Category Archives: Nightlife

NYT Travel: Overselling Vietnam Beer?

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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.

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Filed under Culture, Media, Nightlife, Vietnam

New Beer Bar Quenches Saigon

Beer in Saigon now has its Graceland. While most bars serve the same range of regional beers, the Kool Beer Bar is stocked with over 100 beers from 13 countries.

Located just off the Ben Thanh Market traffic circle, this joint is the best a beer-drinker could hope for in hop-starved Saigon. Glass-doored coolers make it easy to peruse the goods. The menu lists the alcohol content and bottle size of each beer. There’s even a canal packed with ice that runs the length of the bar — just slip your bottle in to keep your brew cool.

And the beer. While the selection is certainly not exhaustive, it’s nonetheless impressive. Prices are a bit steep, but if you stop in between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. you’ll pay 5 – 10k VND less per bottle (a good incentive to start drinking before noon if ever I heard one). The priciest item on the menu is a 750 ml bottle of Duvel with an alcohol content of 8.5%. It’ll set you back 190K VND. A 330 ml bottle of Chimay Blue (120K) tops the tanked chart with an alcohol content of 9.0%.

I stopped in and had a 375 ml bottle of Coopers Pale Ale (70K VND). If it tastes any fresher in Australia, I’d be surprised. I also shared 500 ml bottle of Vietnamese-made Cuong Duong with my girlfriend out of sheer curiosity. That endeavor didn’t go so well.

“It’s not a great beer,” she said, “but it’s a pretty delicious cough syrup.”

Kool Beer Bar, 177 Ham Nghi, District 1

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Bobby Brewers: The Last Picture Show Has Cometh

Update: Since the time of writing, Bobby Brewers’ has begun showing *ahem* up-to-date films.

Backpackers in Saigon have been packing Bobby Brewers‘ movie theater for years, but Vietnam’s lax copyright laws have tightened and put a stranglehold on this staple of the Bui Vien lifestyle.

Alas, at least for the time being, there shall be no more bootleg movies at Bobby Brewers’ Bui Vien outpost.

Two weeks ago, Bobby Brewers retracted its ubiquitous movie flyers mid-week. Since then, the cafe’s theater has been screening stale flicks like Click, Terminator 3 and (I kid you not) Power Rangers. Gone are the recently released bootleg flicks; even the big three Southeast Asia screen gems — Good Morning Vietnam, The Killing Fields and The Quiet American — have been cut.

A call to Bobby Brewers’ home office confirmed that the company has put the kibash on its speakeasy theater for legal reasons. Unsurprising — with four new franchise locations in the works and its charitable work gaining more recognition, the company needs to put forward a more legitimate face.

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Filed under Free Stuff, Ho Chi Minh City, Nightlife, Vietnam

Things I miss about NYC: Sound Fix Records

It’s tough to complain about 33 cent beer here in Ho Chi Minh City, but lately my mind’s been wandering back to $5 whiskey shot ‘n’ Pabst specials at Sound Fix Records. Sitting in plastic kindergarten chairs, drinking something that manages to taste worse than Pabst, I long for the cozy respite of Sound Fix’s performance space, with its wainscoting and walls pressed with fleur-de-lis. But most of all, I miss the free indy shows in that little vintage den. The impressive cache of song samples at www.soundfixrecords.com allows you to preview the night’s line up. And mercifully, Sound Fix is located just around the corner from the Bedford station, the first stop in Brooklyn on the L train, soothing for those from the island whose gut reaction might be, “Uuuugh…Williamsburg?”

Here in Saigon, I still stop in to sample soundfixrecords.com’s top sellers list and search for untold gems. Lately, I’ve been wading through the the synthy nu-gaze ether of M83‘s “Saturday’s = Youth” and tapping my toe to Tokyo Police Club‘s pendulum-steady pop beats on “Elephant Shell”.

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Le Cheap Drinks at Le Pub, Saigon

Since a cheap night out sends tingles down my spine usually associated with things not spoken about in polite company, I felt obliged to plug one of my favorite new Saigon drinking spots: Le Pub.

One of the more attractive bars in HCMC’s backpacker district — dig that blood red paint job on the storefront patio — Le Pub also boasts a great drink special calendar:

  • Monday: $1 tequila
  • Tuesday: $1 vodka with mixer
  • Wednesday: $1 gin & tonic
  • Thursday: $2 cocktails

I’ve yet to sample the M-W specials, but $2 cocktail Thursdays are worth frequenting. Le Pub’s cocktails, regularly priced at VND 60,000 (about $4), are mixed with good hootch and include staid concoctions, as well as a few house specials, like Le Pub Lemonade (Bourban, triple sec, and lemon juice).

For beer lovers, there’s good news and bad news: Le pub offers hard-to-find brews like Kilkenny, Chimay, Stella Artois and more, but they cost VND 80,000 (about $5). A can of Guinness Stout runs a staggering 110,000 VND ($6.75).

And attention vegetarians! Two of Le Pub’s managers are strict vegetarians, so non-meat dishes are prepared with care (see the list of precautions, curiously posted, near the bathroom). Halal food is also available.

Le Pub is located along the alleyway between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien marked by the Chua An Lac arch on Pham Ngu Lao. 84.8.837.7679. le.pub.saigon@gmail.com. http://www.lepub.org

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Nightlife, Vietnam

Apocalypse Then and Now

It’s never been a secret: Apocalypse Now, Saigon’s most iconic club, has always been an establishment of ill repute. A few years ago, my girlfriend Sarah used to slug ex-pats for feeling up her friend, who these salacious foreigners assumed was a prostitute because a) she’s Vietnamese and b) she was at Apocalypse Now.

I recently ended up at Apocalypse Now with Sarah and her TESOL friends, and it turned out to be a fairly PG-13 affair. This was mostly thanks to the addition of an expansive, second-level dance floor. While the downstairs bar and outdoor patio are overwhelmed by throbbing dance music (and peppered with paunchy ex-pats in polos and shorts), the second-floor DJ spins lighter tunes like “The Twist.” There are regular injections of salsa and reggaeton and a few (awkward) spots of early-90s grunge rock.

Apocalypse Now was also once the epicenter of gay Saigon, but the opening of additional gay bars around town has distilled its significance. Still, it’s a fairly reliable meeting place for gay men.

Despite all this, one thing’s the same: Apocalypse Now remains grossly overpriced. Expect to spend VND 50,000 for a Saigon Beer (about 15,000 elsewhere). The bright side is there’s no cover for foreigners, so you have the option to pre-game and boycott the bar.

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