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BEER! in Vietnam?

In keeping with the Beverages theme I picked beer for my second paper in History and Culture. I am working my way across Asia and still have 3 more papers to go before my final paper! Wait I also have another “cultural log” or diary to go as well… I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel…

Vietnamese Beer:

Mao, hi, ba, YO!!!

An Egyptian proverb said that “The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer” and a truer statement has never been said. Since mankind stopped being a hunter gatherer society and started gathering in groups to form civilizations there has been beer. “One of the great benefits to humankind brought about by the policy of the free market is a plenitude of beer. It’s as common as water and more worthy.”[1] In Vietnam beer or bia hoi is never far away because almost every street vendor or market corner will have beer for sale amongst their wares. The strange part is that only two beers are known nationwide or even around the world; the rest are quite regional and while you might taste similarities as you travel around Vietnam, unless you are drinking the light and refreshing Saigon, or the strong and famous 333, no two regional beers will taste the same. With this plethora of beers to taste and choose from what are the things that make Vietnam beer unique, and more importantly what impacts has beer had on the history and culture of Vietnam?

While the Czech Republic may be to thank for what beer has become known for in Vietnam today it is ultimately the “French colonialists of the 1890s founded Habeco brewery”[2] who are the true starters of beer in Vietnam. Granted beer wasn’t what it was today until after the Vietnam War, “when thirsty American soldiers wanting a way to bet the heat and warned about drinking the local water ordered bia hoi, a 3% alcohol by volume beer.”1 Ever since then bia hoi has been popular, and is still brewed each day in kegs and then shipped to the markets for Vietnamese and tourist alike to enjoy. “In recent years with the demand for beer on the rise among tourists and the newly affluent of Vietnam, a few Vietnamese/foreign joint ventures have sprung up. The best known joint venture is Huda beer which proudly proclaimes on the label that it is made with Danish technology- HUe+DAnish= HUDA!”1 However not all foreign interest in the Vietnamese beer market has been a benefit to the people or beer market of Vietnam. “After chasing off cheap Chinese beer competitors a decade ago, Vietnam’s state-run brewers are gearing up to fight a new invasion from Western beer brands. Lured by Vietnam’s population of 86 million people, nearly half of them between the prime beer-drinking ages of 20 to 40 years old, a wave of foreign brewers have landed on the country’s shores in recent years to capitalize on Vietnam’s expanding economy and the resulting rising incomes.”[3]

If these foreign companies are going to stand any chance of getting a foot hold then they are going to have to figure out a way to compete against bia hoi, which literally translated means “air beer”. “Bia hơi is available throughout Vietnam. It is mostly to be found in small bars and on street corners. The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. It is a very light refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draft or bottled beer in the Western-style bars.”[4] Bia hoi could be called a micro brew as there are no preservatives added and it is generally consumed on the day it was made. “THE beer at bia hoi corner is from a small local brewery, and varies in quality by the batch. At 3,000 Vietnamese dong (roughly 16 cents) a pint, it is so inexpensive — “cheaper than water,”2 a gregarious Vietnamese man told me.” If you are looking for more refined and arguably more reliable we look to 333, which is “a bitter tasting rice flavored beer made by the Saigon beer Co who also make Saigon Lager and Saigon Export. 333 dates back to 1893 where it was developed in France, it was originally named 33 and changed to 333 in 1975”2

One caution for the beer drinker in Vietnam is the shortage of refrigeration. Even if the beer is pulled out of a refrigerator don’t plan on it staying that way for long. Vietnamese and tourist alike can expect to receive moderately chilled or as can also happen later in the day, warm beer soup. Bars catering to tourists will always have cool beer, but the more adventurist types can go join the locals and have their beer served over ice. To western culture this may seem like it is not something that should ever be done, but “the beer can stand up to it. When it’s 32 degrees C with humidity to match the only thing worse than warm beer is no beer at all, so ask for a bucket of nuoc da (ice)”1 Another thing to know for the tourist thinking about going to joining in with the local beer crowds around the many beer gardens that are popping up on each and every street corner of Vietnam is; “If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink. It is also considered necessary to drink when a toast is proposed…Mao, hi, ba, Yo! (one, two, three, cheers). Also if you here “Mot Tram”, this implies you will drink 100%, or finish your beer.”4

With tourist and the local Vietnamese flocking to street markets and corner beer gardens growing each year, not only has beer had an impact on the economy of Vietnam it is also a way that people can gather and relax in the hot sun of summer. No matter if you are drinking beer with other tourist in an air conditioned bar, or out on the streets with the locals watching the people moving up and down the streets, bai hoi once again proves that old Egyptian proverb true “the mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer”. If you find yourself in Vietnam with .16 cents rattling around your pocket buy yourself some bai hoi find some friends or join the locals and remember it is as simple as Mao, hi, ba, Yo!!!!


Bibliography

Hookway, James. “Vietnam Brewers Fight Global Giants By Popularizing Kegs of ‘Fresh Beer’ – WSJ.com.” Business News & Financial News – The Wall Street Journal – Wsj.com. Web. 27 Jan. 2012. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125297399516510451.html&gt;.

Juskalian, Russ. “On the Beer Trail in Vietnam – NYTimes.com.” NY Times Advertisement. 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 Jan. 2012. <http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/travel/21explorer.html?pagewanted=all&gt;.

Sterling, Richard. “Alcoholic Drinks Bia (Beer).” World Food Vietnam: [for People Who Live to Eat, Drink & Travel ; with Comprehensive Culinary Dictionary]. Hawthorn [u.a.: Lonely Planet, 2000. 60-63. Print.

“Vietnam Travel Guide – Wikitravel.” Free Worldwide Travel Guides – Wikitravel. Web. 27 Jan. 2012. <http://wikitravel.org/en/Vietnam&gt;.


[1] World Food Vietnam

[2] In Vietnam, Traveling an Unlikely Beer Trail

[3] Vietnam Brewers Fight Global Giants By Popularizing Kegs of ‘Fresh Beer’

[4] Vietnam Travel Guide


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