It is made from glutinous rice that has been fermented with the aid of yeast and steamed in a banana leaf. It may be either deep purplish-red or yellow in color depending on the variety of rice used. Rượu nếp is mildly alcoholic (rượu is the word for "alcohol" in the Vietnamese language). Depending on its consistency, it may be considered either a pudding or a wine. Thicker versions are eaten with a spoon, while more liquid varieties are less viscous and may be drunk as a beverage. Rượu nếp than is a brown-colored rice wine. Although they are most typical of northern Vietnam, both rượu nếp and rượu nếp than are also available in Ho Chi Minh City, at the market near the residential quarter where northern Vietnamese people live.
In Vietnam's Central Highlands, a similar variety of rice wine, rượu cần (literally "stem wine" or "tube wine"), is drunk in a communal manner, through long reed straws out of large earthenware jugs. Rượu cần may be made out of ordinary rice, glutinous rice, cassava, or corn, along with various leaves and herbs. Yet another variety of minority rice wine is rượu nếp nương, made from a variety of glutinous rice grown in mountainous cultivation areas of Vietnam's northwest.
Many Vietnamese people regard rượu nếp as a healthful food, and believe that it wards off or kills parasites.
A similar dish, from southern Vietnam, is called cơm rượu, and consists of balls made from white glutinous rice in a mildly alcoholic rice wine.