Recently I returned from my second trip to Vietnam where like most other south east Asian countries street food is king. Street food here is cheap, delicious, hygienic, and mostly healthy with generous portion sizes. For example, a bowl of pho, a noodle soup with chunks of beef and some veggies thrown in for good measure would cost between $3 to $3.5 or Rs. 200 to Rs. 280. A bowl of fresh cut tropical fruits served with roasted coconut shards, condensed milk and plenty of ice would cost somewhere between $1 to $1.30 (Rs. 65 to Rs 85). Drinks like coffee, tea and even juices and smoothies come with a very low pocket pinch. Things are much the same with beer. Known as bia in the local language, a can of beer in any eatery would not set you back by more than $0.8 to $1.30 (Rs. 60 to Rs 80).
Although the variety of street food is extensively diverse and one can choose from a variety of meat, seafood, snails and even bugs the only type of beer widely and easily available are lagers. More or less each major city has its own brand of beer but they do not really differ a lot in terms of taste and texture. In Ho Chi Minh City you can find Bia Saigon, Huda in Hue, Larue in Hoi An and Bia Hanoi in Hanoi. These lagers are all light beers with an ABV of not more than 5% thus making them really refreshing drinks in the hot tropical climate. Usually served in bottles these beers are best enjoyed really cold. However, if you were to visit an eatery in a market or a street-side stand you might just be handed a bottle of room temperature beer and a mug full of ice so you can pour yourself a beer on the rocks. Although this ends up diluting the beer to a certain extent it makes for a fun experience. The real fun though, lies in an even lighter beer.
Known as Bia Hoi this beer is as local as it gets and at an ABV of 2-3% getting drunk on this is almost an impossibility. This golden-yellow coloured beer is brewed on a daily basis in small batches, matured for a very short while and distributed to various joints throughout the city where they are stored in stainless steel containers. A glass of Bia Hoi usually costs no more than VND 5000 to 10000 ( Rs. 16 to 30 or $0.3 to $0.5).
Available all over Vietnam, it’s popularity and demand in Hanoi is unparalleled compared to other Vietnamese cities and towns. It is mostly found in places that serve only Bia Hoi and some bar snacks to nibble on. Such places are almost always infested by locals. Many people down a glass or two when they are on a break from work but it is more popular as a social activity. Locals love to get together after a long day’s work to sit and enjoy glass after glass of this beer while they have a good time. In fact there is also a narrow alleyway called Bia Hoi street that is choc-a-bloc with bars and cafes that serve this beer. Since this entire alleyway is very popular among tourists most of these places end up overcharging customers and serving subpar food.
One afternoon in Hanoi when my better half decided to embark upon a shopping expedition I took the opportunity to excuse myself from her company and parked myself in an obscure looking local bar hidden away in plain sight. Before I was barely seated and could fire up Google Translate on my iPhone to decipher the local menu a glass of beer was plonked in front of me along with a chit of paper which would help the waiter keep a count of the number of beers served. One glass of beer would result in a mark on the paper. As I sat on a tiny plastic stool on the pavement that is synonymous to Vietnamese street life with a gentle afternoon breeze blowing and sipped on the beer I realised that things could not get any better in that particular moment. I was wrong.
Having decided to cut short her expedition my wife arrived to join me. That meant I could order a snack for the two of us and I was rather intrigued to know what pig’s ears would taste like. I managed to down another beer before the pig’s ears arrived on the table. Since it was a really light beer it tasted nice, hop-y and smooth only as long as it remained cold. The moment it got warmer the highly carbonated refreshing beer would make way for a flat tasting and unappetising beverage. So there was no way I could allow my beer to get warm. The pickled pig’s ears salad meanwhile had begun to delight me with it’s distinct chewy and crunchy texture. Soon we both lost track of the flow of time and that of beer.
As the sun began to set and the shadows got longer the streets began to get crowded and the place started to fill up with groups of thirsty locals. It was evident most of these large groups were out to enjoy their evening. Upon enquiring from one man I learned that Bia Hoi would just not cut it for them and they would be having a shot of local rice vodka each when all the members of the group emptied their glass of beer. They would call it a night only when two such bottles would be polished off between the three of them.
My wife and I did not stick around to see whether the trio finished their two bottles of vodka for we had other sights to see, other places to explore, other foods to eat and other drinks to sip. But that evening, during the course of our other culinary adventures all we could talk about was how much fun Bia Hoi was. So if you happen to find yourself in Vietnam do look up a place that serves Bia Hoi.