by Jim Goodman
On a recent trip to Hanoi I got a phone call one afternoon from my closest Vietnamese friend, asking me if I’d like to try “the best bia hơi in Hanoi.” Sure, I replied, always ready to enjoy a new venue for one of my favorite refreshments. Bia hơi is fresh draft beer, brewed daily and delivered to several hundred places throughout the city and to towns and villages near the capital. Larger bia hơi establishments open by late morning and serve food as well. Small ones start serving only in the late afternoon, have no food or snacks and customers sit outside on the sidewalks on small stools, observing the bustling street life while they imbibe.
|Tạ Hiền bia hơi corner
|bia hơi for lunch
The production and distribution of fresh draft beer, bia hơi, did not begin until the early 60s. The idea was to produce an inexpensive brew that the masses could afford in their leisure. Even the glasses were made from the cheapest materials, without handles, to keep the overall costs to the minimum. Fifty years or so after the first bia hơi establishment opened for business in an alley off Lý Nam Đế Street, most bia hơi venues still use those same cheap, fluted, “traditional” bia hơi glasses.
|filling the glasses
My Vietnamese friends disparage these cheaper venues, claiming the beer is too adulterated and always take me to other joints. The beer might cost 9000 đồng a glass, but does taste better. I’m in Hanoi a few months per year and it seems with each visit they introduce me to a new bia hơi establishment. I was a little skeptical when invited to “the best bia hơi in Hanoi.” What would make it the best? A nicer sort of building? The snacks were especially delicious? The waitresses more beautiful than elsewhere? How could the beer be much better than the 9000 đồng variety we got at other bia hơi joints?
I was to meet him at his shop at 5:30, which was an hour or so earlier than our usual link-up time for cold beers and warm cheers. Then shortly afterwards he called again, requesting I come at 5 instead. When I arrived I hopped on his motorbike and he drove me to 115 Quán Thánh Road, near West Lake, to the No 1 Club, adjacent to the Hanoi Tennis Club, which was part of the No. 1 Club’s facilities. A security guard confronted us as we drove inside the compound to park the bike, but when my friend told him we just came to drink beer he waved us in.
|the best bia hơi, but bring your own food
About four years ago, without fanfare, announcement or advertising, the No. 1 Club began allowing us ordinary commoners the opportunity to drink this top-quality bia hơi, under certain conditions. The beer is only available from 4:30 to 6:30 in the afternoon ̣(which explains why I met my friend earlier than usual) and sold by the pitcher. Patrons must purchase tickets at 40,000 đồng per pitcher (about $1.95 US), which comprises about five glasses of beer. Sales cease at 6:30, but patrons can get a last pitcher or two before that and remain on the premises until 8 p.m., when everyone has to leave.
|bia hơi at the No. 1 Club
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