The Beer is on in Saigon
Though Vietnam is not really known for having the best beer in Asia, for some people, a vacation would not be a vacation without sampling the local brew. Think of it as part of enjoying the local culture.
Here’s a rough guide to some Vietnamese beers we tried, with ratings provided by Travel Up’s resident beer connoisseur Art Fuentes (who happens to be my husband and the reason our travel fund has to have an allocated “beer budget”).
333 Beer (Ba Ba Ba)
- Alcohol content: 5.3%
- Bonus points: Widely available in most restaurants and stores
- Rating: 3 out of 5 mugs (decent with a nice kick)
While touring the city on motorcycle on our first day, we were looking for any cheap eatery to have lunch. After getting lost and circling around several streets, we stopped at Windows Park View, a cafe on a small side street near the Notre Dame Cathedral. Though we found out later that beer is much cheaper in other restaurants, we paid something like 40,000 VND per can here.
333 Beer is a premium export beer originally made in France using German ingredients. Production moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where it continued to be produced from original German ingredients and best German technology. According to Beerasia, it was called 33 because it is made up of 33cl of beer, but is now called 333 because the standard measurement is in ml not cl.
- Alcohol content: 4.9%
- Bonus points: Vietnam’s most popular brand
- Rating: 3 out of 5 mugs (this one doesn’t stand out so much)
We made the mistake of paying attention to the very convincing waiters who ushered us in to Crazy Buffalo Bar, with promises of happy hour and buy two take one specials as we were walking along the backpacker district (Pham Ngu Lao). Apparently the buy two take one only applied to cocktails and the catch was that you couldn’t share the “take one” drink with another person. When we checked the menu, the food was horrendously expensive, so we just ordered 2 beers, which cost 45,000 VND per bottle.
The pale Vietnamese lager comes in 2 variants – Saigon green and Saigon red (which we got to try in a different restaurant another time). Saigon beer is said to Vietnam’s most popular brand, brewed and bottled in Ho Chi Minh city. It’s also one of the most affordable brands if ordered in the right place and not in crazy tourist trap bars.
- Alcohol content: 5.0%
- Bonus points: Has the strongest flavor of all the beers sampled
- Rating: 4 out of 5 mugs (good flavor, best-tasting beer of the bunch)
Another beer brand sampled by Art in the backpacker district, which has a tagline “the finest blend of two barley malts.” The pale lager brewed by SABMiller Vietnam in the Binh Duong Province, Vietnam has a crisp, clean brew and mildly bitter taste. It cost around 25,000 VND per bottle in streetside bars. The name doesn’t sound like a Vietnamese beer and new bottles contain a picture of Coach Henrique Calisto, the head of Vietnam’s national football team (who was named brand ambassador of Zorok beer). Zorok beer has a stronger flavor compared to the other beer brands.
- Alcohol content: 4.5%
- Rating: 3 out of 5 mugs (another not so distinctive beer)
BGI Beer is another brand we got to try along with our dinner of fried noodles and rice at a small eatery in the backpackers district. The pilsner-style Beer BGI is from Tien Giang, Vietnam with a clear light gold color, medium body and smooth hoppy flavor. The colorful label shows a red tiger above elements of barley and hops. The label also says it’s made from finest quality malt, hops and water. This one cost 18,000 VND per bottle. (Note: the glass next to the bottle is Vietnamese iced tea and not beer.)
Can Tho Beer
- Alcohol content: 4.0%
- Rating: 3 out of 5 mugs
Taken in riverside resaurant Star Hom in Can Tho, a relatively large city in the heart of the Mekong Delta, after our two-day Mekong Cruise. The label shows a logo of sun and river, while the beer is pale, almost straw-like in color. Since the restaurant was pricey, one bottle cost 35,000 VND.
Bia Ho’i (Vietnamese fresh beer)
- Alcohol content: roughly between 3.0-4.0%
- Bonus points: it’s the cheapest beer in the world!
- Rating: 4 out of 5 mugs (for sheer cheapness). Our calculations show that one glass costs approx. Php9 a glass.
Before our 1am flight during our last night in Vietnam, we were finally able to try the fresh beer at a seedy-looking bar in the backpacker district. Because of the beer’s dirt-cheap price, the bars serving this microbrewed beer fill up fast with tourists and locals crowding on small low tables and tiny chairs over pitchers of beer, packets of peanuts and street food.
The light-bodied pilsner is micro-brewed without preservatives in small batches and sold for roughly 10-15 cents a glass. It’s said to be slightly different in each establishment because they brew it slightly differently. Many places have just one keg of it and once it runs out you have no choice but to order bottled beers.
Fresh beer is described as a refreshing, low-alcohol summer drink and a must-try in Vietnam. Unlike bottled brands, Bia Hoi is the “the drink of the masses” and accounts for more than 30% of the country’s total beer consumption. It tastes a bit watered down (kind of like San Mig light with a lot of melted ice) so the drink goes a long way and you can order a lot without feeling to heavy. If you’re there a while, expect the people around you succumb to different stages of drunkenness – some guy next to us started serenading us with a French song while the people on the next table cheerfully included us in their numerous toasts.
San Miguel Beer
Last, but not least, if you’re craving for Pinoy beer, you can find still San Miguel Beer being sold in most street side eateries. This one helped wash down some noodles which had a bit too much chili in it.
Tips for beer-drinkers:
- Bia tuoi or bia hoi = fresh/draught beer
- Bia chai = bottled beer
- The cost of the beer is strangely inconsistent depending on where you choose to drink. Even in bars sitting side by side, there can be dramatic price differences, so look at the menus before you decide to stop for a drink.
- Most of the beers in cans cost just a little over 11,000 VND at convenience stores.
- Since bars selling fresh beer fill up quickly at night and only sell one keg, if you want to just try it for the heck of it, it’s best to go early to get a good table. I would strongly suggest you try this at least once during your trip.
- According to Wikitravel, bia hoi is not always made in the cleanest conditions. Travel experts advise sticking with bottled beer in cases where the bars look really questionable.
- If you are drinking with locals, it is considered polite to fill up their glass with beer or ice before re-filling your own drink.
- Much like drinking in the Philippines, you have to drink when a a toast is proposed…mot, hai, ba, do (one, two, three, cheers). Mot tram, mot tram means “bottoms up.”
- Though fun for the novelty factor, consumption of too much bia hoi may produce horrible hangovers. 🙂 Drink responsibly 🙂