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Banh Mi and Bia Hoi

In my vain search for the perfect Banh Mi, I found something even better… Bia Hoi culture.

Vietnam is home to some of the best food in Asia, which is saying a lot considering its neighboring countries. Before I landed in Vietnam, a good portion of my research went to what awesome food I could stuff my face with in the morning and what would satisfy my beer munchies late at night.  Trying authentic pho was obvious, and I heard the bun cha was nothing short of amazing, and eating all the seafood you can handle was a must when I headed towards the coast. But one food item stuck out above the rest for me and that was banh mi.

I’m a sandwich person. There is something to be said about juicy meats, crunchy fresh vegetables and a spicy condiment squished between two pieces of pure carbohydrate goodness. It’s simple, easy, remarkably portable, and the options are endless. I love them so much that most of the time I am not opposed to vegan options (not banh mi though, never a true banh mi). Not only did this Vietnamese version of a sub have all of these things and was available on every street corner, it boasted a healthy spread of pâté in each bite. Sign me up, I’m in heaven. 

What I did not realize is that everyone in Hanoi makes their banh mi slightly different. Some would have pâté and some wouldn’t. Some would have vegetables and some would skip them altogether. Just like any other regular sandwich the options were endless but that wasn’t going to stop me from finding what I was promised. Meat, peppers, fresh vegetables and cilantro, with a nice swipe of pâté on a crispy baguette. All of the ingredients together, no exceptions!

This proved harder than I would have ever guessed and with the heat index around 115 degrees fahrenheit, casually walking around to find what I so desperately sought after wasn’t an option. I had to be direct and efficient in my game plan. 

What eventually transpired was an involvement of another element I had read about, Bia Hoi. Bia Hoi is a local beer made daily that is around 3% alcohol and usually around $.40 USD a glass. It was cold and for reasons we may never find out (because the brewing process is a secret), it didn’t make me bloated and tired. Authentic Bia Hoi is discernible by the iconic hand blown glasses they serve the beer in. If it’s not in one of these glasses, it’s not the real thing. I would hunt out these authentic Bia Hoi places next to the banh mi spots I heard were promising. By the time I arrived the need for hydration and cooling off with numerous of the previously mentioned beers was imperative. Then off I would go to get my banh mi, it was a perfect plan.

I had a lot of fun with this plan yet I still never found my perfect banh mi but the adventure is in the journey, not the destination. So I did end up finding something better, which is an interesting culture surrounding the Bia Hoi. At lunch time these places were packed full of Vietnamese men yelling over one another still dressed in their office clothes and singing loudly with cigarettes dangling from their lips. They gave an air of not caring about anything as they flung their peanut shells, discarded napkins and anything else on the floor while the trash cans provided at every table went largely unnoticed. The stillness and silence they left behind after some of these lunch dates was palpable.

I worked my way around to find the best Bia Hoi with the best atmosphere. This is what I found being the deciding factors for how to choose your spot while visiting Vietnam: 

For one, I’m a woman and Bia Hoi is largely drunk by the men in the country—  therefore bathrooms were always a major point for me. Can I stand to go in there without cringing? That goes a long way when drinking beer and needing to use the facilities numerous times per visit. If you’re a guy, then the trough in the back might not be concerning for you, for me it is.

Second, what is the food situation like? The places that serve Bia Hoi all serve food a little differently. Some places you will find mainly seafood, or mainly hotpots, some have a menu of smaller sharing plates with everything from eels to water buffalo, fried or grilled. I never ran into bad food in Vietnam but it’s all about preference.

Third, what atmosphere are you wanting? Many places do not have A/C but you get the unique ability to sit outside on plastic stools hearing the sounds of the city move past you. It’s hot but it has its own charm. Some places you are afforded AC but you are in the restaurant as opposed to having a view of the bustling streets. The restaurant ones are typically the loud ones. Everyone is speaking loudly but this atmosphere is a little more bar-like and you won’t find nearly the amount of locals stopping to try and sell you stuff. 

And last, location, location, location! Finding a spot near you is key. Let’s remember, it’s Southeast Asia and it’s hot out there. When you are out and about it’s good to find a random spot near your outing, but going out for a few beers turns into a trek or waiting game with Grab (the equivalent to Uber in Asia) when it’s not near your hotel.
It really doesn’t matter your preference, Hanoi has a spot for you. I might not have found the sandwich I was looking for but I did find Bia Hoi and the culture surrounding it was my favorite part of Vietnam.

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Amber is a contributor to R&V, offering a woman's perspective while traveling the globe since 2020.