Bia hoi is local to Vietnam, specifically to Hanoi, and I think it’s one of the world’s greatest beer experiences, where you drink these light, cheap beers on the side of the busy street with the unrivaled, live-action theater of daily life of Hanoi flying past you.
Bia hoi is the name of both the beer and where you drink it—so you go to a bia hoi to drink bia hoi—and the name means the equivalent of “fresh draft beer.” You’ll find it all around Hanoi, in places that vary from big beer halls to the front of someone’s house, and it’s something almost exclusively drunk by the prodigiously thirsty Vietnamese.
Visit To Hanoi Vietnam’s Unique Cheap Draft Lagers Photo Gallery
The French introduced beer (bière became bia) into Vietnam at the end of the 19th century. The significant part of the story in terms of bia hoi comes decades later when French-trained Vietnamese brewers started making beer for themselves, using war-rationed local ingredients and incorporating rice. The beer couldn’t be bottled or canned because of materials shortages, but it could go into metal barrels, which were delivered daily to street corners where it was drunk by workers involved in the war’s background efforts. It was low in alcohol and cheap, and the workers went home when the keg was emptied. A new drinking culture started and draft beer like this became an everyman drink.
Many breweries make bia hoi, but it’s possible that you won’t know who brewed the beer you’re drinking (the yellow and red signage of Bia Hoi Ha Noi is the most common). Regardless of who made it, all are probably 3.0-4.0% ABV; they are lagers brewed with a high percentage of rice, some pale barley, probably some sugar, and very few hops; and they’re designed to be brewed and drunk as quickly (and cheaply) as possible, which means the beer you drink might only be a week old.
Quickness here also equals freshness because another distinctive feature of bia hoi is that new kegs are delivered every morning. Order a cold bottle of local lager and you have no idea how long it’s spent baking in the sun before it got into the fridge, but with bia hoi you know the keg was delivered that morning and will be gone by that evening; bars don’t order more than they need and they don’t have cold storage to keep unpasteurized, light draft beer for more than one day (which is one of the reasons this daily draft delivery is necessary and why it started in the first place).
The beer is typically poured straight from an unpressurized keg; there’s rudimentary refrigeration (perhaps a wet towel), no gas, rarely a tap, and usually just a garden hose, and it’ll always be poured into a chunky tumbler, made from bluetinted recycled glass, with cracks and bubbles and an uneven rim. Bia hois are often quite basic spaces and you’ll probably be squatting on shin-high plastic stools, with your feet on the street, which isn’t always the most comfortable type of seating for big Western butts. (One anecdotal aside: in Vietnam, the higher the seating, then the better the perceived status of a place. Street-side bia hoi stools are the lowest; “quan nhau” restaurants serving bottled lagers and good, cheap food have plastic chairs; nicer restaurants have wooden chairs; craft beers and cocktails lift your high-status bottom onto bar stools.)
While the brewing processes for all bia hoi are essentially the same, the flavors will vary. The best examples are fresh, clean, sometimes a little creamy, sometimes dryly bitter, with a gentle fizz, and—just like any good Asian light lager—they are perfect in Hanoi’s humid heat (FYI: on especially hot days, your beer will come served with some ice in the glass). Others demonstrate the characteristics of immature beer: fruity esters, buttery diacetyl, no carbonation. No bia hoi is necessarily bad; some are just better than others. But when you’ve only paid 10,000VND (US$0.45) for a glass, then it doesn’t really matter. And while the “cheapest beer in the world” tag gets bia hoi some attention, we should instead think of them as the “best-value-for-money” beers because they’re cheap, but also fresh and taste good.
If you read travel guides or anything online about bia hoi, then it’ll say to go to Bia Hoi Corner; if you read my my blog The Best Beer in the World, I tell you to go to Bia Hoi Corner. But don’t bother now. Not for bia hoi, anyway, as it’s changed irrevocably in the last few years, and it looks like Tiger and Tuborg have thundered in, effectively buying the place, branding it with their neons and promotion girls, and making the cheapness of bia hoi essentially worthless, when better bar profits come from buying branded bottles. You might still be able to drink bia hoi on Bia Hoi Corner, but you’ll end up in some alleyway away from the action. The corner is still a Beer Corner, and it’s still fun on a busy weekend evening (though quieter midweek), but don’t go there specifically for bia hoi.
Bia hoi is definitely a favorite pastime for the Hanoi locals, but you need to be a serious bia drinker to chug from these giant mugs.
The best place to drink bia hoi near the Old Quarter, where you can find six or seven close together, is the intersection of Bat Dan and Duftng Thanh. Bia Hoi Ngoc Linh on that corner is my favorite for its lively atmosphere, for the quality of the beer, and for being on a vibrant, busy street. Diagonally opposite is 50 Bat Dan, which has a menu of innards and stuff like sparrows and frogs (plus some more “normal” things). Up DU&ng Thanh is Bia Hoi Nam Coi and continue up there and turn right onto Hang Vai where you’ll find one on that corner and a few more are two corners over on Bat Sfr, with one in between (which is basically someone’s front room). One other place worth visiting is Bia Hoi 68 on Quang An, which is a huge, open-air beer hall that looks out onto West Lake in the north of the city. But there are bia hois all over Hanoi. Sometimes you find big beer halls, sometimes you’ll see three close together, other times they’ll be on their own, and sometimes you’ll just see a small silver keg and some glasses on the side of the street or in someone’s house.
I love bia hoi for the cool, fresh, tasty, uncomplicated beer. I love that it’s so cheap because I can drink a dozen for less than the price of a pint at home. I love it for the busy bars that are lively with a tonal chorus of conversation, laughter, and arguments; for people eating from large communal plates, toasting their chunky beer tumblers, and for how it all happens street-side where the view is of life happening, a constant speeding spectacle better than any sports game or soap opera. It’s real life and in Hanoi that’s a frantic, fast, loud life where anything could happen next. There’s no other world-beer or beer-drinking experience like it.
LOCAL TIP: Beer and Status
The Vietnamese are prodigious drinkers and beer is a key part of local socializing culture. They are in the top 10 of world drinkers and they’re in the top 10 of world brewers. Beer is what everyone drinks, and they drink it all the time—particularly in Hanoi with bia hoi. But bia hoi is a low-status drink and status is important—it links with what you’re drinking. Most beer is drunk in quan nhau restaurants, which are the equivalent of a standard local bar for the Western drinker. Groups—and it’s always groups—drink beer by the case, which is chosen by the person paying the bill, and depending on who you’re drinking with, you’ll order different brands: the cheapest brand for your family as you don’t need to impress anyone; the better beers if it’s your friends; the most expensive if it’s with your boss. Craft beer is now the next step up in terms of perceived status.