If the locals have to pick their favorite drinks, coffee sure comes rocking steady all-day long at the first place. But beer certainly can hold firm its 2nd place as king of the night, “firm” being relative for its loyal fans.
Now, if the loyal fans have to pick their favorite place to drink, it has got to be sidewalk “bia hoi”. It is indeed the most common place that the average Vietnamese often sits down to enjoy his beer. The essence of “bia hoi” is that everyone equals and should get to drink beer at his most relaxing and truest-to-oneself state. It is all about relaxation.
A normal "bia hoi" is basically a small low-cost restaurant that often utilizes both the in-house and the surrounding public spaces to accommodate customers. Waiters usually serve fresh-off-the-brewery beer straight from the kegs to the pleasure of self-indulging customers. Food is hot and prepared on site, sometimes right next to patrons. Some places even show off their cache of live animals for patrons to chose from, then watch chiefs butcher and prepare the food. Such "bia hoi" can easily be found in any medium-sized town, and the big cities each host a number in the hundreds.
While some customers enjoy the food, some argue for the open-air feeling that these "bia hoi" restaurant offers. It is hard to turn down the experience of munching on fresh-off-the-grill meats that are cooked under one's own eyes. Others love the fresh high-quality beer. But all can agree on the fact that "bia hoi" is about relaxation. And this is exactly the way people like it.
If one lists all the purposes that people bring, sometimes as excuses, to go to "bia hoi", that one is going to be a long list. There is certainly the unwritten rule in Vietnam that business deals are signed not on the meeting table, but on the beer table. Their terms are agreed upon, and later celebrated in the same place. So among the ones come to unwind with friends, there are the ones that come with money in mind. But if one looks at it the other way, at the end, it will just be one big party anyway, and "bia hoi" welcomes all, be it his friends, or his business partners. The appeal is so irresistible that despite the many drawbacks, gathering at a restaurant will likely remain one of the most loved activities for both locals and some well-adapted foreigners alike.
"Bia hoi" is not without its ugly side. As it is the source of an almost unlimited supply of booze, irresponsible drinking often follows. Vietnam still sees an average of 32 lives being lost everyday due to traffic accident, many cases are direct consequence of DUI. And as typical with any bar, the very atmosphere that helps customers relax and loosen up in the most ridiculous ways possible without being judged, sometimes fails. Masculinity collides and brawl breaks out.
Perhaps the most disturbing fact about "bia hoi", as it happens, turns out to be one of its charms. The exotic varieties of food that customers so much love are often ill-prepared, and despite being tasty, they pose some major health risk to diners. The raw material is sometimes hastily put together, and overworked cooks and waiter both do not have time to follow safe food-handling procedures. Yet the locals still love it, to the amazement of western visitors who are used to the most strict hygiene code. And it is true that some might get sick eating the food at "bia hoi", if his digestive system is not prepared enough. Some wise natives have offered explanation that locals can stomach such because they are used to it from day one, while health-conscious westerners are certainly not. Some expats manage to, due to long exposure, but for first-timers it is a big caution.
While the original "bia hoi" once is all about beer, these days higher potent drinks are usually available as well. The place has come full circle and evolved into what some call "the Vietnamese bar". There certainly are western styled bars around, but for conservative Vietnam, those do not quite fit the local taste.
As the name suggests, beer is still the most common and cheapest alcohol at any "bia hoi". It is food and hard alcohol that cost. The lower-income group of customers sometimes resorts to drinking and chewing on the occasional snack, but the ones with cash to spend have at it. To such, the cost of dining at a sidewalk "bia hoi" is often on par with upper-scale eateries, which feature more proper manner, cleaner food and overall better service. It is illogically puzzling that many Vietnamese still prefer their unique "bars". The only possible reason lies in the fact that the essence of "bia hoi" has remained unique and strong. It is a place where one does not have to mind.
Do you know that besides the (in)famous "bia hoi" Vietnam also boasts a large variety of beer, one for each city and province? Read and find out which one should be noted out on your to-drink list!