Armed with an unquenchable thirst for answering philosophical conundrums, Noey Neumark and Dara O Foghlu set off across the capital, fighting typhoons and falling trees in search of the holy grail of watering holes. Photos by Julie Vola

 

 Life is short and brutal, and before you know it you’ll be dead. So it’s important to find a good place to enjoy a drink with friends. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of bia hoi in Hanoi. However, it can be hard to find the right one. Of course, the 8,000-dong question is, what makes a good bia hoi? We decided to find out.

 


 

 1/ Bia Hoi Ha Noi

5A To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho

 

Our beer-a-thon kicks off on a Saturday afternoon in Tay Ho. A popular expat haunt, this bia hoi is also frequented by a steady crew of shirtless Vietnamese men, so there’s a nice mix of cultures here. The beer, at VND8,000 a glass, is very fresh, and they can rustle up a mean plate of ribs for VND90,000. Decor-wise, there’s not much to write home about, but the vibe here is good, and that counts for a lot.

 

The legendary ‘Soda Kid’ runs the place. A nocturnal beast, this five-year-old is fizzing with mischief. They say he is 90 percent bubbles and sugar water. At 4.47pm, he appears and promptly attacks another child with a green plastic sword. At the same time, the light drains from the day, and a purple storm cloud bursts overhead, with rain coming down so heavily that everyone must shout to make conversation. An end-of-the-world giddiness comes over us, except for Soda Kid who feels upstaged by the typhoon and takes to sullenly poking the ground with the tip of his sword. Then lightning zaps the roof, and a blonde English girl falls off her chair. She laughs. We laugh. These are some good times. After two beers, the rain eases and we head to our next port of call.

 

Come Here For: Soda Kid; pre-gaming for Hanoi Rock City, Madake or Eden; a good mix of expats and locals; top-notch rain plan.

 

Drawbacks: At night, the fluorescent lighting gives this place the atmosphere of a dental surgery. The bathroom is terrifying during a power outage.

 


 

2/ Bia Hoi Cuong Hoi

264 Thuy Khue, Tay Ho

 

This massive drinking emporium on West Lake’s southern shore spreads over two dining rooms and houses fish tanks and a factory-scale beer pouring station. The crowd ranges from Vietnamese hipsters to buttoned-up businessmen to extended families going all out for a reunion. Our neighbours welcome us with jubilant glass-clinking and the servers are friendly, too. The beer here (VND6,000 / glass) lacks proper fizz and leaves a disconcerting aftertaste, but the food and atmosphere more than make up for it. We devour some exceptional tofu in a pool of tomato sauce (VND40,000). The flavour is heavenly and the tofu’s crisp is legit. Seeking comfort from the apocalyptic storm, we slurp the sauce from our bowls like starving cats. It’s that good. We want to stay forever but must pry ourselves away from our miniature table and forge onward.

 

Come Here For: Starting out with a day drink and stumbling out at midnight not knowing what happened but being certain you had a fantastic time; the food; the view; the impeccably clean bathroom.

 

Drawbacks: Not the best beer. Also, the first sight upon entering was the head of a cooked dog.

 


 

3/ Bia Hoi Ha Noi

19C Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh

 

Adjacent to the botanical gardens and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, it’s possible that on a sunny afternoon this is an Eden-like escape with welcoming waiters and friendly patrons. On this night, however, which is wetter than an otter’s pocket, that is not the case. The benches under the trees are open to the rain, so we sit in the covered area under the bright strip lighting.

 

Our surly waitress takes our order of beers (VND10,000 / glass) and deep-fried frog. The frog is delicious, making it all the more heart-wrenching when Miss Personality returns and tells us that the dish is not for us. She plucks the half-eaten frogs from our bowls, and rearranges the dish to make it look full again (using her hands — no, no, no!) before serving it to the table behind us. As the frog is now sold out, we begrudgingly order cuttlefish stir-fried with pineapple (VND125,000). When it arrives, we greet it like parents disappointed in their second-born child — smiling weakly and muttering false platitudes. We scrape off the ungodly amount of dill, scoff the cuttlefish, and get the hell out.

 

Come Here For: Nice garden area; private rooms for plotting world domination; fantastic deep-fried frog.

 

Drawbacks: Unfriendly waiting staff; squat toilets.

 


 

4/ X98, Beer 2KU

X98 Hoang Cau, Dong Da

 

The X98 complex is modern and artsy, with nary a fluorescent bulb in sight. We meander through the multi-level, multi-room beer complex, settling on the most bia hoi-esque option, Beer 2KU. Unlike your standard bia hoi, we have a range of beers to choose from; it’s overwhelming but appreciated. Beers are served in glasses or towers, and we seem to be the only ones here who’ve ordered the former. Now there, friends, is a good work ethic.

 

Groups of Vietnamese twentysomethings surround us. The ratio of men to women is nearly equal. American pop music blares. It seems we’ve happened upon a bia hoi for the next generation, something approaching a beer club, and the future looks good. We make light work of our 500ml beers while stuffing our faces with nem nam (fermented pork skin rolled up in herbs), banana flower salad with pig ear, and spicy-sour nem chua.

 

Our mouths are on fire and somehow seven hours have passed since we first convened, so we call it a night.

 

Come Here For: Great food, great vibe; dark beer.

 

Drawbacks: No shirtless men. Also, as much as Noey has a soft spot for American pop music, every time she hears Maroon 5’s Animals, she says she wants to hide for 10 years in a soundproof beer keg.

 


 

The Next Installment

 

Day two begins with a swerving motorbike ride around strewn tree branches; that storm has left the city with one hell of a hangover. The clean-up crews are out in force taking chainsaws to Gulliver-sized trees whose roots have hauled up sections of pavement. The city that always beeps may be in disarray, but there is some serious drinking to be done, so we meet at 5pm when we’re feeling human again.

 


 

5/ Pacific Bia Hoi

281 Doi Can, Ba Dinh

 

Sequestered behind a bus depot some way from the road, the Pacific Bia Hoi is another large-scale affair made for wholesale drinking. The place is quiet when we get there, however, and is nicely gilded by the evening light. We sit on adult-sized chairs at tables overlaid with white and purple tablecloths. It’s an incredibly sophisticated start to what will inevitably be another messy night.

 

We pop open an aluminium jug of Bia Ha Noi, which is good and even slightly malty. There is a narrow margin of quality and flavour when it comes to bia hoi brews, so when you find something with even a modicum of taste it’s a rare pleasure indeed. The Thailand-style beef is fine, but decidedly un-Thailandish. The Pacific nem (VND80,000) on the other hand, are good enough to make a hungover man cry tears of joy.

 

Come Here For: Mad decent VND70,000 beer jugs; friendly staff; the sunset.

 

Drawbacks: Nothing much to gripe about here, although the layout gives the place a bit of a wedding party vibe, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially, say, if you’re there for a wedding.

 


 

6/Bia Hoa Vien

1A Tang Bat Ho, Hai Ba Trung

 

Hai Ba Trung District is a fancy area, so it’s no surprise that this Czech-style beer drinking hall is a bit more upmarket than your bog-standard bia hoi. Approaching the colossal facade of the Brauhaus is like coming up to Willy Wonka’s brewery with a golden ticket in your hand. Sure, the ‘typical Czech’ décor probably came out of some identikit box, but any lack of true authenticity in this regard is redeemed by the truly authentic beer, brewed in-haus. Oh, the beer! A one-litre bottle of cloudy and robust beer costs VND100,000, and it’s worth every last dong. The source is a gleaming copper vat behind the bar. That heroic patron saint of childhood gluttons, Augustus Gloop, would find a happy home inside it.

 

Sadly, with more bia hoi joints on the agenda, we must leave. But we leave fortified in the knowledge that such beer exists in Hanoi. As Wonka himself once said, “So shines a good beer in a weary world...”

 

Come Here For: Possibly the best beer in Hanoi; the fried cheese; the Hoa Vien sausage.

 

Drawbacks: All beers after this are relegated into a minor league.

 


 

7/Bia Hoi Huong Hai

56 Yen Bai, Hai Ba Trung

 

Our caravan scoots through sheets of rain, getting lost and then found in the Hai Ba Trung jumble of one-way streets before finally reaching the narrow alleyway of Yen Bai. Topless men cheer us on as we weave towards the entrance: an auspicious beginning. We’ve come for the black pepper beef, which has the consistency of goopy snot. However, what the beef sauce lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in personality; the pepper’s spice is tempered by sweetness and just the right amount of MSG.

 

We drink enough beer that that one of our group is forced to check out the bathroom. A server pulls them across the street to a door in the kitchen. She yells to a chi inside and our compadre hears water shut off and the sound of someone scampering. Giggling, she nudges them in, leaving the sliding door ajar. To the right, buckets of laundry litter the ground, and a ladder leads upstairs. To the left, a small drain. Our friend pokes their head outside and says “Where?” Shrill laughter ensues and the drinking partner understands that there’s nothing waiting for them upstairs; it’s only the drain.

 

Come Here For: Black pepper beef; nice beer; the service; the crowd.

 

Drawbacks: The bathroom-laundry room hybrid.

 


 

At this point it’s pouring again, and we’re stuffed to the brim with beer and beef, so we responsibly plan to resume after the Monday workday.

 


 

8/ Quan Xanh

67-69 Tran Nhan Tong, Hai Ba Trung

 

A festering foot injury unrelated to the previous nights’ drinking prompts Dara to visit the hospital. The doctor asks him what he does here, and he replies that he’s writing about bia hoi in Hanoi. “Oh,” she says, and makes a face like she’s just burp-puked. “I don’t like them. My husband is an engineer, and he goes there every day, good or bad. There are too many reasons to go to a bia hoi in Vietnam.”

 

After the doctor reassures Dara that his foot isn’t going to fall off, he goes to the bia hoi to drink to his health (a solid reason). Quan Xanh is an oasis of calm next to the circus rotunda at the north end of Reunification Park. He’s two hours too early to meet the others, so he gets comfortable with a book under a canopy of creeping vines and hanging roots. Although the draught beer is unexciting and relatively expensive (glass of Tiger / VND30,000), this place still has the garden, the attentive staff, the quality food. It’s a bit like Singapore, really. Some people like it because it’s clean and orderly, while others hate it for exactly the same reasons.

 

However, if you like okey-dokey beer in a place where fancy beer girls saunter around in green velour cocktail dresses, then this is the place for you.

 

Come Here For: An intimate beer garden, and a free salad with five beers.

 

Drawbacks: Middle-of-the-road beer; kinda pricey for what you get.

 


 

9/ Bia Lan Chin

22 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem

 

Pulling up to the last stop feels surreal. Have we become the beer equivalent of Soda Kid? Delirium is setting in. The penultimate round of beer emerges, and it’s as perfect as bia hoi gets: frothy, crisp, sweet. We order another round and flip through the massive menu, which reads like a passenger list for Noah’s Ark. Dishes range from stir-fried geoduck with polygonum leaves, something straight out of Harry Potter, to snail with green banana and tofu (VND150,000). Fearing wizardry yet craving some intrigue, we opt for the latter. It’s odd but tasty, and the bites of juicy shallots and fatty pork steal the show.

 

The air is soupy and the fans point elsewhere. The ladies in our group are forced to pile their sticky hair into high buns. Ah, to be a woman in a bia hoi. Noey says she could write a whole feminist discourse on the gender inequality inherent in these establishments, but she’s far too drunk for that. Some preliminary evidence: the ladies’ room has been bolted shut. Only urinals here, folks.

 

Come Here For: Experimental eating; good cheap beer; local vibes.

 

Drawbacks: The bathroom, if you don’t stand to pee; the heat from the street and lack of fans.

 


 

In Conclusion

 

Did we get to the bottom of our philosophical pondering on bia hoi-ness? Perhaps the only things we got to the bottom of were 50 glasses of beer. However, in a world of doubt and subjectivity, our extensive scholarly research yielded, at the very least, some drunken opinions that we can defend with belligerence.

 

Bia hoi joints are more than just the fresh beer, cheap food, and fluorescent lighting. A bia hoi is its particular atmosphere, a unique experience on a given night, and a social pivot point where cultures meet. Of course, what makes any one better than another depends on your wallet, taste in beers, and tolerance of dinginess.

 

Before you get all huffy at us for leaving out your favourite bia hoi, let us state for the record that had we done an exhaustive bia hoi crawl of Hanoi, we’d probably not have the lifeblood in us to write our last will and testament, let alone this article. So we selected nine bia hoi that, as far as bia hoi go, offered diversity,

 

Now, onward comrades. If the question is to bia or not to bia, the answer lies clearly ahead.

 

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1 comment

  • Comment Link BeardedShaman BeardedShaman Apr 03, 2016

    Wow. Couldn't just say what you're favorite place was?

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