Hope & Sesame’s Lola Lau Was Here For A Good Time And Not A Long Time

Lola Lau and Ethan Lui from Hope & Sesame

In case you don’t remember, there’d be Lola Lau – hair half shaved and the rest dyed blue – standing on the Renkon counter serving up sake laybacks to anyone brave enough to stand close to the bar. Lola was only in Saigon for ten months. But she left an indelible impression. Then she headed off to Shanghai to pursue her ‘Chinese dream’. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

“It’s like the American dream, only in China,” Lola explains helpfully. Only a very attractive offer could have lured her away, she tells us. And that came in the form of working with Steve Schneider and Shingo Gokan at The Odd Couple. After two years there, she relocated to Hope & Sesame in Shenzhen where she’s continued to build her burgeoning reputation behind the bar. 

It has three distinct areas, she explains, “so guests, in a memorably immersive way, can explore different aspects of the cocktail world.” The front section is called The Charlie’s, and offers a traditional European bartending experience. The innermost room, which is called The August, is a luxurious space that’s something like a high-end hotel. And, in between, there’s Lola and Ethan, at Hope & Sesame, where they employ lots of modern techniques, and fuse Western and Chinese elements, “to showcase the evolution and adaptability of cocktails in industry’s modern incarnation.”

It’s a little more elaborate than the hip, modern, Sean Dix designed izakaya, Renkon, which Lola came to Vietnam to join, although at Hope & Sesame she still gets to play around with Japanese ingredients and concepts. 

Lola Lau and Ethan Lui from Hope & Sesame at Saigon's Angel's Share cocktail bar
Mentor and co-founder Ethan Liu, with Hope & Sesame’s Lola Lau.

Something Of A Bold Move 

“I’d never even been overseas in my life when I came to Saigon in 2018!” Lola Lau reminds us. “It was something of a bold move on my part, and Saigon taught me things that still help me every day. Oh, and it brought out my wild side!” she laughs.

But Lola is surprisingly introspective in person. She is, she admits, a bit of a workaholic too. “I blend right in in Shenzhen,” Lola says, “it’s a high-tech city that’s full of other workaholics!”

The 2nd night of the Hope & Sesame guest shift at Rabbit Hole
Saigon’s Rabbit Hole cocktail bar, venue for Lola and Ethan’s second guest shift in Saigon.

Hope & Sesame Lola Lau And Ethan Liu In Saigon

Lola and Hope & Sesame’s co-founder Ethan Liu are in Saigon for two guest shifts, the first at Angel’s Share and the second, the following night, at Rabbit Hole. It’s been simultaneously the same and very different. “Mostly, I feel like I’ve never left,” she nods. “On the taxi into District 1 from the airport, I kept thinking ‘oh, I remember this street’ and ‘over there is the pho joint I used to go to!’”

And the bartending community is as closely-knit as ever, where it feels like “everyone is so close.” The bars have changed though, she says. “It’s really sad to see places like Renkon gone. But then, the new places are so great. And some are amazingly avant garde!” 

“When I was here, you wouldn’t see a roto-vap or centrifuge in a bar. Since I’ve been here, there’s already been two bars – Hybrid Saigon and Enigma – using them.”

Lola Lau making her Martini inspired by Saigon's Japan Town
Lola Lau making her Saigon Japan Town-inspired Martini with it’s pinkish color to represent the neon lights.

A Martini Inspired By Saigon’s Japan Town

At Hope & Sesame’s guest shift at Rabbit Hole, Lola served her Japan Town Martini – a drink inspired by her memories of Saigon’s decadent but discerning Japanese alleys off Le Thanh Ton Street. It’s a part of the city where salaciousness neighbors some of the best, most affordable Japanese cuisine in town. 

“Oh, that’s a funny story! So, Ethan Liu asked me to make a Martini-style drink. And he suggested putting some shiso in it. It’s such a Japanese ingredient and that made me remember Saigon’s Japan Town. I remember the girly bars and the neon lights – I’d never been anywhere like that before and I was enthralled and shocked at the same time!” 

“So, I decided to use a Rosa Vermouth and Peychaud bitters to give the Martini a pink-ish color to represent those neon lights. And that also gave the drink a bit of a perfume aroma. Then I used fino sherry to give it a crisp mouthfeel, and some yuzu to amplify the Japanese element of it.”

Shots of Lola Lau
Shots with Hope & Sesame’s Lola Lau.

“I try to take inspiration from daily life.”

She likes to make drinks like that. Ones with lots of complexity. 

When she was here she used to make a For F*ck Sake-Tini too. “I try to take inspiration from daily life,” she explains, thoughtfully. And I love eating. So, that often comes into it!”

But her inspirations come from everywhere, “kind of storytelling through cocktails.” Like the Japanese TV show, based on the Manga series Tokyo Love Story. “There was a heartbreak scene in a train station called Baishinji,” she remembers. “So, I made a highball-style drink with pandan, berry flavored gin, agarwood rum, seedlip garden 108, verjus and soda,” she remembers. “I wanted the drink to encapsulate that moment when the brave main character finally gave up on that boy she knew didn’t deserve her.” People loved the drink. And they said the cocktail summed up the scene. 

We wonder what Lola’s process is like. “So, I’ll choose a main flavor for the cocktail and then look for other flavors that can pair with it. Then, next, I’ll decide upon a structure – whether it should be a highball, a fizz, or maybe a daisy or sour, a tiki-style drink or a Martini. And then, I’ll think about technique. How can I extract flavor from the ingredients? And what should it look like once I have? Should it be clear, colorful or cloudy, or something else? Then, I’ll think about what to serve it in and the presentation as a whole. And last? Name it!”

Lola Lau multitasking bartender at Angel's Share Saigon
First night action at Angel’s Share.

“You’ll find someone in some corner of the country doing crazy sh*t.”

In those early days of living the dream and returning to Shanghai, Lola Lau talked about creating a Chinese style of bartending. 

“I’m still not sure exactly what it is,” she admits. “China is just so huge. You’ll find someone in some corner of the country doing crazy sh*t with fermentation or molecular cocktails, or some crazy, magical presentation, or using some crazy ass machine. I guess what I want to see most of all right now is more Chinese spirits being used in cocktails.”

Although she’s too modest to admit it, Lola Lau is leading a cultural shift in the Chinese bar industry towards female bartenders. There’s a lot now, she says. And the mix, in places like Shenzhen, is very evenly split, with lots of female bartenders taking the lead. “They do often seem to be more patient and hardworking than their male colleagues,” she smiles. 

She has an empowering message for aspiring female bartenders too. “Be brave and humble. Never compare yourself to others, only compare yourself to the you of yesterday. And get yourself out there – enter competitions or whatever you can find – you’ll never know how brightly you can shine until you reveal yourself!”

Maybe a Chinese style of bartending is emerging, as there’s clearly a thriving bar scene there. “It’s so diverse, it would be tough to pick my favorite places,” Lola frowns. “Right now, if you really force me, I’d say my three favorites are SanYou, a bar in our group that’s focused on Chinese spirits – lots of Baijiu, Huangjiu, Chinese gins and whiskies – and then there’s BAR CMYK, a super trendy bar in Changsha, Hunan, and finally MIXY, a place in Shenzhen I go to when I want some peace and quiet, with some good drinks. 

Bartender Ethan Liu
Ethan Liu getting lit at Rabbit Hole.

Night Owl Dedicated To Saigon’s Night Owls

We wonder, finally, if Lola came back one day to Saigon and she got to open her own bar, what it would be like. “I’d call it Night Owl!” she laughs. “It would only open between 10PM and 6AM – specially designed for people in the F&B industry. And on the menu, I’d dedicate a drink to your editor-in-chief, David Kaye! It would be a Martini-style drink (obviously) with absinthe, and I’d call it the Forever Young Soul.”

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