Vietnamese Beer With an American Soul. Craft Beer Culture in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam now has one of the fastest-growing craft beer scenes in Southeast Asia. Alongside contemporaries Korea, China, and Hong Kong, the country is experiencing a craft beer renaissance.  I lived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, as the locals prefer to say) between 2016-2020 as the new craze took root — when new artisans and breweries appeared almost monthly. Now, the city is awash with talented producers, all capitalizing on a Vietnamese beer revolution. 

Beer BBQ in Viet Nam.
Image credit: Benjamin Rice.

From Banh Mi to Bubble Tea

Saigon Taxi view.
Image credit: Benjamin Rice.

A typical night out for any visitor to Saigon will consist of mobile street food stalls selling anything from banh mi to bubble tea, cute female hostesses guiding men into bars, and drinking spaces with tiny plastic seats. Getting around the city is easy. Uber once operated in the city but was bought out by Malaysian firm Grab, which now controls the gig economy for transit.

Within the downtown district, dozens of venues sell hundreds of locally-produced Vietnamese beers, usually in beer towers. Any tourist has a world-class taproom or beer house within a short walk if staying in District One, though bike taxis are a cheap (if somewhat precarious) way to enjoy the city's vibrant night vistas.

Where It All Began

Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, I attended the Saigon Craft Beer Festival, which started my love affair with Vietnamese craft beer. The festival takes place each September, bringing dozens of up-and-coming craft beer makers to promote their products.

Since my first introduction to the microbrew ethos in the city, I have sampled beers that stand up against any in the world. The Saigon Craft Beer Festival is just an emblem of a movement that grew exponentially since the city's first taproom opened in 2013. East-West, Pasteur Street, and Fuzzy Logic Brewing Companies were the face of the avalanche that engulfed the country, beginning in Vietnam's most populous, southern metropolis.

Saigon Outcast, No.188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, District 2

Saigon Outcast.
Image credit: Benjamin Rice.

The venue for this festival was Saigon Outcast. This outdoor bar is north of downtown in District Two, so it requires a taxi. Saigon Outcast has converted shipping containers and tables below with a skateboard ramp, a fully-functioning climbing wall, and a solid beer selection. The venue is best visited on a weekend or when they put on special events.

Flanked by exquisite mansions in Thao Dien District's exclusive, wealthy neighborhood, Saigon Outcast is packed with Vietnamese and expatriate Saigoneers, often dancing to live music or watching some form of entertainment. The venue's open-air atmosphere makes it perfect for outdoor events — such as the craft beer festival, a weekly flea market, or various food celebrations.

A Bullish Beer Market

Until 2013, international and Vietnamese beers controlled the market in Vietnam, a country whose French colonists brought many European customs and delicacies that still thrive today. Beer became popular when the country opened its markets to international brands. 

Fast forward to a decade later, and there are now dozens of high-profile artisan brewers in Anthony Bourdain's favorite country. Most of them have taprooms or huge outdoor beer gardens. In Saigon, the service is always generous, friendly, and swift. 

Brewers supplying the market have no shortage of places to sell their products. Some of the greatest bars stock a variety of craft beers from all over the country and beyond. 

Rooster Beers, 40 Bui Vien Street, District 1

Beervana.
Image credit: Beervana.

One of the busiest scenes for al fresco eating and drinking is Bui Vien Street, the beating heart of Saigon's nightlife. This thoroughfare once straddled a busy road, which meant taxis and bikes brushed past tourists, resulting in a few drunken accidents.

Since then, city officials pedestrianized the street, ironically leading to even less walking space. Just off the main drag, you will find Rooster Beers, one of the earliest names in the craft beer hat.

Rooster Beers taproom offers a unique setting, its flagship bar enjoying the heavy footfall of Bui Vien's mad crowds — think young boys breathing fire and funny old men offering head massages as you watch backpackers inhale laughing gas. The bar is the perfect spot to enjoy downtown Saigon's atmosphere — and the tastiest fried chicken wings anywhere in the city.

From Ohio to Ho Chi Minh City

Ohio native and long-term Saigon resident Rob Stevenson is an independent brewer who rode the wave of craft beer demand at the time, founding The Mekong Brewing Company in 2014. 

He started out brewing as an unofficial home business in the “Wild West” days of brewing before government regulation made things impossible at such a small scale. “It was no longer feasible to run a 200-liter underground operation,” explains Rob in an interview. “So, I switched to contract brewing.”

He now commissions brewers in Long An District to make his ensemble of beers, including his original Blue Elephant IPA, Vietnamese ginger-infused Bengal Ambush Blonde, and his personal favorite: a Citra hop-heavy Albino Rhino Double IPA.

Keeping The Locals Happy

Now, dozens of South Vietnamese vendors stock Stevenson's beers, which is an achievement considering his company's roots. “We had freezers in the apartments; we were picking up empty kegs, sending trucks back and forth from the apartment to the bars,” the entrepreneur recalls. “It was stressful!”

One of Rob's challenges was getting local people on board and having them find value in this beer, considering it is much more expensive than the global brands and Vietnamese beer they are used to in the region. However, with access to such amazing “ingredients, spices, and fruits,” Rob loves what he does, and who knows: maybe he will open a taproom one day. 

For a night out sampling Saigon's best, Rob recommends Saigon Craft in his home district, Phu My Hung.

Saigon Craft, 68 Ly Long Tuong Street, Tan Phong, District 7.

Saigon Skyline.
Image credit: Benjamin Rice.

Run by a friendly Kiwi (affectionate slang for someone from New Zealand) and his Vietnamese wife, Saigon Craft sits in one of the more upmarket areas of D7, also known as Phu My Hung or, to the locals, Korea Town.

Set beside a mangrove-flanked tributary of the Saigon River, Saigon Craft is on the city's southern fringes. This smart little spot has an impressive array of artisan beers, ciders, and other beverages, many sourced within a short distance. 

The suburban setting makes for visitors who prefer a more laid-back alternative to the high-octane hustle of Saigon's downtown district. On most evenings, the suburban setting means the loudest noise you will hear is the occasional tugboat, the whine of a passing motorbike, or the cicadas over the river

Owner Matt, whose sales background allowed him to travel in Asia, started the bar in District 7 due to the neighborhood's casual atmosphere. The bar also serves a popular menu of high-quality gastropub food to match its voluminous drinks menu.

Brewing The Dream

One of the more successful brewers in Saigon is John Pemberton, who arrived on the scene in 2016, following in the footsteps of pioneers Pasteur Street, Fuzzy Logic, and Rooster Beers, who he says “paved the way” for the rest.

“I got out of England when I was twenty-one with a one-way ticket to Thailand and a hundred bucks in my pocket,” John recalls. “I never looked back — I'm still technically on that trip.”

A stint living in New York City at the turn of the millennium inspired his love of American craft beer. Later, the Australian-born Englishman worked in procurement for Ikea's Asian market, which brought him to Vietnam. He fell in love with the country and is now building an impressive legacy. 

Heart of Darkness Brewery, 31D Ly Tu Trong Street, Ben Nghe District.

Heart of Darkness Brewery Viet Nam.
Image credit: Mervyn Fing Teng Lee.

John's named his product Heart of Darkness after his favorite book by Joseph Conrad. The flagship taproom in bustling District One features nine core beers and other seasonal options. Depending on the time of year, customers can try anything from a passionfruit mojito sour to a chili/cucumber pilsner — all with local ingredients.

Heart of Darkness Brewery has an innovative chef with a menu to match the bar's award-winning beers. So, if you are looking for Saigon's best New England Pale Ale to wash down your Cajun Seafood platter, Heart of Darkness is the place for you. Moreover, the brewery recently opened its first taproom outside Vietnam in Singapore.

A Full-on American Craft Beer Experience

“We really want Heart of Darkness to be a full-on American craft beer experience, especially for the locals,” John explains when discussing the respect for the Saigoneer ethos. “We also want anybody, local or foreign, who may be traveling alone to feel welcome in our bars — our cheeky Vietnamese staff is warm and funny.”

Joseph Conrad's novel is central to the brewer's branding. Furthermore, the special labeling reflects the connection between Francis Ford Coppolla's epic Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now (John's favorite, naturally), which is based on Conrad's novel and shot in Vietnam. 

Curiously, the Heart of Darkness story has an element of fate. “We opened our taproom on Joseph Conrad's birthday,” laughs John. However, he reveals something resembling destiny. “We didn't even realize until a year later on the one-year anniversary!” 

BiaCraft, 1 Le Ngo Cat Street, Phuong 7, District 3

Finally, BiaCraft needs a mention here. Biacraft (bia is the Vietnamese for beer) boasts “the most extensive craft beer collection in Vietnam,” with 15 of its own products ranging from creamy stout to strawberry Berliner Weisse to its own honey mead. The brewers also stock other local producers' drinks.

BiaCraft offers customers an unrivaled choice — 43 different draft beers, ciders, and stouts; 56 bottled drinks (including two Mekong Delta products) and 38 cans. If that wasn’t enough, the bar menu is designed to go with their beers, with recommendations for each plate.

If you love craft beer and if you love vibrant, outdoor city life, you will love drinking in Saigon.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks Travel.