As we’ve mentioned in our blog before, Vietnam has a social coffee culture, with groups of friends often gathering on sidewalks all around the cities and towns, perched on tiny plastic stools slowly imbibing coffee while rapidly chatting away the morning or afternoon. The Vietnamese are far from teetotal though, and the same groups who natter away while downing coffee after coffee (or ca phe sua da after ca phe sua da) by day often make the timely switch to bia hoi by night.
Bia hoi, which translates as ‘beer gas’, is a cheap, fresh rice beer that’s sold on street corners and in small no-frills bars. When we say fresh, we mean it too. Each batch is brewed without the use of preservatives which means the frothy brew has to be consumed the same day of production. The bonus of this lack of chemicals is not only that (theoretically) the beer is healthier to imbibe; it also makes the drink cheaper – a single 12oz glass of bia hoi sets drinkers back around VND5,000 – approximately US$0.25. Some of the best food in Vietnam can also be found at these bars.
The daily brewing process is done overnight, then in the morning barrels of bia hoi are distributed around Hanoi by breweries on keg-wielding lorries, or even picked up by the bar owners themselves by the jug load.
So where’s the catch I hear you ask? Well, admittedly the taste of the bia hoi can vary due to a lack of production standards, and the bars that sell the amber nectar can afford to do so at a low price partially because of a lack of overheads in running a bar on the street. The downside of that for the conscientious drinker is that there’s often no consistent refrigeration process as you’d expect in a real bar, which means the swifter you drink the better. A common way to counter this is by adding ice cubes to the glass, which although a common practice throughout Southeast Asia, is not to everyone’s taste, or often the kegs are jammed into custom-made fridges to aid the beer’s longevity.
Another drawback is that street bars often lack other crucial facilities such as male AND female toilets. As only Vietnamese men tend to frequent bia hoi bars (it’s not seen as a ladylike pursuit, foreigners excepted), so even if there are toilets they may not be female-friendly. The only other drawback of bia hoi is its popularity! Due to its lack of longevity, a bar will rarely over-order, so it’s common that they may run out of the beer in the early evening.
The benefits outweigh these niggling drawbacks though, especially in terms of price. But a visit to a bia hoi bar isn’t just about saving money – like the coffee stands, bia hoi bars are a cultural side of Hanoi that shouldn’t be missed: tiny plastic stools, throngs of merry locals, a cheap snack to complement the inexpensive beer and the madness of the city streets whizzing past as you happily sup away the evening – the street bar scene of Hanoi is unlike anywhere else in the world!
If you’re looking for a place with an eclectic mix of locals, expats and travelers you can head straight to the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien for your iconic Vietnamese drinking experience. Although our Vietnam Travel Specialist Thu Lan isn’t a regular at such bars, she certainly knows the city and would be happy to show you the most popular haunts of locals.