Some People Like Banh Mi, Some Like…Thuoc Lao

Within the Solanaceae family of plants are some of my favorite foods; tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are the three that come to mind.

However, there’s one particularly nasty member of the family that not only counts as addicts hundreds of millions of people, but also doubles as an effective pesticide

Tobacco. 

Yet, there’s the tobacco which you might encounter in your local shop, and then there’s thuoc lao.

Thuoc Lao (thuốc lào), Nicotiana rustica or more commonly, Aztec tobacco, is said to have nearly nine times as much nicotine as the significantly more widespread Nicotiana tabacum.  Even though both species originate in Latin America, for decades, thuoc lao has been the go-to post-meal hobby for many Vietnamese.

Smoking Thuoc Lao, French Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.jpg
Smoking Thuoc Lao in the French Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

What sets thuoc lao – “drug from Laos” – smokers from others is that is is chiefly smoked using a water pipe.  Often, these are bamboo pipes (điếu cày), but you may see ceramic, plastic or metal pipes, too. 

In Vietnam, many believe thuoc lao to aid in digestion, and smoke it along with having green tea or a beer. 

For first timers, the excessive quantities of nicotine may cause them to faint for a spell. In short, the pipe is filled with some water and a small amount of thuoc lao. Then the thuoc lao is ignited, whereby the smoker blows the ash out, then takes a toke, at which point a feeling of being phe, or “high,” sets in.