Cheap Beer and Dried Squid: The Joys of Vietnam’s Bia Hoi Tradition

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Life happens on the street in Vietnam. From the rooster’s crow to the final street sweeper’s pass of the night, sidewalks are jammed with young and old going about their daily routines. Barbers, butchers, tinsmiths, florists—everyone plies their trade outside, where the customers are. It’s also where they eat. As such, it’s reductive to highlight “street food” as a genre here, as you would in most parts of the world, since everything from steaming bowls of soup to deep-fried spring rolls to delicately assembled salads are prepared and consumed streetside. Better to talk about “indoor food” if you’re looking for novelty.

Of course drinking happens on the street, too. Primarily at bia hoi stalls, or “fresh beer” vendors that serve a light, locally brewed pilsner that fits the definition—if not the artisanal spirit—of a microbrew. In Hanoi, the stalls open for business in the late morning, setting out brightly colored, preschool-sized plastic stools or chairs on the sidewalk. Elderly men come out early for first crack at the rubber-spouted keg, spending the lazy morning hours chatting over newspapers. They’re followed later in the day by young professionals, blue-collar workers and tourists out to get a taste of the “real Vietnam.” By dusk, the stalls are a hodgepodge of society, not unlike the coffee shops of 17th-century London—a place where social status falls away in favor of community and chatter. And where people linger over drinks, there must be food; larger bia hoi stalls have their own kitchen to turn out , while smaller, kitchen-less establishments are targeted by roaming vendors with snacks to sell.

The food that accompanies this beer is a constellation of small dishes and snacks, easy to nibble at over conversation, with big, aggressive flavors and, often, an etching of charcoal-grill char. The most iconic of all, whole dried squid—their spade-shaped bodies flattened, dried and salted, then grilled and shredded to order—is presented as a haystack of smoky jerky that will last for hours.

Like many of Vietnam’s cultural icons, bia hoi is a crazy-quilt manifestation of the country’s colonial past. Beer was first introduced by the French in the 19th century at the start of their occupation; before then, home-brewed rice wine had been the intoxicant of choice. During the 1950s and ’60s, the Communist regime encouraged cultural exchange with the USSR, including the Czech Republic, whose easy-to-produce light pilsners caught on with Vietnamese beer-drinkers. It’s this style that became the model for bia hoi’s fresh, draft-only beer, manufactured by a handful of local breweries (today, there are both state-owned and private breweries) and distributed daily to the vendors who sell it straight from the keg just a few hours later. Fermented for a short period of time (somewhere from 6-30 days) and force-carbonated for a low-ABV brew around 4 percent, bia hoi was the “worker’s beer,” a refreshing and low-cost equalizer.

The food that accompanies this beer is a constellation of small dishes and snacks, easy to nibble at over conversation, with big, aggressive flavors and, often, an etching of charcoal-grill char. Peanuts dry roasted with whole spices, the scent of cardamom and star anise penetrating their skins. Fried tofu, fulfilling the theory that deep-frying is built into every drinker’s DNA, no matter where they live. And the most iconic of all, whole dried squid—their spade-shaped bodies flattened, dried and salted, then grilled and shredded to order—is presented as a haystack of smoky jerky that will last for hours.

Stacked like reams of paper at the morning markets (outdoor, of course) dried squid doesn’t arouse much attention; it’s just another of the ingeniously preserved foods that are staples of the Asian kitchen. But unlike the baskets of teeny dried shrimp or anchovies that wind up as mere ingredients in a chef’s arsenal, the cartoonish cephalopods, with their oversized heads and miniature, curled tentacles, become an unlikely star. Grilled on tiny brick chimneys stuffed with charcoal—and either threaded through with a skewer or pressed between two mesh plates to keep them as flat as possible on top of the fire—even tiny bia hoi stalls with no kitchens attract roaming squid vendors, so essential is it to the beer-drinking ritual. The scent is unmistakable and overpowers even the exhaust from the motorbikes streaming past just inches away on the street: sweet, and with a mellow undertone of fishiness.

In tourist guides, these outdoor bars are often highlighted as worthy of a stop by dint of being home to the “cheapest beer in the world”—which it is, at an average cost of 25 cents (USD) per glass—but that’s not what makes bia hoi an essential part of the Vietnamese experience. That price puts it on par with other staples, like steamed sticky rice, coffee and cigarettes, indicative of its essential role in society, not some kind of loss-leader promotion like happy-hour shots or 25-cent Buffalo wings. Bia hoi needs to be affordable because it is for everyone, and in a country where the average annual salary is $1,740, the threshold for affordability must be truly cheap.

It’s a global fact that real-estate development increases, public space becomes a luxury, claimed by private companies or government entities for more profitable uses. Even in countries with high poverty rates, space is a commodity, keeping those who can’t afford it segregated in shantytowns and undesirable neighborhoods. But in the highly developed cities of Vietnam, the need for communal spaces keeps life happening outside, on the sidewalks and curbs, wherever there’s enough space to set up a few plastic stools. Commerce happens out there. Religious ritual happens out there. And, when it’s time for a break, conversation happens out there, over a cold pitcher of bia hoi, with the sweet scent of grilled squid calling out to one and all.

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