In the shadow of girlie bars and overpriced coffee shops a bit of "old" Saigon remains - the neighborhood bia hoi joint
Dai ly bia hoi bar at 4 Thi Sach Street in Saigon connects people from different corners of life in a casual atmosphere
It is not a brand or a label it is as much about atmosphere and making friends as it is cold cheap beer.
Everywhere you go in the capital, thin homemade rice beer flows from street corner kegs.
Bootleg beer first became popular in Hanoi, during the early 1960's a function of wartime austerity.
Bia hoi never really took hold in Ho Chi Minh City, where bottling companies and breweries boomed under the Saigon regime. Following the reunification of the country, bottles continued to reign down south.
Today, establishments that deal in freshly brewed, rice-based draft beer are hard to come by in HCMC. But if you find one, you will see its patrons a cross-section of the (male) population of HCMC that does not occupy positions of prestige and power or live in expensive high rises and new cities.
Which is what makes this Dai ly bia hoi (draft beer outlet) bar so special.
This bar sits between Apocalypse Now and a halal restaurant on Thi Sach Street, in District 1. Before you see the sign you can hear the sounds of the bar as you approach: laughter, backslapping, clinking glasses.
Tables line the street outside, but I always head inside for the total bia hoi experience. As the only Westerner on most occasions, I am greeted by a few stares, a smile and the ever-present barwoman who invites me to sit at a dilapidated aluminum table and chair with a perfunctory swipe of her cleaning rag.
The ceiling is low and looks poised to collapse. Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air, clinging to stained walls and aging clocks.
Giant chunks of ice and a fresh fifty cent plastic jug of beer thumps down on the table, soon after I sit down and well before I order. A glass, slightly cracked and weathered, appears along with boiled peanuts. I know the ritual and feel, after several visits, like a regular.
The women who run the bia hoi are middle-aged, sturdy and display an all-business demeanor. They use a machete to cut ice cubes from a heavy block of ice and juggle multiple beer orders without ever losing their cool.
On a recent night, street vendors appear plying large sesame crackers, quail eggs, indescribable meats.
But they hardly break into the merriment.
A group of drinkers dressed in local utility company uniforms hollered toasts and slapped playing cards on the table. A group of office workers still dressed in pressed shirts laughed loudly.
Around them, the bar's regulars wave hello.
A motorbike driver, who calls himself "Michael" asks me if I want a ride in the midst of his 4th or 5th beer.
His skin was dark and his eyes red. His hands were rough and calloused, his teeth brown with smoke. Despite the pile of beer bottles in front of him, he didn't slur a word as he paid his tab and headed out, looking for a fare.
Nearby, a middle-aged man named Nguyen invited me to drink with him.
He had Hollywood good looks, jet black hair and a certain weathered intensity. In excellent English, he asked me where I am from. When I tell him I'm American, he begins to talk about his friends, who went to California "when 1975 happened."
The former army captain said he "went to school after "˜75." I tried to engage him further but in typical Vietnamese fashion, he waved me off.
"Why think about it?" he asked, ordering another round. "Today I make big money as an engineer." He picked up the tab for my beer despite protests. I told him I will reciprocate at some point. "You may, you may not, and all we have is now," he replied, unsmiling nearly zen-like.
Later that evening, three young men beckoned me to their table. They wore stained blue work shirts and looked to be in their early thirties. Their English was virtually non-existent, so they pulled out their identification cards to introduce themselves. I reciprocated with my passport. All of us nodded and smiled.
One man pulled out his phone and dialed. He handed the phone to me, and asked me to speak with his girlfriend. Our conversation was limited to "hello" and "goodbye" but it seemed to make him happy.
And that's what bia hoi seems to be all about: beer and camaraderie.
Bia hoi is a place where few Westerners go and where you can enjoy an early evening experiencing Saigon life for less than US$2.