Bia hoi or ‘fresh beer’ is the Hanoi’s drink of choice — for locals and visitors alike. Trust us, we spent three months downing the stuff.
‘Bia hoi’ refers to the refreshingly light, chilled, straw-coloured draught beer, as well as the no-frills neighbourhood drinking spots where you’ll finding yourself throwing them back. For instance,
your new friends might say to you “Let’s go for bia hoi!” or “Let’s head to the bia hoi!” Befriend some Vietnamese and that’s what you’ll hear often.
Bia hoi is so popular in Vietnam it apparently dominates some 30% of the country’s beer market. Considering roughly half of Vietnam’s population of over 90-something million people are in the peak beer-drinking ages of 20- to 40-years
old, that’s a lot of bia hoi being downed each day.
The popularity of bia hoi is partly explained by its price — the dirt-cheap brew was selling for about 8,000 Vietnamese Dong or
under 40 US cents a glass when we were there last year, making it one of the world’s cheapest beers.
Its popularity is also explained by its taste. Lightly carbonated with a fine white head
that quickly disappears, the light golden brew is clear, crisp and clean to taste. The thirst-quenching beer is so easily quaffed because it’s so low in alcohol — just 2.5-4.5%.
icy cold, it’s consumed fast and in large quantities during summer— which is why you’d expect it to be more popular in Vietnam’s sultry southern city, Saigon. Yet nowhere is the drinking of this zingy beer as ubiquitous as it is
in Vietnam’s northern capital where there seems to be a bia hoi joint on nearly every block, and in Hanoi’s labyrinthine old quarter on almost every corner.
They’re easy to spot.
Look for shin-high red or blue plastic stools spilling out of a neon-lit interior onto the footpath and street. Although this scattering of seating will periodically be tidied up and packed inside causing patrons to scramble when the word spreads that a police
patrol is on its way.
The occupants of bia hoi joints will be holding green-ish recycled-glass tumblers, complete with bubbles and chips that easily crack — take care — and
nibbling on pumpkin seeds, peanuts or rice crackers.
The bia hoi interior might be tiny — little more than an area for storing kegs, pouring beers and washing glasses — or it
could be enormous, crammed with stainless steel tables and kid-size plastic chairs.
Sit inside and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with locals who’ll soon be showing you how to eat and, later,
shouting you glasses of the amber stuff.(Yes, we know from experience.)
The low price is what has made bia hoi the people’s beer, which is fitting for Hanoi, the city where communist revolutionary
leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on Ba Dinh Square on September 2nd 1945, leading to North Vietnam’s secession from the South.
At 19c Ngoc Ha
Street in Ba Dinh, on the road running behind Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace, the Ngoc Ha Bia Hoi is one of Hanoi’s most pleasant, located in a sprawling, shaded beer garden. Groups of boisterous local politicos
and office-workers order plastic jugs of bia hoi and dishes of everything from fried eel to grilled frog.
Many bia hoi spots serve food and in those that do waitresses will drop menus at your table
when they deliver your first round beers — which generally arrive automatically — and tiny plastic packets of aromatic peanuts.
Other popular snacks include grilled dried squid,
and in the bia hoi joints without kitchens, fermented sausage neatly wrapped in banana leaves, and — a bewildering favourite of young Hanoi hipsters — hot cheese sticks and French fries sprinkled with sugar. Yes, sugar. The food
is not as cheap as you’d expect considering the price of the beer, but this is where the businesses make their profits.
For the tastiest bia hoi food, head to our favourite local at 2 Duong
Thanh on the edge of the Old Quarter in a mustard-coloured building with chocolate shutters. The hot pots here are beloved by locals, especially during Hanoi’s chilly winter, however, we found ourselves ordering the fried tofu, a bia hoi stalwart, time
and time again. We think it’s some of the city’s best, and we got to try a lot over three months.
There, the fried tofu is accompanied by a mountain of fresh basil leaves and a tiny dish
of pepper and salt (or just pepper) and quarters of lemon. You need to squeeze the juice of the lemon into the tiny dish, mix it up, and dip in the tofu. You have to eat it while it’s hot. It’s sublime — as are the plates of grilled
pork ribs and morning glory with garlic.
This joint is often mistaken for the bia hoi diagonally opposite, which I have a feeling is due to a guidebook error as we frequently saw tourists standing
on the corner with their Lonely Planets looking from one to the other and trying to figure out where they should go. Our favourite is the one with the red and yellow name on the canvas awning that says “Bia Hoi Ha Noi — Cua Hang Ngoc Linh”.
If you find a bia hoi you like and want to note down the name, don’t simply scribble down ‘Bia Hoi Ha Noi’ or ‘Bia Hoi Lan Chin’. These signs mean they sell fresh beer from the
Ha Noi or Lan Chin breweries. You’ll need to look at the menu for the full name, see if they have a business card (some do), take a photo of the awning sign, or simply use the street address.
do as Hanoi’s expats do and name your bia hoi after its distinguishing features. Glenn Phillips of Explore Indochina, who was about to launch Hanoi’s first ever bia hoi tours when we were there last year (we were the first to test them out), directed
us to the “cage bia hoi” (1A Trang Tien, in front of the Revolutionary Museum and opposite the History Museum), contained with an iron fence, and “boat bia hoi” (9 Duong Ven Ho), on West Lake near the Water Park.
Generally, the best time to hit a bia hoi for the most boisterous atmosphere is around 5-6pm, although each bia hoi buzzes at a different hour depending on its customers.
You’ll find old blokes in berets with wispy Uncle Ho-style beards sipping beers soon after dawn when the stainless steel 100-litre kegs arrive from the breweries and are unloaded from the backs of motorbikes. Late at night, when the
last keg is emptied, you’re more likely to see tipsy groups of colleagues piling into taxis and young hipsters zooming off on shiny Italian Vespas.
The old-timers start early because they believe
the unpasteurised, preservative-free beer — brewed daily and made to be consumed that day — tastes freshest first thing in the morning. Most of Hanoi’s fresh beer comes from three big breweries — Hanoi Brewery, Viet Ha
Brewery and South East Asia Brewery — although smaller, backyard, home-style brewers also provide beer to bia hoi joints around the city.
Like baguettes and beef apparently, it seems the
French were responsible for bringing beer to Vietnam, introducing it in the 1890s when the Hommel brewery was established. After the French left in 1954, the Hommel brewery became the Hanoi Brewery.
it wasn’t until the Vietnamese lightened the beer and made it their own — like the baguette, which they turned into bahn mi, and the beef, which they used for pho soup — that bia hoi drinking
really took off.
Now, quaffing the brew is as quintessential a Hanoi experience as sipping egg coffee and slurping pho. For visitors to Hanoi, an evening sipping beer at a bia
hoi should be right up there with visiting Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.