Czech beer halls are growing in popularity in Ho Chi Minh City, while Hanoi sticks rigidly to its cheap, cheerful plastic-chaired bia hoi stalls.
Here two protagonists for each duke it out to see which provides the best beer experience in Vietnam.
10 reasons to choose HCMC’s beer halls
Vietnam’s healthy beer culture is well documented.
Few visitors leave Hanoi without sluicing copious volumes of watery bia hoi while the distinctive roaring tiger logo of Danang brand La Rue is as ubiquitous an adornment on backpacker T-shirts as the words same-same or a faded photograph of Bob Marley tugging a spliff.
For sophistication, however, Saigon is where it is at. Denizens of the southern hub have developed a serious taste for micro-brewed German and Eastern European-style beer and a growing contingent of venues — including one with Honorary Czech Consul status — cater to this craving.
1. It tastes good
Bia hoi has the edge on price and it fulfils the requirements of many undiscerning alcoholics in that it is wet, (usually) cold and will eventually get you drunk. No one with any respect for the glorious brewing traditions of beer, however, could argue that it is superior to the nuanced pilsners and subtly malted dark beers available in Saigon’s beer halls.
2. You can remain relatively anonymous
The ideal of bonding with locals while downing cheap beer and liquor is all very well.
The reality is routinely much worse. Vietnamese men aren’t known for their fortitude in the face of a serious session and the novelty of being asked to down weak lager and rice wine every 10 seconds by a red-eyed local with five words of English wears off pretty quickly.
Garbled conversation with your friends in a beer hall might not be perfect, but it usually trumps the alternative.
3. The food is better
I’m not going to lie. The food in most beer halls is passable going on average. It is, however, generally safe and edible — a rule that doesn’t always apply in bia hois.
On a recent visit to Hanoi, a friend took me to a bia hoi that apparently did “great food.” From a kitchen that stank strongly of urine came a plate of deep-fried pork ribs with the pliancy of sheet glass and a serving of spicy gristle masquerading as lemongrass chicken.
Fried cheese might not be the apex of Vietnam’s culinary offerings but it’s hard to do it that badly.
4. The beer is less likely to be off
“Fresh beer?” Aye, that’ll be right.
For every honest broker up in Hanoi there’s another chancer desperate to foist the degrading dregs in his/her keg upon an unsuspecting outsider.
Micro-brewed beer should be treated with caution but it is unlikely to necessitate an expensive trip to hospital for treatment of pancreas/liver/kidney disease.
5. No pale imitations
Vietnam, for all its many attributes, has not earned a reputation as the land of the crap copy for nothing.
Its beer halls, however, have resisted the temptation to cut corners while recreating the flavors of northern European beer in the tropics.
One of the most famous venues, Hoa Vien (the honorary Czech consul) applies traditional brewing technology imported from the beer mecca of Plzen while Lion Brewery, a Bavarian-style venue, adheres to the German Purity Law which stipulates that only water, hops and malt can be used in the brewing process.
6. Kitsch is king
Saigon’s cavernous beer halls may lack the intimacy of a bia hoi and the visceral distractions of the street, but it makes up for these shortcomings by being entertainingly weird, both by design and by accident.
If you like lots of random beer trinkets and bric-a-brac and watching diminutive, flat-chested Asian waitresses being forced to ape buxom, Teutonic wenches in ludicrous period costume you won’t go short on visual stimulus.
7. Acceptable toilets
For some the experience of peeing into a crap-crusted hole while sweating buckets and cursing your negligence in forgetting to bring toilet paper is all part of the bia hoi appeal.
Saner members of the human race will prefer the regularly cleaned, air-conditioned numbers in Saigon’s beer halls. What’s more, sit down toilets are way easier to vomit into.
8. Insinuate yourself
OK, so not everyone wants to spend the night drinking with a Vietnamese party man (that’s party as in Communist not Robert Downey Junior), but if you need a high-powered friend with a nice car and an oddly low official salary these highfalutin beer barns are favorite haunts of the country’s elite.
9. You know exactly what you are getting
Not so much of a problem with the booze — although some of the rice wine concoctions at the bia hois are slightly daunting — but the English menus are a godsend when it comes to ordering grub.
Vietnam’s culinary reputation is high, but that’s because most food commentators haven’t mistakenly ordered fried pig’s stomach or cow’s penis when trying to be adventurous in a bia hoi.
10. Reduce your risk of contracting a deadly disease
Unlike at bia hois, rats are rarely visible, motorbikes and cars don’t fart toxic fumes in your general direction and no-one sucks a pipe to get your beer out of the keg, thus reducing your risk of contracting hepatitis.
10 reasons to choose Hanoi’s bia hoi
Much has been written about bia hoi. It’s a foamy, light-alcohol beer found mostly in northern Vietnam. Made fresh each day with few preservatives, the dregs are chucked down the gutter at close of business each day.
This quick turnover and easy brewing means it’s exceptionally cheap — about 20 cents a glass, though Vietnam’s rapid inflation may see that rise before publication — and the establishments that serve it are also relatively basic.
1. Bia hoi is cheaper
Far, far cheaper than its Czech-inspired counterpart. Though both cost peanuts compared to most places back home there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing your dozen beers cost only US$3.
2. People are friendlier
It’s a rare night you’ll spend with friends clustered round the low-slung plastic stools of a bia hoi where some blinking, red-faced bloke won’t lurch up to your table to repeatedly grasp your hand and yell, “Helloo! Hello! Helloh?” then invite you to join his mates for some rounds of cheap, rice-based spirits.
3. You can relax
Smoking, slurping, dumping chicken bones on the floor — all are acceptable behavior here. Nay, they’re encouraged.
4. The food
Some bia hois serve execrable rubbish, but plenty serve excellent, freshly prepared dishes for very little cost.
Banana flower salad (nom hoa chuoi), barbecued chicken (ga nuong) and fried rice (com rang) are stalwarts. Just watch out for the mixed hotpot (lau thap cam) or pig stomach (da day).
5. Interesting local spirits
Vodka Hanoi (cheap, rice-based vodka with a slightly greasy aftertaste) is a standard but many places also stock ruou ong den — rice wine infused with the whole bees’ nest, not just the nectar — or ruou dua, rice wine left to ferment in a coconut shell (it tastes a hell of a lot better than Malibu, believe us).
The hangover’s never worth it, mind.
6. Street life
Usually these beer barns are open-walled and tables and chairs often spill onto the street. You may get a lungful of motorbike exhaust with your fried spinach, but you get a nice view as well. Others back onto lakes or parks, or the Mausoleum.
7. Watery, weak, but unique
It’s rare in the south but unheard of in the rest of the world. Fresh, brewed daily and cheaper than any other beer, anywhere. That has to count for something in a world of generic, international brands. And it’s no more watery than Bud or Coors, anyway.
8. Colonial heritage
Think of this: the French colonial oppressors brought bia to Vietnam to stop people wrecking themselves on dodgy rice spirit.
This is where bia hois originally came from. The pilsner beer halls are a result of people studying in former communist nations back in the days when everyone still knew the words to the Internationale.
But the leftovers of colonial rule — the bia hois — are still working men’s brew halls while the results of the egalitarian international brotherhood are there mostly for the rapidly emerging middle class.
9. It’s egalitarian
Bia hoi gets more egalitarian yet. A bia hoi can be nothing more than a tiny grandmother sat roadside with a table, chairs, a keg and a few glasses.
Using technology no more complicated than a rubber pipe she sucks some frothy beer from the keg, so you can usually have a drink morning, noon or night. As Vietnam modernizes, beer for breakfast has become less common, but it was once a grand tradition.
10. No hangover
Though some drinkers will vehemently disagree, bia hoi doesn’t usually leave you with a pounding hangover.
It’s low alcohol content means it takes a concerted effort to get drunk enough to feel dreadful the next day. Most problems come from people getting a stale batch, something you have to watch out for. Drinking at busy places is a better idea.