“As he looked up from his glass, its quickly melting ice,into the bisected glowing demonic eyes of the goat,he sensed that something fundamental had shifted”
– Eleanor Wilner, “Encounter in the Local Pub”
One of the great many joys of traveling is sampling the drinks that are offered in different countries and cities. Each place has its own drinking culture, which can be an educational experience.
The educational part of drinking with locals can quickly turn to pain and regret the following day. In China, drinking with locals usually meant beer and baijiu fighting — toasting the guests (i.e., the foreigner) until they are so drunk they can no longer stand. Learning the etiquette of the beer/baijiu fight is important to survival, as is a polite method for turning down invitations to drinking baijiu.
There is some pretty good advice in a New York Times article on how to drink like a local. It mentions skipping the hotel bar only because locals don’t usually drink there. I would argue, however, that some hotel bars are well worth visiting. And locals occasionally visit those bars. They can be a worthwhile experience, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it.
I certainly agree with the article that you should talk with bartenders when traveling. It’s not always easy as some may not speak English, but they are the best resource for local drinking. They will certainly try to get you to stay at their bar, but they may also provide recommendations elsewhere.
When I was in Montreal, I met bartenders who offered suggestions for stops on my way back to my hotel. They also tried to help with bars that would likely be open on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to most of the places that were recommended. I did, however, find some interesting bars and tried some good beer.
Drinking as an Expat
Living as an expat is different from traveling. Sure, there are ample opportunities to explore the city, but there’s also the desire to get comfortable in that adopted home. Particularly in Asia, there are three types of bars — tourist bars, expat bars, and local bars.
My first time in Taipei, I looked for the most local place I could to have a drink, which at the time was the quick fry restaurants. There was also a Japanese izakaya that I frequented — and I was usually the only non-Japanese foreigner in either of those places. The semi-open-air quick fry restaurants around Taiwan are the most common drinking locations as they are the cheapest and provide food. Of course, the drink selection isn’t the best.
As I branched out to find other destinations, I came across a mix of expat and local bars. The ones that primarily catered to expats were not my idea of fun — they were bars at which foreign men went to get drunk and hit on younger local women. And many of the patrons were loud and obnoxious — these were the popular bars that always get recommended because they’ve been around a long time.
During my final year in Taipei, I frequented my local bar/restaurant. The owners were great — and the one who tended bar quickly learned the art of making cocktails. For a while, I explained a few drinks he could make — I encouraged him to serve mint juleps, and they became a popular drink choice. I also met a few neighbors at the bar. It was a great way to get to know the neighborhood.
As for other bars that I enjoyed, I found that the fewer English-speaking customers made it more fun. Of course, it also served as an excuse to practice my Chinese skills.
When I travel, it’s not just about finding the best bar around. I tend to ask for recommendations wherever I can find them, but it doesn’t mean those are my top picks either.
I like to bar hop.
Even after finding a great bar, I’m likely to head to another one after a drink or two. I usually work my way back to my hotel through the evening. When considering bar hopping, it’s not only important to ask people for recommendations, but also for places to avoid. I’ve met some locals who have pointed out places that are overpriced, touristy, or, in rare occasions, dangerous.
Fortunately, I’ve never run into any problems when bar hopping. The worst experiences are generally with some conversations.
Other Local Experiences
A lot of places I’ve been don’t have a bar culture. Locals still like to drink, but it’s not the same as it is in the US or most European countries.
In Saigon I found a street with tables and chairs set up in the evening — it was a roadside restaurant. I could order cheap beer and sometimes talk to a few friendly Vietnamese who spoke some English. Despite the traffic along the street, it was a fun experience because I got to watch the city life while cooling off with a beer.
I found more outdoor drinking when I stayed in Perugia. I had a great local bar run by an American called Dempsey’s. The bar was tiny and the crowd would spill out into the town square — the bar offered to-go cups. On some evenings, I would get a bottle of wine from the grocery store and sit on the steps in the square with the crowd. It was much more boisterous than in Saigon and I was able to share a bit of my wine with new friends.
One of my favorite local experiences, though, was in Vientiane. After checking out the local bars and not being impressed, I wandered around the neighborhood. I got a beer from the convenience store and came across a group of Laotians drinking outside. I somehow managed to join their group and have a fun couple of hours drinking and chatting (one of the women spoke English and served as interpreter).
How should you drink when traveling?
There is no right way to drink when you’re traveling somewhere new. As long as you’re not drinking to excess and making an idiot of yourself or causing problems, you’re doing alright.
I would never judge a traveler for not going for the hyper-local Bia Hoi in Vietnam or going to some high-end hotel bar. Not everyone enjoys the same drinking experience — I happen to enjoy dive bars.
Just be aware of your surroundings and check out the people around you — act according to your surroundings. Behave yourself and have fun.