Yesterday my sister sent me a link to a New York Times Travel section article called “In Vietnam, Traveling an Unlikely Beer Trail” in which the author embarks on what he describes as “a beer odyssey” through the country. When I read these two words—“beer” and “odyssey”—I was immediately intrigued.
To most of the beer enthusiasts I know, Vietnam is not known for the quality of its brew. Had I missed something during my two years in Vietnam? I wondered.
Alas, I had not. The article, despite being well-written and engaging, left me with a familiar impression: travel writers are still figuring out how to sell Vietnam.
There’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the beer culture in Vietnam. When I moved here in March 2008, I too was taken with the local bia hoi joints, the plastic stools and tables, the convivial atmosphere and 33 cent beer. But to suggest that Vietnam boasts a beer trail is a stretch in my opinion.
Let me explain why.
At one point, the writer says: “For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, the variety of local and regional beers can be surprising. It seems each city has a beer named after it (Bia Can Tho, Bia Thai Binh, Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue, and so on), and the best of the bunch depends on whom you ask and where you’re asking. But in recent decades, Vietnamese beer culture has morphed, adopting traditional European styles as well as embracing a uniquely ephemeral home-grown brew called bia hoi.”
To me, the phrasing here is misleading. I don’t know if “variety” is the right word. Yes, many cities have their own beer, but the contents are pretty standard: pedestrian lagers brewed with too much rice and too few hops to have much (if any) defining character. These regional beers do well in their hometowns for a simple reason: local pride. (This is according to my interviews with local market research firm TNS Vietnam.)
I also think the bit about Vietnamese beer culture morphing needs qualification. For those who have the means, beer choice in rapidly developing Vietnam is very much a social statement. Various local bar owners, the heads of international brand operations and Vietnamese friends have all told me the same thing: the beer middle and upper class locals drink is influenced by their perception of its prestige, with beers like Heineken ranking higher than Bia Saigon or Bia Hanoi, which are viewed as a workingman’s brew.
Since the emphasis is on the label rather than the quality of the contents, there’s little demand for a more diverse range of beer (except among expats, who represent a drop in the bucket). Local tastes tend toward simple lagers, so few bars serve anything but Tiger, Foster’s, Budweiser, Heineken, Miller, San Miguel, Corona and the local brews. This carries over into the microbreweries that the writer covers, as well; a brewer at one of these establishments told me he’d like to brew up something with a bit more character, but his boss won’t let him for fear that it won’t sell.
The “aspirational drinker” trend is what really drives the change in beer culture in Vietnam. It utterly dwarfs the tiny niche of microbreweries in Saigon. As an editor, I would have urged the writer to focus on either the novelty of Saigon’s microbreweries or the bia hoi culture covered at the end of the article.
Overall, I think it’s a mistake is to paint a portrait of an evolving beer culture that begs to be explored. When you evoke phrases like “beer trail” and “beer odyssey” you then have to deliver on the reader’s expectations. The fact is Vietnam’s beer portfolio remains very limited, and the trends that are really driving production are actually nudging beer in Vietnam towards mediocrity.