Thursday, May 9, 2013


                                                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
    In either case, though, the beer is cheaper than that in bottles or cans.  Prices range from 5000 to 9000 đồng per glass or mug, which comes to about 25 to 45 cents US.  The cheapest bottled or canned beer is 10,000 đồng.  In a bar or restaurant, of course, it will be higher.  Bottled beer is available at most bia hơi places, but usually sold only after the shop has run out of bia hơi.  There may be a few customers in the crowd that prefer the bottled brew for one reason or another, but like to drink it in the bia hơi joints because, well, the whole bia hơi scene is so different from that of a bar.
    Hanoi people are quite sociable.  They like to go out with friends in small groups to dine at a streetside restaurant, drink coffee at a sidewalk café or meet for a few glasses of beer and some snacks at a bia hơi place.  In Hanoi, beer is cheaper than coffee and bia hơi the least expensive drink of all.  The atmosphere at a bia hơi joint is always friendly and after a group of friends have concluded their bia hơi session they will often vie with each other to cover the entire cost of the evening, rather than divide up the bill.  Occasionally, upon learning that his friends are too busy to join him this time, a Vietnamese man will go to his favorite haunt alone, confident that before he can order a second glass of beer someone from another table will invite him to come join them.
bia hơi for lunch

    Beer was not a traditional Vietnamese alcoholic beverage, but, like coffee, introduced by the French.  In fact, just a few years after the French formalized their control of all of Vietnam they set up the Hummel Beer Factory.  The customers were mainly the colonists themselves.  But when the Vietnamese finally evicted the French they simply took over the Bia Hummel brewery, renamed it Bia Hanoi and in 1957 removed it to a new location on Hoàng Hoa Thám Street in Ba Đình district.
    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
    Tourists to Hanoi quickly learn about bia hơi and at some of the better-known bia hơi places foreigners make up a sizable percentage of the patrons.  One of the most popular venues in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the Tạ Hiền bia hơi corner, halfway between Hang Bạc and Hàng Buồm Streets, which starts filling up from 5 p.m.  Young Vietnamese also like to congregate here, mostly at the Phồ Cổ shop, while foreigners dominate the shops opposite it and the ones running up Lương Ngọc Quyến Street.  In the past year a new bia hơi joint has opened on Mã Mây Street, just past the Backpacker’s Hostel, catering mainly to foreigners.  Another, at the corner of Tạ Hiền and Hàng Buồm, has a mixed clientele of foreign residents and local Vietnamese youth.  Both, like most of the Tạ Hiền corner shops, open around 5 p.m. and charge 5000 a glass.
   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
   The place has a security guard because the No.1 Club membership is restricted to high-ranking Party officials and their families.  Facilities include the tennis courts, an indoor gymnasium and swimming pool next to the courts and “the best bia hơi in Hanoi.”  The Hanoi Beer Company (Habeco) brewery on Hoàng Hoa Thám sends its best quality fresh beer to the No.1 Club every day, while every other establishment in the city receives a lesser or diluted quality in their allotment of 50-liter barrels of brew.  The best is reserved for the Party elite, one of the perks of high office.
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
   The venue for drinking is the area between the tennis courts and the indoor gym, both of which are still off-limits for non-members.  Very little in the way of snacks is available, so people bring their own food and consume it there with the beer, which is entirely permissible.  I found it very easy stuff to drink, quite tasty, with a pleasant, energizing kind of high.  Satisfied regular customers, who are in general rich and successful businessmen who prefer this beer for its quality rather than its rather modest price, claim that no matter how much you drink of it, no headache or hangover will follow.  In fact, the only complaint anyone has here is simply that they can’t hang around and drink for a few more hours.

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