It's another sticky, humid night in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Everyone, it seems, is drinking beer. But here at this small, timber-clad bar in up-and-coming District 2, instead of people clutching the familiar bottles of Heineken, Tiger and Bia Saigon they are nursing stranger brews – think IPAs, pale ales and even the odd stout.
Welcome to BiaCraft, HCM City's first dedicated craft beer bar. Since opening a year ago with six taps for local brews, it has expanded to 14, reflecting Vietnam's new love affair with craft beer.
"The craft beer scene is still in its infancy here," says Tim Scott, BiaCraft's Brisbane-born co-founder. Scott, 35, has been living in Vietnam since 2002 and started brewing pale ale to complement the food at his barbecue restaurant Quan Ut Ut, a business he started with Frenchman Albin Deforges and American Mark Gustafson in March 2014. They opened BiaCraft in August 2015 to give locally brewed craft beers an outlet. "It's new and it's such a difficult country to brew and get [ingredients and licences] in," says Scott. "The community is quite close – everybody helps each other out. It has not yet got to that point where we're competing with each other at all. Right now it's very much a case of a rising tide floats all boats."
Vietnam's beer history dates back to the 1890s, when French colonialists introduced brewing to Indochina. But until now the beer favoured by locals has been restricted to German and Belgian-style lagers and bia hoi (low-alcohol "fresh beer", brewed every morning and sold from as little as 25¢ a glass).
Australian Sean Symons is credited as being among the first expats to try something different, when he started brewing at his Louisiane Brewhouse in Nha Trang in 2006. Meanwhile, in HCM City, British architect Hannah Jeffreys turned her hand to craft cider, selling her first batch in 2013 at alternative rock-climbing-cum-band-venue Saigon Outcast. "It was a bit of a hit, we sold out, so at the next event I introduced flavours from south-east-Asia," says Jeffreys, who arrived in Vietnam in 2011, from Somerset in England. "We added things like local ginger, local chillies, cinnamon, and the flavours were a huge hit and we sold out at subsequent events." Three years later her business has grown to employ five part-time staff and supplies venues in Saigon, Nha Trang and will soon be available in Da Nang, Hoi An and Ha Noi.
Today, though, HCM City remains the centre of the craft beer movement, with main players including Fuzzy Logic, Platinum, Te Te, Phat Rooster and the Pasteur Street Brewing Company.
Of those, Pasteur Street is perhaps the most professional and commercial outfit, with its own tasting room, outlets across the country and a serious ambition to export. In May, it became the first Vietnamese brewer to win a gold medal at the prestigious World Beer Cup awards in Philadelphia (for its "Cyclo" stout, made using Marou chocolate – a Vietnamese success story in itself). That came only a few weeks after picking up three golds and a silver at Singapore's Asia Beer Medals. "And from there, boom, we had all these distributors hitting us up for export," says John Reid, the company's 32-year-old American expat founder. "Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, UK, Australia, US – they all were asking us what are you guys doing over there? It's pretty cool."
Reid started brewing in HCM City in November 2014, after convincing Colorado's Upslope Brewing Company brewmaster Alex Violette to join him. "When we started the company we had this vision," says Reid, perched over a golden IPA, upstairs in the company's taproom headquarters. "We didn't just want to bring American-style craft beer to Vietnam […] we wanted to create something out of Vietnam, out of local ingredients."
Back at BiaCraft, Spanish brothers Luis and Ruben Martinez (29 and 32, respectively), and Tobias Briffa, 28, from Malta have just arrived with a fresh keg of their Belgian-style wheat beer Te Te. While the mostly expat punters slurp their brews and nibble on porcine bar snacks the three friends explain how they started as a marketing company and began brewing in March 2015. Since then they have gone from producing 70 litres a week to 800 litres, with plans to supply 15-20 venues. The craft beer scene here is definitely experiencing "an awakening", they say. But why? "Because it's much better than regular beer," deadpans the older Martinez. "It's a cliche to use," adds Briffa, "but it is a little revolution. The industrial companies took over and controlled pretty much all of the market and took away the good beer from the people." Happily, it looks like there is a growing number of beer fans in Vietnam, dedicated to bringing good beer back to the people.
WHERE TO DRINK CRAFT BEER IN HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
90 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone +84 837 442 588 or see biacraft.com
PASTEUR STREET TASTING ROOM
144 Pasteur Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone +84 838 239 562
BROMA: NOT A BAR
41 Nguyen Hue, Ben Nghe, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone +84 838 236 838 or see facebook.com/bromabar/
QUAN UT UT
168 Vo Van Kiet, Phuong Cau Ong Lanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone +84 839 144 500 or see facebook.com/quanutut/
188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone +84 912 194 894 or see saigonoutcast.com
Several airlines fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). See virginaustralia.com, thaiairways.com, vietnamairlines.com,qantas.com.au, virginaustralia.com, jetstar.com, and cathaypacific.com.au. We flew comfortably with Royal Bunei Airlines, which included a one-hour stopover in Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
With a population of more than eight million accommodation options in Ho Chi Minh City are many and varied. Choose from budget (US$11, Hong Han Hotel, 238 Bui Vien Street, District 1, +84 8 3836 1927, honghanhotelhcm.com), to three-star hotels (Huong Sen Hotel, from VND 1,800,000, 66-68-70 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, +84 8 3829 1415,huongsenhotel.com.vn) to the upper end (VND 2,900,000, Hotel Majestic Saigon, 1 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, +84 8 3829 5517, majesticsaigon.com).