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Hẻm Gems: District 1's Delightfully Decrepit Bia Hơi

UPDATE: It is with heavy hearts that we inform our readers that the Thi Sach bia hơi has permanently closed. We will miss its regular crowd and grimy, beer-stained walls.

In a city that pretty much runs on beer, the ancient bia hơi on Thi Sach is a trip. Whether you turn up at the crack of dawn or in the thick of the evening rush, the pajama-clad ladies up front are always serving at least one grisly, middle-aged, red-faced Vietnamese man and the beer never seems to run out. On the wall, two paintings that have seen all manner of abuse – heat, water damage, dubious stains, mishandling – seem to barely cling to the wall, while the tiny mezzanine at the back looks like all it would take is one portly patron to send the whole thing to ground level.

But first, the outside: you'll find its entrance just opposite the T-junction of Thi Sach and Dong Du. In a hurry you'd miss it, but if you slow down and notice the Saigon Beer office across the street – or, as we did, the majestic guard rooster supervising the parking lot – these clues will lead you to downtown District 1's last bastion of fresh beer.

As you might expect of an older place, the furniture appears to have survived some sort of natural disaster and, in some cases, so does the clientele. Groups of older men shoot the shit over VND12,000 liters of beer and a few cigarettes. A noisy beer tank sits to one side near the window, pouring steady streams of fresh beer into plastic jugs. No one is really paying attention to the machine, causing the two-liter containers in which your beer is served to frequently overflow into the hot pink tub underneath. This excess is usually repurposed later in another jug. You know how people say alcohol kills germs? You'll want to buy into that idea while you're here.

Once you've received your jug of booze, plunked unceremoniously onto the table, the snack ladies will start to hover. They're peddling the usual nhậu snacks: boiled quail eggs and grilled rice paper, prawn crackers, mango, peanuts and chả. These are your best option for beer munchies. Word has it this drinking establishment also serves proper food, however I have personally seen the kitchen – it's right beside the bathroom, which by the way, is a tarp, a tap and a shower drain – and I wouldn't recommend it.

Perhaps my favorite feature of this joint is that it feels broken-in. Everyone has their role here, from the barkeep who alternates between clipping her toenails and filling jugs of beer to the oldest man on the planet, sitting in the corner with his sunglasses on no matter what the time of day, to the snack lady with her plastic tub full of random nhậu items who promises she'll go away just as soon as you buy something. Their hours, posted on a sign to the right of the door, are 8am to 8pm, meaning you'll be expected to get your nhậu on at a reasonable hour, throw back a few drinks and get out in time for the bia hơi ladies to head home. In a neighborhood that changes with the seasons, this place has been around for 26 years and it shows in the best possible way.

To sum up

Taste: 3/5 – It's predictably watered-down but beer is always delicious.

Price: 6/5 – VND12,000 a liter. 'Nuff said.

Location: 5/5

Friendliness: 3/5 – Once you get past that steely exterior, the beer ladies are wonderful.

Atmosphere: 1/5 – See the title of this piece for more information.

 

Dana is 70% caffeine, 50% fish sauce and hasn't taken a math class since 2004.

 

Bia hơi

4 Thi Sách, D1

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