Vietnam’s 1945 Declaration of Independence, penned by Ho Chi Minh, includes a list of crimes committed by the French imperialists. Among them: “To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.” Two decades later, the actions of another imperialist power, the Americans, caused rice shortages that led to a ban on rice wine—and spurred the production of bia hoi to satisfy mankind’s apparently indefatigable urge to consume alcohol. (And according to experts, Ho also came around to beer during the war, visiting Habeco Brewery and encouraging production for export.)
America’s World Police of course failed at what they called a mission to protect democracy, but they did inadvertently fuel the rise of the world’s most democratic (or, cheapest) night out. You can see a lot of humanity at a bia hoi, from red-faced, exuberant bureaucrats to sloppy-drunk washed-up backpackers to elementary school kids who should probably be at home because it’s a school night. As long as the establishment has fresh beer, chairs of some kind and a decent crowd, you can’t really go wrong. The following spots were selected through a process of soliciting recommendations, conducting careful online research, and walking into whatever bia hoi The Historienne happened to already be near.
The Original? Bia Hoi Thien Nga, 86 Tran Hung Dao Street
Various Internet sources and the wisdom of a colleague’s former colleague, an Australian man who arrived in Hanoi sometime in its misty pre-Starbucks past, suggests that this is one of the city’s longest-standing bia hoi heroes. It’s also the first bia hoi The Historienne ever visited, and thanks to this accident, it will always remain the gold standard in her mind. (This is the reason the full-backed chairs at some of the other places on this list made her suspicious on arrival.)
The place is always packed, but there are always enough tables, which spill out onto the sidewalk unless the hated sidewalk police arrive and force you and all your dishes and your friends and their dishes inside. There’s not really a front wall, so you’ll still have a good view of the traffic roundabout and the convention center, plus something to rant about righteously as the empty glasses pile up in front of you.
Suburban Bia Hoi: Nha Hang Tano Beer, 54 To Huu
If the sidewalk police fill you with genuine anxiety and fear, this is the spot for you. Out hear in Hanoi’s suburbs, the sidewalk police are nowhere to be found because there is nothing on the sidewalks. They stretch on for ages, unblemished by stools or boiling pots or parked motorbikes. It’s creepy, like an American suburb but with high-rise condo buildings instead of mid-century ranch houses.
The bia hoi experience at Nha Hang Tano Beer is therefore quite different from what you’ll get in the city. But it’s a worthwhile one. If you sit on the patio (in a full-backed chair), you can watch the traffic wiz by and the skyscrapers rise on the horizon. Plus, the food is good and particularly cheap: a group of four enjoyed six beers and four well-sized dishes for 180.000VND.
Government Bia Hoi: Bia Hoi 19C Ngoc Ha
The Historienne once spent a summer living in Washington, DC. It was both depressing and oddly comforting that one could take for granted that if one sat down at a bar and began eavesdropping, one would overhear suit-clad mid-level professionals excitedly discussing the tedious minutia of their federal government jobs. The Historienne imagines that if she spoke Vietnamese, this spot might be a little bit like that, but more fun.
Nicknamed Government Bia Hoi because of its proximity to government offices (plus the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum), the crowd here favors blazers and short-sleeved polos. Coworkers dine at large tables, and there’s a good bit of mingling and back-slapping. By noon, somebody’s broken out the bottle of vodka. Thanks to the awning and the fence separating the restaurant from the street, plus a lot of potted plants and trees, the courtyard feels both airy and cozy. This place has also innovated to provide full pitchers, so you can get one for your table and not have to wait a bit between rounds. Come here for lunch.
Expat Bia Hoi: Bia Hoi 68, Quang An, Tay Ho
This sprawling spot has two levels, fish tanks, and fake trees in both cherry blossom and autumnal orange-leaved varieties. It also boasts a great view of West Lake, which you can enjoy while sitting in the comfort of a full-backed chair, if you’re into that kind of thing. The overwhelming vibe of this place is “hygienic,” perhaps due in good measure to the fact that the plates and bowls on every table are shrink-wrapped in cellophane. (This is a good conversation starter. Whose idea was this? How does it work? Does the restaurant own a dishwasher? Where is the shrink-wrapping factory? Much to ponder here.)
Located in Tay Ho and the winner of an informal survey by Word magazine last year, this spot is a clear favorite with expats. Expect to overhear several languages and see relatively fewer elderly Vietnamese men stoically swigging their bia hoi. The food we tried, stir fried noodles with beef—my xao bo—was quite good.
Because We Had To: Bia Hoi Corner
Stroll Ta Hien—or rather, fight your way through tremendous crowds of backpackers and locals on Ta Hien—and sit down anywhere. Everywhere will be loud and crowded. By 10pm, the fresh beer will be gone, even on a Tuesday night. If it starts to rain, people will pull up their hoods and remain on their stools. You’re spoiled for choice, but everywhere is the same, and everyone knows it: Bia Hoi 29 and Bia Hoi 31, for example, are right next to each other, distinguished only by the different colors of their tables.
It was out front of the narrow alley of these two establishments that we met Ms. Huong, who assured us that she is a representative of Bia Hoi 29, and then served us reasonably priced warm bottles of Hanoi Beer produced from somewhere in the shadows behind us. Bia hoi, it seems, is not merely the people’s beer, but also the people’s business opportunity.