Good Bars Doing Good: In Fine Spirits As PK Maltroom Pops-Up At The Enigma Mansion

Vu Ngoc’s The Enigma Mansion, the resurrection of the award-winning cocktail bar Enigma, invited over Nguyen Minh Khanh, from PK Maltroom, for its first guest shift since opening, called Cho Ems. Under his arm were ten prized bottles of spirits, and afterwards they decided to donate part of the proceeds to Hoang Hoa Trung’s ‘Nuôi Em’ project.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

A secret alley. A dark, candlelit staircase. Then, into the bar – exposed brickwork and mirrored walls, dapper bartenders in salmon-colored waistcoats, and, appropriately, a sculpted phoenix suspended from the ceiling.

This is second coming of The Enigma Mansion: the stylish classic-meets-modern reopening of the original Enigma, a couple of streets away.

The guest for the evening, former opera-singer-turned-bar-owner, Nguyen Minh Khanh, approves. “It’s cozier and more classic,” he nods. “And it feels like a more mature expression of what Enigma is, which suits me just fine.”

The original Enigma was like a neon-lit library from the near future – windowless, with reflective surfaces, and pink and lime green lights. But The Enigma Mansion has some of the classic touches of Khanh’s own bar, PK Maltroom, an operatic space in District 1’s Tan Dinh Ward.

Founder Vu Ngoc seems contented too. “We wanted it to be more of everything: more historical, richer in art and storytelling, more mystical and more experimental…”

Vu Ngoc at Enigma Mansion
Vu Ngoc at The Enigma Mansion.

When Passions And Professions Overlap

There’s clearly a mutual respect between them. Vu Ngoc is also the Beam Suntory brand ambassador, so there’s a shared passion for whisky too. They’d been exchanging texts, talking about whisky, long before he took the role with Beam Suntory, “somewhere around 2018” he remembers, but they only finally met in 2022, when Vu Ngoc did a guest shift at Khanh’s PK Maltroom.

“First impressions?” Vu Ngoc asks. “He’s an absolute gentleman – serious and eloquent and immaculately attired.”

“He’s such a humble and passionate bartender too,” Khanh says, gladly returning the compliment. “But the thing that really excites me about his work is his ability to balance the old and new in his mixology.”

Now their passions and professions overlap, they happily have the excuse to meet up more often.

PK Maltroom's Nguyen Minh Khanh behind the bar at PK Maltroom.
PK Maltroom’s Nguyen Minh Khanh behind the bar at The Enigma Mansion.

Taking PK Maltroom To Another Dimension

This is one such occasion. Khanh has arrived at Enigma Mansion, to take his beloved PK Maltroom bar “to another dimension.”

And he’s come with an armful of prized bottles from the shelves of PK Maltroom. There are old, rare whiskies, some from distilleries long closed down, and some r(h)ums and cognacs for good measure.

“There are also two single malts bottled exclusively from specially selected casks for PK Maltroom. And there’s a blend from Bowmore, my favorite distiller, mixed by myself. And there’s a bottle with the label obscured for friends to do a blind tasting.”

Alongside those, Vu Ngoc is serving two cocktails from his ‘Plant Base’ menu. It’s a sneak peek at the drinks from the Enigma Mansion menu that officially launches in April.

Half of the proceeds will go to ‘Nuôi Em,’ a revered project that aims to provide a better life for impoverished highland kids.

PK Maltroom's Nguyen Minh Khanh talks whisky with Enigma Mansion's Vu Ngoc.
Khanh shares some information about the bottles he’s brought over for the event.

Make A World Of Difference

In places like Dien Bien, which he and his friends had begun traveling to in 2009, Hoang Hoa Trung had noticed a trend, kids were dropping out of school in remote areas simply because they didn’t have a lunch to eat. “Lunch,” he concluded, “could make a world of difference.”

Khanh and Vu Ngoc are realistic about the impact one guest shift can have. But it’s a signifier of a shared mindset. And a chance, in some small way, to spread the word, and to raise a little money. “Every little bit helps,” Vu Ngoc explains, keenly aware of the privilege of running a bar, surrounded by smiling colleagues and companions.

The ‘Nuôi Em’ project team concur. On visits to highland areas, they’d notice a drop-off from 20 kids in class in the morning to only 4 or 5 in the afternoon. They estimate that with just VND 1.5M sponsorship a year a student can have lunch every day.

Nguyen Minh Khanh with Thong Khoi at Enigma Mansion
Khanh with The Enigma Mansion bartender Thong Hoai.

A World Away From Enigma Mansion

The highlands are a world away from Enigma Mansion’s calm-amid-the-storm location where Nguyen Sieu’s night-time café culture in overdrive meets the new Ba Son Bridge.  

“But through events like these, as we happily drink and connect, I hope it gives us a moment’s reflection, to really appreciate what we have,” Vu Ngoc adds.

“Added to that,” Khanh continues, “it’s a good time to share a message – when people are cheered with cocktails and spirits, they’re happier and more open and more receptive to learning about those less fortunate than they are.”

Choosing the right charity is important. There have been issues with the transparency of some charities and the allocation of funds. It’s something Vu Ngoc and Khanh were keenly aware when they conceived the event.

They chose the ‘Nuôi Em’ project for its reliability – Hoang Hoa Trung was listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 for his achievements and his work has been replicated around the world – and its relatability: “Poverty really steals their childhood from them,” Vu Ngoc shakes his head. “As we’re both fathers, it’s something that resonated with us.”

“It’s not something I talk about much, but somewhere around 30 years ago, I was given a chance to learn and grow through books, toys and games that had been donated. And now look. I have access to these precious things in life, like fine whiskies. But I’ll never forget how I got here. Or to take the chance to return the favor,” Khanh adds.

They also didn’t ask guests to contribute directly. “We contributed 50% of our revenue from the guestshift to the charity,” Khanh explains. “Of course, thanks to the generous support of our customers.”

Nguyen Minh Khanh with some of his special bottles of whisky.
Checking the inventory for the Cho Ems event.

The Industry Aligns

The event is another signifier of a sometimes-disparate industry aligning. In the hiatus between the first Enigma and Enigma Mansion opening, Vu Ngoc had some time to muse on the mission. “I like the concept of human sustainability. By that, I mean that to develop society we should start with individuals and build upwards. That means – besides continuing to support the ‘Nguoi Em’ project – we will develop courses and workshops and other opportunities for people to grow.”

“We’ve formed a community of good people, including Vu Ngoc, called the United Bars of Saigon, with a mission to come together to do good things. I guess this event is a good example of that,” Khanh says finally.

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