Pipe smoking: A love story

When Dieu Cay meets Thuoc Lao the head spins and the senses calm.

By Le Diem on April 26,2018 03:08 PM

Pipe smoking: A love story

Photo: Quan Tran

‘What is that? I’d never seen one before I came to Vietnam but now I see them everywhere,’ my US friend John Stewart asked as we sipped iced tea at a street cafe. Following his gaze, I realised he was talking about a Dieu Cay. ‘Ah, it’s more than just a bamboo pipe, its part of our culture,’ I told him.

A Dieu Cay is used to smoke Thuoc Lao, a kind of local tobacco that in the past, together with betel nut, was offered to house guests as a warm greeting.

‘Welcome to Vietnam,’ I laughed as I took a Dieu Cay and a pinch of Thuoc Lao and gave it to him. He eagerly followed my instructions, putting some tobacco in the bowl of the pipe, adding a flame and breathing in the smoke. ‘Whoa, my head is spinning,’ he said after a few seconds. ‘It’s very strong, much stronger than normal tobacco. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.’

Many other local people, especially heavy smokers, can’t forget Thuoc Lao either, so much so that they call it by another name: Co Tuong Tu, or the herb of the lovesick.

The origins of Thuoc Lao are somewhat cloudy. According to researchers, the Thuoc Lao plant may have come from Laos, hence its name. Over the centuries, though, Thuoc Lao ‘married’ Dieu Cay and became a popular Vietnamese ‘citizen’.

The ‘couple’ travelled throughout the country and won the hearts of many. Dieu Cay and Thuoc Lao are now found together everywhere, from remote areas to large cities, in most houses and coffee and tea shops or stands. As Thuoc Lao is very cheap, it is usually provided free at coffee and tea shops when a drink is ordered. In Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a street called Hang Dieu, which used to specialise in selling Dieu Cay more the two decades ago. Now Dieu Cay can be found in Hang Vai Street, costing VND30,000-50,000 each.

Wherever Dieu Cay or Thuoc Lao appears a crowd often gathers, both old and young, with a conversation starting as they share the Dieu Cay and Thuoc Lao. The attachment of the ‘couple’ is so deep as to be inseparable. Without Dieu Cay, Thuoc Lao is just musty dried grass and without Thuoc Lao a Dieu Cay is just hollowed-out bamboo. Their perfect combination can only be achieved by a ‘professional’ smoker, according to Quang Minh, who has been a close friend of the couple for more than 30 years.

‘You just passed the primary school level,’ Minh told John after watching him exhale the smoke. ‘Those who can exhale the smoke through their nose are at the high school level. I’ll show you how heavy smokers do it.’ He then took the Dieu Cay and began his performance. Using a thin bamboo to ignite the Thuoc Lao, he explained that it helps burn the tobacco more slowly. As it started to burn he inhaled several short breaths then just before the bamboo burned to ash he blew into it the pipe and popped out the remains of the tobacco. He then inhaled deeply again and the pipe made a funny whistling sound. Finally, he exhaled smoke rings with his eyes half-closed. As we sat and took in the show, a young man sitting nearby said ‘That’s university level.’

It’s not difficult to do, Minh explained, but requires experience and a long, strong breath. The whistling sound is created by air escaping from the bowl as he inhales. Only a Dieu Cay gives the familiar whistling sound, which is why it’s so popular. Its size and shape also makes it easy to carry around, and in the countryside farmers will always take theirs to the field, making it also known as a ‘farmer’s pipe’.

A good Dieu Cay should be made from bamboo, as others made from plastic or metal don’t give the smoke its pleasant aroma, according to Minh. A length of 40 to 60 centimetres is ideal, as it retains sufficient smoke and allows more time for inhaling before exhaling. The bamboo has holes bored into its joints to let the water and smoke flow. Many Dieu Cay are decorated with sophisticated carving and even pearl inlay.

Along with Dieu Cay there are two other tools used to smoke Thuoc Lao: Dieu Bat and Dieu Ong. Dieu Bat, a ceramic or porcelain hookah. Dieu Ong has the same shape as a Dieu Cay but is wider and shorter and normally made from valuable wood or the shin bone of an animal. Its body and bowl are usually inlaid with silver. Due to its ‘luxurious’ features, in the past only the wealthy could afford to use a Dieu Ong. Both Dieu Bat and Dieu Ong require a small bamboo stem to smoke, with the one in a Dieu Ong being longer, at around 2 metres, meaning someone else must light the tobacco. Dieu Bat and Dieu Ong have all but disappeared as people tend to prefer a Dieu Cay for its carrying convenience and cheaper price.

After a ‘handsome’ Dieu Cay is found, ‘beautiful’ Thuoc Lao must be sought for the Dieu Cay not to feel lonely. Minh said that he usually buys Thuoc Lao when he visits other parts of the country. He appreciates the brand Thuoc Lao Hang Ga (in Hanoi) but prefers Tien Lang and Vinh Bao (from northern Hai Phong city) or Quang Xuong (from northern Thanh Hoa province). ‘Good Thuoc Lao should have a delicious aroma and give a deep feel to smokers,’ he said. ‘Poor quality Thuoc Lao gives an unsatisfactory feeling, like drinking alcohol that never gets you drunk.’

Through his journeys Minh also found that Thuoc Lao and Dieu Cay were not just for men, as he had always believed. In remote areas of the country many women farmers and ethnic minority women surprised him with their university-level smoking skills. In northern Hoa Binh he was told that a woman would have trouble finding a husband if she didn’t know how to smoke. ‘I saw small girls at the age of 12 smoking, perhaps imitating their parents or maybe even worried about being left on the shelf,’ he smiled.

As we talked, the young man sitting nearby, Duy Toan, a student at the University of Transport and Communication, told a similar story of women smoking Thuoc Lao. On a trip to Apool village in central Quang Nam province he also saw many women of different ages smoking Thuoc Lao with a Dieu Cay. One told him of unofficial competition in Thuoc Lao smoking between young girls who have fallen in love with the same man. They smoked continuously until there was only one left willing to continue, who was the winner and could claim the man. ‘Thuoc Lao and Dieu Cay became a key part of their life,’ he said. ‘They told me that they could always leave their husband but could never leave Thuoc Lao.’

Minh sympathised with that thought, saying he could fast for days but could not live without Thuoc Lao even for just one day. ‘I feel tired if I don’t smoke,’ he explained. ‘The head spin and the calming sensation are a form of ecstasy, particularly when it’s accompanied by a cup of tea in the morning. But you have to be careful after smoking, not to feel dizzy and fall over.’ The high is certainly addictive, and there is an expression smokers often cite: ‘Missing no one like Thuoc Lao / I tried to bury the Dieu Cay to give up but couldn’t help but dig it up’.

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