Master Mixologist Sean Halse’s Guide To Hanoi

Sean Halse became a bartender one tough weekend and almost quit for good. And it was a footballing injury that propelled him across the globe to some of the world’s most upscale bars and to become creator of one of the 100 best cocktails in the world. Now, he’s found himself with the Moonshine Academy & Consultancy team, the people behind Hanoi’s Kumquat Tree and Clu. So, this is the Liverpudlian’s guide to Hanoi, the city he now calls home. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Whether you want classic or something more creative, it’s easy to get a good cocktail in Vietnam’s major cities now. But Sean Halse’s drinks stand out; eye-catching cocktails like his Passionate About Tiki or the High Society or his Bacardi Legacy competition entry, Brining Pickle Back, that he serves at the Hanoi speakeasy Kumquat Tree and newly opened cocktail bar, Clu. “But there’s a lot of amazing bars now,” Sean Halse modestly disagrees as we sit down for a chat at Clu, “Summer Experiment, Gallery Bespoke, Below, and Cocktail Merchants are all doing great things…” 

The only thing missing, he muses, is the sense of community between bars that he found in Dubai and Bangkok “where the industry was so tight and it helped each other to grow”.

Sean Halse, member of Moonshine Academy & Consultancy – the team behind Kumquat Tree and Clu.

Born in Liverpool, the mixologist, like almost every young kid in the city, really wanted to be a professional footballer. “But I was obsessed with cooking shows too. Shows like Masterchef and anything with Gordon Ramsey,” he remembers. Then, as a jobless teenager, he stumbled across an open audition for bartenders and had his first shift on one of the busiest weekends of the year in late August. “I hated it,” Sean Halse laughs, “and I didn’t even turn up to my second shift.” Somehow his duty manager persuaded him to return “and the rest, as they say, is history”.

That first Liverpool bar, called Baa Bar, could welcome over 1,000 guests a night. “Intense, high-speed, a lot of pressure,” Sean Halse sighs at the memory. He moved with the same group to another Liverpool bar, Modo, “and soon started looking after three bars for them in total”. 

Football figured in his big break – even though it pushed him further towards bartending. “So, I broke my shoulder during a game and was forced to take leave from behind the bar…” he explains. During the downtime he sent off applications and received an offer from the Rosewood Abu Dhabi. He went and the luxury hotel’s standards forced him to raise his game – as did a tough manager named Theo. “I still really respect Theo to this day…” Sean Halse nods.

One of Sean Halse’s “artworks”.

In time, he swapped the Rosewood for Michelin-starred British chef Jason Atherton’s Marina Social. There, he found mentors in Matt Roberts and Paul Bradley, and followed Paul to Gold on 27 at the Burj Al Arab – the famous sail-shaped building described as a seven-star hotel. 

“There the daily routine had to be adhered to. I pushed myself again and started to build a small reputation in the city…” he smiles. Because of that the team at the Lebua State Tower Bangkok heard of Sean Halse and headhunted him to lead the cocktail programme at their sky bar. 

“Then, during a trip to Hanoi I met Anh, the owner of Kumquat Tree, and a month later I was on a plane back to Hanoi for good to join the Moonshine Academy & Consultancy team. Together we just opened Clu…”

Can you describe Hanoi in a few sentences? 

To me, Hanoi looks very crazy from the outside. But when you dive in, it’s quite relaxing whilst also being buzzing and vibrant. There’s heritage too. And there’s a generally positive sense about the future here.

Where should we go in Hanoi to feel good?

Take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter when the area is turned into a walking street every weekend from Friday evening to Sunday evening. Find a seat, relax, and watch the world go by. 

“To me, Hanoi looks very crazy from the outside. But when you dive in, it’s quite relaxing whilst also being buzzing and vibrant,” Sean Halse says.

Where should we go in Hanoi for street food?

Tong Duy Tan Street is a 24-hour food street with a great variety of options. Or stop at any banh mi stall in the city. There’s one opposite The Black Sheep on the same street which is really good. The bread is supremely crispy, the filling soft, and the meat juicy. Also on that street is Muoi Tieu – Salt n’ Pepper Kitchen, in case you want a full English breakfast to stop you missing home too much. 

There’s another popular banh mi stall near Kumquat Tree on Nguyen Khac Can where all our staff go. It’s great for a quick bite.

Where’s your favourite place for lunch in Hanoi?

Stop for lunch at one of Hanoi’s many bun cha restaurants. There is one on Nguyen Huu Huan Street simply called Bun Cha Ta. I like it because it has a nice atmosphere and the food is delicious. It is perfect for a quick lunch.

And where should we take a date?

Head to Dang Thai Mai Street beside the Westlake and give Los Fuegos a go. It is a great Argentinian grill restaurant. Sit in the lovely outdoor area and eat steak, steak, and more steak. 

Argentinian steak and grill garden with a wood-fired oven and great wines at Los Fuegos.

Which are your favourite bars in Hanoi when you’re not at Kumquat Tree or Clu?

Hanoi has so many places serving everything from bia hoi to creative cocktails. My pick of the best bars would include Mad Botanist and Gallery Bespoke… 

Where should we go to meet new people?

Around Ta Hien there is a lot of nightlife and hostels. There will always be people around to spark up a conversation with.

And where can we drink the best coffee in Hanoi?

I always take my guests to famous Cafe Giang to try their egg coffee. This place undoubtedly gets my recommendation.

Giang Cafe is one of the oldest coffee brands in Hanoi.

Which place can be our little secret?

I have to say Kumquat Tree. It’s a speakeasy bar where you need a secret code to enter the imposing red front door. Inside, we offer a great selection of cocktails and personally designed drinks made to your liking. Our What The Duck is perfect for those feeling adventurous, and our Kumquat Old Fashioned is perfect if you’re in the mood for something more traditional. Or try our Passionate About Tiki or High Society for something more eye-catching. 

Where should we go on a Friday night in Hanoi?

Clu Cocktail bar which is our new venue. We offer a futuristic approach to drinking in a really well-designed space. Key to that is sustainability. The ethos of Clu is turn waste into something tasty. For instance there is a drink that uses the whole pineapple – even parts that most places would throw away such as the skin, core and leaves. We also employ flavours that are becoming fashionable globally using methods like pickling and brining.

Clu Hanoi is a futuristic dive bar in the heart of Hanoi.

You can also find Nê Cocktail Bar and Black Sheep on the same street, Tong Duy Tan, so the night could quickly turn into a bar crawl. 

What should we buy as a gift?

You can buy artwork here pretty cheap. Failing that, if it is for someone outside of Vietnam, take them a bag of Vietnamese coffee. For galleries, just take a walk around the Old Quarter. There you will find lots of artworks of all different shapes and sizes. And ABC Coffee Roasters near the Westlake has great coffee…it is also the brand we use at Kumquat Tree.

Which tourist destination is worth our time and which should we skip? 

Go to the Lotte Tower Observatory on the 65th floor and take a look over the whole of Hanoi and even chill there with a beer. Maybe you can skip the food tours. Go out and explore this wonderful city for yourself…

Photos by Jerry Tuan Tran.

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