Vietnam’s craft industry is young. However, with the locals’ passion for beer, it was always likely to explode. For bar owners, the original mission was to move drinkers from mainstream beers like Heineken and Tiger towards craft beer. Now across the city, they’re telling us that their customers are already largely craft beer aficionados who will often try a brew simply because it’s new.
Vietnam Craft Bia’s first 4-stop craft beer tour
Naturally, this boom in craft beer has been followed by a surge in the number of brewhouses serving thirsty customers. From backpacker Bui Vien to sleepy Da Kao there are now bars across the city to find our favorite craft tipples. Here, we barhop between four and ask each brewhouse to present their favorite craft beer.
Malt Bar: East West Far East IPA
Like lots of great ideas, Malt started small. The District 1 bar on Mac Thi Buoi street “began as a man cave,” Thao, one of the co-owners, explains. “But unusually, a smoke-free one,” she adds. However, smokers have always been able to enjoy the buzz of downtown Saigon at the tables outside.
Originally, Malt was a quarter of the size but it kept growing. They’ve expanded to District 7 too with a more airy, high-ceilinged venue called Malt South. But here at the original Malt, the manager Nie is pouring us an East West Far East IPA. The full-bodied amber ale of the Far East IPA has a perfect balance of hops and malt with distinctly tropical fruit notes.
“We wanted to be a whisky bar but craft beer took off. Three months after opening we were going through a keg a day of Jasmine IPA and a keg and a half of Fuzzy Logic—our first two craft beers…” Thao remembers looking over at the wall now filled with pumps. “But for me, the East West Far East IPA is one of the most solid IPAs being brewed,” Malt’s co-founder adds.
The bar has a mix of people chatting and playing darts and shuffleboard. “More and more local people are visiting places like ours and they’re getting adventurous. Often they order a craft beer just because it’s new,” she smiles before offering us one of their carefully selected whiskys.
The bar: Malt is the original downtown “man cave” that now attracts both male and female, adventurous local and foreign craft beer fans. The beer: East West Brewing Co. Far East IPA Location: Malt 46-48 Mac Thi Buoi and Malt South 35 Nguyen Luong Bang, District 7
Ong Cao: Rooster Dark
Craft beer has even infiltrated Bui Vien. And although traditionally the street’s image has been of rowdy backpackers hopping between bars, now Bui Vien attracts many more locals. “It has changed so much,” owner Jeremy Cao says looking out of the open-fronted Ong Cao beyond his Mustang parked outside.
Behind us a table of twenty people are tucking into Ong Cao’s food—there’s chicky popcorn, charcuterie boards, and steak and fries, served, of course, with craft beer. But there’s a bottle of red wine on the table too; another sign of the changing tastes here.
Jeremy was born in France but moved back to Vietnam when he was two, although he still speaks English with a noticeable French accent.
“Try this,” he says presenting us with a Rooster Beers’ Dark. It’s surprisingly refreshing for a dark ale and highly drinkable at 5.5% alcohol and 26 IBUs. “This is a very popular well-balanced dark ale with a touch of caramel. We’ve noticed local people don’t like their craft beer to be too bitter,” Jeremy explains.
We finish the beer and look around. Upstairs the balcony is full of customers enjoying the views of the chaotic street below. Back downstairs the table are getting noisier. “But it never gets too out of hand,” Jeremy Cao smiles.
The bar: Ong Cao has brought craft beer to Bui Vien with its bouncy hip hop soundtrack and a devoted local following. The beer: The Rooster Dark is a well-balanced dark ale designed to go down easy in Vietnam’s hot climate. Location: 240 Bui Vien, District 1
Rehab Station: Tê Tê White Ale
“You know why Amy Winehouse died?” Trang Nhat Tuan, the owner of the bar asks. “Because she didn’t go to Rehab Station,” he laughs. Rehab Station was one of the first enterprises in this characterful and rather cool Da Kao alley.
Now their neighbors include the speakeasy, ATM—which recently hosted the legendary Japanese bartender Hidetsugu Ueno—and the coffee shop, Laze. “You can have a beer here, a cocktail over there, or a coffee next door,” Tuan smiles.
“And we chose the name ‘rehab’ to mean ‘restore,’” he admits, “as this place was an old coffee shop which required a lot of restoration work—it was so broken down.”
Originally Trang Nhat Tuan wanted to create a hot dog and grill place with a few beers, but thanks to the chef, and the manager Son, craft beer took over although they still serve food like the hearty sausage combo—perfect to accompany any of their draft or bottled craft beers.
Trang Nhat Tuan used to live in the States. At college a friend introduced him to an IPA, “and I hated it,” he laughs. “Next my friend gave me a pale ale and slowly I grew to like it…until I loved it.” He pulls us a Tê Tê from the pangolin-shaped pump—Tê Tê means pangolin in Vietnamese but it also means the tipsy feeling. “Tê Tê are different, from the flavor, to the way they bring it to the people. And this White Ale is very easy drinking—even lighter than a Tiger.”
“So my mission now is to rehabilitate people of their soberness,” he jokes as we set off for our next stop.
The bar: Rehab Station was named after the extensive restoration work on the building, but they now rehabilitate people from their sobriety. The beer: Tê Tê’s White Ale, “it’s light and easy-drinking.” Location: 27/6 Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1
Rogue Saigon: Pasteur Street Passion Fruit Wheat Ale
“I’m drinking a lot of beer,” Khoa Nguyen, one of Rogue Saigon’s bar managers shrugs. “But luckily I have a high tolerance,” the former network engineer and nightclub bouncer adds. Now he’s returned to his first love—the bar and restaurant industry. And the bar, Rogue Saigon, are taking a democratic approach to the craft beer they offer by constantly rotating their stock.
“Let me get you a Pasteur Street Passion Fruit Wheat Ale,” Khoa says. It’s a fitting choice for a craft beer bar right at the beginning of Pasteur Street among the historic buildings of Nguyen Thai Binh. He describes the any-time-of-the-day ale as “fruity, tart, smooth, and refreshing.” It’s the kind of beer the bar moves customers towards when they ask for something more mainstream.
“When someone requests a Tiger, I’ll tell them we have something more flavorful and give them this,” Khoa explains. In fact, Rogue’s staff are trained to explore new customers’ taste profiles: “It’s all about asking the right questions; whether someone wants something strong, or smooth, or sweet, or something that’s floral or citrusy…”
There’s a surge of customers arriving in time for trivia night. The make-up of the crowd depends on the event—more foreigners turn out for trivia, more Vietnamese for live music. “Overall, we’re almost at 50-50 between the two,” Khoa says proudly.
He discovered craft beers in Virginia seven years ago. Scanning Yelp—the US foodie app—he and a few friends decided to try out a dive bar which didn’t offer any of the traditional beer options like Corona and Heineken. “Soon they were offering us the frequent customer discount,” he nods.
Now, at Rogue Saigon he has a simple goal. “The biggest thing I want to do is to bring joy to the people,” he smiles as we finish our beers.
The bar: Rogue Saigon where they offer a revolving roster of beers from Saigon, Danang, and soon Hanoi. The beer: The “fruity, tart, smooth, and refreshing” Pasteur Street Passion Fruit Wheat Ale. Location: 13 Pasteur Street, District 1