Those backpackers that dare to venture out of the squalid confines of their hostel tucked somewhere in the armpit of Bia Corner would probably be shocked to find that Bia Hoi not only exists beyond their blurred field of vision, but is in fact one of the cultural lynchpins of Hanoi. From Thanh Tri to Dong Anh and everywhere in between, for Hanoians of all ages, the Bia Hoi is an immutable fact of life, an inalienable right, a ubiquitous blessing that greases the ever-turning wheels of the Vietnamese capital with cheap beer and gut-busting bar snacks.
With Hanoi waist-deep in the primordial ooze of change, we set out to investigate whether the city’s beloved Bia Hoi culture will survive, but also to establish exactly how, why and to who these beer-sodden havens have become so vital. This is our homage to Hanoi’s beautiful beer-belching bastard lover, the Bia Hoi.
“You have to drink with really close friends, it’s all about friendship at the Bia Hoi,” reflects Do Ngoc Bich, a 72 year old retired construction worker. “That’s what makes it meaningful, maybe I’ll pay today, but it’ll be a different friend who pays tomorrow, we all make sure we can all drink.” Do has seen a great deal of change sweep through Hanoi in the 72 years he’s called this city home, but the love for Bia Hoi isn’t something that he sees as diminishing anytime soon. “I think that, in ten years, Bia Hoi will still have a place in Hanoi, sure you can go to a bar when you’re in the mood for that, but Bia Hoi is so much more than just a bar, it’s not just about drinking, it’s about coming together.”
Less than a metre behind us, an eruption of cheering ripples through the air as a group of local patrons stand at a table, beers and phones in hand, and proceed with the raucous Vietnamese cheers that serves as the almost intimidating haka of Bia Hoi. Meanwhile, Le Tho manages a state-run hospital, but with retirement approaching and the sun slowly receding down the Hanoian skyline, Le rounds his day off in the company of friends, all of whom are unified by a sincere, unabashed love for Bia Hoi.
“Only in Hanoi!” he shouts with more enthusiasm than you’d expect from a man his age and demeanour. “There are what? Six million people in Hanoi? I bet only 500,000 of them truly understand Bia Hoi.” Le follows his bold assertion – one surely made with the blinkered confidence that only a gut-full of Bia Hoi can give a man – with something approaching poetry.
“Hanoi is a beautiful woman and Bia Hoi is the earring – without the earring, she is still beautiful, but with the earring she’s even more alluring.”
To Le, the popularity of Bia Hoi remains rooted in its sheer accessibility, “It was cheap, historically speaking, it was so common and the bia was so cheap, but there was only one beer factory in Hanoi and just five places to drink it – back in the 80’s if you bought five bias, you’d get a plate of boiled peanuts too, I think that was only Hoan Kiem though, back when the Bia Hoi in Ba Dinh was just for state officials.”
Bia Hoi may be a cheeky chance for travellers to “slum it” in the Old Quarter, but for those of us who call Hanoi home, Bia Hoi is a way of life – one that Le doesn’t see going anywhere anytime soon. “I know the Bia Hoi will survive, I took my son to one when he was only little – not to make him drink or anything, but just to see how a Bia Hoi should be, nowadays things are changing, it used to be small scale operations, in the olden days the Ba Dinh Bia Hoi for state officials was the only Bia Hoi you could sit and drink, now look!” he gestured around at the hooting, jeering cacophony that surrounds us with a satisfied smile.
Bia Hoi is the level playing field of Hanoian society, with an extensive range of people, all with their own stories and secrets, but all brought to the table for the same reasons. “It’s typical of Hanoi, street-side venues, here we can talk as equals,” explains Pham Phi Huong, a 42 year old deputy manager of an apartment building, he gestures to the man sat opposite him, “Here, he’s not my boss, he is my brother.”
Nguyen Cong Van, 56, is the manager of the same apartment building, but he agrees, “Bia Hois are great for after work, you can talk business without any stress, you can be honest with each other in a friendly setting like this, it’s a trademark of Hanoi that won’t disappear.”
“Absolutely!” agrees Pham, “If you come to Hanoi and haven’t had a Bia Hoi, you haven’t been to Hanoi, but with each generation it’s different, the more developed a country becomes, the bigger the changes between them.”
Part of that younger generation, Cao Van Duc is just 27, but has already built a successful career as a state official with the Ministry of Planning and Investment. Despite his fancy shirt and prosperous future, he too is drawn to the Bia Hoi, just as we all are in Hanoi.
“Bia Hoi is a place to socialise, it’s very Hanoian, we can be comfortable here, swap stories and it’s not so crowded that it’s hectic, but it is noisy enough that it keeps your time here private.” As the only one of his friends wanting to speak, Cao checks his answers for consensus among his group, “Oh and the quality of the beer, it’s the signature drink of Hanoi, it’s about getting that foamy goodness on your lips, sometimes I think it could just be habit, although it’s not just about protecting a tradition – Bia Hoi is still hugely popular.”
What brought them here together on this fine and fateful night?
“We all went for a piss together!” They all laugh, but Cao explains, “We’re all friends, tonight is our man date night, we love the Bia Hoi here, I think it’s the best one in the city,” he looks around for confirmation from his friends who give him a thumbs up, “Why didn’t we go to a bar? We’re Hanoian! We drink Bia Hoi!”