Connoisseurs, handle with care

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 November, 1998, 12:00am

It is an old socialist case of what goes around, comes around.

In Southeast Asia's swankier quarters, bars are springing up all over the place reminiscent of pre-revolution Cuba - all tan walls and slow, twirling ceiling fans.

To be as hip as possible, the bar-keepers are scouring wholesalers for Cuban white rums and obscure Russian vodkas, not to mention Havana stogies.

Few realise that the source of the cheapest supplies lies close to home. In the dusty recesses of the rambling public markets of Vientiane and Hanoi, bargains can be found among the flotsam and jetsam of Soviet-era fraternalism.

Nestled among Chinese bicycles and woolly mufflers made in Vladivostok it is still possible to turn up a bottle of genuine seven-year-old Havana Club or rare-issue Stolichnaya. The labels may be moth-eaten, but so long as the seal is good, you're home and dry. With mint and nice fat limes growing freely in northern Vietnam, you can easily turn out a Mojito that would have done Hemingway proud - and for a fraction of the price they are currently being sold for in the best bars of Singapore and Bangkok.

Rusting tins of caviar and bottles of Black Sea Gold - a champagne out of Odessa - will also appear on the market shelves, but these must be treated with extreme caution. After all these years the stuff is probably toxic.

Cigars are also a little tricky. Firstly, there are now signs that the cigar craze has reached the market in Vietnam and Laos. Prices are rising and so are fakes.

Then there is tampering. More than one box of Cohibas, seals apparently intact, been found to contain nothing more than a few machine-rolled Hav-A-Tampas.

It should also be remembered that a bustling non-air-conditioned market in Vientiane is hardly nature's humidor. And somehow the fraternal links between Cuban communists and their Indochina comrades did not stop a few boxes of fakes slipping into the trade.

Some Monte Cristos are reportedly extremely tightly wrapped and difficult to smoke. 'It is as if they were rolled on very skinny thighs,' one regular smoker complained. 'Just the thought of it puts you right off.'