7 Saigon Bartenders Bringing The Flavors Of The Kerb To The Cocktail Bar

7 Saigon bartenders.

The streets of Saigon. A constant source of attraction, and bewilderment. The street food and drinks served there are inspiring cocktails across the city. So we gathered seven Saigon bartenders to learn how they incorporate the flavors of the kerb into their cocktails. 

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

Three bartenders from Summer Experiment, Dot Bar and Nhau Nhau sharpening up.
Three of our Saigon bartenders: Khin from Summer Experiment, Trung Vang from Dot Bar and Finn from Nhau Nhau.

It’s a flickering TV screen of swerving bikes, cart pushers and hungry denizens of our home city on the look-out for something to eat. For a city said to have almost nine million motorbikes, it sometimes feels like there’s as many street food carts, and stalls serving everything from breakfast xoi man to midnight tra dau. And that’s the other thing, the city’s complexion changes throughout the day as a lunch lady sets up in the same lot where her friend just finished breakfast shift, to be replaced again, by the 333 and hot vit lon stand as nightfalls. 

William and Bryan, two Saigon bartenders at the barbershop.
Dapper Saigon bartender William from The Loser admiring himself in the mirror as Bryan watches on.

Naturally, this kaleidoscope creeps inside, carried by our consciousness. Street food gets elevated with premium ingredients – wagyu banh xeo tacos and bountiful banh canh cua – and cocktails incorporate traditional drinks by giving them a twist – a gin-based tra da and cocktail bars serving bia hoi. And, more than ever, it’s young Saigon bartenders bringing the flavors of the kerb to the cocktail bar. So, we gathered seven and asked them to present one of their favorite street food-inspired drinks.

Bartenders San from The Pi Saigon and Tam from LABAR.
San from The Pi nervously getting ready for a trim by LABAR’s Tam.

Minh Tam Nguyen – LABAR

At BBright Corp, you might find Tam behind any of its bars on any given night. There’s TRE Dining in Thao Dien, an upstairs, bamboo-strewn space to sip and savor, and downtown, 52/3 and LABAR, a bespoke cocktail bar and dining space in the same building. If he’s out of breath when you meet, he’s probably returned from 419 Izakaya & Mixology, where he’s co-founder. 

Tam fondly remembers the food he ate growing up, especially piping hot bowls of bún bò his mom used to buy. “Her home cooking was the best, but on days when she didn’t know what to cook, she’d bring home this beef noodle soup,” he remembers.

Minh Tam Nguyen from LABAR and 419.
“Most of all, when you get back here after being away, it [Saigon] smells like home.” – Minh Tam Nguyen

“What does Saigon taste and smell like today?” he asks, “Definitely not fresh air! On a sweltering day on the roads it might smell like burning tyres; walking along the river it might smell like the Mekong Delta, pungent and fishy; but most of all, when you get back here after being away, it smells like home.”

Working across a number of bars, he gets to see evolving tastes first hand. “Saigon today is an eclectic mix. The city is home to people from different provinces, and they bring with them their own inimitable flavors. That creates this unstoppable evolution of tastes, and Saigonese are always searching for new things to eat and drink as their sensitivity develops.”

For his street food inspired cocktail, Tam is choosing his Another Trà Dâu, based on the popular street food drink they serve right outside the LABAR alley. “But with added gin,” he points out. “So the gin gives it some botanical flavor and there’s calming hints of jasmine flower. Add strawberry liqueur, calamansi juice, and carbonated strawberry-infused cold brew jasmine team. Build all the ingredients into a highball glass, then top off with the carbonated tea, garnish and enjoy. A bit of the streets brought inside.”

Where to try: LABAR, 52/3 Dong Du, District 1

Bryan – The Mechanic

“Sleepless and congested!” Bryan laughs when we ask him to describe Saigon. Not that that stops him loving the city, and its mix of the old and new. 

“Right,” he nods thoughtfully, “you can still see old modernist architecture beside high-rise buildings. And down inside Saigon’s alleys, it feels like life hasn’t changed for generations.” Neither has the street food, he thinks. “I’d single out the humble banh mi,” he adds, “because it’s so imperfect. And it’s so simple. Plus, you can find it everywhere in Saigon. And it’s so versatile too – eat it for breakfast, as a main dish, or just as a quick snack. Personally, it’s been my way to start the day since I was a kid, like most people here.”

Bryan Duc Binh bartender at Mechanic Saigon.
“What’s Saigon like? Sleepless and congested!” – Bryan from The Mechanic Bar

And street food influences his cocktails too. “People love street food for its familiarity, and its simplicity. And they’re two things I want to offer my customers at the bar. Combining flavors from the streets elevates the bar experience – sure, you can drop by for a drink. But I want my guests to feel a familiarity and a nostalgia that connects to our moment together…”

One particular street food-inspired cocktail he’s proud of is his Wake Me Up. “It’s based on a simple Vietnamese breakfast of banh mi and nuoc sam,” he explains. To be honest, me and most bartenders I know don’t even know about breakfast! We sleep till noon. So, that’s why I made this, to give us a taste of breakfast even at night. Inside is gin infused camomile, seaweed cordial, lime juice, and a biscuit, some pate and pickles.”

Where to try: The Mechanic, 2nd Floor, 176 Le Lai, District 1

Finn – Nhau Nhau

Dalat-born Finn hosts guests at the golden-era evoking Saigon cocktail bar Nhau Nhau, upstairs from award-winning Anan Restaurant. That means she gets to caramelize coconut worms for Nhau Nhau’s signature shots as well as mix their local-ingredient incorporating Fermented Rice Champagne and foggy Dalat Negroni right in the heart of Saigon’s Ton That Dam wet market. 

Dalat, she reminds us, is very different from Saigon. “So different,” she laughs, “especially for food…and I love to eat. In Dalat, I’d roam the streets and alleys of the city, looking for street food like banh beo, banh trang nuong and goi xoai, and what felt like a billion other sweet things.”

Finn Le bartender at Nhau Nhau.
Dalat-born Finn Le making drinks like her Xí Muội Margarita at Nhau Nhau.

“But Saigon, to me, smells like a cup of Vietnamese coffee,” she muses, “with its powerful and distinctive aroma. But I’d say this city is as delicious as a mooncake too. On the surface it looks dry and unappetizing, but inside is full of spices and ingredients. The taste is strange…but delicious and unmistakable.”

Surprisingly, she first fell in love with cocktails because of a Negroni. “I know, it packs quite a bite, but I was so captivated by the layers of flavor, it even made me want to become a bartender.”

Finn is bringing her childhood memories to Nhau Nhau with drinks like her Xí Muội Margarita. “We used to drink nuoc tac xi muoi every day when I was at school,” she remembers. Nuoc tac xi muoi is a refreshing salted kumquat drink. “It’s a simple combination, but it’s a perfectly salty, sweet and sour beverage,” she adds approvingly. For her Xí Muội Margarita, Finn added tequila and apricot wine from Quang Ninh, some Vietnamese chilli, and egg whites to expand on the traditional flavor, “to include a little spice and umami.”

Where to try: Nhau Nhau, 2nd Floor, 89 Ton That Dam, District 1

Trung Vang – Dot Bar 

“Saigon tastes like a delicious cream cake…and it smells like the charm of a blooming flower,” Trung Vang begins, poetically. 

About ten years ago he fell in love with bartending. He’d become curious about cocktail culture and decided to attempt a whiskey sour at home. “So I bought myself a cheap bottle of bourbon. Then Google helped with the rest! These days, besides Dot Bar, you can get a great whiskey sour in Saigon at Summer Experiment, where I used to work, or at Stir – Modern Classic Cocktail, one of the best bars in town right now.”

Award-winning bartender Trung Vang from Dot Bar.
“For me, every ingredient has its own story.” – Trung Vang

When Trung Vang’s not behind the Dot Bar counter, he’s most likely out eating street food. “Fortunately, Saigon is a party city, and it really never sleeps,” Trung Vang tells us, “so there’s always something to eat at any time.” Post-shift he goes for com tam or pho. “They’re two dishes I always ate growing up, and I still love them even today. There’s one com tam that opens at 3am. It’s on Ly Tu Trong Street. And Pho Mui in District 4 opens late – we often go there after work.”

Street food is a big inspiration on his cocktails too. “For me, every ingredient has its own story, and by watching how people use it, day in, day out, you learn how you can use it too – how it tastes, and how to balance its flavor,” Trung Vang explains. 

One street food-inspired cocktail he makes is based on grilled bananas and sticky rice. “It incorporates spiced rum that’s blended with the sweet aromas of banana liqueur, and combined with creamy coconut milk, a nutty peanut and rice syrup, and balanced with pineapple juice and lime juice.”

Where to try: Dot Bar, 14 Nguyen Thiep, District 1

San – The Pi

“It’s relentless,” San says about the pressure at The Pi, “but I’m learning a lot, every day.” And her goal is simple: “Right now, I just want to deliver an authentic experience and good quality cocktails.”

Becoming a bartender “wasn’t love at first sight.” Back in 2017, she had a restaurant job. There, she gradually became interested in the spirits and cocktails they were serving. But it was only when she tried a Dead In The Afternoon, that there was no turning back. Also known as a Hemingway Champagne, the drink combines absinthe and champagne. “It’s the best end of the day drink, the aroma and flavor of the absinthe with the effervescent champagne,” she says. 

And, like a perfectly balanced cocktail, she feels Saigon is harmonious too. “There’s lots of hustle and bustle of course, but I feel the people, and the food, and the drinks in Saigon are all in harmony…we have this rhythm that makes the city irresistible,” San smiles. 

San from The Pi Saigon.
“[In Saigon] we have this rhythm that makes the city irresistible,” San explains.

“The first rain that covers the clear, bright skies of the sun-drenched dry season, the smoky aromas of my neighbors morning coffee dripping away, the buttery taste of the morning banh mi, gathering friends or co-workers at a street side stall for a simple meal, and the deliciousness of your favorite cocktail,” she says, conjuring all the special sensations of Saigon that mean the most to her. “I never get tired of any of it!” she shrugs. 

Growing up, San ate her mom’s home cooking, or Chinese food from her dad. “And even now, I enjoy food that’s aromatic, with lots of herbs and spices,” she explains. Those memories are a big inspiration on her cocktails: “The teas, the herbs, the spices and all of the aromatics play a huge role in the flavor of my cocktails.”

She singles out her nuoc sam cocktail. “I call it ‘The Mandarin’ and I combine tequila with a special nuoc sam-inspired herbal liqueur, which together have a pleasant, mellow sweetness. Then, I add cynar, the bitter Italian aperitif, which adds depth and complexity to the cocktail, and a refreshingly sparkling finish. It’s the perfect drink on a hot summer’s day in Saigon,” she explains. 

Where to try: The Pi, 45 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District 1

William – The Loser

Tran Dai Thinh is head bartender and owner at the cozy cocktail bar hidden in the old block at 95b Ly Tu Trong called The Loser. “But please, call me William,” he smiles. “For me this city is full of inspiration at every corner,” he begins, “and it’s fun and exciting too.” He’s quick to come up with a cocktail metaphor about it: “Sometimes Saigon’s sunny, and sometimes the skies are cloudy and it’s dry; sometimes it’s cloudy and wet…just like a Martini – a drink that’s simple and complex all at the same time,” he adds. Martinis also figured in him becoming a bartender. 

And, like all the best careers, for Tran Dai Thinh it happened by accident. “So, I was in a friend’s bar, and I accidentally made a Martini,” he laughs. “And I just loved how simple it was, but how changing an ingredient even a little bit could alter it.”

Tran Dai Thinh AKA William from The Loser Bar Saigon.
“It fires my creativity,” William from The Loser says about Saigon’s street food.

His family roots are in Central Vietnam, and a bowl of bun bo Hue takes him back home every time. “But the street food here’s a big inspiration too,” he tells us, “it’s literally everywhere, and it fires my creativity.” 

One street food-inspired cocktail he makes combines elements of bun bo Hue and xoai lac – fresh green mango with chili salt. “I had them one straight after the other one time,” he remembers, “and combined them into a cocktail I still serve today – called ‘The Hardest Part Is Forgetting You’”.

The cocktail contains dark rum, mango juice, pineapple juice, homemade chili syrup, banana liqueur, chocolate liqueur, lime juice and a homemade cacao bitter. “You can rim the glass with the chili salt, and the spiciness and the creaminess of the drink will make it feel like you’re having two of my favorite street foods at the same time!”

Where to try: The Loser Bar, 95B Ly Tu Trong, District 1

Khin – Summer Experiment

Summer Experiment is a Saigon original, introducing its creative all-signatures menu back in 2019. These days, you can find Khin behind the bar mixing drinks like their iconic Milk Batch Baby that, true to the bar’s creative and theatrical philosophy, is frozen with nitro and served as an ice cream. Fittingly, Khin fell in love with cocktails at Summer Experiment’s sister bar, Layla. “It was a Negroni I had there, around four years ago,” Khin remembers.

Summer Experiment is a block or two from buzzing Benh Thanh Market, and so Khin is immersed in downtown Saigon every time he goes to work. “OK, obviously first and foremost, there’s lots of traffic,” he laughs, “but look beyond that and the people are incredibly friendly, and the food is incredibly delicious.”

Khinh from Saigon bar Summer Experiment.
Khin’s bartending career was kickstarted by a Negroni.

“One thing you’ll notice is all the intense aromas you get just being on the street,” he explains, “especially com tam – the aromatic clouds of smoke billow up from the stalls all around the city.” And, as with all the bartenders featured here, street food features prominently in the drinks he makes. “Every cocktail is an ode to those flavors,” he smiles. 

At Summer Experiment, he wants to introduce two street food-inspired cocktails he brings to life every night. The first is inspired by kem chuoi, or banana ice cream. “We call it Banana Be Smoking with chuoi cau, or tropical banana, that’s infused with whisky. Then we add Flor De Cana Spresso, banana liqueur, a home-made coconut-based condensed milk, some smoked and dehydrated banana peel, and a coconut-peanut ice cream.”

The other is inspired by an nhau, that’s been described as the Vietnamese culture of drinking and eating for no particular purpose. “You can usually order dried squid, or get it from a vendor who pulls up at the restaurant,” Khin says. “Our cocktail inspired by that is called ‘Ink My Fizz’ and includes Bombay Sapphire gin, Vietnamese rose apple spirit, squid ink, coconut vinegar, coconut water, egg white, Perrier, and some dried squid!”

Where to try: Summer Experiment, 2nd Floor, 77-79 Ly Tu Trong, District 1

7 Saigon bartenders.
The 7 Saigon bartenders bringing the flavors of the kerb to the cocktail bar.

Photos by Nghia Ngo.

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