2013 Travels: #16 Bia Hoi

Getting Ahead of Times

Bia Hơi, loosely translated into fresh beer is a type of homebrewed beer sold everywhere in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi. A glass of Bia Hoi could be had for as low as 20 cents (Less than RM1). Since production isn’t monitored by the local authorities and the quality of beer varies signficantly, consuming is always a risk.

But what the hell, who could resist trying fresh beer that cost less than a packet of mint candy?

Remains of the B-52 Jet Shot Down During The Vietnam War
Remains of the American B-52 Jet Shot Down During The Vietnam War
Backstreets of Hanoi
Backstreets of Hanoi

Hanoi was a return to the chaotic urban that wasn’t dissimilar to Ho Chi Minh City. What’s different in the capital though is that it retains a lot of its old colonial charm. The narrow streets in the old quarter that takes you through buildings with history older than anyone could remember. My friend Khoi told me that Hanoi was dirty compared to the its Southern brother. Perhaps it’s due to its less polished exteriors of the buildings. Not sure if I agree with him but from my experience there isn’t a lot to separate these 2 cities.

Interestingly, in the middle of Hanoi sits Lake Hoan Kiem. Next to it, there is a huge roundabout where during peak hours would see endless streams of motorbikes, cars and pedestrians. Like a russian roulette, every road user knows the rules and somehow, as in other places in Vietnam, in order there is chaos. The introduction of traffic lights or any kind of order would have cause a massive traffic congestion. Traffic, not very different from the South. Food vendors and stalls are everywhere in the main district and although the dishes served varies, it’s strangely familiar.

I stayed at a dorm room in Hotel Little Diamond. It is a small boutique hotel that happened to have a dorm room. I believe the dorm was only recently converted from a deluxe/suite room and thus it had a really nice bathroom with hot shower. It was the best shower I had in a long while. The manager Zoom was very friendly and remembered all his guests by name. He gave me some recommendations around and helped me to arrange tours to Mai Chau and Halong Bay. When I got back from Mai Chau and taking a connecting bus to Sapa, Zoom offered to let me shower in the dorm for free. Little gestures like this is what make great hotels stand out from the rest. And it makes guests feeling compelled to recommend it on their blogs. Hah!

The Chaotic Roundabout In Hanoi, On A Quieter Time
The Chaotic Roundabout In Hanoi, During Quieter Times
Order In Chaos
Order In Chaos, In Less Chaotic Times

During my time in Hanoi, I befriended a fellow traveller from South Africa. We got along pretty well and it’s probably because he was a stock trader in Johannesburg. One night, we decided to go for a session of Bia Hoi. After aimlessly wandering around the old quarter and not finding a suitable place, he went to a nearby art store to ask for directions. Not knowing how to speak Vietnamese, we just said “Bia Hoi… Bia Hoi…”

Knowingly, she pointed us to the right direction and told us walk for a further 1 or 2 kilometres. We arrived at a quiet junction where a pretty popular Bia Hoi joint was occupying 2 shoplots opposite of each other. Some office workers were already into the seconds and thirds when we sat down on small stools by the road side. We had a glass of fresh beer each, served on a plastic transparent cup. The beer was light but very cold and surprisingly refreshing.

Not exactly the best beer but if anything, the process of serving the beer was more interesting. There was a huge barrel on the outside of the shop where a garden hose is straped onto the its tap. We sat there and watched as the worker fill cups after cups of beer without turning off the tap. It was messy and sloppy. As if that wasn’t interesting enough, a local lady came to the joint with an emptylarge plastic water bottle. The workers duly filled up the bottle and the lady left with the premises. Takeaway beer, anybody?

We had a long chat about the uniqueness of Vietnam. We found it amazing that people there eat almost at any time of the day and everywhere. So after a few beers, we walked around the old quarters to hunt for supper. We came across this barbeque joint where they apparently served “Chinese Barbeque”. On the stall laid different skewers of freshly marinated meat, seafood and vegetables. We ordered a few skewers and sat down. One of the specialties here seemed to be the baguette. Spread with lots of butter and later grilled until it turns into a sort of flatbread, it was rich and sinful. In fact, the meat were succulent and well-marinated. Here, the workers would grill the meat for you and serve them cooked. Which means they are not leaving to chance that you screw up the cooking process.

Although the barbeque meal was a one-way ticket to high cholesterol hell, it was scrumptious.

Advertised as China Barbeque but I Bet You Can't Find Something This Good in China!
Advertised as China Barbeque but You Will Be Hard Pressed To Find Something This Good In China!
Legacy of the French Indo-China Era
Legacy of the French Indo-China Era
"Oh Uncle Ho, You Are One Hard Man To Find!" Arriving  At The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum During Closing Time
“Oh Uncle Ho, You Are One Hard Man To Find!” Arriving At The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum During Closing Time

Of course, Hanoi isn’t all about beer and food.

About 5 years ago, I got to know my Hanoist friend Anh while he was studying in Malaysia. I haven’t seen him for a long time since he left for Singapore to further his studies. Now that he’s back working in Hanoi, we went out for a couple of nights.

There’s a much bigger lake than Lake Hoan Kiem called the West Lake. Anh took me to the lake at night not to enjoy its scenery but to observe the popular dating spots for young Vietnamese couples. Sitting on his motorbike was like watching a repeating reel of guys either putting their hand over the shoulder of their partner or on the waist. Everyone had a similar pose. “The girls in Hanoi are the most beautiful in Vietnam,” Anh told me cheekily. I didn’t want to delve into a North vs. South debate but I couldn’t disagree with him.

I told Anh that despite being in Vietnam for a couple of weeks,  I haven’t had a bowl of Pho Bo (It’s back to food again). Since Pho Bo originated from the North, the best place to have the dish is at its source. He took me to an unassuming Pho Bo shop located in the outskirts of the main district. The bowl of Pho Bo that was served to us was modest in its presentation. A standard affair, except for the beef slices. It was cut thin and cooked in medium doneness but the best part of all, it melts in your mouth.

After dinner, we went back to the old quarters for beer. The joint we settled at was run like a family business. In fact, the young couple was cradling their young as they serve drinks and snacks to the customer. The whole street was packed with different  stalls selling the same thing to locals and foreigners alike. It was far more livelier and busier than the other one I went to. Anh and I found a table and sat facing the main road, we then chatted talked about life, career, and relationship while observing the surroundings.

Later, a group of young girls sat down in front of us. The girls had heavy makeup and were well-dressed enough to enter a posh club. As soon as they sat down, the drinking games started. Carefree and loud, they gulped down beer after beer as if they were drinking water. As they left the place after a few rounds of beer, Anh and I were barely finishing our first.

Anh told me, “I think these girls are still students,” I figured out that much. “I mean, they are probably still in high school. From the way they talk,” 

Shocking, although I wasn’t surprised.

Later, we started hearing some voice being projected from a megaphone. In a moment traced the sound back to a police car that was patrolling along the streets. Suddenly, the vendors started packing the tables that were placed on the road and putting them aside. Customers whose tables were on the road temporarily halted their drinking activties for a moment. Since I was on the pedestrian pavement, my table was left alone.

Once they were out of sight, business went on as usual. Puzzled, I asked what it was about. Anh told me that apparently there was a new governor in this area and he wanted to flex his muscles. Aparently, the bia hoi joints on this road were mostly illegal but seeing how popular these joints are (And I’m assuming that the authorities themselves receive undertable payments too.) it made no sense to shut them down. They had to display their authority though. Thus in a meaningless display of power, they have ordered all vendors to remove the tables and chairs from the road. It was nothing but a parade for the newcomer.

Bia Hoi with my Old Friend, Anh
Bia Hoi with my Old Friend Anh
Kids Are Often Seen In Family Businesses, But What If The Business Is Selling Booze?
Kids Are Often Seen Loitering Around Family Businesses, But What If The Business Is Selling Booze?

The 2 older British travellers that sat next to us seemed confused by the commotion, so we explained to them what it was about. We started chatting and apparently this wasn’t their first time to Hanoi. They loved it. In fact, it’s a common theme among travellers who visit Vietnam – you either hate it or find yourself strangely attracted to it and there seems not to be a middle ground. Obviously, the few of us fell into the latter group.

One of the guys joked that “Everything is nice here, except for one thing. The chairs and stools here are incredibly small to fit someone like me! Look at this!”

We laughed about it. It was an offhand comment and I’m sure he had no intention to offend anyone but my friend was unimpressed.

He later pulled me aside to tell me, “Do you know how many families were and still are supported by just these stool and tables?”

I was taken aback by his comment as it never occurred to me the importance they carried in the local culture. Then, I took a look around. I saw the family that ran this business and I realized how simple it was for them to set up a roadside stall like this. And it all came into perspective.



On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also to share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series. 

I was in Vietnam from March 20 to April 9. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone. 

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