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Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Local Microbrew in Vietnam’s Capital Transcends Language Barriers and Traveler’s Burnout

By Dave Fox
Hanoi, Vietnam

When I don’t have the energy to drink beer, something’s wrong. And when drinking beer is work-related, it’s rare I don’t want to do my job. But I was wrapping up a grueling couple of weeks in Vietnam, and I just didn’t have the energy.

I had come to Hanoi to write about bia hoi – Vietnamese draft beer that’s bottled fresh at breweries each morning and delivered by motorbike to hole-in-the-wall bars. Usually translated as “fresh beer,” (but more accurately, “gas beer”), bia hoi is unpasteurized and has no preservatives, hence the daily tapping and small-batch deliveries to scruffy watering holes where it must be consumed within a day. It’s got a relatively low alcohol content of around three percent – nice if you want to have a few on a sweaty afternoon. A glass will set you back about 25 US cents.

I’d consumed my share of bia hoi in Ho Chi Minh City, where I’ve spent lots of time. But Hanoi, a city I’d never visited, is Vietnam’s bia hoi capital. So I flew there to write about the brew and the culture that surrounds it.

When you’re in the mood for noise and chaos, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has plenty of both.

I arrived exhausted after two hectic weeks of work in southern Vietnam. I had hit a wall. I was burned out. But I wandered through Hanoi’s cacophonous motorbike traffic to Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien Streets. The intersection has become informally known as “Bia Hoi Corner” for its proliferation of drinking spots.

Low-sitting plastic tables and chairs spilled out of bars onto street corners. Every bar was packed, every table occupied, by chatty backpackers who looked like they’d been slurping for a while. I wanted to get my story. And normally, I’d have no problem pulling up a chair where I found a free one. But I was experiencing worse-than-usual traveler’s burnout. It was a rare moment when I didn’t want to drink with strangers. I just didn’t want to talk to anybody.

When you’re a travel writer, you sometimes must do things on trips even if you don’t feel like it. But when you’re a human, you sometimes must give yourself a break when your mental health is not at its optimum. I shuffled past Bia Hoi Corner a couple of times before deciding I really needed a nap. This story would have to wait for another visit.

The next morning, I got out of Hanoi’s chaotic Old Quarter. I took a long walk south to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where French colonialists housed political prisoners, and where the North Vietnamese Army later held American POWs. A former house of torture was not the best place to go in my mood, but it’s one of those sights you go see on your first trip to Hanoi.

Still struggling to recharge afterward, I headed farther south for a solitary walk around Tuoi Tre Lake. But on my way, I took a detour.

I’ve learned over the years to trust my traveler’s instincts – even when they don’t make sense. I hit a stretch of railroad tracks. For reasons I can’t explain, I turned right, and followed the tracks. Another right turn led me up an alleyway cluttered with family-run businesses selling clothes, plastic kitchenware, soups, and motorcycle parts. I liked being an anonymous foreigner. I started to breathe more deeply.

As I neared the next corner, I wished the long alleyway were longer. About to take my third right, and complete my circuit, I spotted a quiet bia hoi place.

This wasn’t Bia Hoi Corner. It wasn’t clogged with throngs of tourists. Just five guys propping themselves against the walls in flimsy, plastic chairs.

I glanced inside. I sighed as I passed, and scolded myself for not working harder on my story. I wanted to go in, but I was feeling shier than usual. I kept walking.

As I passed, however, as I was nearly out of the bar’s line-of-sight, the owner noticed me noticing his place.

“Bia?” he shouted at me.

I pondered for less than a second. I shrugged and smiled. “Yeah.”

It was the first time I had really smiled in 24 hours. Laughter and applause rose from the other four drinkers. Tourists didn’t walk down this street. And they sure as hell didn’t drink at this bar.

Beer quickly becomes a lingua franca.

I bought my first beer. They bought me multiple later rounds, and seemed almost insulted when I tried to reciprocate. They spoke virtually no English, and I speak even less Vietnamese, yet we communicated – through charades, sketches, and photographs.

One of them asked if I was married, forming a ring around one finger with the index finger on his other hand. I somehow communicated that I would be soon, that my fiancée was a teacher, that we were hoping to move from America to Asia, that perhaps I would become a regular at their joint.

The bar owner and his wife toasted to sexy shaved-headedness. Or something like that.

The owner gestured that I was very handsome – then smirked that it was because I had a shaved head like him. I gave him a thumbs-up. He introduced his wife. We laughed and toasted in multiple languages. We sat and joked, and drank together until the weak bia hoi didn’t feel so weak anymore.

I hung out with my new friends for more than two hours. I felt revived. Okay, and a little tipsy. I’d hit my limit for the day. As I got up to leave, I told everybody that I didn’t know when, but sometime, I’d be back. I hoped they understood me.

My work was done. I’d found my bia hoi story after all – in a place no guidebook touted as the right place to drink it. I took a happy walk around the lake.

Published on Sunday, March 25, 2012

3 Responses to “Bia Hoi in Hanoi”

  1. Kreig
    May 1, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Dave, you will be going back! Because you’re coming to visit me when I move to Cat Ba in September, and I’ll meet you in Hanoi! And bring that adventure lovin’ wife of yours, because I’m the new outdoor adventure tour guide. :D

    I was at Bia Hoi corner once, and the local girl serving took a distinct disliking to me. Now who wouldn’t like charming Kreig?

    What happened was, rather than paying 6000VD each time I had a drink, I’d decided to have a bit of a session with a few mates. So I gave her a larger note, and communicated to just keep taking money out of that. She said no no. I said I don’t have anything smaller.

    Now here’s where cross-cultural communication can get interesting…..

    She started getting rather irrate, to put it mildly, and I could not for the life of me fathom why….

    Someone said that she had misheard me, and thought that I had thoroughly insulted her in some way. I laughed, and tried to explain. She was having none of it.

    I was kicked out – and barred! – from my first and only watering hole in Asia, after 5 months of constant travelling (and visitations of watering holes).

    So I toddled off to the opposite corner, and sat there on those ridiculous small kiddies plastic chairs (alright for you Dave, but I think I broke two or three of those Playschool chairs on my trip), and charged my glass to her from across the street.

    Funny thing is, I found she’s a bit of a fire cracker anyway. A local expat told me she was always like that. I felt a bit better about myself. He also taught me how to REALLY insult her in Vietnamese, but hey, that’s not my style…..

    Here’s to hoping that when I get back there in September, more than a year later, she doesn’t remember me!

  2. May 1, 2013 at 4:57 PM

    >>> Now who wouldn’t like charming Kreig?

    Ahem… I think we would all like “charming Kreig.” When do I get to meet him?

    You are moving to Cat Ba? As it turns out, Kattina and I might be in Halong Bay in July, but I’m always happy for an excuse to return — charming or otherwise. If you promise to behave, I might take you to my secret, *real* bia hoi place, far from “Bia Hoi Corner.” But if you start throwing plastic chairs, I’m out of there.

    • Kreig
      May 1, 2013 at 6:11 PM

      Done deal. I came across one or two of those places too. They’re great! Like you, I love getting off the beaten track. Unlike you, I literally mean that. :) I was fortunate enough to be invited into 3 random homes in Cambodia. One on an island in the middle of the Mekong, one in some random village in the jungle, and one in a REALLY remote random village in the jungle! I doubt this village had seen a foreigner in there little village before, let alone as hairy as I. But truly, truly special occasions I will always cherish.

      So yeah, bring on the bia hoi! Can’t wait to see you both again. Think I need to cook another meal…. :)

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