Sitting on little plastic stools and drinking from thick glasses with more imperfections and bubbles than the beer they hold, this is what Intrepid’s Bruce McPhie loves about enjoying a Bia Hoi in Vietnam…
“Xin chao, Bia Hoi, hello!” Over the non-stop horns and rumble of Hanoi’s crazy street traffic, the man’s voice booms out. I glance across to the other side of the road, being careful not to walk into a weaving motorbike or a street seller with loaded bamboo pole strung across her shoulders, but I already know the owner of the voice and his familiar call. With fond memories, I acknowledge his friendly smile and wave, as he stands in his old black suit on the opposite pavement.
This man’s personality is even bubblier than the amber brew he and his wife serve from their wonderfully down-to-earth, simple little shop, which has long been my favourite purveyor of Hanoi’s popular fresh beer from the barrel – the ubiquitous Bia Hoi.
I am not even a big beer drinker, but there is something magic about sitting down on the low plastic stool on a Hanoi pavement, surrounded by the chatter of happily imbibing locals, and filling your nose with the fresh beery smell wafting from the revelers and the stainless steel drum nearby. Even non-beer-drinkers I have brought here are surprised by the pleasantly drinkable taste. “Oh, not so bad. I can drink that!”
Vietnamese tend to eat something while they are partaking of their favourite beverage. Perhaps this helps delay the onset of red cheeks, or is just because enjoying Bia Hoi is all about enjoying the conviviality of friends. So as I sip, I enjoy cracking open roasted peanuts from the plate. Putting aside old Australian habits, I guiltlessly drop the shells on the floor or pavement at my feet, as the locals do. After all, when in Vietnam….. Anyway, later the pavements and streets will all be meticulously swept up.
The chatter and laughter may be joined by another familiar sound as the barrel is just about empty and the new one is being rolled across the footpath into position to take its place. Many hands make new tap work, and once again the icy cold fluid flows.
On the stained yellow wall inside hangs a black and white photograph I love to admire. It shows a gathering of soldiers standing proudly with their Uncle Ho. Some are in uniform, and some, like the ever-smiling man-of-the-house, are not. Is that the same black suit he is wearing, with medals, I wonder. My interest in the photograph and his past as a soldier for Vietnam’s freedom and independence always seems to please him in a dignified, unassuming way. If asked, he has even been known to show me his shrapnel wounds. Another badge of honour?….
Today, as I walk that Hanoi street past my favourite Bia Hoi shop, I no longer hear the familiar “Xin chao! Bia hoi! Hello!” Sadly, the smiling ex-soldier and his wife and kids and stainless steel barrels and plastic chairs have all gone….and I know not where. I like to think he has opened another beer shop somewhere else, and one day, when I least expect it, the friendly man in the old black suit will once again call out to me from across a different Hanoi street “Xin chao! Bia hoi! Hello!”
* photo by Paul Stewart – Intrepid Photography Competition