Perhaps one of the most surprising beer scenes in Asia right now is that of Vietnam. When word first began trickling out – I believe via Tim Webb – that Vietnam was home to a multitude of brewpubs the beer world began to take notice. The numbers are actually pretty impressive. By my count, there are now 15 brewpubs in Hanoi (13 of them unique), the highest such total in all of Asia (next is Beijing with 8 and Singapore with 6, again by my count). Any city, anywhere in the world would be a brewing star with 15 brewpubs and Hanoi also has its own indigenous beer “style” of bia hoi. There is, however, a caveat to this apparent awesomeness.
Most brewpubs in Vietnam have been set up with the assistance of the Czech government or with German technology and equipment. The result is that Vietnam’s large number of breweries belies the actual selection of beer available. These brewpubs typically offer just a pale (vang) and a dark (den) lager. The quality also is quite variable. The best ones, such as the Hoa Vien chain or Windmill in Hanoi, are wonderful breweries (and the Hanoi Hoa Vien and Windmill are both architectural treats as well). Some other ones make one good beer, maybe both are ok. But in general, touring the brewpubs of Hanoi (or Saigon) everything becomes very samey. That said, the good stuff is genuinely good and there are other reasons for optimism about the Vietnamese beer scene as well.
The first other reason is the craft beer that bears other influences besides Czech. Smack right on the beach in the resort town of Nha Trang is the Louisiane Brewhouse, where you can rent a beach lounger and have craft beer brought to your umbrella all day long. There are very few brewpubs actually on the beach with sand up to the door so this place is special right away. The brewmaster is Australian and the beers bear that same character as well, which makes Louisiane unique among Vietnamese brewpubs. Australia’s take on craft beer is fairly mellow and balanced, maybe not so interesting if you’re from there but for those of us who’ve never been it is a nice break in Vietnam. In addition to its own private beach (complete with security to keep the hawkers away) Louisiane also has a pool, pool table and other delights. If it had rooms, you’d need nowhere else in Nha Trang.
The other non-Czech micro is located in Saigon. The Fifth Ocean brewery originally hails from Moscow (where it is rightfully known as Pyatiy Okean) but the communist Vietnamese still have strong ties with Russia. So, in light of those ties and in light of the large amount of Russian tourists in both Saigon and the southern beach resorts (like Mui Ne), Fifth Ocean has set up shop in southern Vietnam to provide “live beer” to Russian vacationers and other beer fans in the area. The beer is the same as the Svetloe (“pale”) from Moscow and makes a welcome addition to the Vietnamese beer scene.
Lastly, Vietnam has a tradition of “people’s beer” called bia hoi. This is dirt cheap beer served from barrels in shops on the street corner. It’s not very good, but it is an interesting tradition that adds to the pleasure of beer drinking in Vietnam. Bia hoi is widely available in Hanoi, but it harder to come by elsewhere. San Miguel makes a good bia hoi in Nha Trang; bia hoi from an unknown brewer in Da Nang in the central part of the country can be found there an in the nearby UNESCO town of Hoi An; and bia hoi from Sabeco can be tracked down in Saigon, although it is thin on the ground in the city center.
The nation has a number of macrobrewers as well, roughly one in each major city. Their names are uniquely communistic. In Hanoi they have Habeco (Hanoi Beverage Company) and in Saigon they have Sabeco (Saigon Beverage Company). In Hue they have the Hue Brewery, with three beers (plus a malt liquor for export) and one macrobrewer even makes a dark beer. Most importantly for the beer lover, SAB Miller sends some Castle Milk Stout which can be found in the bigger supermarkets and in ex-pat stores in places like Nha Trang. Hanoi has some beer bars in the My Way chain and Saigon has some Belgian and English stuff available in high end shops, so it’s not that hard to find good beer in the cities, even if the countryside is dominated by swill.
Next up: Beer in Asia, part Four: The People’s Republic of China
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