Bia Hoi in Hanoi
Local Microbrew in Vietnam’s Capital Transcends Language Barriers and Traveler’s Burnout
By Dave Fox
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.