Andy Gowler came to Vietnam ten years ago. As he needed a career break from his previous job in England, Andy started a new life in Vietnam as an English teacher. He soon figured out that he loves Vietnam but teaching was not really something he could identify with. So he returned home after four years.
Nevertheless, he still felt close bonds with the beautiful country in the south-east of Asia, and was always looking forward to an opportunity to return with his Vietnamese wife. That’s how the idea of Saigon Buddy Tours was born. “We thought we could do tours that fill a gap in the market with high quality and an acceptable price,” Andy tells me. Besides his other tour options, there’s also a tour that’s themed around craft beer – it’s called the HCMC Craft Beer Experience.
So what does a tour of this kind look like? Definitely not like a typical sightseeing tour. “We intentionally avoid the tourist attractions in the city centre and aim to give our guests a taste of real life in Saigon. Our ethos is on understanding Vietnamese life and culture with our buddies – not so much a routine of looking at statues and temples.” Buddies? Yes, there’s one single guide who speaks English fluently for every participant. Every guest explores Saigon’s world of beer accompanied by his own buddy. So everything becomes more familiar as the tourists have an opportunity to ask questions and get some information from an authentic, direct source. Altogether, buddies work for Saigon Buddy Tours, and accompany the tourists during their experience through Saigon’s world of beer. They pick up the guests at their hotel and take them to several places around the city. Another special thing about that: they do this on a motorbike. That gives the tourists a chance to feel close to life in the streets, to actually smell and feel the experience. At two of the four stops, Andy Gowler and his team have arranged tastings where the beer lovers can sample six beers at each of those two stops. In total, the participants have a choice of over beers on tap to choose from. IPAs, porters, wheat beers, session ales, etc. – the variety is quite impressive! After four hours of discovering Vietnamese beers, the buddies drop the guests off at their hotels. Obviously, the buddies don’t drink any beer during the whole tour, so that the tourists can enjoy the selection of the different beers to the full. 🙂
Sounds like a thriving business? Maybe. But that wasn’t the case since the very beginning when Saigon Buddy Tours was founded. “The craft beer sector here in Vietnam is growing, that’s true. Anyhow, at first, growth has been slower than anticipated, and there are more competitors in the market than I thought,” opines Andy.
Even though the scene is still small, and at the moment aimed mainly at expats and tourists, it looks like it will expand into the local market, too. For two years now, Andy Gowler has been noticing more and more growth in the craft beer market. Nothing spectacular – but rather some modest growth than none at all, right?! And good things take time to ripen, of course. 🙂 There are even two specialist craft beer bars and a number of locally produced ales now.
Concerning the future of craft beer in Vietnam, Andy remains optimistic: “The places we visit are always busy. I think the big task is to bring craft beer to the local market. At the moment, there isn’t much interest from the local market, and the interest we notice is usually from the wealthier people. As the Vietnamese middle class grows, so will disposable income and the demand for more interesting beer choices – I think it will be a slow but steady process.”
In general, the conditions are not bad at all, since beer is the number one alcoholic drink of choice in Vietnam. So far, it’s mainly consumed by men and almost always as an accompaniment to food – but isn’t that how it all started in the US and Europe as well? When it comes to their favourite type of beer, the Vietnamese seem to concur at present: it’s predominantly European style lager or pilsner. The two most popular local brands are Heineken and Tiger, followed by local brands such as and Bia Saigon in Saigon. The capital Hanoi and cities in the middle of the country have their own famous brands, e.g. Bia Hanoi and Huda.