#Did you know?
Man cannot live on food alone, delicious as it might be. Vietnamese men love to go to their local version of bia hơi (draught beer). As soon as the sun sets in Hà Nội, there’s only one place to be: the corner of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến streets. A visit to the Beer Corner isn’t just about enjoying a few brews – it’s also a window into the history of the city.
A beer corner is traditionally a down-to-earth place where men drink draught beer or various local beers after work. Like pubs in UK or Izakaya in Japan, it’s a place to chat, eat, and particularly to drink. There is a tough competition between beer places (quán nhậu), so each place features special savoury snacks with unusual ingredients and games. In Sài Gòn or Hà Nội, quán nhậu retains its male-centred connotation, although it is used generically by both sexes to mean a good time for all.
The first brewery in Hà Nội opened in the 1890s when the French-controlled the city. The French brought the beer-drinking culture to Vietnam. Before that, people drank rice wine. After the Hanoi beer brewing factory was set up, the beer culture caught on quickly. Today, Vietnam is second in alcohol consumption in Asia, just behind Korea, consuming 4 billion litres a year in 2016, according to the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
At that time though, beers were expensive, marketed to the city’s upper class. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that Bia hơi was introduced as an affordable option for everyday citizens. A brewery opened on Tạ Hiện Street, a small street lying in the famous Old Quarters of Hà Nội, near Hoàn Kiếm Lake, selling the fresh lager at just a few cents a mug. This local staple is a light and refreshing lager, with an alcohol content of less than 3%. Still today, bia hơi is relatively affordable when compared with international labels. A glass of the light lager could set you back anywhere from 15 to 40 US cents.
Some actual term bia hơi as “instant beer” like instant noodles since it is produced and sold quickly. The beer is brewed daily, then matured for a short period and once ready, each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in steel/metal barrels. The alcohol content is low and that was because people wanted to consume it rapidly.
More often than not, Hanoians love drinking beer, not because of its taste, but because they’re fond of the ambience of the pavement: hanging out with their best buddies enjoying the breeze amidst a sweltering afternoon after finishing work.
Hà Nội’s bia hơi glass, cốc vại
To truly enjoy Bia hơi fully, one must drink the beer in Hà Nội’s iconic bia hơi glass, cốc vại. The short, bluish glasses are rough around the edges, but without it, the beer doesn’t taste nearly as refreshing regarding the locals. While many may have enjoyed Hanoi’s street beer in these glass tumblers, few are aware that they are not an anonymous creation, but an actual design by a German-trained Vietnamese designer.
In October 1970, the young Lê Huy Vân first set foot back in the capital after studying at Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle, an art school in Germany. Vân wasn’t assigned an art-related job right away by Hanoi authorities but started working as an interpreter in the Government’s Office. Four years later, he was deployed to the technical department of the government’s industrial cooperative, the “birthplace” of the iconic bia hơi glass.
In 1976, Hà Nội only had one beer factory on Hoàng Hoa Thám street. Resources were so limited that local residents didn’t have proper glasses to drink beer. “One day, my superior assigned me a new task: ” you have to design a new tumbler that’s only to be used for drinking Hanoi beer,” Vân recalled. After an hour of sketching, he came up with the design Hà Nội’s bia hơi tumbler and three days later, the first batch of cốc vại was crafted at the Dan Chu Glassware Cooperative.
The initial design of the tumbler could hold up to half a litre of beer, with a thick bottom to stay balanced on street stools and a patterned body for easy stacking and gripping. The bia hơi glass quickly became the capital’s preferred way to drink and serve beers, not just because it was the only proper beer container on the market at the moment, but also because of its affordability.
Each tumbler was sold for VND500 back then, and restaurants loved the bluish glass both for the price and durability. They were, and still are, made from recycled glass in Xối Trì, a village in Nam Định Province near Hà Nội, so if one shattered, the shards could be salvaged and eventually be used to fashion another glass. So in a sense, cốc vại is immortal. Artisans from the village produce about 1,500 of them on a daily basis.
Designer Lê Huy Vân is now a septuagenarian who’s been through many trades since creating the iconic glass. His most recent position before retirement was vice-principle at the Hà Nội University of Industrial Fine Arts.
Variety of popular beers
Saigon Export (4.9%): Smooth, malty bitter with a slight bite and a white creamy head. Short, slightly bitter aftertaste. The beer contains rice, which adds sugar from the starch in the rice without adding flavour. Great with curry and spicy food.
333 Beer (5.3%): 333, or “Ba Ba Ba” as it is known in Vietnam, is a pretty decent rice lager. This beer has a distinctive smoky aroma with a reasonably small head. Fruity with caramel-like flavour that is slightly bitter, finishing with a short and thin aftertaste. Brewed with Australian ingredients and German technology the beer is quite tasty. Dates back to 1893 where it was developed in French, it was originally named 33 and changed to 333 after the communist took over.
333 Beer can be purchased at NamNam Wheelock Place, Plaza Singapura and Raffles City branches OR have it delivered to you via Deliveroo!
Huda Beer (4.7%): This beer is very good and wonderful, with a taste that is usually with elements of barley and grass. Good body than most other Vietnamese beers that tend to be rather watery. Good strong flavour with smooth malty, yet weak aftertaste that is slightly bitter. Good with strong and spicy Asian cuisine. Made by the Hue Brewery who is owned by the Danish Carlsberg Beer Company. Interesting though, the Huda Brewery does apparently donate a large sum of money regularly to various charities and provides scholarships to students in less fortunate areas in Vietnam
Dai Viet Beer (5.2%): This beer develops a good head and gives after a strong aroma of coffee and burnt caramel with a hint of green apple as well. A long smooth aftertaste with a bite of bitterness towards the end. Good all-round beer that goes well with snacks or crisps.
Ha Noi Beer (4.6%): Sweet and bitter with medium-sized head on pouring. The aroma is light to moderate malty. Long dry “lingering” aftertaste