Libations And Divinations: Tales Of Tarot-Reading Bar Owner, Conor Nguyen

Dealing the tarot cards at The Hermit cocktail bar.

Founder, owner, author, bartender, fortune-teller. Enigmatic, eclectic, hermetic, hermitic. There are no shortage of ways to describe Conor Nguyen, but in his own words, he is simply an old soul.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Conor Nguyen is perceptibly wise beyond his years. At only 27, he’s already chalked up an impressive array of achievements. Best known as author of Vietnam’s bartending bible, Cau Chuyen Cocktails, he is also owner and founder of The Hermit, a neighborhood cocktail bar in Saigon’s casual-cool Pham Viet Chanh neighborhood. Yet, Conor’s rare maturity extends beyond his accomplishments. He really does feel like an old soul, he tells us.

How The Hermit Got Its Name

One of Conor’s more curious, old-world habits is his study of the ancient arts of mysticism and occultism. He can often be found performing Tarot readings at the bar. In fact, the bar’s name, The Hermit, derives from The Hermit card found in a traditional arcana tarot deck. Symbolizing introspection, solitude and wisdom, the card depicts an elderly, hooded figure holding a lantern, to whom Conor feels a strong affinity. “I’m just like The Hermit” he quietly admits, “always searching for something, but not sure what.”

If you too find yourself searching (for libation that is) in Pham Viet Chanh, look for the lantern. Hanging above the bar in The Hermit, it is an exact replica of the lamp the tarot Hermit carries in his illustration. Casting a warm glow against the venue’s cream colored walls, it will beckon you in from the frantic, neon buzz of the streets. 

Conor Nguyen, owner of The Hermit, at work behind the bar
Conor Nguyen, owner of The Hermit, at work behind the bar.

Like the majority of bars in the neighborhood, The Hermit is small, seating around thirty at a push, and Conor is sure to embrace the intimacy of the space. A warm welcome and bottles of whisky, rum and gin gleaming gold in the yellow light of the backlit bar await inside.

Solitude Versus Socializing 

You might think that The Hermit, an allegory for brooding solitude and seclusion, would not marry well with the energetic and social nature of a bar. But, as Conor tells it: “Bars are the ultimate place for soul searching and self-reflection.”

Conor Nguyen pouring a Hermit Martini at The Hermit bar.
Conor Nguyen, pouring a Hermit Martini.

Think about it. An exhaustive list of iconic movie scenes spring to mind, where main characters moodily ruminate decisive life moments behind a bar and over a drink; Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, somewhat more unsettlingly Jack Nicholson in The Shining and, rather more lightheartedly, pretty much all of the characters in Gossip Girl. The list goes on.

In these scenes, the bartender, a disassociated but very present figure, provides a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, dishing out drinks in equal measure to their sage advice. “Tarot reading is much like bartending,” Conor tells us, “It’s about the listening as well as the storytelling.”

Pouring Libations And Predictions

Having established his reputation as Saigon’s go-to bartender-cum-soothsayer, Conor is often approached by customers asking for a Tarot reading. “I have so many strange stories,” he admits with an amused sigh, “people ask the cards all sorts of things. Recently a guy came into the bar and asked if his wife was having an affair whilst she was still sitting at the table behind him!”

A Tarot reading at The Hermit bar in Phanh Viet Chanh
A Tarot reading at The Hermit bar in Phanh Viet Chanh.

The Magic Is In The Menu

The Hermit’s link to mysticism goes beyond barside Tarot readings. Each of the 12 cocktails on the signature menu represent a Tarot card. The Empress, (portrayed in a flowing red cape on her card) is made using the whole watermelon: the sweet, crimson juice is mixed with tequila and soda, the green skin dried for the salt rim and the rind is piquantly pickled for garnish. Lovers is sweet, of course, with the tropical flavors of pineapple, banana and dark chocolate, and The Moon is golden with brandy, honey and salted egg yolk.

The Empress, with tequila and watermelon, and the Hermit martini
The Empress, with tequila and watermelon, and the Hermit martini.

Conor tells us he thrives on the creativity afforded by his small, casual bar. “I spent a long time working at some of Australia’s best 5-star hotels and it taught me a lot, which I’m very thankful for. But here, there is no red tape, no jumping through hoops. If I want to make a new drink, I work with the team and we just do it. I love that freedom.”

New Year, New Cocktails

And he’s doing just that. We are soon to see a new Tarot inspired menu arrive at The Hermit. Think playful pairings of mezcal muddled with tamarind and fish sauce, Martinis made nutty and smooth with extracts of almond and green bean, and Scotch Highballs with red rice tea and grapefruit.

Conor Nguyen at The Hermit cocktail bar Saigon.
Conor Nguyen stirring things up.

They’ll even be tipples to keep the teetotalers happy. “Every self-respecting bar needs an alcohol-free menu and I don’t want to do just sweet mocktails and soft drinks. I want to make clever drinks where you don’t miss, or even notice, there is no booze.”

A Home Away From Home, Conor is Keeping Things Cozy

Of course, a few old favorites will remain on the menu due to popular demand. The Hermit has a steady stream of fiercely loyal customers who make up a good part of the bar’s business. “We have regulars from the US and Singapore who always make an effort to pay us a visit whenever they are in town,” says Conor. “To me, this is the ultimate satisfaction. My dream when opening The Hermit was for people to see it as a home away from home.”

A Glimpse Into The Future…

So what, then, does our mystic man see in his own future? Ironically, he avoids looking too far ahead. “Of course, I still have more dreams to fulfill. Perhaps I see myself opening another bar at some point. But at the moment, I am the Hermit, making steady and deliberate progress into the unknown. The cards don’t decide your fate, you do.”


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