Newlyweds glug cheap bia hoi in Vietnam.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
Given my hops-soaked line of work, I plan my adventures around beer. During an average year, I bend elbows in Austin and San Diego, San Francisco and Chicago, Portland and Portland—Oregon and Maine, I mean. Naturally, I wanted beer to play a supporting role in my honeymoon.
“What about Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula?” my wife, Jenene, suggested.
My mind flooded with Caribbean-clear beer. Nope.
“France?” she offered.
“No wine,” I whined.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked, exasperated.
“How about Hanoi?” I said, touting the Vietnam city’s street food, colonial architecture, favorable exchange rate and, above all, waterfalls of bia hoi. Loosely translated to “fresh beer” or, more literally, “gas beer,” bia hoi is a rice-driven, low-alcohol lager that clocks around 3 percent ABV. Come morning, Hanoi’s puttering motorcycles deliver watering holes’ daily allotment of the unfiltered, preservative-free draft beer. With a shelf life of several days, bia hoi is quaffed early and often. It’s an easy task, especially when a pour costs as little as 20 cents. In Hanoi, I thought as I packed my passport, every day is like quarter draft night in college.
One upside of a 24-hour trek is that you have time to read about Hanoi’s brewing history. It dates to the 1890s, when French colonialists founded the Hommel brewery. It trudged along until 1954, when the French left Vietnam. The Vietnamese government restored the brewery (now known as Habeco) and, with the assistance of Czech brewing experts, began bottling Trúc Bach lager in 1958. During the Vietnam War, scarce glass supplies forced the brewery to focus on draft beer. Low-cost bia hoi was born, weaving itself into the urban fabric of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Today, the style constitutes around 30 percent of Vietnam’s beer market.
We arrived in Vietnam’s capital jittery, jet-lagged and thirsty. To whet our whistles, we swam into Hanoi’s liquid chaos, with rivers of honking motorbikes coursing down the Old Quarter’s cramped streets. After sidestepping the sidewalk vendors ladling steaming soups, we uncovered a corner hangout where the sooty awning announced two words: bia hoi.
We hustled to a bar—well, a dented silver keg surrounded by itsy-bitsy stools, knee-high tables and the bartender: a fifty-something woman holding a foamy plastic tube. “Bia?” she asked. I nodded and exchanged her 5,000 dong (about 25 cents) for a smudged glass of golden liquid. It recalled Bud but drank brisker, with a subtly floral nose and tingling effervescence. In minutes, I disappeared my first glass, then my second. I wanted another mug. “We need to go to bed,” my wife said.
The ensuing days followed a delicious rhythm. I’d wander Hanoi’s pinched streets for bún cha (grilled pork with noodles) and strong coffee mixed with condensed milk—sugary rocket fuel. Fortified, I’d hit a bia hoi joint, nearly all of which recalled seedy roadside preschool classrooms. Over the day, I’d down seven or eight glasses, the buzz kept at bay by vendors selling sticky rice, grilled meats and herbaceous omelets.
It was practice for my main event: drinking at every haunt in Bia Hoi Corner. After a day of buying knockoff sneakers, we moseyed to the Old Quarter intersection ringed with ramshackle bia hoi bars bustling with tourists, expats and chain-smoking locals, all united by beer. Glass after glass, hour after hour, I consumed the snappy lager. My sobriety dented. My belly swelled. My wife’s patience flagged.
“I think you’ve had enough,” she said. For marriage to succeed, there must be compromise. “One more and we go?” I asked, seeking a middle ground. We shared a kiss, then another glass.