Brett Atkinson has his hands full balancing a can of the city's finest craft beer while riding pillion on a Vespa.

When riding pillion on a vintage scooter around Ho Chi Minh City's neon-lit rivers of traffic, I'd normally recommend using both hands to hang on. But less than an hour into an after-dark exploration of Vietnam's surging economic capital, I'm already restricted to a single sweaty grip behind my back because my other hand is cradling an oversized can of Vietnamese beer.

Compared to the rest of this manic, two-wheeled city casually texting and snapping on-the-go selfies, I'm a model of caution as our convoy of retro Vespas traces a hop-fuelled circuit around the city's best craft beer spots.

Less than five years ago, Vietnam's beer scene was all about bia hoi — refreshing pale lagers served at simple, street-side stalls for about 50c a glass — but the urban sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, is now one of Asia's best destinations for craft beer fans. Pasteur Street Brewing kicked off the Vietnamese craft beer scene in late 2014. Its brews, combining Southeast Asian flavours including jasmine and passionfruit, are now available at a few outlets in Auckland and Wellington. And since my previous Vietnamese sojourn in 2015, Ho Chi Minh City has exploded with new bars and breweries.

Advertisement

Following a local Te Te wheat beer at Vespa Adventures' Cafe Zoom on the edge of Bui Vien street, the first stop of the night is a few clicks northwest at BiaCraft. Opened by three expats as a natural extension of their popular barbecue restaurant Quan Ut Ut — the name translates roughly as Restaurant Oink Oink — BiaCraft is now the best place in town to try the widest range of Vietnamese beers. Fifty taps feature its own irreverently named beers and ciders, and brews from local outfits such as Phat Rooster, Winking Seal and Fuzzy Logic. Vespa Adventures' pocket-rocket guide Nguyet, (aka Luna), leads our group through a food-matching session including Nha Trang oysters poached in coconut milk.

As I balance a litre of Devil's Lake IPA, freshly canned on BiaCraft's snazzy canning machine, we head downtown through back alleys and coursing boulevards.

Courtesy of Japanese-Italian flavours from Ho Chi Minh City institution Pizza 4P's — miso and salmon pizza anyone? — there are also fusion eats at the next stop. At Heart of Darkness, allusions to Joseph Conrad's classic novel and Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now , we taste Kurtz's Insane IPA.

There's a Vietnamese vibe in hip beer hall East West Brewing. Photo / Supplied
There's a Vietnamese vibe in hip beer hall East West Brewing. Photo / Supplied

The brewery is one of Vietnam's most innovative with three or four limited-run seasonal brews usually filling the taps. Over a tasting tray in the rustic taproom, Brit owner John Pemberton reveals he's a big fan of the citrusy New Zealand hops being grown down under. Judging by the hit of Motueka and Nelson sauvin hops crammed into the Primeval Forest Pilsner, his brewing team know exactly how to make the best of the Tasman region's finest export.

Heart of Darkness is definitely more of an expat haunt, especially for Thursday night's loads-of-fun pub quiz, but our next stop is fast becoming a favourite of local drinkers.

Mega investment has fuelled the launch of East West Brewing, including the recruitment of an authentically bearded brewer from the United States craft beer capital Portland, and there's definitely a more Vietnamese vibe in the hip beer hall and eatery in one of the city's busiest shopping streets.

A few locals are carefully working their way through East West's tasting trays, but there's just as much emphasis on brews being downed quickly to a chorus of "Mot tram phan tram!" (One hundred per cent!), the local challenge to drain one's glass usually heard at raucous bia hoi bars. Carefully guarding my canned purchase from BiaCraft from being downed in one go, it's time to jump back on the Vespas and head to the final stop for the night.

Neon is replaced by shimmering moonlight in the quiet after-dark financial district neighbourhood surrounding Rogue Saigon.

A compact sign, barely noticeable amid the faded grandeur of a 1950s-era apartment building, announces the bar's under-the-radar location, and staircases lead past screens showing vintage video games to Rogue's rooftop terrace.

River breezes alleviate the city's lingering after-dark mugginess, a low-key guitar duo serves up blues and country favourites, and shadows play on the French colonial profile of the nearby State Bank of Vietnam.

It's a brilliant way to finish the night, and after more than a few kilometres hanging on with just my left hand, I reckon I'm ready to go hands-free next time.

Checklist
GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies a seasonal direct service from Auckland to Ho Chi Minh City, between June 23 and October 23.
DETAILS
vespaadventures.com