immerse myself in their culture. I brought it back with me and my mom told me there was no way I was bringing that to college. So I hid it along with a big stash of tobacco I brought too. It was funny at welcome week to watch all my friends get huge tobacco rushes and then swear at me.

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