It’s 4PM on a Friday in Hanoi’s Old Quarter – a historic district in Vietnam’s capital city – and there’s a familiar chant echoing through the alleyways: “mot, hai, ba… dzo!”
Groups of rowdy locals sing this particular tune nearly every day of the week in Hanoi, but this famous Vietnamese saying is at its loudest with the onset of the weekend. Why? Because with a hearty “one, two, three… cheers!”, Vietnam’s historic metropolis tucks into its favourite weekend drink: bia hoi.
The tasty beverage has reached new levels of fame among tourists in the past few years, but bia hoi certainly isn’t a new phenomenon in Hanoi. Bia hoi – or simply “fresh beer” in English – has a long and sorted history in the country. Somewhere between its birth in French colonial Indochina and its street food fame in modern-day Vietnam, bia hoi transformed from a brew reserved only for the upper class to the everyman’s drink of choice. That story might not fit into a pint glass, but it’s every bit as tasty as Vietnam’s most famous beer.
The Birth of Bia Hoi
Nowadays, you can’t walk more than two metres down any Hanoi road without strolling past a street stall selling beer, but it wasn’t always this way. Before the turn of the 20th Century – when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina – local Vietnamese still sipped traditional rice wine over their evening meals. It was only when the French opened their own brewery, The Hommel Brewery, that beer became available in the city. Still, Hommel only had the capacity to brew 150 litres of beer per day – which made a pint both rare and expensive.
Naturally, locals preferred their home-brewed rice wine concoctions – and beer was reserved only for the most “sophisticated” and “urban” locals and their foreign counterparts. Only foreign-owned nightlife establishments and ostentatious Chinese gambling houses would sell beer, lending the otherwise seedy joints a touch of class.
It was only when the French left Vietnam in 1954 that Vietnamese locals took ownership of beer brewing. The old Hommel Brewery became Hanoi Brewery, and before long, the traditional method of brewing beer was tossed out for a more novel (and cheaper) approach. This new brewing method, along with a government crackdown on home rice wine production, led the locals to finally embrace this uniquely Hanoian brand of beer. Thus, bia hoi was born – and the city couldn’t get enough.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Hanoi’s newest alcoholic beverage, though, had a catch – along with its cheaper price tag came a significantly shorter shelf life. The new recipe meant doing away with the preservatives for a brew that was “rough and ready” – but wouldn’t be for much longer than 24 hours. That unique element of the modern bia hoi pint meant that beer drinking in the city would forever change.
Rather than bottled and stacked on bar shelves, bia hoi goes straight from the keg to the glass and consumed soon after. Its temperamental storage needs meant that it found a home alongside Vietnam’s equally immediate culinary culture: street food.
Bia hoi soon became a staple of nighttime street food fare, transported every morning from breweries directly to the shops that sold it, along with other famous streetside snacks. Even today, bia hoi is consumed in much the same way – kegs upon kegs delivered to street side shops at early hours in the morning and guzzled down before the clock strikes midnight. Thanks to its quirky back story and refreshing taste, sipping a glass of bia hoi has since claimed its place as a staple of the Vietnam travel experience.
Enjoying the World’s Cheapest Beer
Besides its tasty history, bia hoi is a local favourite because of how much it costs. In its hometown, a glass of bia hoi will set you back only 30 cents or so. Though there are plenty of places around the city to enjoy a bia hoi, the ultimate bia hoi street experience is at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen – lovingly referred to as “bia hoi corner”. Surrounded by some of the Old Quarter’s best French colonial architecture and a frenzied, buzzing vibe, this busy crossroads in the heart of Hanoi is equal parts beer hub and cultural experience.
But don’t forget – with your glass of bia hoi in hand, keep to tradition and muster up your loudest “mot, hai, ba… dzo!” You’ll be glad you did.