It’s ironic that, in the pantheon of drinks most beloved by the Vietnamese, the one that arguably stands the tallest comes from a European country thousands of miles away that’s responsible for breaking Vietnam in half like a bone.
I first learned that the summer after I graduated college. I was jobless, living back home with my parents, and feeling so sorry for myself that I could barely find the energy to move most days. One evening, my mom decided to cheer me up by inviting me to participate in that most sacred Vietnamese rite of nhậu—or going to their friend’s house to gorge on food and get completely shit-faced drunk. While it did nothing to fix the fact that I didn’t have a job and I would still be sleeping in my childhood bedroom that night, the cold bottles of Heineken that I drained in between bites of salty heo sữa and cơm tấm swimming in nước mắm did help lift my spirits.
Eventually, one of my dad’s friends—a short man named Chú Bùi who smiled widely despite having teeth more crooked than old gravestones—left the room quietly only to come back later with a brown bottle that I recognized from all the karaoke parties and hot pot nights that my parents dragged my brother and me to all our lives: Hennessy VSOP. Immediately, he pushed a shot glass filled with the potent liquid into my hands and, before I could react, we were all toasting, “Một, hai, ba, dô!” and emptying the glasses into our overserved mouths before doing it all over again.
That night—and the subsequent hangover that I nursed the next morning—was one of many lessons I’ve had in how downright obsessed Vietnamese people are with Hennessy. While any cognac would do, it’s Hennesy that holds a special place in our hearts for some mysterious reason. We drink it at weddings with all our loud aunties and uncles. We drink it at karaoke with friends. We drink it to celebrate baptisms, birthdays, and funerals. It doesn’t matter if we’re partying in a backyard in Orange County, or sitting on plastic chairs near a food stand in Saigon, or at a Tet celebration in a church basement in Sioux City, Iowa. Inevitably, there will come a point in the night where someone pops open a bottle or two of Hennessy VSOP and starts pouring shots for anyone who can still sit up straight.
Hennessy along with its partner-in-crime Heineken are the twin aqua vitae of the Vietnamese people. No celebration is complete without it, and every party is better for its presence—which makes it all the more strange that it’s even there in the first place. After all, what earthly business does cognac—a liquor that’s popular and made specifically in France—have being such a mainstay in Vietnamese culture?
The truth, like Hennessey itself, is dark, stinging, and painful.
France’s relationship with Vietnam began in 1857 when French forces, at the behest of Napoleon III, seized Saigon, though it wasn’t until nearly 30 years later did the country become officially colonized. What would unfold over the next century would be an abusive relationship of love and hate. While Vietnam fought against the colonizers in decades long bloody conflicts that included two wars and a battle that eventually saw them leave the country, the Vietnamese also grew to glorify all things French.
French morphed into the language of the educated, the high class, the ones who had truly made it and transcended their embarrassing Vietnamese-ness. French clothes became high fashion. French cooking styles were blended with their own to trailblaze an entirely new foodway in Southeast Asia. Paris became a city upon a hill for the Vietnamese people—and even the communist revolutionary and so-called father of modern Vietnam Ho Chi Minh lived there to work and be educated when he was a young man.
And yet, the French were also the same people who raped and murdered Vietnamese civilians during the Mỹ Trạch Massacre. They seized land and forced farmers to labor on rice and rubber plantations. They imposed deep taxes that left the Vietnamese people destitute. They attempted to “civilize” the Vietnamese and grind their culture to nothing beneath the boot of their imperialism.
Despite all this, cognac, the favored liquor of the colonizer, became a status symbol for the Vietnamese. Like clothes or food or Paris it was something they could aspire to and work towards. Even today, Hennessy holds a special place in the hearts of Vietnamese immigrants, a sign that you’ve just about made it in the world—and if you haven’t, at least you could drink your sorrows away.
To me, though, Hennessy also holds a deeper meaning. My grandfather was a Black American soldier who served in the Vietnam War. That makes my mom an Amerasian child who, like the tens of thousands of other Amerasian children fathered by young soldiers who flooded the country during the war, never knew her father’s identity. With the help of a DNA test and a lot of digging through old ancestry records, though, I was able to find him a few years ago.
The fact that my grandfather was Black—and, therefore, so are my mom and I—was a revelation. They were answers to a question that we had both been asking our entire lives up until that moment. Once I knew the truth, I spent untold hours researching this side of my family and identity. Over time, I learned that Black Americans and Vietnamese have a lot more in common than I could have ever imagined. We both have a painful past of being colonized and subjugated by White countries. This shared trauma extends even to Black Africans from when France colonized large swaths of West and North Africa. But there were also beautiful similarities: a deep love for our families, reverence for our elders, and a nearly zealous passion for cookouts.
Delightfully, I learned that Hennessy is also beloved by Black culture. Like the Vietnamese, a bottle of Hennessy is a familiar sight at BBQs, college graduations, weddings, or just your normal, run-of-the-mill raucous nights out. Likewise, the fondness for the cognac is also rooted in pain, trauma, and war.
In fact, Black America’s affinity for Hennessy can be traced all the way back to World War II. Back then, Black soldiers were not only exposed to the harsh reality of battle and death, but also some of the beautiful cultures of Europe—chief among them was France.
Black soldiers were welcomed with open arms in towns and cities in France like Paris, where grateful French citizens viewed them as liberators. Though they were, at most, second-class citizens back home, in France they were heroes. The French thanked Black units with gifts of food and cognac. They were received with the type of love and warmth they would have never have dreamed of receiving back home.
And so, it’s no real surprise that these same soldiers would later bring bottles of cognac to drink and share widely back home. More than just souvenirs, these bottles became the vessels in which a love and affinity for cognac would sprout and grow roots into the very bedrock of Black culture. Each sip of Hennessy becomes more than just a drink. It’s a reminder of a time and place that welcomed them with open arms—even when their home country wouldn’t.
It’s been a while since I’ve gone out to nhậu with my family. I eventually found a job in a new city, away from home and both my parents. While I miss them, I’m happy to say that I’m a lot less depressed nowadays too. I also found friends who don’t really have the same feeling for Hennessy that I do. Sometimes, though, if a friend invites me to a party or I’m hosting a hot pot night, I’ll be sure to bring a bottle of Hennessy and do my best Chú Bùi impression by forcing glasses filled to the brim into my friends’ apprehensive hands.
When I drink it now, though, I don’t just think about my parents scream-singing some old Saigonese love ballad on karaoke or Chú Bùi refilling my shot glass before I even have a chance to choke down the one I just finished. I also think about the other half of my identity, the one that found love and hope in a time and place that seemed so utterly devoid of both—but still managed to raise a glass to toast to a better tomorrow.
Tony Ho Tran is a writer and former restaurant kid whose work has been seen in Huff Post, Playboy, Narratively, and wherever else fine writing is published. He currently lives in Chicago where he regularly calls his mom for advice when cooking Viet recipes.