Bia Hoi - Morning Brew
"I like a good beer buzz early in the morning." Sheryl Crow's lyrics come to mind as my wife and I each pull up a tiny stool to a tiny table in a tiny joint off of a busy road in Hanoi. It's not yet noon.
What's our poison? Today it's what the locals call bia hoi, or what we might simply call beer. But this ain't any old brew. No, this is a special Vietnamese concoction that is widely available in small eateries and other dives. Call it a micro-brew. Better yet, call it a micro-, micro-brew. Call it local moonshine, even.
Bia hoi isn't a brand of beer, so much as it's a type of beer. Small establishments carry their own versions and varieties. It is generally advertised via a crude sign with the words "BIA HOI" etched in paint or thick magic marker. Unlike flashy and colorful Coca-Cola or Pepsi signs, these hand-made signs could lead the unenlightened tourist to conclude that the place has a "TOILET INSIDE," rather than local refreshment.
Being the fashionable beer drinkers that we are, however, Sharon and I are more enlightened. We've read about bia hoi, and we're game--even though we've also been warned by Vietnam-based friends that some bia hoi tastes like...well, toilet water. But our sense of adventure is keen. Indeed, we've just gone to see the granddaddy of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh himself, who has been preserved since his death in 1969 at a national mausoleum. We figure anyone who's eyed the pale face of a man who's been dead for over 20 years is entitled to a drink. Even before noon. "Hai bia hoi," we say. That means "two beers" in Vietnamese. (We think.)
Our friendly bartender-cum-waitress is all smiles. She's an attractive woman, perhaps in her early thirties, and seems delighted to have a couple foreigners in her cozy little space. In fact, she's coaxed us to come in to try her stuff by yelling out to us in the street. One reason for the interest in us, no doubt, is the "novelty" factor. It probably isn't every day a couple of westerners saunter in for a couple of brews. This is good for business! Another reason, perhaps, is the "pride factor." We sense that this woman knows her bia hoi is something special. She wants to show it off.
We watch our lady proprietor as she moves to a plastic container outside. It looks a bit like a large drum used to carry gasoline and probably once was. Hooked to one end of the container is a long, rubber tube. A cork serves as the makeshift tap on the other end. Our bartender pops the tap, puts her lips squarely on the mouth of the tube and gives it a great big suck. My wife and I watch in amazement as she gives a few more sucks on the tap for good measure. This rather crude method of generating the necessary suction is nonetheless effective: sure enough, a few moments later the bia hoi is flowing. Out comes a light, golden, frothy liquid, right into a couple of tall glasses. It looks like a super-light lager. The head on the top is not huge, but certainly adequate. When we're given the glasses, they're cold. All signs are promising. So we sip...little do we know at the time how the bia hoi has arrived. As much as it appears that it has been made on the premises, this is not the case. Three major breweries in town make bia hoi: Hanoi Brewery, Viet Ha Brewery and South East Asia Brewery. At around 6 every morning, these three major factories open their doors to bia hoi outlet representatives. Traveling mostly via cyclos or bicycle/wheelbarrows, these reps go to the factories and purchase fresh beer in large 100 liter barrels. As a sign of the times, these days some of the really big buyers get the beer delivered daily by truck.
From there the beer is sold directly to thirsty comrades or is further redistributed in the bia hoi network of Hanoi. The "Big Boys"--those bia hoi outlets that can sell as much as 10 to 15 of the 100 liter barrels in a day--will resell smaller amounts to street-side restaurants catering to the lunch-time crowd. Most of these smaller outlets send a boy on a cyclo or bicycle to get the bia hoi in five- to ten-gallon (typically gasoline style) containers from the larger establishments. This is obviously the kind of place where we are. Unlike canned or bottled beer, bia hoi has no additives or preservatives and is essentially made to be consumed on the day that it leaves the factory. As a result, there is no stocking of bia hoi, and outlets must forecast accordingly. They must purchase just enough to last one full day. Locals will tell you that bia hoi, which typically has an alcohol content of somewhere between 4 and 4 1/2 percent, is best when served early in the day--as close to when it has been made as possible.
Luckily for us, we're having our first sip of bia hoi pretty early in the day. It goes down very, very smoothly. The consistency is firm. The carbonation is mild. The taste is quite light and palatable, with absolutely no after-taste. We sip again (as a Czech proverb says, a fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it is better to be thoroughly sure). It is definitely crisp. Very fresh. And decidedly refreshing. A perfect midday, post-Ho Chi Minh-viewing beverage.
We notice that our nods of approval are being closely monitored by the other patrons, who are all men. One of them, obviously completely sloshed, gives us a glassy-eyed stare that does not cease. He's definitely not returning to work soon. Others, including a policeman in uniform and some of his buddies, are merely mildly amused by us. They're clearly just getting in a quick beer before heading back to their state-run jobs for the day. We raise our glasses for a toast. They laugh.
We politely decline an offer of food from our waitress and instead order up another bia hoi. Later we learn that dog meat is often a popular dish to enjoy with bia hoi, although only in the second half of the lunar month. Other popular bia-munchies include peanuts, fermented salami rolled up in banana leaves, dried squid, calf meat, goat stew, pork intestines and anything that tastes good dipped in a special salt and pepper lemon dip that is prevalent throughout Vietnam. No bia hoi chasers for us, though. Not today, anyway.
After downing our second bia hoi, we conclude that it's rather fortuitous that we've picked this particular spot off of Kim Ma Street. After all, this no-name joint is just one of hundreds that sell bia hoi in Hanoi. Indeed, it is estimated that some three to four hundred thousand liters of bia hoi are consumed in Hanoi and its environs every day. With so many outlets to choose from, it's hard for a tourist to know which ones are decent and which ones are not. And yet, the place we've picked--typical though it may be to local Hanoians--is unique, relaxed, and friendly and serves up a delicious brew. We're happy. Even if the stools and tables are mighty small.
Some say bia hoi is on the way out. Canned beer is quickly becoming the norm and apparently many of the old classic bia hoi joints are closing. Its disappearance would certainly be a shame. Like the great pubs of Dublin or the cafes of Sydney, the bia hoi joints of Hanoi seem a local tradition worth preserving. We thank our lady proprietor for doing the pouring (and sucking) honors. Our four glasses of bia hoi come to a total of about US$1. We wander out into the street greatly refreshed; a little enlightened and ready to explore more of Hanoi's charms.
Hanoi Bia Hoi Guide
There are hundreds of major bia hois around Hanoi and thousands of other locations that sell it. Listed below are three popular ones recommended by long-time Hanoi resident Patrick Aronson.
1. Parachute Bia Hoi: This hangout is located at 1 Tang Bat Ho and gets its name from the large parachute that covers the place. Apparently the original parachute was that of a downed American fighter pilot during the war. Eventually the tempestuous Hanoi weather was too much for it to bear, and the "parachute" has since been replaced by a large plastic covering, but the name has lived on nonetheless.
2. The Tiger Cage Bia Hoi: This haunt is located at the start of Tong Dan street right behind the Hanoi Opera House. It gets its name because large, ancient-looking metal bars that resemble a tiger's cage enclose the whole area. The story is that the French used the ancient building as real tiger cages to show off near the theater or for the circus in the pre-1954 days.
3. The Ho Chi Minh Bia Hoi: This huge bia hoi is located at 5 Ngoc Ha street. It is situated right behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; hence the name. It's popular with military and other government officials.
Published on 3/1/98