Smoke billows

The whiff of cigars is becoming more common around Vietnam.

By Story: Le Diem on April 20,2018 09:43 AM

Smoke billows

Photo: Hotel Nikko Hanoi

Instead of cigarette smoke, which is common enough at a bia hơi (a cheap eatery offering local draught beer and food), the uncommon scent of cigar smoke filled the air. A group of men, aged between 35 and 50, were passing one of Cuba’s best among themselves, inhaling the smoke and closing their eyes in some level of enjoyment.

A cigar in one hand and a glass of Cognac in the other makes you look like a gentleman, according to Hong Thuy, one of the group and a restaurant owner. ‘A cigar shows your status,’ he added. Though he prefers Cognac or whiskey when smoking a cigar, it’s possible to smoke anywhere and with any drink in your hand.

Many others join Thuy in having a liking for a cigar, in bars and karaoke and cafés and restaurants, at any time of the day. Just a few years ago the tell-tale aroma and whirl of smoke were only found in five-star hotels or upmarket bars but can now blanket, as noted, a bia hơi.

Smoking one is not a great experience for most people the first few times. Cigarette smokers tend to inhale, while cigar smoke is only exhaled. Not smoking it the right way makes it difficult to enjoy. ‘Don’t believe anyone who tells you they enjoyed their first cigar,’ said Thuy. ‘My first was a Rome Y Julieta No.1, one of the finest Cubans there is. It was hot, pungent, and the taste was terrible.’ After a few more tries, accompanied by alcohol, he started to fall for the aroma and the taste. Whenever he smells one now, he has to light up.

Some, though, just don’t enjoy it even though they know how to do it properly. Thanh Nam, another in the group, said he didn’t find it a great taste. ‘Maybe I’m yet to “feel” it,’ he said. ‘But I still smoke it when I’m out with friends, though I prefer thuoc lao [Vietnamese tobacco smoked through a long bamboo pipe].’

Though demand for cigars is increasing, official retailers are few in number in Hanoi and HCMC. Imports of good quality imported cigars are quite small, according to the Vietnam Industry and Trade Information Center at the Ministry of Industry and Trade. ‘Most popular brands are brought into Vietnam by hand,’ Thuy said. ‘And prices for the same cigars always vary. Then there’s the question of whether they’re genuine.’

Smoke billows

Businessman Manh Cuong went online to find a box of ten Cohiba Behike 56, one of Havana’s premier brands, and prices were between VND6 million and VND25 million ($265 and 1,100). ‘Online retailers sell a lot of different brands. I told them what I wanted and the price range and I’ll have them as soon as possible,’ he said. Most famous and expensive cigars available in Vietnam, such as Behike, Maduro 5, and Siglo, are fake, he’s found. Sometimes he knows just from looking at the box; if it’s rough, the cigars that came it probably aren’t the real deal. He’s also seen new boxes opened with different sized cigars, which is a giveaway. And the taste is definitely not quality.

Even cigars bought in Cuba and brought back to Vietnam can be fake. He once tried a legendary Cohiba Behike his friend bought during a business trip to Cuba. As soon as it was lit about a quarter burned away and the smoke made it even hard for the cigar lovers to breathe. His friend then admitted he paid only $130 for it at a local market in Havana. ‘Cohiba Behike is the national brand of Cuba, produced under order by a process that’s a closely-held secret,’ he explained. ‘You’re not going to find it in a Havana market.’ The price of genuine cigars means many can’t smoke them regularly and can maybe lower their standards. ‘Some people have told me they just want a cigar that is “smokable”,’ he said. ‘It just encourages the black market.’

There’s also some paraphernalia for those who can afford to get into the cigar habit big time, such as a cutter (or punch cutter) and a cigar lighter ‘These “accessories” show you the “level” of the smoker,’ Cuong said. The cutter is actually quite important. A friend of his once tried to take the end off a cigar and destroyed it. ‘You need to choose a good cigar and know how to cut it, light it, and smoke it correctly,’ he said.

Many who take a liking to cigars also start smoking a tobacco pipes. A host of different shapes and styles are available in Vietnam, again mostly brought in by hand, and can sell for around $1,000-1,200. The most popular shapes are saddle stem, tapered stem and combination stem, made from white clay or Briar wood. Briar wood pipes in particular have become popular recently. 

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