Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Vietnam, Traveling an Unlikely Beer Trail


THE setting could have been any typical Central European beer garden. There were long rows of wooden tables stained in dark, rich hues; half- and full-liter beer mugs hanging from metal racks; and two beautifully crafted brass decoction tanks used for mashing traditionally brewed beer. But on this warm afternoon in November, I wasn’t in Plzen, orMunich, or Bruges. I was at the Hoa Vien Bräuhaus in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The humid air buzzed with conversations in melodiously tonal Vietnamese. This, too, surprised me. Considering that Hoa Vien’s founder is an honorary consul of the Czech Republic (that is, a noncareer diplomat), I had envisioned throngs of expatriates knocking their glasses together. But the crowd was made up of young Vietnamese men in slacks and button-down shirts — lanyards with key cards still dangling around their necks — and couples chatting under large, shady trees. All part of Vietnam’s growing generation of hip, young professionals.

At the beginning of a beer odyssey through this long, slender country, I savored the unexpectedness of it all as I sipped two draft brews made on the premises, carrying Hoa Vien’s Hoavener label. The crisp, freshly poured bia vang (yellow beer), what we would call a golden lager, had a bitter hops flavor somewhere between a typical Czech pilsner and a Munich-style lager. The bia den (black beer), a dark lager, was more intensely bitter, and had just enough bite to balance a beautiful malt-caramel flavor. Both were wonderful.

For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, the variety of local and regional beers can be surprising. It seems each city has a beer named after it (Bia Can Tho, Bia Thai Binh, Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue, and so on), and the best of the bunch depends on whom you ask and where you’re asking. But in recent decades, Vietnamese beer culture has morphed, adopting traditional European styles as well as embracing a uniquely ephemeral home-grown brew called bia hoi. The latter is so popular that to many of the roughly four million people who visit Vietnam each year, drinking bia hoi on the streets of Hanoi is as emblematic of a trip to Southeast Asia as ordering pad Thai in Bangkok.

Ho Chi Minh City is home to a handful of European-style microbreweries, most of which are centrally located in District 1 and some of which claim to brew their beer according to the Bavarian purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot. This trend took off in 2001 when Hoa Vien, which had previously been importing Pilsner Urquell, built a Euro-style brewery inside the restaurant with the help of experts from the Czech Republic. Other breweries followed, trying to tap into a domestic beer culture that stretches back at least to the 1890s (that’s when the Habeco brewery, now state run, was founded by French colonialists), was revitalized during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and currently produces more than 2 billion liters of beer a year.

The European influence was visible at two other pubs I visited in Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen Du Brauhof, a small open-air restaurant, served Adler Bräu beer alongside German dishes like schweinshaxe and traditional Vietnamese fare like eel. And across the street from the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater, not far from Graham Greene’s old haunt the Continental Hotel, the Lion Brewery & Restaurant resembled a giant Munich bierhalle — complete with wall-size murals of Oktoberfest revelers in lederhosen and dirndls.

Heading north from Ho Chi Minh City, I flew to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most popular coastal resort town. The typhoons that had devastated the Philippines last fall had obscured Nha Trang’s beach under waist-high drifts of tree parts and human-made jetsam, but the Louisiane Brewhouse, nestled beneath undamaged palm trees on the southern sweep of Nha Trang’s main drag, just an arm’s length from the sand, was open for business. Here was a place, I had heard, where beer influences collided: classic Northern European styles transformed by Southeast Asia’s tropical flavors.

I first ordered a Crystal Ale draft, a top-fermented beer made with passion fruit and local rambutan, a tropical fruit similar to litchi. It tasted faintly of honey, matched with floral highlights and a mild bitter finish. Next, I had a Passion Fruit Witbier draft, a slight twist on a Belgian classic. The witbier base itself was made with a mixture of local and imported wheat grains, and a gruit, or flavoring base, consisting of local coriander and orange, and imported hops. The resulting beer, served with a slice of lime, reminded me of the Portuguese wine vinho verde with a spicy kick of coriander. An excellent match for freshly caught seafood.

No beer tour to Vietnam would be complete without heading to Hanoi to sample the ultimate people’s beer, bia hoi. Consumed in frightening quantities by everyone from Vietnam’s newly rich to its hard-working street vendors, bia hoi, sometimes called fresh beer but literally meaning gas beer, is an unpasteurized, unpreserved brew made before the sun rises, and often imbibed before the sun sets. All throughout the day, motorcycle deliverymen can be seen carting the grog around in everything from 100-liter drums to smaller plastic jugs. Much of it comes from three huge breweries, but scores of smaller mom-and-pop operations flourish as well.

Walking around Hanoi’s narrow, warrenlike streets, one sees bia hoi joints on just about every corner — with locals quaffing the low-alcohol brew (2 to 4 percent) as early as 8 a.m., after which time, some locals say, the peak flavors are already in decline. The décor at these places is a remarkably consistent mash-up of the children’s section of Ikea and the ultimate in street-life voyeurism: stands of shin-high plastic tables crammed right up to the curb and matched with semicircles of knee-high plastic chairs, all facing the road. Food venders are always nearby hawking the perfect complement to a tipsy evening: grilled meats, dried squid, pork buns, noodles.

The best bia hoi places in Hanoi serve a crisp, cold beer with a clean taste suggesting rice and an almost subliminal whisper of something like hops. Daytime visits to these chatty, casual settings are a great way to strike up a conversation with a local resident. But at night, patrons at many of the locals-oriented spots may be too consumed with their conversations to notice a wandering tourist.

I sampled some of the freshest bia hoi in the city at 22 Hang Tre and 19C Ngoc Ha Streets, respectively, during the day. In both places the beer was low on bitterness, light, and had subtle notes of straw and rice — a world apart from the double I.P.A.’s, imperial stouts and other high-alcohol, high-impact beers popular with American craft brewers. I opted to spend the bulk of my evenings at the intersection of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien Streets, a busy confluence of foreign tourists and English-speaking Vietnamese known informally as bia hoi corner.

THE beer at bia hoi corner is from a small local brewery, and varies in quality by the batch. At 3,000 Vietnamese dong (roughly 16 cents) a pint, it is so inexpensive — “cheaper than water,” a gregarious Vietnamese man told me — that locals know to buy a single drink to test the day’s offering before deciding whether to stay. They also know that the beer is just one aspect of what makes socializing at one of these places, filled with an eclectic spectrum of people, so much fun.

One night I had a conversation about the American electoral college with a 26-year-old Vietnamese chemical engineer dressed in chic slacks, a button-down shirt and designer glasses; the next day I traded New York City dining tips with a former sushi chef from Queens.

After my last hot day in Hanoi, which included a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, I finally came to a stop at bia hoi corner. Sitting in a Lilliputian plastic chair by the curb, I watched street vendors sell mangoes from baskets balanced across their shoulders on bamboo poles, motorcycles overloaded with passengers and goods weave through the traffic, and the occasional young girl and her grandmother going for an early evening walk in pajamas and flip-flops.

Pretty soon I would be braving the crush of Hanoi’s traffic myself, stuck in an overcrowded shuttle on the way to the airport. After experiencing Vietnam’s pleasantly vibrant beer culture, I was in no rush to pack my bags.



There are many airlines flying between Kennedy Airport and Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Many of the itineraries have two stopovers. A recent online search found round-trip flights in March to Hanoi starting at $1,228 on Cathay Pacific, and flights to Ho Chi Minh City starting at just over $1,000 on Air China and at $1,140 on Cathay Pacific.

Vietnam Airlines (, Air Asia ( and Jetstar ( offer cheap domestic flights. Popular routes can fill up quickly.


In Ho Chi Minh City:

Hoa Vien Bräuhaus (28 bis Mac Dinh Chi Street, District 1; 84-8 3-829-0585;

Nguyen Du Brauhof (98 Nguyen Du Street, District 1; 84-8 3-822-6891)

Lion Brewery & Restaurant (11C Lam Son Square, District 1; 84-8 3-823-8514)

In Nha Trang:

Louisiane Brewhouse (Lot 29, Tran Phu Street; 84-58 3-521-948 or 84-58 3-521-831;

In Hanoi:

Many bia hoi joints are known simply by their address — or even the intersection they inhabit. New ones pop up, and old ones close or relocate. But wander around Hanoi for a few minutes and you will see locals sitting on undersize plastic chairs drinking straw-colored beer at any time of the day.

Bia hoi corner (Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien Streets) is a central gathering place. For some of the freshest, best tasting bia hoi in the city, try:

19C Ngoc Ha Street (Ba Dinh District). Catering to an upper-class Vietnamese crowd, this is a great place to get an afternoon beer after waiting in line to see Ho Chi Minh in his casket — since Uncle Ho’s mausoleum is literally just out back.

22 Hang Tre Street (Hoan Kiem District). Another bia hoi joint — or two, it occupies both sides of the street — just off the main tourist drag, but totally off most tourists’ itineraries.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Destination Vietnam - From the Mekong River Delta to Ha Long Bay

By Samantha Berkin

Fortunately, the present-day experience of traveling from South Vietnam to North Vietnam is not at all like it was during our parents' time. Instead of fighting from a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, you can now be enjoying cheap beer on a luxury liner. You can even make silly television shows about making the entire South-to-North trek on underpowered motor scooters in the rain.

Either way you look at it, the experience is, shall we say, a lot safer. This is even true if you are stupid enough to be taking a scooter into Vietnam traffic as an inexperienced Westerner, but just barely so.

Vietnam is a stunning country with rich history, beautiful, powerful scenery, and it is a good value destination on top of that. It is also popular as a destination for some of the older crowd. There is a generation of tourists out there, freshly retired, who want to visit the country under more favorable circumstances than they did in the past, people who want to choose to visit the country rather than be forced to do so.

Starting in the South, cruising the Mekong River is a popular place to start. Many travelers choose to start in Cambodia and cruise down the river before disembarking outside Ho Chi Minh (Saigon for all you old-schoolers out there) and taking a bus in. Another highlight of a trip in the area can be taking the Cu Chi tunnels into the city instead. The Viet Cong dug this nearly 200 kilometer-long network of tunnels to infiltrate American camps in Saigon during the war.

Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling, modern city, and the most populous one in Vietnam. It is also a traffic nightmare, as well as an excellent place to go shopping and pick up some trinkets for the folks back home. Don't forget the Presidential Palace and possibly a visit to the War Remnants Museum while staying here.

Next on the list of places to see would have to be Nha Trang, consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in Vietnam, as well as one of the most beautiful bays in the world. The scuba diving in particular is making this a huge backpacker destination. More and more, however, the big tour companies are also catching on to this fact. Just check out a comparison of Vietnam tours, browse around, and you will find that many of these tours include Nha Trang. Additionally, it was the site of Miss Universe 2008, and will play host to Miss World 2010. Not my thing, to be sure, but for some, I guess this is an attraction.

Most people do not have forever to dilly-dally in Vietnam, so for the next major attraction on the list, we are going to have to jump all the way forward to Hoi An, home to numerous small museums concerning the history and culture of the region. This ancient town has been remarkably well-preserved over the years, well enough for the area to be recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a traditional South-East Asian trading port.

Hue is another great ancient city with an amazing amount of monuments . This was the Royal City, the ancient capital of Vietnam. The "Pass of the Ocean Clouds" is supposed to be an unforgettable drive. Our imaginary itinerary next takes us to Hanoi, the capital and second largest city of Vietnam. Hanoi has been a city for nearly 1000 years, and this has necessarily left its mark on the area. If you want culture, history, urban tourist attractions, and the like, the city is definitely a must-see.

Of course, the true must-see destination of Vietnam, and where we will end our journey, is Ha Long Bay. This site should be recognizable to backpackers, seasoned world trekkers, and even those armchair travelers out there whose idea of travel is watching an old VHS flick on the tube television. This was where the young couple floated around for days in Indochine (an amazingly beautiful movie, which I highly recommend, by the way.) In more recent times it was highlighted in Tomorrow Never Dies, one of the forgettable Pierce Brosnan Bond films.

Beyond all that, it is shockingly beautiful. The landscape is utterly surreal, with over 2000 small limestone islands erupting from the placid jade waters. A complex of grottos and caves, mountains and beaches, floating fishing villages and spectacular sunsets should enthrall you. Silently, you mourn the fact that you must inevitably return from this island paradise to the drudgery and office politics of the paper company you work for in Scranton.

I'm a world traveler and recent Columbia University graduate. I'm looking to share some of my experiences/tips with others so they can discover their next perfect trip. I'm a little older than your usual graduate, because I took gobs of time off to travel extensively!

Travel guides, tours, and tour reviews

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Australian Mining Technology Cos Seek To Invest In Vietnam

HANOI -(Dow Jones)- Representatives from 15 Australian mining technology firms will visit Vietnam later this month to seek investment opportunities in the country's mining industry, Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said Monday.

During the three-day visit starting Monday, the delegation will hold talks with state-run Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Group and visit the Sin Quyen Copper Mine and Tang Loong Copper Refining Plant in the northern province of Lao Cai, the ministry said in a statement.

The delegation will introduce their mining technologies and services to mining firms in Vietnam, the ministry added.

-By Vu Trong Khanh, Dow Jones Newswires; 844 35123042;

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Standard Chartered: Vietnam makes it a different year

08:28' 22/04/2009 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge - That the Vietnamese economy is showing several positive signs was what Standard Chartered revealed in its latest report entitled “Vietnam-what a difference a year makes”.

In the report released by the bank in mid-April, the Head of the Southeast Asia Research Department, Tai Hui, said that the trade balance in Vietnam is steadily swinging from a deficit to a surplus.

For the first quarter of 2009, Vietnam ran a trade surplus of 1.6 billion USD, compared to a deficit of 8.4 billion USD in the same period last year.

“This was the result of a collapse in imports, which was partly driven by a rapid decline in commodity prices, in particular of steel and petroleum products,” Tai Hui added.

He stated that when Vietnam’s first oil refinery starts production later this year, the country should be better protected from rising oil prices.

Another positive sign came with exports increasing by 25.9 percent in February and 12.9 percent in March after shrinking for three months between November 2008 and January 2009, said Hui.

Inflation remains on a downward trend, dropping to 11.2 percent in March, the lowest since December 2007, after peaking in August 2008 at 28.3 percent.

The senior economic expert forecasted that inflation could drop to a single digit by the second half of 2009 if oil and food prices remain stable.

“The gloomy global sentiment has yet to be seen in local consumption as domestic retail sales have maintained a decent momentum in recent months. Even after adjusting for inflation, real retail sales have been broadly expanding,” Hui said.

“Surprisingly, the global economic slowdown has yet to hurt foreign direct investment (FDI),” emphasised the economist.

Official figures show that the country attracted 6 billion USD of pledged FDI in the first quarter of 2009, slightly higher than 5.2 billion USD recorded in the same period last year.

In his analysis, Hui attributed the State Bank of Vietnam’s (SBV) prompt monetary policy for the U-turn in the economy 12 months ago.

Trade deficits reached up to 9 percent of gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2008 and inflation culminated at 28.3 percent in August of that year.

In response to capital outflows and rising inflation, the SBV raised its base rate aggressively in 2008 to 14 percent by the end of the second quarter of that year from 8-7.5 percent at the start of the quarter.

By the third quarter of 2008, the trade deficit seemed to have been brought under control and the increase of the consumer price index had slowed down.

In this situation, the Government was quick to reverse its monetary tightening, reducing the base rate to 7 percent in early April 2009 from 14 percent in September 2008. Meanwhile, the authorities also permitted the VND to fall further against the USD. Since the end of September 2008, the VND has dropped by 7 percent.

The Government has announced various fiscal measures to support economic growth, including interest subsidies and tax deferrals.

In the report, Standard Chartered remained constructive in its medium-term outlook for Vietnam while 2009 is still a year of great challenges for the domestic and regional economy.

“Several structural factors will drive the country’s development, some of which will still be at work even as growth in the advanced economies weakens”, Hui said.

Standard Chartered experts forecast that Vietnam’s purchasing power will double in the next 6-7 years, after taking into account the growth of other Asian economies.

Vietnam, due to its stable political environment and low production costs, is often regarded by Asian businesses as a good alternative, said the report.

“The experiences of other Asian economies often serve as an example to policy makers in Vietnam as they determine the most appropriate approach to facilitating growth. The domestic market turmoil in the second and in third quarter of 2008, as well as the global financial crisis, demonstrates that the authorities are quick to learn and adapt, in our view,” the report made it clear.

Standard Chartered retained its previous forecasts of the Vietnamese economy growth at 4.2 percent in 2009 and 5 percent in 2010.

“While this may be low from a domestic standpoint, it is a respectable performance from a regional perspective,” concluded Hui.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Where is Vietnam Headed in 2009?


    January 12, 2009

    The three-day Tet festival is approaching in Vietnam, the climax of a long season of celebrations that began with the enthusiastic embrace of Christmas in mid-December. In the southern city that residents still call Saigon, parks and boulevards have been festooned with colorful lights, and Christmas carols drifted over restaurants, hotel lobbies and department stores with their resident Santas.

    On the surface, the "American" war that ended more than three decades ago seems to have left no traces here. But in the hearts and minds of those who suffered the war and survived to remember it, there is pain. Tet is a time for reflection, and there are some conflicted emotions about where Vietnam is headed in the new year.

    It is not only that the spectacle of affluence and materialism, even in tough economic times, and the love affair with things Western seem jarring to a revolutionary generation that gave their all to a cause, losing relatives and friends, often to unmarked battlefield graves. There is also, especially in the south, unease and disappointment that a unified Vietnam has not lived up to its considerable potential. Despite nearly two decades of economic liberalization, the Vietnamese see their country stagnating under the heavy hand of excess government regulation and censorship, and watch politicians squandering the country's economic gains on corruption.

    The start of this long holiday season coincided with a suspension of Japanese development assistance after the discovery of a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that diverted aid funds from Japan, until now Vietnam's largest donor. A reporter from a leading newspaper said journalists have been told to stop dwelling on this. Two reporters were arrested last year for writing about the skimming of aid from not only from Japan but also the World Bank. One journalist is in jail and the other in re-education. The reporters, Ngyuen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre and Nguyen Viet Chen of Thanh Nien, were convicted of "absuing democratic freedoms." (Human Rights Watch has a new report, Vietnam: Stop Muzzling the Messengers, on these and other cases. Colleagues say that the reporters had inside government sources, but that did not save them or their editors. The government, which retains the right to appoint news managers, dismissed the editors of the two newspapers involved. The popular, daring and profitable daily Tuoi Tre saw its editor replaced in December for the third time in two years by ever "safer" government appointees; in early January the editor of Thanh Nien was sacked.

    In Danang, a publishing house was shut down in December and two top editors fired for printing "mistakes." Internet users are regularly harassed and occasionally arrested. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of Vietnamese use the Internet to post blogs and share information. Among the bloggers are schoolchildren as young as 11 or 12 who have home computers or frequent Internet cafes, which the government polices clumsily. It may be a sign of a losing battle that new regulations on Internet use have been recently published in an effort to contain the impact of the cyberworld. At the same time, newspapers and other publications are racing to create English-language Web sites to give their reporting wider exposure.

    Among students, academics and, above all, journalists, critics are becoming astonishingly outspoken. In a recent seminar of professors and university administrators (some of them retired from careers in the West), speaker after speaker told of chafing under political restrictions imposed from Hanoi. The message heard again and again from participants was that the government should understand that free speech and access to information were prerequisites of human and economic development. A university president, asked how she had managed to gain so much intellectual space for her faculty, declared boldly, "I don't get given autonomy; I take it."

    In southern Vietnam there are other grievances beyond those of the classroom and newsroom. Residents of Saigon, officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City three decades ago, complain that more than three-quarters of the earnings of this dynamic, outward-looking metropolitan area are siphoned off by the central government and southerners get very little in return. A recent survey by a British consulting company ranked Saigon 150th among 215 large cities worldwide in quality of life, well behind neighbors such as Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, against which this city should be more competitive. On a scale of 1 to 10, the English-language Viet Nam News reported, Saigon got a zero for the quality of its water, and some hospitals were found to have two or three patients sharing one bed.

    Every enterprise and voluntary association gets bogged down in layers of licensing requirements. Trade groups, chambers of commerce and construction companies say publicly that new ventures may face as many as thirty-three time-wasting procedures, frustrating would-be investors.

    Among intellectuals there is enormous interest in a new book from Vietnam's most popular dissident writer, Duong Thu Huong, author ofParadise of the Blind and other works of fiction critical of enduring nationalist myths.

    The new book, just published this month in Paris and titled in French Au Zenith, is a thinly veiled and not complimentary novel about the national hero, Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of modern Vietnam and an off-limits subject here. Newspapers have been warned not to touch the story, but copies or excerpts of Huong's book in French and Vietnamese began to circulate on the Internet even before its publication.

    Huong, who is from Hanoi and was once an active communist cadre, turned against the regime, as did other intellectuals in the north, on learning after unification that much of the propaganda they had been fed about life in the south was untrue, and that Hanoi's army was killing not only Americans but also fellow Vietnamese. For more than two decades northerners have been exploring this theme of official wartime deceit in books, poetry and film.

    When Huong, whose works are banned in Vietnam, was asked, at a rare appearance in New York in 2007 sponsored by American PEN, why there was not open revolt in Vietnam, she said there were several reasons, among them that the Vietnamese had a history of fighting outsiders and no tradition of internal conflict--thus the shock at learning how many southern Vietnamese were dying in the "American" war. She also said bluntly that the Vietnamese are ruled by backward-looking leaders whose pride in winning a war against the United States--a pride widely shared--has never been augmented and updated with a compelling postwar vision for the country. The leadership has survived for thirty years "on corpses," she said.

    Meanwhile among the young, the majority of Vietnam's population, there is a deep, if blind and unrealistic, belief in the West, encouraged by theViet khieu, or overseas Vietnamese, who return with money to spend on homes and goods that local people without connections cannot afford. In recent years, European designer boutiques have supplanted Vietnamese stores in downtown Saigon, where characterless contemporary architecture is in vogue. A huge shopping mall topped with luxury apartments and a hotel is under construction, covering a full city block of prime real estate from Nguyen Hue boulevard to Dong Khoi, the former Rue Catinat.

    The complex is called Times Square.

    About Barbara Crossette

    Barbara Crossette, United Nations correspondent for The Nation, is a former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief in Asia and at the UN.

    She is the author of So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1995 and in paperback by Random House/Vintage Destinations in 1996, and a collection of travel essays about colonial resort towns that are still attracting visitors more than a century after their creation, The Great Hill Stations of Asia, published by Westview Press in 1998 and in paperback by Basic Books in 1999. In 2000, she wrote a survey of India and Indian-American relations, India: Old Civilization in a New World, for the Foreign Policy Association in New York. She is also the author of India Facing the 21st Century, published by Indiana University Press in 1993.