Before arriving in Hanoi, I didn’t find out much in my research about the beer scene in Northern Vietnam, though one thing seemed clear – the Vietnamese love their beer. Vietnam has the third highest consumption of beer in Asia, behind only Japan and China. Imported wine and liquor is taxed heavily and there’s a ban on advertising spirits in Vietnam, so bia (beer) really is the affordable choice at well under a buck a glass. Rising incomes have also caused triple digit growth in beer consumption in the past 10 years, though it was unclear to me what percentage, if any, was craft or locally produced beer. I couldn’t find any online evidence of a craft beer community in northern Vietnam (Saigon is a different story). But I had this feeling that once I got to Hanoi and started drinking beers, I’d find my people. Just like world’s greatest hand model J.P. Prewitt once said, “if you pull at the thread, the whole thing will unravel.” Here’s my breakdown of the beer scene in Hanoi:
Besides the constant barrage of motorbikes, the first thing I noticed about Vietnam were the tiny, brightly colored stools on every street corner filled with people drinking beer. And if it wasn’t Tiger or Bia Hanoi (mass-produced commercial beer), it was “fresh beer,” or bia hoi.
Bia hoi is a 3-4% light, straw-colored homebrew lager found in small shops and street corners all over Hanoi, accounting for about 30% of all beer consumed in the city. It’s brewed daily in small steel barrels, and may be the cheapest beer in the world at between 7,000 and 15,000 VND for a glass (about $0.25 - $0.50 USD). One of the many efficient and brilliant things about Hanoi is that similar shops are often clustered together geographically. Need pants? Check out pants street. Cleaning supplies? Christmas decorations? There’s a street for that! So while bia hoi is available all over the city, Bia Hoi Corner (on what I called “beer street”) seems to be the spot to grab a bia hoi, post up on a stool, and mingle with locals and other tourists. At night this area becomes the center of nightlife in the Old Quarter and is a rip-roaring good time. And while the taste of the clean, lightly carbonated bia hoi may be nothing to write home about, it’s incredibly refreshing on a hot day and it’s cheap enough that you can easily find yourself drinking it every day.
Where to Drink: Bia Hoi Corner (See Map)
The beer market in Vietnam is dominated by three companies: Sabeco Brewery (Bia Saigon, 333 beer), Vietnam Brewery Ltd. (Heineken Asia Pacific, Tiger), and Habeco (Bia Hanoi). In the north Bia Hanoi is fairly ubiquitous, while in Saigon – you guessed it – Bia Saigon reigns supreme. Bia Hanoi runs you about 25,000 VND (~$1 USD), while Tiger beer owns the “premium” beer market at a slightly higher price. As you can imagine, Bia Hanoi and Bia Saigon are your typical mass-produced and highly filtered light beers, though for some reason (maybe because I had like a billion of them) I preferred Bia Hanoi which has a slightly sweeter, maltier, and less metallic taste to it. Refrigeration is not a given in Hanoi, and it’s quite common for your beer to be poured over ice. I resisted this for a few days since I remembered the travel clinic warning me about ice made from local tap water, but I eventually decided that I’d rather get giardia then drink warm beer for a whole month.
I also don’t recall seeing a single Vietnamese woman drinking a beer in Hanoi, and I read later that according to the WHO under 2% of Vietnamese women drinks alcohol at all. I got some amused looks showing up to local establishments alone drinking beer, but overall people were overwhelmingly friendly and helpful in answering my questions about the local beverage scene.
Where to Drink: Literally anywhere
German and Czech Beer Halls
One by-product of strong ties between Vietnam, the former GDR (East Germany), and Czechoslovakia seems to be beer. There are 15+ German and Czech beer halls in Hanoi (see the comprehensive list at beervn.com), typically offering imported Czech and German lagers at fairly high prices by Vietnamese standards, and a few styles of beer brewed on the premises.
My beer journey brought me to Hoa Viên Brauhaus, a Czech style beer hall offering imported beers like Pilsner Urquell and two Hoa Viên homebrew lagers, one light and one dark. Just over a decade old, the brewery was rated best of Hanoi in 2013. I had the Hoa Viên premium pils, and after a week of bia hoi I was pleasantly surprised at the mild hop bitterness and fruity, citrus tang that followed my first sip. The clientele appeared to be local businessmen and other white collar professionals, reflecting the 2-3x price increase of these beers over bia hoi.
Amused that I was taking photos of my beer, a group of Vietnamese men invited me to drink with them. While I spoke no Vietnamese and they spoke no English, a few beers break down all language barriers. Through a combination of gesturing and the Google Translate app, I gathered that they were a policeman, a lawyer, a businessman, and a construction worker (seemed a little made up, who are they the Village People? But whatever I’ll go with it). We spoke the international language of drinking game and I learned a few phrases that would be useful the rest of my time in Vietnam.
một, hai, ba, zo! - Cheers! Or literally: 1, 2, 3, cheers!
một trăm phần tram - 100%, as in drink 100%. When someone points to your beer and says it, you have to down the glass.
I love the communal feel of drinking in Vietnam. The next round would not be ordered until everyone finished their beers; it was peer pressure at its finest. My new friends also insisted on picking up my (not small) tab, one of many examples of generosity and hospitality I encountered in Hanoi.
Where to Drink: Hoa Viên Brauhaus (see map)
I’m sick and tired of wine taking credit for alcoholic rice beverages. Unless I’m missing something, beer is any alcoholic beverage made by converting starches in a grain (eg. rice) into fermentable sugars. Anyway, like alcohol consumption in general, drinking rice wine seems to be a decidedly male activity, and is consumed out of small shot glasses, usually from a communal bottle. The style and quality of rice wine seems to vary widely, and is for the most part homebrewed. At Ray Quán we tried delightful flavored rice wines from green mango (not as much my style) to pink lemon (fire) while sitting on a small patio just a few feet from passing railcars. At our homestay in Mai Châu we had lovely coconut rice wine enjoyed scorpion bowl-style out of a communal pitcher with long straws. When asking for it at another not to be named establishment, we were served the beverage out of an old water bottle from the back room. After about two and half of days of heartburn and googling “can you die from Vietnamese rice wine,” I learned that yes, you should actually be very careful about where you consume rice wine as a tourist. Homemade rice wine can contain methanol and is linked to all kinds of scary outcomes. Luckily the treatment for severe methanol poisoning is ethanol (really), so I was preemptively treating myself for most of Vietnam.
Where to Drink: Ray Quán (see map)
Vietnamese Craft Beer
Just when I had given up on finding craft beer in Hanoi, the group of 15 backpackers we had slowly collected in our #Vietfam decided to get a large Airbnb together for Christmas. This brought us out of the Old Quarter and into what I dubbed “Hipster Hanoi,” the beautiful area around West Lake that was a hub for the (mostly government) expat community.
I had made a note to check out a place called Furbrew in this area, a beer bar that showed up on Google maps but not much place else. I walked in on Christmas day with Nikola and we found out that Furbrew is a full blown microbrewery with a 3 barrel system and 10 rotating taps. Thomas, the Danish owner and former homebrewer, set me up with a flight (why not try all ten?) and gave me the lowdown on the craft beer scene in Vietnam.
Hanoi seems to be a few beer years behind Saigon, the business and commercial capital of Vietnam, which has received some recent press for its craft beer renaissance. Thomas credits Baretts as the first craft beer player in Hanoi a few years ago (in 2014? Don't remember, those high ABV beers hit me hard after weeks of bia hoi). Then came Furbrew, and most recently C-Craft Corner, right down the street from Bia Hoi Corner. So far they’ve primarily seen business from the expat community, but Thomas acknowledges that to continue to expand they will have to do more to attract the local Vietnamese population. His goal is not to bring a European style of brewing to Hanoi, but to help build a new wave of Vietnamese craft beer that highlights local traditions and ingredients. It’s clear talking to Thomas that he thinks they are on the verge of something big, and I have a feeling that if I were to come back to Hanoi in a year, the number of breweries will have blown up.
Ok, back to the beer. I first got excited about Asian flavors in beer when homebrewing with Korean inspired ingredients for an Amuse Booze supper club dinner. We made a brown ale conditioned on toasted black sesame seeds that was a crowd favorite, and I was surprised that I couldn’t find any other homebrew recipes online that leveraged Korean ingredients. Furbrew’s beer confirms my prediction that Vietnamese flavors and ingredients would go excellently in beer. While I have to imagine that exotic hops are difficult to get in Vietnam, exotic ingredients are not in short supply. My three favorite beers from Furbrew were:
1. Dồng-Hương (7.3% ABV, 35 IBU, translates to "countrymen"): A Boston IPA made with local Vietnamese rose. It had a smooth malty backbone and an overwhelming floral nose; a bit perfume-y, but not in a bad way.
2. Cà Phê Bia (10.6% ABV, 21 IBU, translates to "coffee beer"): I lost my shit when I saw that Thomas made Vietnamese coffee (cà phê trứng) into a milk stout. I've waxed poetic about this coffee in a previous post, but Thomas was able to capture the liquid tiramisu goodness while still creating a dry and not overly sweet beer.
3. Lemongrass wheat ale (5.7% ABV, 52 IBU): This beer spoke to the brunch + barry's Marina girl in me. Tasting it my mind immediately went to wheatgrass and a freshly cut lawn (putting my Somm hat on here). It was slightly tart, insanely crushable, and gone within minutes when I brought it back to the house.
In addition to serving me delicious beer Thomas sent me on my way with a few growlers to share at Christmas dinner and a couple more craft beer spots to add to my Hanoi Beer Bucket List (see below).
The Hanoi Beer Bucket List: Where to drink beer in Hanoi
1. Bia Hoi Corner: The place to try bia hoi, a light (3-4%), cheap homebrew lager.
2. Hoa Vien Brauhaus: One of the highest rated Czech beer halls offering imported pilsners and two homebrew lagers.
3. Ray Quán: A delightful place to end the day with flavored Vietnamese rice wines.
4. Furbrew: A microbrewery and tasting room offering ten rotating taps. A flight of all ten beers costs 120k VND, or about $6.00 USD. The area that it's in (Tay Ho) also has a lot of restaurants that serve Vietnamese craft beer. We spent Christmas eve dinner at Cousin's, which I would describe as a very nice "Western Fusion" restaurant.
5. C-Craft Beer Restaurant: C-Craft is a fairly new operation that appears to be locally owned with seven beers and one local cider on tap, including an ale aged in whiskey barrels. I didn't make it here on this trip, but it's top of my list for next time.
6. Standing Bar: A great bar right on West Lake to try craft beer from northern and southern Vietnam. Their tap list includes Furbrew and Barretts as well as beers from Saigon including Pasteur Brewing, Phat Rooster, Platinum brewing, Te Te Brewing, and Fuzzy Logic. It's also a beautiful place to watch the sunset with a brew.
7. Hằng Vui Craft Beer Restaurant: I didn't make it here (it's a bit out of the city), but apparently this is the place to try Barretts beer, the first craft beer player in Hanoi.
8. Hanoi Ale House: A craft brew pub that seems to have a strong local following and hosts lots of events. They have a great local tap list as well as other surprises like Delirium Tremens from Belgium and a house homebrew adorably named Homie.
9. Hanoi Social Club: Of NYT 36 hours in Hanoi fame, Hanoi Social Club is really more of a cafe, but they serve Pastuer St. beers and delicious cocktails. It's worth a stop if you need somewhere to unwind with a beer or do some work in the Old Quarter. You can also use your credit card here (crazy!).
10. A Taste of Hanoi Craft Beer Tour: A Hanoi craft beer tour led by two Aussies (of course). It seemed a little expensive to me ($60-70 USD for 5 hours, 4 stops, and 12 beers), however they have a great trip advisor reviews and it looks like you stop at many of the places I listed above if you want to knock several off the list in one night.
Looking for more Hanoi? check out my photo journal highlights of Hanoi or my liquid love letter to this fine city. Want to learn more about beer in Saigon? Shockingly, I've boozed there too. Know any I missed? Let me know in the comments.