Ba Moui Ba. Pronounced BAH-Mee-Bah.
“It was Bamiba, Bamiba, Bamiba Wah Ooo!” (Barry Sadler).
Vietnamese for “Panther-Piss” or “Thirty-Three”; we were never quite sure which. This was proof that the concept of “bad beer” was feasible. Ba Moui Ba was the brand name for very cheap (10 – 15 pi a bottle on the black market), very available, very domestic, very scary Vietnamese beer with the clarity and “body” of a bad urine specimen. In the field (and where else would you drink this crap?) it was usually drunk warm so the full potential of its sassy, yet flat, body could be savored. Ba Moui Ba was rumored to be made from embalming fluid and formaldehyde. This was never proven (nor seriously questioned); grunts didn’t care as long as it got them high.
I was in Washington, DC on business a few years back and I met up with a buddy who worked for the Department of Defense. We had actually joined the army together when we were teenagers growing up in Queens, New York.
Before I get into the Ba Moui Ba story, let me answer a question which, after reading my brilliant insights expressed in such elegant prose, I’m sure you’re asking yourselves, “How did such a brilliant and articulate urban sophisticate as myself become a grunt?”
Actually, that too is a beer story.
In 1966, after having finished my first year of college, I decided to take some time off to clear my head. My timing, of course, couldn’t have been worse. The war was on and my draft status changed immediately from “student” to “just call me cannon fodder and take me now.” Other than that, life was good. I had gotten a job in a local grocery store and was dating a neighborhood girl who was going to Hunter College. My best friend through high school (we’ll call him “Tony”) wasn’t in school and was getting increasingly frustrated playing draft board bingo while trying to find a job. In the late 1960’s, employers were very reluctant to offer a draft-eligible guy a “serious” job if he didn’t have some sort of deferment.
One night, Tony and I decided to kill some brain cells at a neighborhood bar and, as commonly results from flooding the brain with beer, we immediately developed an acute case of “dumb”— an almost terminal case as it turned out.
About one in the morning, we stopped by a diner on the way home. Over the “Hamburger Deluxe Platter,” our conversation went something like this…Tony begins,
“I’m tired of all this shit, waiting to get called up, can’t get a decent job; I’m just going to join up.”
“Tony…you’re my best friend…if you join…I’m going too!”
Did I mention we had drunk a lot of beer?
“I’m not just going to join the army; I’m going into the paratroopers…jump outta planes.”
“You’re my best friend, man, if you’re gonna jump outta planes… me too!”
“Gotta volunteer for Nam; there’s a f’ing war goin’ on… gotta do our part.”
“You’re my best friend… you goin’ to Nam, I’m with ya!”
“First thing tomorrow, we’ll go down to the recruiter over on seventy-fourth street… join up… airborne.”
“First thing, buddy, airborne, first thing.”
Of course, the next morning I woke up with a flaming hangover and was praying that Tony didn’t remember a thing we talked about. Alas, he showed up at my mother’s house around ten in the morning to pick me up and off we went to the recruiters.
The recruiters were in a little kiosk under the El on seventy-fourth street in Jackson Heights. It was a smorgasbord of all the armed forces—Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines—I think even the Coast Guard was skulking around in there somewhere (but no one could get into the CG in those days unless a blood relative of a Congressman). When we walked in, the Army recruiter, whom we’ll call “Staff Sergeant Waters,” greeted us.
“Hey, Guys! What can I do for you?”
“Uh… we want to join… uh… the Army…”
“Great! Tell me a little about yourself.”
“Uh… sure… whaddya want to know?”
“You guys ever arrested?”
“Uh… cops slapped around me around a bit when I wised off…”
“You ever in jail?”
“Uh… no… not overnight.”
“Ever been before a judge?”
“Great! How about school!”
“Graduated High School… my buddy here went to college…”
“Great! Drug use?”
“Does beer count?”
“Hell, No! Okay… let me tell you what the Army can offer…”
“We want to go into the paratroopers.”
“The paratroopers? That’s great! But, when you join, you can choose what you want to do in the Army. For example, the Army has a great aviation program. You guys can learn to fly helicopters or fixed wing…”
“That’s great, but we want to go into the paratroops.”
“That’s great, guys, you can go to jump school if you want. But the Army offers many career choices for guys like you who volunteer. Like the Signal Corps; it’s doing a lot a work with computers… you could use that after you get out…”
“Thanks, Sarge, but we want to go Airborne; we want to fight in Nam.”
“Okay guys, you understand that means you’d go into the infantry… when you join that’s three years active… you guys got some education… there’s a lot of other stuff the Army can offer…”
“Thanks, airborne infantry is what we want… can you fix that up.”
We finally convinced the good sergeant, despite his best efforts, that we wanted to join the paratroopers and go fight in Nam. He got us through the paper work and told us we’d hear from the Army in a couple of weeks. We left the recruiters and were headed down Roosevelt Avenue when we ran into a friend of ours, whom we’ll call “Pat.”
“Hey! I heard you guys were joining the Army!”
“’Tis. We’re just comin’ back.”
“What the hell, guys! What about me! I thought we were friends! If you go, I don’t want to be left behind.”
“Look, man… we joined the paratroopers and volunteered for Nam.”
“So what! We’re friends, right! We stick together! You’re not leavin’ me back here.”
So Tony and I did the first “about face” in our Army careers and took Pat by the arm back to the recruiters. When we walked through the door, Sergeant Waters looked up from his desk, and said,
“Lemme guess. Airborne, right?”
A couple of months later in basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, we were having a bit of “buyer’s remorse.” One Saturday night, we were up at the EM club on Tank Hill, about as high as one can get on Army three-point-two beer. Tony said, “You know, I really didn’t want to do this. When I picked you up at your house, I was hoping you didn’t remember what we said. But, you did and I had to go through with it.”
Luckily, the MP’s arrived before Pat and I could do any real damage to Tony.
To bring an end to this section of my incessant narrative on the evils of beer, we all went to Nam and we all made it back. Tony got his wish and did a combat tour with the 101st Airborne; Pat was a platoon leader with the 9th Division and won the Silver Star.
I told you that story, so I could finish this one.
Pat and I got together in DC; we went out for dinner and few brews. We had both retired from the Army as Infantry officers, and I was having a ball giving him crap about his having gone over to the “Dark Side”—DOD LOGCOM—the very “heart of the Ash & Trash”—the “navel of REMF-dom.”
I don’t remember how it came up… probably a general “remember when” comment, but we started talking about how awful Ba Moui Ba was. I think I was the one who mused, “I wonder if they still make that shit over there?” Then Pat countered that he knew a bar a couple blocks away that claimed to have every beer in the world. So, off we went arm-in-arm through the darkened streets of DC in search of Ba Moui Ba. We got to the place, and sure enough they had it!
You know how we are cautioned against nostalgia by the maxim, “You can never go home again”? Well, the Ba Moui Ba was a complete bust. It looked and tasted like any American beer. For all we knew, someone filled the Ba Moui Ba bottles with Miller or Bud! Then Pat noticed the word “Export” on the label.
“I bet those damned commies don’t export the real stuff. This shit is just some commie propaganda! They’re probably re-labeling bottles of Miller over there. ‘See, Yankee Capitalist-Pig! The peoples’ brewery of Vietnam makes beer just as good as you!’”
I had never contemplated Marxist theory as it applied to bad beer. But, it made sense to me! (Have I mentioned that we had been drinking beer most of the evening?) So, somewhere in the dark recesses of Ho Chi Minh City, I’m confident that “real” Ba Moui Ba is still being served. Enjoy!
Oh, Barry! Those snakes on the jailhouse floor…I’ve seen them too…they go away after the Ba Moui Ba gets out of your system.