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.
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
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.
WHERE TO GO
In Ho Chi Minh City:
Hoa Vien Bräuhaus (28 bis Mac Dinh Chi Street, District 1; 84-8 3-829-0585; hoavien.vn)
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; www.louisianebrewhouse.com.vn)
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.