Considered the ultimate people’s beer, bia hoi started off as a concession to the shortages created by war. Hoa Le talks to writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien, author of the book Going Across Hanoi, to trace the roots of Vietnam’s best-known tipple. Photos by Glen Riley
Just like motorbikes, skinny buildings and street food, bia hoi has become an essential part of life in Vietnam. Unpasteurised, unpreserved and served cold straight from the keg, it is consumed by everyone from Vietnam’s intelligentsia to its hard-working street vendors.
Yet bia hoi is often thought of as the drink of Hanoi. This is partly because the capital was the location of the first bia hoi joint, but also because of its popularity. In Hanoi, bia hoi joints are everywhere.
For writer and journalist Nguyen Ngoc Tien, the light yellow brew is a well-known acquaintance, one that he has known since his childhood in the 1960s — when his father brought him along to bia hoi joints to meet friends after work.
As a young adult, Tien would also hang out in bia hois with his writer friends. He has such a love for the cultural aspect of this brew that he’s devoted a section to beer in his book Going Across Hanoi.
From Rice Wine to Bia Hoi
The Vietnamese domestic beer culture stretches back to the 1890s, when the Hommel Brewery — now state-run Hanoi Beverage Company (Habeco) — was founded by the French. For a long time, the factory on Hoang Hoa Tham was the only place that sold beer in Hanoi — although, in the early years, it mostly served French officials.
Before beer came to Vietnam, people mostly drank rice wine. And when rice became expensive, they made wine from sweet potatoes. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, very few locals drank beer. People thought it was overly bitter. Some even claimed it had “an odor like urine”.
However, things started changing in early 1960s. The late historian, Dao Hung, once said of that period: “During the American war, to ensure that the rice production was enough for everyone, rice wine (ruou) was banned — food could no longer be ‘wasted’ on creating an alcoholic drink.”
The loss of ruou, however, led to the rise in popularity of beer. Humans, it seems, need to drink.
During that time, Habeco started producing high-quality beer and even exported their products to sell in South Vietnam. President Ho Chi Minh also urged the company to produce beer for export during his visit to the company.
That was also the time when bia hoi was born — primarily to serve at a lower price to common people.
“The reason for its appearance was rather simple,” says Tien. “During the war, there was a shortage of material to make glass bottles. The beer companies are located in Hanoi. So they started producing bia hoi, a drink they could serve right out of the bom [keg]. This reduced expenses and the taste was also fantastic.”
The bia hoi from Habeco continued to ferment in those boms as they were delivered to outdoor outlets across the city. These establishments soon became magnets for city dwellers.
According to Tien, in those early days the flavour of the fresh beer coming out of the factory was just so tasty and special. He also remembers the white foam, the froth that would stick to the glass until the last drop was consumed.
Queues, Glasses and Lion Heads
In the 1960s, most people who drank beer were middle-aged men — younger people didn’t have much money. The queues at the mau dich — the state-run stores and restaurants during the Subsidy Era — were always long. People had to shout to get attention, but it could still take an hour or so to get just one glass of beer. It wasn’t rare to hear barmaids yelling, “Stay quiet! If you don’t, I won’t serve you.”
The bia hoi joints on Co Tan (now Trang Tien), Nguyen Bieu, Cau Giay, Thuy Ta (on Hoan Kiem Lake), Mo, Vong and Hang Bai were always crowded. As the demand became greater, shops made their own rules for bia drinkers — which customers always followed. In the 1970s, says Tien, some shops didn’t sell beer by itself, but instead sold it together with goods left in stock such as peanuts, raw vegetables and even toys for children.
“In October 1974, Quan Thanh Department Store was selling ‘lion’s heads’ [a toy model of the heads used in lion dances] for children to play with during the Full Moon Festival,” writes Tien. “But they had so many left unsold that they teamed up with the Nguyen Bieu beer joint to get rid of the extra lion’s heads by selling them to people who bought beer. Four glasses of beer came with a small lion’s head; six glasses of beer came with a big one… The beer joint became just like a toy manufacturer, packed with lion’s heads.”
At the time, there weren’t a great variety of beer snacks, but what was available was quite unique. Peanuts, papaya salad, fried tofu with shrimp paste, boiled snails — all were popular complements. Most of the snacks were sold by hawkers or street vendors nearby.
During this period, dog meat started to become popular in the bia hoi joints. Tien remembers that, during his student life, he often rode buses with dog meat dealers coming into Hanoi from the suburbs.
“They laid the dog meat all over the floor on the bus,” he recalls. “When the bus dropped them on Phan Chu Trinh, where they had already parked their bikes, the dog meat was taken out and delivered to stores around the city, many of which were bia hoi vendors.”
The glasses used for bia hoi also have a story. At first the beer was served in a 500ml ridged glass — made from the shards of other broken glasses, they were often light green or white, with bubbles visible through the glass layer. When glass was difficult to produce due to the war, big ceramic containers were used instead. They were so thick and heavy that they were called coc vai — ‘heavy glasses’.
In 1971, glasses were reintroduced, but this time they were smaller, holding about 300ml of beer. The word coc vai, however, has remained.
Today, restaurants like Backyard Bia Hoi (a trendy spot on Quang Khanh, Tay Ho, Hanoi) use coc vai to serve bia hoi — a nice little touch that harkens back to the Subsidy Era.
Bia Hoi Today
Although bia hoi can be found all over Vietnam, it remains very much a part of the unique character of Hanoi. Shops are open in every neighbourhood, and young people come to the Old Quarter to meet friends over a few glasses of beer.
Tien, however, rarely drinks bia hoi anymore. He thinks the beer has lost its original taste because many joints have mixed it with low quality beer or poor home-brewed versions.
“The beer is now the same everywhere,” he says. “It doesn’t have the same essence any more. It’s just cold and fermented, that’s all.”
To him, the best atmosphere for drinking bia hoi was in the past. It was a time where people drank slowly and quietly — you seldom saw any drunk people.
“We didn’t have enough beer to drink, let alone enough to get drunk.”