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Alcohol has become the prime entertainment activity for increasing numbers of youth in Vietnam.

They are not only starting young, but also getting an early start.

The Luu Linh pub in Vinh Town, named after Liu Ling â€" one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (Chinese Taoist scholars of the 3rd century) known for his love of wine â€" is usually crowded with students and state workers from 6 p.m. until late at night.

Pubs, long considered a luxury in the north and central regions of the country, have now become the rendezvous of choice for young people who flock to them every single day.

There are drinking tables on all the streets around the town in Nghe An Province, in beer shops in the summer and hotpot restaurants in the winter.

According to local residents, pubs have become a “favorite playground” or “destination at day’s end” for young people.

The sole cinema in town, once the hug of youth entertainment, is suffering as a result.

“Old people rarely come of course, while young people now go to pubs every night and no one comes here,” said a ticket seller at the cinema.

A young state worker, only identified as T., was first stunned as he came home from Ho Chi Minh City as a college graduate and his friends treated him with alcohol. But he is now a familiar sight at local pubs that he visits at least 20 times a month, and never leaves until he is drunk.

His group has nearly ten members and all of them visit bars at least 15 times a month.

Stories about students drinking are no longer new in the area. They drink at inns, at their dorm rooms, even secretly at class. Some have also created clubs. The “3 liter” club means members can only leave after finishing at least three liters of alcohol.

For students in the central region, there are plenty of reasons to drink, ranging from “long time no see,” birthday parties, an annual review and national holiday to “so many are absent and the class is sad” and “everybody’s present and the class is joyful.”

Being asked to stay out of class for being late is of course a great occasion to mark by having a few drinks.

Students also gave nicknames to outstanding drinkers, like People’s Drunkard or Vodka, who are respected for their ability to defeat drinkers from other classes.

Not that the respected are basking in the glory.

“I wish I couldn’t drink so that I don’t have to be alcoholic hero for the whole class,” said a student from Quang Tri Province and now attending college in Hue, identified only as L.

“Many times I have been tired to death but still have to drink for my own pride and that of my classmates.”

Some students use tricks to avoid paying the train fare of several dozen thousand dong between Vinh and Quy Nhon or Dong Hoi and Hue, but spent hundreds of thousands of dong to drink during the trip.

There’s a legend among local students that one of their peers at Quang Tri Education College left home with the money his mother gave him for the month, but his pocket was empty when he left the train.

It is reported that the student went straight to the canteen when he got on the train. He found three boys from the same school and they formed a drinking table without even knowing the names of each other earlier.

College students in Da Nang meanwhile still make fun of a boy who gave up the girl he loved for a plate of dog meat after he and a friend had a bet over who would get drunk last. The person who got drunk first would lose his chance to get closer to the girl.

While the winner paid for the alcohol and meat, the loser lost his chance to woo the girl.

Older people in Vinh say that more than ten years ago most young people went south to study and work, and they brought back the drinking culture of southern people.

Professor Vo Tong Xuan, who is a southerner, said, “Among young people in the rural south, drinking has become a painful trend.”

People in the Mekong Delta are known for being honest and straightforward, in addition to their love of alcohol.

Song Doc Town in Ca Mau Province, home to 33,000 residents, has nearly 200 pubs, whose regular customers are mostly youth.

Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Health show that the drinking population in Vietnam has gotten younger over the years. One third of them start drinking when they are 20.

“There is profusion of pubs, but all of them do good business all the time,” said a local official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Song Doc has been ranked as the most troublesome locality in Ca Mau based on the number of quarrels and fights that usually break out among young people after they get drunk.

In 2007, several delta provinces including Ben Tre and Ca Mau banned state officials from drinking during office hours but many found it hard to obey the ban as drinking has become “an essential part of life.”

An education official in the delta, who wished not to be named, said he was criticized for “not getting along well with colleagues” as he couldn’t drink.

According to the Ministry of Health, 4.4 percent of Vietnamese people have fallen ill because of drinking. The overuse of alcohol is also blamed for 60 percent of domestic violence, and 10 percent of traffic accidents that kill more than 12,000 people every year.

Drinking too much ranks fifth among the top ten causes of death worldwide while the money spent on drinking and solving its consequences accounts for 2-8 percent of the GDP in many countries.

With the fast developing drinking culture in various regions of the country, Vietnam may not lag far behind in this international integration.

Reported by Khanh Hoan â€"Truong Minh â€" Tien Trinh

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