After a month doing voluntary work in Cambodia, a beautiful and beguiling country but sadly not noted for the quality of its beer, I recently spent three days in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) a vibrant city with excellent museums and bustling markets which also boasts a number of micro-breweries.
As a frequent visitor to Prague the first drinking establishment I visited in HCMC had to be the Hoavien Brauhaus. This large and welcoming microbrewery / restaurant opened in 1996 and has been brewing its own beer since September 2001. It can be found at 28 D Mac Dinh Chi, which is around a 10 minute walk from the centre of HCMC.
The web-site advises that the beers, a Lager and a Dark Lager, are made from premium ingredients imported from the Czech Republic, with a Czech head brewer in situ, and the results are certainly impressive. The Lager appears rather cloudy when served but quickly clears to an attractive lightish brown rather than golden colour. It has a somewhat neutral aroma, a fresh and hoppy palate and a smooth aftertaste. A half–litre costs 20,000 Vietnamese dong so around 60 pence. The Dark Lager, slightly more expensive at 24,000 dong for a half–litre, has a dense head with again a rather neutral aroma followed by a smooth, chocolaty palate and a warm aftertaste. I was told that the Lager has an ABV of 4.4% and suspect the Dark Lager is around 5.0%.
The menu includes a number of Czech staples such as bramboraky and knedlicky (potatoes and dumplings) together with a wide range of tempting Vietnamese and other Asian specialities and an excellent meal can be had for around £3.00. A range of souvenir glasses, including ones from Kozel and Pilsner Urquell, and T-shirts are on sale at very reasonable prices the only “blott on the landscape“ being a selection of glasses engraved with the red devils of Manchester United! In short the Hoavien Brauhaus will be of interest to anyone who appreciates Czech beer and I was particularly impressed to be given a complimentary becherovka, a very popular drink in the Czech Republic, on my first visit to this fine beer hall.
After a pivo or three at the Hoavien Brauhaus you can cross the road and walk about 50 yards to 35 Mac Dinh Chi the home of the Hops Brauhaus and Restaurant. I was told that this excellent establishment which has a clear Germanic influence has only been open for just over a year, and it certainly wasn’t as busy as the Hoavien, but the beer was the best that I have sampled in South East Asia. The friendly manager, Bien, told me that the Dark beer, a bargain at 24,000 dong for a half–litre, has an ABV of around 5.5%. The beer is very dark with a liquorish aroma, full bodied and satisfying palate and a toffee finish. It reminded me somewhat of the Schwarzla brewed at Bamberg’s Klosterbrau brewery. You can also sample their Yellow beer at 20,000 dong for a half-litre. This pleasant beer remained rather cloudy in the glass, had a distinctly hoppy aroma and palate but a rather sweet finish. 33 cl bottles of three Paulaner beers including Salvator are available at 26,000 dong and the comprehensive menu represents very good value. I did suggest to Bien that renaming their second beer Amber or Blonde rather than Yellow might make it more attractive to English speaking tourists and will be interested to see if they choose to do so.
A visit to HCMC would not be complete without sampling the ubiquitous Bia Hoi (fresh beer) which is available at a wide range of outlets and is, I was told, enjoyed across the length and breadth of Vietnam. The beer is brewed commercially without preservatives and certainly lives up to its name with a low level of carbonation. I have read in an article on the internet that Bia Hoi is sometimes brewed with up to 50% rice adjunct but have no way of judging the accuracy, or otherwise, of this statement. The beer I sampled at a Bia Hoi bar near my hotel would be unlikely to win many awards at any CAMRA festival but was, after a long morning’s sightseeing, certainly very refreshing and a real bargain at 6,500 dong, around 20 pence, for a litre. The only negative factor was that the friendly waitresses, and a number of the other customers, insisted on putting chunks of ice into my glass at regular intervals.
A google search suggests that there are at least two other extant micro-breweries in HCMC, namely the Lion brewery and the Asia brewery, but sadly I did not have the time to visit either of them. I hope, however, to return to Vietnam later this year and will be looking to sample their beers then.
A trip to Vietnam is unlikely to feature highly on any western beer tourist’s agenda, notwithstanding the price of the Bia Hoi(!) but I don’t think that any beer lover who finds him or herself in HCMC will be disappointed if they spend some time visiting the Hoavein and Hops beer houses in Mac Dinh Chi.
John Bush - August 2007