As you make your way through the city and observe prices, you’ll see that even when you overpay, it’s still a bargain. Most cafes and restaurants charge 20,000 – 25,000 Dong (approximately $1) for a bottle of the city’s main brew, Bia Ha Noi. This can go up to around 30,000 – 40,000 ($1.50 - $2) in the main tourist area in the Old Quarter. If you’re at a true five-star restaurant or hotel bar, that same beer might be as much as 90,000 Dong, which is about $4.50. This is great news for those that like to explore the luxurious side of cities, as it only costs an extra dollar or two for the uptick in service and setting. In this sense, getting ripped off never felt so good.
But just as you can pay a little more for a formal atmosphere, you can also pay a little less for a dose of the true local culture. Most Hanoian men, for example, gather at hole-in-the-wall cafes after work and drink a beer called Bia Hoi, which is served from kegs out of oversized steel refrigerators. Here, one beer will run you only 4,000 to 8,000 Dong, or about 20 to 40 cents.
Bia Hoi is very light - about 3% alcohol - and has a reputation for varying in taste from place to place since its production is not really regulated. But the experience is less about the taste of the beer and more about the atmosphere in which you drink it. From the process of it being served from a plastic hose "tap" to the blue-collar vibe of the sidewalk "cafe," it is definitely a scene that will make Westerners feel like they're digging their heels deep into the local scene.
When walking the streets, keep your eye out for signs or store banners that advertise Bia Hoi (as seen in the cover photo). Our recommendation would be to go around 4 p.m. and post up with a good view of the street. As the clock pushes 5 p.m., the after-work crowd will begin to funnel in, and the traffic will pick up on the street. This puts you in prime position to people watch, and the day will slowly start to cool down. Munch on a few appetizers (peanuts, for example) and throw back as many as you want. For us, 20-40 cent pours at 3% alcohol equals "drink as many as you want." The language barrier might prevent you from having a true conversation with any of the locals, but we found it highly entertaining to keep quiet and observe life happening around us.
There is a main "hub" for Bia Hoi cafes at the "International Corner" at the junction of Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ta Hien, and Dinh Liet. It's a good place to start, but also where you'll find the most tourists. We suggest wandering a bit outside of the Old Quarter and just keeping your eye out for a place serving it. A good tip is to look for areas that have a lot of industrial stores, such as bike and metal shops. Cafes around these areas will have a lot of working-class character and less tourists.
It will, without question, be the cheapest and most interesting happy hour of your life.