Ho Chi Minh City has a great craft ale scene, says Vietnam beer vet Brett Atkinson.
Back in the mid-90s, finding a beer in the emerging destination of Vietnam was pretty straightforward. Just ask for a "333" ("Ba Ba Ba") and if you were lucky, your street-food friendly lager might even be slightly chilled.
Fast forward two decades and my 2013 adventures in Hanoi were anchored in the city's bia hoi scene, combining super cheap "fresh beer" (brewed daily and selling for around 50 cents) with the joys of dried squid, roast duck and sitting awkwardly on a tiny blue kiddie chair. Factor in regular choruses of "Mot tram phan tram!" ("One hundred per cent!") - the local challenge to drain one's glass - and no one could call Vietnam's beer scene sophisticated.
Now, another two years later, I'm sitting in a Vietnamese craft brewery discussing Belgian brews and Berlin-style sour beers with an American brewer recently arrived from Colorado's Upslope Brewing Company.
Wearing the international craft brewer's uniform of a trucker's cap, jeans and plaid shirt, Alex Violette is a laid-back guide to the tasting flight of six of Pasteur Street Brewing's beers arrayed before me.
Outside, Ho Chi Minh City's kinetic river of scooters, motorbikes and taxis flows around construction for the mega city's new subway system, and the entrance to Pasteur Street's hip upstairs is partly hidden by a tailor shop, friendly foot-massage women and locals playing cards.
There's plenty of local flavour in the beers. Since arriving in Vietnam just nine months before, Violette has been on a mission to scour the country for indigenous ingredients. Motorbike journeys through the Mekong Delta and trawling the neighbourhood markets of Ho Chi Minh City have uncovered local flavour accents for his punchy beers.
A bold Imperial stout combines cinnamon, vanilla and cocoa nibs; coffee from the highland town of Dalat underpins a brown ale; and oolong tea and passionfruit have also been used in Pasteur Street's diverse portfolio of almost 20 brews. And rather than brewing a more traditional range of beers for Colorado punters, he's thoroughly enjoying the challenge of launching an experimental brewhouse harnessing a whole country of new flavours.
"Finding the local ingredients and crafting the recipes has really been the fun part."
From my tasting flight, jasmine slyly infuses Pasteur Street's hoppy IPA, jackfruit adds zing to a wheat beer, and my two favourite brews of the day are both perfect matches for Saigon's sullen tropical heat.
Delicate pepper from the southern island of Phu Quoc combines with lemongrass and ginger in a refreshing saison beer, and rambutan adds a tropical tartness to Pasteur Street's sour mash amber brew.
Despite initial challenges in importing specialty malts and hops, the beers really are impressive on a global scale and already Pasteur Street Brewing is attracting a diverse crowd of Saigon expats, thirsty tourists and curious locals. Even 1 litre growlers are available, delivered through Ho Chi Minh City's compelling buzz by a ducking and diving motorbike taxi, and there are plans to open in the northern capital of Hanoi.
Let's hope the bia hoi regulars are ready for a lot more flavour.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific fly from Auckland to Vietnam.