Bia hoi, Hanoi oi!

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This is a bia hoi.

It’s a place to get fresh beer. (Bia means beer in Vietnamese.)

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Yes, you read correctly: fresh beer. Not bottled. Not canned. Not kegged. Fresh. Basically, they bring it from the brewery in buckets and serve it out of a big vat. At busy times, waiters scurry ‘tween vat and tables carrying round trays crowded with freshly poured, sudsy glasses, barely able to keep up with demand.

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I’ve come here to relax and get some work done. And drink some fresh beer, of course; I like the stuff. I’m about the only person you’ll ever see typing on a laptop at a bia hoi, though. Bia hoi’s are the dominion of groups of men, mainly at night but sometimes in the afternoons, who congregate to drink and smoke and eat and pass the time.

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I choose to sit at table number 13. Surely it will bring me luck. Though that bottle opener is a sacrilege. Who would drink bottled beer at a bia hoi?!

(Incidentally, there was an incident that meant table 13 was unlucky for me. I spilled fresh beer on my laptop. Oi! In the end, though, all I needed was a new keyboard, which didn’t cost much. And my keyboard had been malfunctioning so much that I was about to buy an external one anyway. Probably saved me money. So maybe it was lucky…)

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Across the street from me is a public park, and beyond that the quiet waters of the Westlake. In the park, young and old exercise their right to exercise on blue-and-beige exercise machines provided by the local municipality. My favorite is the old lady doing hip thrusts as she stares inscrutably into the gathering dusk.

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If you want to enjoy a bia hoi, you sit down and holler for some beer. “Em oi! Mot bia!” Hey you! One beer!

You quaff. You eat the complementary peanuts. You chopstick some morning glory with garlic, some crusty fried tofu topped with a hunk of uncooked bitter greens, and some grilled buffalo meat with rice out of little white bowls.

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You throw your trash under the table, in or somewhere near the trash can.

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You admire the every-glass-is-different, made-of-recycled-glass glasses. And you never drink alone. (I’m breaking the rules.)

Bia hoi’s dot Hanoi. It’s hard to go far without seeing one. If you went on a walk and had two beers at every bia hoi you came across, you’d be drunk by kilometer one. Even though the beer doesn’t pack that much punch.

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Come to Hanoi and find your bia hoi.

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