When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam back in January, the experiences of Bangkok, Thailand were still fresh in my mind. These trips were not linked to each other — Vietnam occurred about two months after. Yet it was inevitable that as I was riding in my taxi from the Ho Chi Minh airport, I would find myself re-living the emotions that I felt as I was being taxied unwillingly away from my Bangkok hotel to the airport eight weeks prior.
As I was heading into Ho Chi Minh City, I was still frantically searching for ways to fill the void that leaving Bangkok created. Despite the knowledge of visiting someplace new for the first time, my mind was not capable of discerning the subtle or even obvious differences in the Vietnamese landscape compared to the other countries I had recently visited, Thailand and Cambodia. When I looked out my taxi window, all I could see were overlapping memories, like double-exposed film. Ghosts were everywhere. In the pedestrians on the street, in the street food venders, in the façades of the buildings, in the vespas whizzing around the taxi.
However, shortly after arriving and organizing my beer pilgrimages, I was soon confronted with a different kind of ghost. One lingering from a war that still to this day resides in some grey area of history in most American’s minds. Just as with my visit to Phnom Penh, before jumping into the local beer culture, I chose to set the tone with a sobering visit to a war museum.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
One of the things I repeatedly mention in my posts about why I love living in Belgium is having access to all of the World War I and II sites, most of which have some positive patriotic link to the United States. They are places that I can feel proud of my American heritage. Walking thru the Ho Chi Minh City Museum was the first time in my experiences traveling where I was confronted with a completely opposite perspective.
If history is written by the victors, then there is only one interpretation a visitor would get reading the panels in this museum. The Vietnamese call the Vietnam War by a different name. To them it is the Resistance War Against America. It was a war against an oppressive puppet regime supported by an invading enemy, the United States. And the (Northern) Vietnamese liberators were the victors. This post is not about to get into the debate about the Vietnam War or even express anything about it in a historical context. It is only to share the personal experience of walking thru a place where your country is portrayed on every information panel as evil imperialists (something I think all Germans have to deal with their entire lives). Quite a different feeling than standing on the beaches of Normandy. It is a sobering experience, and the more I think about it, the more it should be just as important to me as visiting a Battle of the Bulge museum.
While I was contemplating this new set of ghosts, I realized I had discovered a context for one of my favorite words… appreciation. Here I was in Vietnam for the very first time, 45 years after a devastating and controversial war ended, where my passport represents the enemy of that time, yet I was about to freely embark on a pilgrimage that would reveal to me that Ho Chi Minh City has a formidable beer culture. Out of the quadrumvirate of recent Asian cities I have visited, I can state confidently that it is better than Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and perhaps only better than Bangkok in my mind because I was too enamored with Jay Fai’s crab omelet and drunken noodles.
- Black beer mug: Brewery
- Yellow beer mug: Taproom, craft beer bar, beer bar
- Grey beer mug: Interesting but unvisited beer bar
- Pink Spoon and knife: Eating places featured in this post
- Blue M: Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Brewtiful Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City has an exciting array of craft beer taprooms scattered around the city center. In fact, enough to keep me busy for two evenings. For those not familiar with beer lingo, a taproom is a bar associated with a brewery; however, the brewing is actually done in another location. When I asked one of the taproom bartenders if I could visit the brewery, I was told they are all outside the city because it is forbidden to brew beer within the city limits. That is with one exception, East West Brewing Company. He rubbed his fingers together as if to imply that money was a reason that East West was allowed to carry on their brewing in the same building as the taproom. I am not pretending to report anything scathing or controversial. But it convinced me to define East West as the only brewery on my map. So why not start there.
East West Brewing Company
Despite the rather uninspiring name, East West is without a doubt, in my opinion, the most lively beer drinking establishment with the most appealing venue. To be fair, the name I’m sure comes from the fact that the brewing is a collaboration between Vietnamese and American brewers. The venue is spacious, hip, and colorful and is divided into a bar area where you will find lots of fashionable friends meeting for a drink and a larger restaurant area backed by several beer fermentation tanks reflecting the array of colored lights in the room. The East West menu proclaims to be Vietnamese Beer Food. The tunacado salad was quite tasty.
Regarding the beer… the best one that I had was the Modern Belgian Blonde, which is the only one of five beers I tried which I rated at least 3 stars on Untappd. Let me just say that as a resident of Belgium and a self-proclaimed expert in Belgian beer, any beer brewed outside of Belgium which is described in any way as a “Belgian” anything is emphatically and categorically NOT like a real Belgian beer. At least I have never tasted one that could compare (I will exclude the border regions of the Netherlands and France). This was, however, a nice try, and a good flavored beer, but nothing like a Belgian Blonde beer.
Heart of Darkness
If there ever was the perfect name for a brewery in any particular city throughout the world, it would be Heart of Darkness in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It is pure marketing genius. In my opinion, this was the best taproom in the city. While East West is flashier and more trendy, Heart of Darkness has a cozier, sophisticated beer drinker’s kind of atmosphere.
All four beers I tried in a convenient flight were rated at least 3 stars on Untappd with Heart of Darkness’s premier beer Kurtz’s Insane IPA and the Gliding Dusk Passionfruit Sour being the highest with 3.25 stars.
Pasteur Street Brewing Company
Pasteur Street is also an American collaboration. There are a couple locations in Ho Chi Minh City, but the one I feature on this post is located on Le Thanh Ton and has what may be the nicest street-side seating of the locations featured in this post. I was lucky enough to grab a front row seat which was perfect for people and vespa watching on the busy road. It is also possible to have dinner here.
I had the Brut IPA with Pomegranate and gave it 3.25 stars on Untappd.
Winking Seal Beer Company
Winking Seal is another brewery taproom and I must say may have produced the best beer that I tasted in the city, the One Eye Imperial IPA. IPA is misleading. At 10.1% alcohol content, it drinks more like a Belgian quadruple. I gave it 3.5 stars on Untappd.
BiaCraft Artisanal Ales
Not much is written about the origination of this craft brewery, but their repertoire may be the most extensive of the group that I have featured in this post. They were conveniently located next to my hotel, but due to the Lunar New Year holiday, their opening hours weren’t lining up with my visits, so I only managed to have one beer. But it was a good, fresh pale ale which taught me a swear word in Vietnamese. I rated it 3.25 stars on Untappd.
The Hen House is not a place you will find on many lists of top craft beer bars in Ho Chi Minh City. To me, it feels a bit more like a dodgy hostel kind of dive. It is a taproom for Rooster Beers and in all honesty, they aren’t bad. I gave both the IPA and Double IPA 3 stars on Untappd. If you order a flight, you actually get 4x tall glasses that seem like they are 25cl or more. This is no piddling flight we are talking about. So pace yourself. I am guessing that most beer aficianados will find the venue a bit too rough around the edges.
The Bier Garden is a place I stumbled upon by accident. Naturally I couldn’t ignore the name, despite its generic nature, and needed to explore. This is not a craft beer bar but a place that offers you a variety of beers most of which happen to be the common beers of Vietnam. This, however, is not a bad thing. It does give you a place, with a tropical kind of vibe, to try all of the common beers which you miss by only going to the craft beer bars. So I dutifully indulged. Eagled-eyed Belgian beer lovers will notice the bottles of St. Paul and St. Sebastiaan on the shelf in their characteristic ceramic flasks brewed by Belgium’s Brouwerij Sterkens. That was quite a pleasant surprise.
Edible Ho Chi Minh City
The real question on this trip was not whether I would find good beer but whether the blue butterflies from Cambodia and Thailand had left their indelible mark on me. Here I had a chance to channel my inner Jay Fai and eat not for the sake of eating, but for the sake of rolling my eyes back into my head and making loud yummy sounds. Did I succeed? Well, eh, maybe on a very small level. I am not sure I could ever duplicate Bangkok. My two favorite meals were a soft shell crab sandwich at the Street Food Market and an incredible burger with onion rings at Chuck’s Burgers. Not exactly exotic. But delicious.
Street Food Market
During my visit, the country celebrated the Lunar New Year with fireworks and a beautiful flower display in the long pedestrian boulevard in front of the city hall. The coronavirus was still in its infancy, yet known about. Masks were starting to appear on Westerners but social distancing was not yet a conscious movement. I watched the fireworks and the celebration with complete oblivion to what the new lunar new year would soon bring upon us. The experience itself is one I will never forget. To be able to participate in a celebration with a different culture is one of the most rewarding travel experiences.
It didn’t fill the void left by my departure from Bangkok, but it reminded me that life has the potential of bringing new and amazing experiences upon us every day. They must always be greeted with the right level of appreciation. Today as I sit and write this post, it is a crime for most of us to leave our homes for any reason other than life critical. It now seems a lifetime ago that blue butterflies opened up my heart to a world of new experiences in Cambodia and Thailand. That world felt so much more innocent than it does today. Yet my visit to Vietnam showed that the world is not harmless and never has been. Only that now we have a common threat, one without political and territorial bias. I pray for the safety of all and a special prayer for those blue butterflies who represent our hopes and dreams, our true soulmate.