Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vietnam in bia hoi shock - another great Wall Street Journal scoop

Being a regional correspondent in Southeast Asia can be a dangerous business. Less because of the threat of violence or police harrasment than because of the risk that covering so many countries will force you to over-stretch.

It's a trap that Bangkok-based James Hookway of the Wall Street Journal seems to have fallen into with his latest piece, entitled Vietnam Brewers Fight Global Giants By Popularizing Kegs of 'Fresh Beer'.

According to our man (temporarily) in Hanoi, Vietnam's brewers are battling back against the scourge of imported beer with a "secret weapon" that "enjoys a cult following in parts of the country".

What amazing product has James uncovered, I wonder? Is it some new local brew infused with lemongrass and chilli or a new type of widget to keep your beer fresh?

No, he's talking about plain old bia hoi - a cheap, watery draft beer that is available at almost every local eating establishment up and down the country from big restaurants frequented by businessmen to tiny roadside stalls.

To argue that local brewers are suddently turning to bia hoi to fight off Tiger and Heineken seems misleading, especially as James himself admits that bia hoi has been around for decades and currently satisfies 30% of the beer drinking market.

It's like arguing that fish and chips is a "secret weapon" in the battle against American fast food imports in Britain that has somehow managed to attain a "cult following".

The real story, surely, is that the status-conscious emerging middle class in Vietnam is turnning away from bia hoi toward premium foreign brands.

Since it was bought by Rupert Murdoch, journalists at the Wall Street Journal have come under greater pressure to deliver exclusive stories.

When hacks can't find a proper scoop they sometimes try to conjure up "scoops of interpretation" when some new trend is supposedly uncovered.

I'm afraid that this story is more a "scoop of misinterpretation".

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