There may be better quality beers around, but enjoying a cold glass of Bia Hoi on a steamy day in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is one of the world’s most memorable beer-drinking experiences. Thirst-quenching, dirt-cheap and fun – what more do you want?
Bia Hoi is “fresh beer”, served from a keg on a street-side bar, and is widely considered to be one of the cheapest beers in the world. Plonk yourself down on one of the tiny plastic chairs reminiscent of your primary school days in Hanoi’s crazy Old Quarter and pay anywhere between 10p and 80p for a glass of watered down draught beer.
On our honeymoon in Vietnam, Kat and I were wandering around the Old Quarter looking for the mythical Bia Hoi corner – according to Lonely Planet, this is where
several “bars” converge on the kerbside, with the owners setting out plastic tables and chairs for their customers.
Anyone who has been to Hanoi will tell you that you can never find what you are looking for – the city has a population of 6.5 million, and it seemed that they were all in the same narrow streets as us, looking for the Bia Hoi corner. We were just about to give up and return to the hotel bar when we saw an indoor Bia Hoi joint open to the street (although it could have been someone’s front room – we’ll never know).
The Pilsner beer in the kegs has a very short shelf life, so once it’s all gone, the bar owners pack-up and close (or add extra water). It was actually introduced to Vietnam by the Czechs in the communist era as the two nations were cold war allies – in return, Vietnamese hops are exported to the Czech Republic as ingredients in many Czech beers.
Once you’ve got used to your low-down position sitting on the tiny chairs, drinking Bia Hoi is a great way to people watch as bicycles, motorbikes, cars and pedestrians compete for very little space outside with constant near misses. It’s also very thirst-quenching, especially after a day of sightseeing in 35C heat.
A couple of glasses of Bia Hoi is probably enough – the poor quality beer and fumes from motorbikes reputedly combine to give a notorious hangover.