If you love draft beer and you also love a bargain then your mecca might be northern Vietnam. Every travel show that slips through the country mentions the infamous “bia hoi” that is most common in Hanoi, but also found in many other parts of Vietnam if you look around. In fact, Hanoi is definitely not the best place to try these cheap suds, but we’ll get to that below.
On signs that bother to translate the words, “bia hoi” always becomes “fresh beer” but in reality there is an older form of the stuff that is called “bia tuoi” and that actually means “fresh beer.” The word “bia” is Vietnamese means beer, and it’s pronounced almost like an Australian pronounces “beer” anyway.
What’s important to know about this stuff is that it’s made freshly each night, delivered around the city the following morning, and guzzled down by the time the bars close that night. And instead of actually being served in bars, it’s usually poured out of a plastic jug, or maybe an actual keg, at street-corner establishments all over the city.
How much does bia hoi cost?
If you are in Hanoi then by far the most likely place you’ll be able to try it is at one of the four casual places on Bia Hoi Corner in the heart of the Old Quarter. At those places the current price in 2010 is 3,000 dong per 12oz glass, which translates to about 16 US cents. If you are very cheap and very adventurous then you might be able to find it for as little as 2,000 dong, but it won’t be easy and it definitely won’t be worth the nickel you save.
In case you are curious, a bottled local lager beer will cost anywhere from about 12,000 to about 25,000 dong, depending on where you order it, so this 3,000-dong stuff is cheap, but not too far out of the normal range for this city.
What is bia hoi like?
Bia hoi is a very light lager made with no preservatives that is probably more similar to Bud Light than anything else you might know. Research tells us that the alcohol level is usually between 3% and 4% so it’s a bit weaker than American light beer, when bia hoi is in its pure form.
Most tourists drink this stuff for the novelty of it rather than its delicious taste, and in fact, the batches tend to taste different from day to day, which might be at least partially explained by the fact that many of the bia hoi places in Hanoi literally water the stuff down in order to stretch the batch out a bit more.
At most places it’s not really as cold as you might like, and some days it tastes like dishwater while other days it tastes like a really nice light beer. The service at these places – at least the ones where tourists go – tends to be fast, so it’s possible to get quite a few of these things down your gullet in a short time if that’s your goal.
What’s in bia hoi?
None of the breweries that make the stuff seem to publish their recipes, at least in English, but word on the street is that it’s normal lager made with hops and barley malt, and it also contains around 50% rice, which helps keep it light and clear. If rice in beer sounds weird to you then you might not know that Budweiser itself contains around 30% rice.
There are no preservatives added so bia hoi is said to be pretty much undrinkable after 24 hours or so, as it goes flat and begins going bad quickly. These places know about how much they can sell each day so they only order that much, or even less, to be delivered each morning.
Finding bia hoi in Hanoi
There are several beer hall and beer garden-type places around town, and expats living here seem to frequent those, but honestly your best bet is to join the rogue’s gallery of tourists, expats, and locals at Bia Hoi Corner itself. It’s at the intersection of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien Streets, and if you are spending more than a day in Hanoi then chances are very high that you’ll wander through there whether you are trying to or not.
You’ll have the privilege of sitting in a tiny plastic chair while you drink, so in this sense it’s a truly local experience because pretty much every Vietnamese person eats every meal seated on one of these, if not the even-smaller plastic stools you see at some places.
By far the most popular place with tourists is Bia Hoi Hai Loan, you’ll see it on the corner, and its address is 41 Luong Ngoc Quyen. One of the problems with this place is they open in the early afternoon and seem to run out of bia hoi only 4 or 5 hours later, so if you come round after 7pm or so it’s likely that they’ll tell you that they are out for the day. You can do what most people do and instead order a bottle of Tiger or Hanoi beer for 15,000 or 20,000 dong, but it takes some of the fun out of things.
Map of Bia Hoi Corner
This Hanoi bia hoi website does a great job mapping all these places out, so if you are looking for alternatives or staying in a different neighborhood, they’ve got you covered.
A short video of the (madness and) scenery at Bia Hoi Hai Loan
The best place to get bia hoi in Vietnam
In Hanoi the bia hoi is often a bit warm and often watered down. You can also find the stuff in a few tourist restaurants in Hue, down on the Central Vietnam coast, but keep going a bit further south to the lovely town of Hoi An for the best bia hoi you can get.
Hanoi is an amazing city in quite a few ways, but you’d be crazy if it was your only stop on a visit to Vietnam. Hoi An is extremely touristy at its heart, featuring no less than 200 tailor shops ready to custom make you a suit or dress in a day or so for next to nothing, but it’s also lovely, with better and cheaper food, and it’s awash in cold bia hoi at even some of its finest restaurants.
There are so many restaurants in Hoi An that competition is fierce and many places hang a sign out front displaying their bia hoi price next to their full menu. The going rate in Hoi An is also 3,000 dong, though a few places charge 4,000.
Another great thing is the bia hoi in Hoi An is almost always served cold, never watered down, and it’s served in really nice restaurants that have proper tourist-friendly furniture. The plastic chair on a smoggy street corner in Hanoi experience is one you don’t want to miss, but most people are over it after a glass or three of the stuff. In Hoi An you can eat at wonderful restaurants, including those that overlook the scenic river, and quaff an endless stream of higher quality bia hoi as you go.
In general, prices in Hoi An are lower for just about everything than in Hanoi, and that includes fine food. You can get excellent main dishes around 20,000 to 60,000 dong ($1 to $3) and soups and appetizers for even less. If you are a food person who likes the Southeast Asian style then Hoi An should be on your list. It’s also home to the world’s best banh mi sandwich, available for about 75 cents.