VIETNAM

Ho Chi Minh City

Try Bia Hoi Beer With a Plate of Clams

Visitors with mugs of bia hoi beer in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vietnam’s unique draft beer, bia hoi, is made mostly by mom-and-pop operations. Crisp, refreshing and having just three per cent alcohol, it’s popular with locals and visitors.
DOUG HARRISON/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE WORKINGMAN’S beer in Vietnam has become a bottoms-up favourite among visitors, and there’s a barrel of reasons why. The brew is called bia hoi—literally “gas beer.” This unique draft beer costs about 70 cents for 1.5 litres—a shade more than the price of stamps for a postcard—and it’s served ice-cold. It’s crisp on the palate, deliciously refreshing and, with an alcohol content of about three per cent, it won’t send you staggering home.

Ho Chi Minh City—which, until 1975, had been known for centuries as Saigon—is dotted with bia hoi outlets, from the humblest roadside stalls to cafés catering to tourists in Pham Ngu Lao, the frenetic backpacker neighbourhood. One of these is a nameless bar known only by its street address: 102 Duong Bui Vien. “The Vietnamese come here because they like it. Most foreigners come here because they want to try it,” said Phan Song Toan, an economics student who helps out at the bar.

Bia hoi is an unpasteurized, unpreserved brew that gets its bubbles and foam not from yeast and fermentation, but from carbon dioxide that pressurizes the keg. At 102 Duong Bui Vien, the big Bia Saigon company delivers it daily, though mostly it’s made by mom-and-pop operations. Toan draws it from the tank into translucent plastic jugs like the kind vinegar comes in. Customers slosh it into glass steins.

“In Germany they make fresh beer, too, but mostly it’s stronger,” said Toan. “In Vietnam, it’s lighter. It has another taste, very different. Some foreigners call it ‘water beer’ or ‘ladies’ beer.’” He remembers an Australian who was trying bia hoi for the first time. He spat the mouthful out, hitting Toan in the face. Some people find it too green and others complain it keeps you running to the bathroom, but most love it.

Delighting in bia hoi on their holiday in Ho Chi Minh City were Kumiko Suzuki and Eriko Mori, Japanese friends who live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “That’s why we came [to Vietnam],” Mori explained. Said Suzuki, “This is like heaven.” Looking around, she spotted Vietnamese patrons sipping their beer through straws. Shaking her head, she remarked, “That’s a punishment game.”

Those with a taste for more conventional beer are also well served in Ho Chi Minh City. There’s Bia Saigon, 333 Export, Heineken, Tiger and a dozen other tasty brews, all priced at less than a dollar. There are also a number of more up-market German and Czech restaurants serving their own brewed-on-the-premises drafts.

But it is the unpretentious bia hoi that is the big hit. It is especially good with a plate of clams bought from street vendors. Local hopheads, who claim the flavours are even fresher in the morning, have a glass or two at breakfast.

At 102 Duong Bui Vien, a 3-by-4-metre shop, customers spill on to the sidewalk on kindergarten-style chairs. Hundreds of litres a day leave its big aluminum tank, fuelling travellers’ tales of another sweaty day in Saigon.

 

ACCESS

For information on travel in Vietnam visit the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism website at www.vietnam.travel.