Bia Hoi – Now and Then
By Ashley Wu
For a traveler with little self control when it comes to culinary indulgences, Hanoi is full of dangerous temptations. In a culture where the locals start their day at 6 am with a bowl of pho and end their days at 11 pm with another bowl of pho, there may be opportunity for 4 or 5 meals a day.
But the meals we had at bia hoi joints stood out as, by far, our favorite meals of the day. Together our group of 16 clustered around low-slung plastic tables, sitting on tiny pastel child-size stools. Bia hoi, literally meaning “fresh beer”, is ubiquitous in Hanoi, with tables and chairs spilling into almost every street in the Old Quarter. Between mouthfuls of tapioca rice cake, sauteed chayote, and slightly warm beer, we also inhaled plenty of roadside motorbike exhaust. The authorities, however, seem less than pleased by the disorderly din of eaters, drinkers, and the accompanying street-side entertainment. In fact, our only encounter with police in Hanoi occurred when officers drove through the central bia hoi street, blaring sirens and confiscating those iconic plastic stools. Not to worry – every discerning bia hoi stand had plenty of extra stools in reserve.
Like pho, bia hoi is another wonderful product of an unfortunate colonial occupation. Scholarship seems to agree on two distinct reasons that beer was pushed upon the Vietnamese: social control and a French grape blight. The 1880’s saw the height of the phylloxera grape blight, and advertisements for French wine in colonial territories were rare during this time. Worried that the rest of Europe would mock French wines and destroy their reputation, advertisements were taken out in local newspapers and magazines touting French beer: “A new beer [Brienne brand] has arrived in Hanoi’s best establishments, and its incontestably high quality allows us to predict a brilliant future for the brand.” The alternate explanation: French colonial government popularized beer halls as an alternative to Vietnamese rice liquor, worried that the strong spirit would instigate social instability.
Other culinary delights:
Banh xeo (rice pancake)
Bún bò Nam Bộ (rice noodle with beef)