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Bia hoi shacks in Vietnam

By mahir | January 26, 2011

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In Nha Trang, or in Hanoi, don’t forget to have bia hoi. It’s Vietnamese for draught beer, but you won’t find it in any bars. Instead, little shacks on the streets are actually where the locals go to get a little tipsy.

The beer comes out of a large opaque 100-liter plastic barrel.  The owners siphon it out with a pipe using their mouths for suction, then pour it into informal plastic mugs.  The plastic chairs and tables are so tiny, you wonder if bia hoi makes you shrink.

These shacks sell just one kind of beer – a light, palatable brew that comes from one of the major bia hoi producers in Vietnam and makes its way via rickshaw, cyclo or mini-truck to these family run joints. The bia (which contains about 3 to 4 per cent alcohol) must be consumed within 24 hours, so locals like to get to their favorite dive with their buddies early in the day for the freshest taste.

But bia hoi is not just about the beer. It’s about Vietnamese culture.  It’s about the break between work and the rest of the day. It is about unwinding in preparedness to start again. And, of course, so much of it is about the food.

In keeping with how every thing except the beer mugs are tiny, little ceramic plates are placed around your drinks, tapas-style.  The shacks offer a variety of bar snacks unlike any thing I have had before: salty cured pork wrapped in banana leaves, pan-fried maize kernels in a chile-lemon-butter sauce, beer-steamed shrimps, and a salad made with banana flowers. All of these are made on the premises. With their salt and fat and pungency, they are clearly designed to encourage larger gulps of the bia. After a visit to Vietnam, you never want to have packaged mixed nuts with your lager again.

Bia hois are most fun when you stop by them unplanned, stopping by several times in the day between shopping, sightseeing and afternoon naps. Each one that I went to had a different vibe, reflecting the neighborhood, its residents’ most loved dishes, and how they like to spend their free time. I kicked back and made some local friends thanks to beer-lubricated conversation. I discovered no travel guide will give you the sort of tips you will hear after a few bia hoi.

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