The past century of Vietnam’s history is a tale of foreign occupation, war, and privation. Against every odd, Vietnam not only pulled off some of the most impressive military victories in human history, but emerged as a major economic force in the region, standing proudly today as one of the strongest countries in southeast Asia. However, very few aspects of Vietnamese society were unaffected by the wars with the French and the Americans, which run through pretty much everything from the past 100 years of Vietnamese history.
Interestingly (but unsurprisingly), bia hoi is just as much a product of these conflicts and invasions as anything is, so we are going to stumble and stagger through the history of this people’s beer which has become iconic of drinking culture in Vietnam.
I recently spoke with Brian McDonald, owner and operator of Taste of Hanoi and guide of Hanoi’s only craft beer tour, about the history of bia hoi. Order yourself a fresh one while we tap into the remarkable tale of how this foamy cultural institution came to be.
In 1890, the French colonisers founded the Hommel Brewery on Hoang Hoa Tham, choosing this location because of the large freshwater springs nearby. “In those days the beer brewed at Hommel was for the colonial authorities, generals, and the wealthy. Vietnamese did not drink beer at that time. They thought it looked, and tasted, like piss,” said McDonald. “Rice wine in all it’s variety was the alcoholic beverage of choice for centuries here.”
Hommel’s output was paltry: 150 litres per day. It was also quite expensive, prohibitively so for most. When Vietminh troops annihilated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 in one of the most brilliant and ballsy military campaigns of all time, the Hommell Brewery became the Hanoi Beverage Company (Habeco), and kept on churning out lager for the small market of beer drinkers in Vietnam at the time.
Truc Bach beer was first brewed in 1958, and was the closest thing to what the French had been brewing at Hommel. However, as the conflict between the then separated north and south increased, materials like aluminium and glass were needed for more important functions than containing beer, and this created the need for a beer that could go straight into a keg with no other additional packaging. Thus was created the bia hoi we know and cherish today. “As a result of this, people needed glasses, and that’s when the design for the ones we still use today come from. They’re made from recycled glass, and they are not uniformly shaped and have bubbles inside,” he said, holding his glass up to the light. “But, they do the trick.”
As the fighting became more intense, rations were put on rice so that using it to make wine was limited or prohibited in many places “Around 1960, rice wine production was suspended, because it’s made of glutinous rice, which people need to survive. Ho Chi Minh likened people making rice wine at this time to drinking the blood of their brothers and sisters, as in taking the rice from their bowl.”
This was a very propitious moment for bia hoi because, without rice wine, people started turning to this foul-smelling foreign drink in order to get sauced, and it soon became a major alcoholic beverage in Vietnam for the first time. And, as more people drank it, more people realised they liked it.
“Soon bia hoi stands popped up near factories and housing areas, and often there were no seats. Customers would be moved through a series of tables instead of sitting down, because there was often only enough beer for people to have one each. So you get off work from standing all day on the factory floor, and you can’t even sit down to drink a beer.”
Output increased and fell throughout the war, due to rations and lack of supplies, but bia became a staple of Vietnamese life. During a visit to Habeco, Ho Chi Minh once praised the company and encouraged it to increase production for export. Somehow, the brewery was spared from the ravages of war. “The Hanoi Brewery was actually never bombed by the Americans, and was able to continue production throughout most of the entire war.” It is not clear if this was accident or not, but it was indeed fortunate, for how can you deal with war without booze?
Even the term for keg comes from the war- as they resembled the bombs falling across their country, Vietnamese began calling them ‘bom bia.’ The Soviet Union (who had kindly provided the malts bia hoi was made from throughout this time) had a large population of Vietnamese students and workers at the time of the collapse in 1991. “When this happened, many Vietnamese living in places like Moscow, Prague and East Germany returned to Vietnam, bringing with them their acquired taste for Czech and German style beers. This was the milieu from which Gold Malt, Hoa Vien, and Legend emerged in the 1990s, further broadening the field of beer selection in Vietnam.”
Today, Vietnam has one of the fastest growing beer markets in the world (worth around US$6.5 billion in 2016, according to Bloomberg News). Major international beer companies such as Heineken, Anheuser-Busch, and Asahi are intoxicated by the prospect of buying shares in Habeco and Sabeco (Saigon Beverage Company) which are slowly being sold off by the Vietnamese government (bia hoi accounts for roughly one third of the output of the state beer companies).
Over the course of 130 years, beer has gone from total obscurity to being one of the most important drivers of Vietnam’s modern economy. Most foreigners coming to Vietnam have heard of bia hoi and flock to the stands to squat on tiny plastic stools and drink alongside the locals. It has become emblematic of Vietnam’s drinking culture, and at VND5,000-10,000 per glass, bia hoi really is a ‘people’s beer.’ Although the craft beer scene in Vietnam is exploding, with microbreweries popping up seemingly everywhere, its doubtful that bia hoi will ever stop being as popular as it is.
So next time you saddle up to a bia hoi stand and order a round, raise your glasses to the incredible tenacity and adaptability of the Vietnamese people, their fearless sense of independence, and their incredibly democratic, fresh, delicious bia hoi, which in many ways tells the history of modern Vietnam in miniature.
For a wealth of information and to try some of the best craft beers in Vietnam, check out A Taste of Hanoi’s craft beer tour.