Stories

The Hidden Culture of Vietnam

written by Trevor Davis

“Don’t worry, you’re at a table with a gangster, a cop, and a lawyer. You’re in the safest place in Hanoi,” says the lawyer at the end of the table with a mischievous smile.

And the gangster is not the stereotypical portrayal that may come to mind. His long, perfectly manicured acrylic nails match his impeccably pedicured toes which, undoubtedly, had been freshly done. In Vietnam, it’s a sign of affluence from not having to work manual labor. And the gentleman’s attire couldn’t be more diametrically opposed—a stain covered, dirty, checkered, button-down shirt stretched out from years of wear with shorts just as old, wrinkled, and ragged. Son (pronounced “soon”) or Anh Son (Anh being a form of respect) would be a sight to see anywhere in the world, but especially shocking in Vietnam. 

Two tables had been joined to make just enough room for nearly a dozen people seated in tiny plastic chairs that seemed to just barely be able to support their own weight. Three teenage boys stood attentively, closely monitoring Son in case he had a demand or if anyone at the table needed a beer refill. But not just any beer: This was Bia Hoi.

Bia Hoi (Bia meaning beer and Hoi meaning fresh) is a special, highly treasured national beer brewed by the Habeco company. Their recipe is such a protected secret that no one is allowed in the production facility other than production employees. What is known is that the beer is brewed daily with a short expiration. For this reason, it must be consumed on the same day it’s tapped. In Hanoi, you’ll see endless Bia Hoi establishments, all with the same yellow and red lettering. Some have dirt floors, a few with A/C, and none of them meant to be stylish. There you’ll see Vietnamese locals at any time, day or night. Lunch is primetime for white-collar workers with (mostly) men devouring an assortment of wonderful Vietnamese dishes like fried frog legs and buffalo, fermented pork, crickets, eel, and 8-10 beers—all before heading back to work. Evidence of their presence is a barbaric display on littered floors with boiled peanut shells, napkins, and cigarette butts strewn underneath the seats and tables. Since Bia Hoi beer is only about 3% alcohol content and are poured in their own dedicated 10-ounce, hand-blown glasses, it’s not as dissolute as it sounds.

The table with Anh Son was no different. Except, it’s 11am and he is pouring himself shots of vodka in between beers. More importantly, Son is described as one of the reasons for Bia Hoi’s success, its cautiously guarded recipe, and distribution all over the Vietnam. Adding to the mystery, no one is willing, including Anh Son, to explain in further detail what specific role he plays in the company’s success.

In front of Son is a small notebook with a list of names he methodically crosses off after making phone calls. I’m not sure if it was a Bia Hoi task or something else he was working on, but he’s obviously a multitasking king. To his left are his two goons flanking him who also help themselves to vodka. And further to their left sat Anh Son’s wife who sits counting large stacks of cash that could probably fill a small briefcase. The scene is a bit surreal and made it understandable why the Bia Hoi servers were so overly attentive.

These servers are primarily teenage boys sent from rural families to work at these Bia Hoi establishments. In the city they live together in a dorm-style room. It is usually their first job and they send most of their hard-earned money they earn back to their families. The boys work all day, every day and learn to become their own family. They smoke cigarettes and wash clothes together, work beside each other, eat together, and share everything to become the best of friends. After a few years they go on to other work and some even save enough money to open up their own businesses.

This is what Bia Hoi culture essentially is at the core and your socioeconomic status doesn’t matter. The super wealthy and the poor sit alongside each other. At Bia Hoi, everyone is equal and politics are never brought to the table. Nobody ever takes a drink without clinking glasses with everyone present and every person at the table must eat the dishes provided together. If you’ve been friends your whole life, regardless of if you work in law enforcement and now sit across from a well-known gangster, you put everything aside to enjoy each other’s company over deliciously refreshing beer and some of the best dishes Vietnam has to offer.