Drinking beer in Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao

What we say: 3.5 stars

In Saigon’s backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao you won’t have to walk far to find an ice cold beer. However, in hopping from one bar to another, you’ll quickly notice that prices vary widely from establishment to establishment. Here’s a rundown of what you’ll find where, and how much you can expect to pay.

Pack in and grab a stool.

Pack in and grab a stool.

As elsewhere in Vietnam, you can find local specialty bia hoi, a daily-brewed, fresh beer, in Pham Ngu Lao. Sold out of generally nondescript, hole-in-the-wall-type locations, the fanciest of which have metal stools and possibly a fan, at prices between 3,000 and 7,000 VND glass, this is the cheapest beer you’ll find in the area.

However, bia hoi these days is becoming increasingly rare as the backpacker district becomes overrun with higher-priced, Western-styled bars. Couple that with the fact that quantities are limited due to bia hoi’s 24-hour shelf life and you’ll find that in Pham Ngu Lao it tends to run out rather quickly each day. If you want to try fresh, Vietnamese brewed beer in Pham Ngu Lao, your best bet is to look for a stall selling it earlier in the day and off the area’s main streets — Nguyen Thai Hoc and Cong Quynh being good places to start.

The famous Saigon Red.

The famous Saigon Red.

If you’d rather stick to beer in a bottle and require nothing more than a place to sit and have a cold drink, head down Bui Vien. Along the side of the street, the footpath is packed with small plastic tables and chairs to the point where seating spills onto the street itself. You won’t have walls or a roof, just a place to sit and a spot to rest your drink. But the low-maintenance setting keeps prices low, and at any of these spots you’ll be presented with a menu offering two types of beer: Saigon Red Label and Saigon Green Label, for 10,000 VND.

Only small differences separate the Red and Green: Saigon Red, at 4.9%, has a slightly higher alcohol content and is labelled for export, while Saigon Green, at 4.3%, comes in a bigger bottle and lacks the export label. Either way, they are consistently the same price throughout the city and, like Pepsi and Coke, a spirited debate is waged on which has the better taste. For a slight jump in price — 15,000 VND for a Tiger or 20,000 VND for a Heineken — you can move to a more internationally established beer.

A big bottle of Saigon Green.

A big bottle of Saigon Green.

These roadside stalls draw a constant crowd throughout the day, with things becoming particularly busy at night. This is a great time to grab a stool, sip on a drink and watch the endless stream of motorbikes, street hawkers and backpackers wandering by. And these stalls tend to stay open until late; if you’re stumbling around after midnight you can still find a place to sit.

If you don't want to pack into the street, you can pack in here.

If you don’t want to pack into the street, you can pack in here.

If you’d rather not sit right on the street, Pham Ngu Lao has plenty of other drinking options, but this is where you’ll see prices go mad. Two nearly identical bars next door to each other can have a massive difference in price, with Saigon beers going for as high as 45,000 VND in places like Go2 or Crazy Buffalo. Still, most bars tend to keep things reasonable; popular spots like Le Pub or Thi Cafe will offer a beer for around 20,000 VND, but will also have live music at night.

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