I Barrack for Bia Hoi

This is the fourth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is all about bia hoi.

Beer has grown exponentially in Vietnam: in 1963 it accounted for only 30% of overall alcohol consumption in the country, but as of 2005 the figure was over 97%! That puts all mature beer markets to shame.

I read about bia hoi before arriving fresh-faced in 2008 for my teaching contract and was prepared to drink my way around Saigon tasting the stuff. My palate wasn’t as developed in those days (Carlton Cold, Crown and Furstenberg all the way!) and I can happily say that in Vietnam I was the better off for it.

Because the simple fact is that most bia hoi doesn’t taste very nice.

What is bia hoi? It is freshly brewed rice lager beer fermented and sold in small family-owned pubs, restaurants and stores as well as larger gastropub-style venues. Sounds great, right? Most brewers conform to a very standard template for their beer: less than 4% ABV, very pale, thin and low malt, high rice grain bills. Easy drinking beers for hanging out after work with your buddies in a tropical city.

OK – that still sounds great.

So I guess the real issue is that the beer is often brewed badly or simply adulterated. There is a petrol-like twang about the worst batches and a mildly gross, oily mouthfeel to even some of the better examples. However, your palate does adjust, and at anywhere from eight cents to thirty cents per glass many locals, expats and visitors alike are happy to become “one with the rubber” and indulge.

At the classier beer gardens bia hoi is served in glasses and if you’re lucky can taste pretty clean and fresh, up there with the leading domestic rice lager brands like Saidon Do, Xuan and 333. In the smaller stores which may feature only a small shop front with plastic stools on the pavement, the beer is served in plastic cups or beakers and can be brewed off-premises. As with all beer drinking in Vietnam, it is common to be served with ice in the glass.

The best part about drinking bia hoi in my view is the ritual, the process of winding down at sunset by drinking beer after beer, not getting too drunk thanks to the low ABV and indulging in the sensational snack cuisine that many bia hoi joints feature. My local establishment in Tan Binh district served all manner of seafood, frog and chicken dishes with a few insects thrown in for good measure. Most of the food was dirt cheap, nearly always salty and fried and easy to share. Deep fried frog legs with lemongrass was a favourite.

The take-away option is another exceptional quality of these businesses. As Melbourne only reluctantly struggles itself into the enlightened world of growler refills, regulation-free (or rather, enforcement-free) Vietnam has been doing it for decades. Bia hoi joints will refill whatever container you bring them, and if you don’t have one of your own, they’ll supply you with one. What exactly do they supply you with? Well, in my local’s case – a plastic six-litre water drum. You are in for a good night with one of those strapped to your motorbike, as you zoom en-route to some bun bo hue in Binh Thanh district!

Some of my best (and worst) memories of Vietnam are drowning in bia hoi. What hits me most in reflection is the culture of the stuff, of drinking out of the house without breaking the bank, of celebrating fresh – if not perfect – beer and food. It’s beer for the average working person in Vietnam (of which obviously I am not): prevalent, attainable and no-fuss lager.

If Vietnam’s more European-style breweries continue to develop at their current pace – some of the venues there now are making some stellar Czech-style beer – and drinking tastes mature, it is conceivable that bia hoi could morph into more than a rice-lager only operation. Imagine that! Pale ale on every corner! ESB by the bucket! Smoked Porter on all streets with crab on the side!

I might just have to move back to Vietnam if that ever transpires …

In the next entry in this series I will talk about some motorcycle trips I took in the Mekong Delta.