Beercation 2012: Northern Vietnam Edition

Where in the world was TYIB?

The third SEA destination was Northern Vietnam. It’s important to make this directional distinction, as there is an established Bohemian beer scene and burgeoning home-brewing community in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s capital in the south. These do not exist in Hanoi and the surrounding areas in the north. Instead, a collection of mediocre pale lagers and the wildly adored Bia Hoi flow freely in the streets (literally, as beer is consumed while sitting on small plastic chairs outside).

As the story goes, beer was introduced to Vietnam by French colonialists in the 1890s. It was pretty nice of les Francaise to promote the exchange of les traditions culturelle, oui? MAIS NO! Looking to increase profits in their colonial outposts, the French began to charge an exorbitant tax on rice liquor, the primary libation in Vietnam at the time. Simultaneously, they introduced French wine and beer to the country. In order to avoid paying the high tax, the Vietnamese slowly started to purchase the cheaper beer. While the means by which beer became an integral part of Vietnamese culture are dubious, I doubt many would trade Bia Hoi and Hanoi Lager for homemade rice liquor. Well, depending on the night, at least.

A little trivia for the soul: the word for beer in Vietnamese (bia) comes from the French word “biere.” Less letters, same result. Vietnamese efficiency!


Beer: Bia Hoi
Brewery: varies
Style: Rice Lager
ABV: ~3%

Bia Hoi, said to be Vietnamese for “fresh beer” (it actually translates to “gas beer”), is an unpasteurized beer brewed daily with no preservatives by breweries and local shops. Renowned for its low price tag, it’s as good as you would expect a $.20 beer to be. It tastes like a watered-down version of Bud Light, which as you know tastes like a watered-down version of Budweiser, which as you know tastes like a watered-down version of a Czech Pilsner (and that’s a serious compliment to the American classic). It’s quite difficult to read any flavor in this watery concoction, but after enough, themes of straw, rice, and corn emerge. However, what it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in experience. Bia Hoi can only be consumed in Bia Hoi street stalls. You can imagine how rowdy a Friday night in Hanoi can be with thousands of people drinking on the street for hours on end (and don’t forget to factor in thousands of motorbikes!) Now, while this all sounds like fun, there are possible side effects. Other than a hangover, there is no actual way of knowing if your Bia Hoi is actually hoi: some beer vendors have been known to sell the dregs of old kegs of the unpasteurized brew.  I’m not advising against a night of Bia Hoi, but maybe packs some Tums and antibiotics just in case.


Beer: Hanoi Beer
Brewery: Hanoi Beer Company
Style: Rice Lager
ABV: 5.1%

Hanoi Beer is the jewel of Northern Vietnam. Golden in color and rich in mouthfeel, this bia would satisfy most on a steamy Hanoi day. As with many beers of the region, Hanoi Beer is a rice-based lager. The flavor of the rice, however, is not the dominant flavor. Instead, notes of grain, yeast, and grass prevail. It’s a thoroughly average lager, but as the temperature rises, it only tastes better and better. Just like Bia Hoi, Hanoi Beer is brewed with no preservatives and must be consumed the day it is produced.

As an aside, the Hanoi Beer Company was the first brewery in Vietnam. Originally owned by a Frenchman named Hommel, Hanoi Beer was produced using local rice and imported hops and marketed to French expats. However, as the French emptied out of the area in the 1950s, Hommel Brewery was left to the government and was renamed Hanoi Brewery. Hanoi Brewery is still owned by the government and allegedly produces 90% of the beer in Hanoi.


Beer: Biere Larue
Brewery: VBL Tien Giang
Style: Euro Pale Lager
ABV: 4.2%

Biere Larue was the first beer I tried in Vietnam. After a month in Myanmar, I was looking forward to pouring something other than Myanmar Lager into my glass. However, after a few sips of Biere Larue, I developed a major case of nostalgia for my 640ml of Myanmar. It was completely mediocre and unmemorable, with a generic grain taste as the predominant flavor. Nevertheless, Biere Larue is an integral part of Vietnamese beer culture: it was established in 1909 by Frenchman Victor Larue as part of the Brasseries et Placieres de L’Indochine Brewery and was once regarded as one of the best European lagers in the region. Clearly, times have changed, but Biere Larue continues to remind us how far humankind has come in our beer-discerning abilities.


Beer: 333 Premium Export Lager
Brewery: Saigon Beer  Company
Style: Rice Lager
ABV: 5.3%

I debated whether or not to include the 333 in this report, as it hails from Southern Vietnam. It also happens to be the blandest of the Vietnamese beers available in the Hanoi region. I have very few words for this beer. Alright, fine, okay, it has a generic grain flavor profile and is moderately carbonated. There, I did my homework.

In lieu of anything insightful to say about its character, I will impart some knowledge onto you. Production of 333 began in France in 1893 as an attempt to create the sacred German lager (FAIL). Production was exported to Ho Chi Mihn City in the early 1900s, where the recipe became known as the 333 Export Lager. I am going to fashion a guess that when the French left the Indochine colonies in 1954, the brewing facility was handed over to the government and became known as the Saigon Beer Company.

i hope this bia hoi is hoi! một hai ba, yo!

TYIB, exploring colonial history, one beer at a time.

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One thought on “Beercation 2012: Northern Vietnam Edition

  1. Hi there are also 25 microbreweries in Hanoi..try them next time, that will keep you busy a day or two

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