Vietnam beer boom dries up as strict drink-driving laws introduced

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent
Photograph: Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

Vietnam’s Tet holiday is only days away, and its open-air bars should be busy with drinkers ready to celebrate the lunar new year but instead, owners say they are struggling to attract customers.

The introduction of harsh new penalties just weeks ago for anyone caught drink-driving has caused beer sales in the country to plummet by at least 25%.

The figures, reported by Bloomberg, have caused dismay for bar owners in what has been described as one of the world’s fastest-growing beer markets. Bars have begun offering drinkers free or discounted rides home, as well as letting customers park their vehicles overnight and “alcohol detox” pills are also being sold online to drinkers anxious to avoid fines.

The new zero-tolerance laws penalise drivers for even the slightest trace of alcohol, while the maximum fine has doubled to 8m dong ($345) – twice a month’s earnings for many Vietnamese – on top of a possible suspension of a driver’s license for two years. Those caught driving cars or trucks under the influence may face a fine of as much as 40m dong and a license suspension.

Cyclists also face up to $25 fines for riding after drinking.

A bar in Hanoi. Vietnam’s love of beer has grown rapidly over recent decades. Photograph: Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

Vietnam’s love of beer has grown rapidly over recent decades, fuelled by the country’s growing middle class and its youthful population. Vietnamese consumed 8.3 litres of alcohol per capita in 2016, the latest year for which data is available – compared with a global average of 6.4 litres per capita, according to the World Health Organization.

Officials fear the country’s drinking culture is taking a toll on public health, and causing road accidents. In 2016, alcohol was estimated to have contributed towards 79,000 deaths, according to WHO.

As part of a crackdown, the government is also placing stricter rules on adverts: stating that alcohol advertising must include health warnings and banning the advertising of alcohol on radio and TV from 6pm to 9pm, as well as before and after children’s programs.

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Despite warnings from health experts, not everyone feels the new drink-driving penalties are proportionate – and some bar owners warn the impact on business is devastating.

Nguyen Thi Hanh, a manager at a bia hoi (fresh beer) bar in downtown Hanoi, said she would struggle to pay staff this month.

“The new regulation is horrible. The number of customers has dropped significantly, by around 80%,” she told Agence France-Presse. “If the situation carries on like this, we can only hold up for one to two months.”