Tattoo lover. Mixology obsessive. And Hanoian through and through. Nê Cocktailbar’s head bartender, Sa Tong, is a major draw for customers – his stature and striking good-looks help too of course. Recruited by industry leader, Pham Tien Tiep, to Ne Cocktail Bar which opened in 2017, Sa Tong’s reputation in the industry has grown steadily since. “Hanoians’ tastes have changed too” Sa Tong tells us, “with an increasing awareness of flavour and even of the glassware we serve our drinks in”. He should know, he’s been instrumental in helping locals learn about cocktails. They mostly go to Nê.Cocktailbar for flavours of home – like their famous pho cocktail or their autumn cocktail that evokes October in the capital. It’s helped the bar win awards, like Hospitality Team of the Year at the recent Vietnam Cocktail Festival’s Bar Awards.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
“I’ve been with Nê.Cocktailbar since the opening day”, Luu Quoc Thanh, better known as Sa Tong, smiles. “I remember those early days of Nê.Cocktailbar, customers didn’t really have an understanding of cocktails. They were reluctant to spend money on a good cocktail too…”
“We incorporated lots of Vietnamese raw materials into our drinks….which helped them to adjust,” he adds proudly. “And I am happy to be a part of the journey and to have contributed to the F&B scene in Vietnam.” As he’s talking he picks a few stalks of coriander and some basil leaves and begins to demonstrate how to make one of his favourite cocktails, a TICA. “This too is inspired by Vietnamese food – something that’s close to every Vietnamese person’s heart,” he nods, “and by the billions of creative neurons swirling around in my head.” He adds pepper, lime leaves, roasted peanuts to a base of Ophir Gin, “and it smells just like blood pudding” he laughs wafting the glass under our nose. “Of course I won’t use blood to make cocktails!” he quickly reminds us, “I use grenadine…”
“The inspiration for my TICA came from the memories of the times when my family gathered. My father used to dissect chickens in preparation for cooking them for everyone. I can still clearly remember the taste of his blood pudding: the sour taste of lemon, the crunch of peanuts combined with herbs and spices…unforgettable”, he says shaking his head.
With such intense recollections and deep knowledge of the streets of Hanoi, we wondered where Sa Tong goes when he’s not behind the bar at Nê.Cocktailbar.
What does Hanoi mean to you?
Hanoi is the place where I was born and raised, both my childhood and my adulthood have been spent here. The streets and places here have so much meaning to me.
Can you describe Hanoi in a sentence or two?
If Saigon by night is synonymous with parties – clubs and packed dance floors – then Hanoi by night is when the city sleeps, returning to the quiet except for the rustling of trees. That’s my Hanoi.
Where should we go in Hanoi to relax?
It’s not hard to slow down the pace of life in Hanoi. My personal favourite thing to do when I’m stressed or tired is to take a drive around the West Lake breathing in the fresh air, headphones on, listening to my favourite music. It’s zero-dollar therapy available 24/7. And it’s very effective. Hanoi is famous for its lakes. But only the West Lake has this extraordinary power.
Where is the best streetfood in Hanoi?
When you think of Hanoi, you immediately think of phở. It’s very different from the phở in the South and Central regions – more bold, but still soothing.
If you’re in Hanoi, try Pho Ganh on the junction between Hang Duong and Hang Chieu Streets. It’s a small shop, but it’s a must-try. In addition to traditional beef noodle soup, here you can try their wine sauce – ask for phở sốt vang. It’s a signature Hanoi dish.
Besides that, although phở occupies the number one position in our hearts, we also have to mention other ‘stars’ of the food scene here such as huong lien cha vermicelli, la vong fish ball, thanh van rolls, ngu xa pho noodles. All of them are Hanoi originals…
Where should we go in Hanoi for a romantic date?
I know a restaurant called Serein Cafe & Lounge with views over Long Bien Bridge. The views are very romantic a little modern, a little luxurious, and with a hint of nostalgia.
And which are the best brunch and lunch spots in Hanoi?
Muối Tiêu – Salt n’ Pepper Kitchen on the 2nd floor of the building at 28 Tong Duy Tan. Then there’s Méli Coffee & Brunch at 19 Ngo Tat To too. Both are so good. I couldn’t tell you which one is the best.
At Muối Tiêu – Salt n’ Pepper Kitchen, I love the cheesy chicken pesto on toast where sous vide chicken breast is served with their basil sauce and mozzarella cheese. Then there’s the crispy toasted bread and lots of grilled vegetables.
Méli Coffee & Brunch specializes in classic brunch dishes such as eggs benedict with smoked salmon or English smoked fish and very good quality selected teas and coffee. Both shops are built in old French colonial mansions, with very Hanoi features. However, Méli Coffee & Brunch stands out with its fashionable white space and more stylish features….
Where’s the best high-end restaurant in Hanoi?
Hanoi has a lot of higher-end options. But price doesn’t always equate to a better experience. One place where paying more definitely elevates the experience is T.U.N.G Dining at 2C Quang Trung. I love the entire experience. It’s a gastronomic journey where each dish offers surprises and intriguing flavours. But words don’t really do it justice. You have to go try….
Where can we drink the best coffee in Hanoi?
Traditionally, locals love to sip hot coffee every morning. People can sit for hours reading newspapers, patiently waiting for their coffee to be ready, drip by drip. You should pay attention to which shop has the most elderly people sitting in it every morning. That will have the best coffee.
Young people and tourists too fall in love with egg coffee. The seemingly incompatible combination of dense coffee and greasy egg yolks creates a ‘storm’ in the hearts of those who love the experience. And the best egg coffee is served at Giang Cafe Hanoi.
The latest trend is speciality coffee. All Day Coffee at 37 Quang Trung is a great ambassador for the trend. There you’ll find experienced staff who have deep, specialist knowledge about roasting and serving good arabica. You’ll undoubtedly be impressed too.
Where should we go on a Friday night?
That really depends on your interests. Hanoi has many night clubs such as IP Club (41 Hai Ba Trung) with intense EDM and crowded with young locals. Or there’s Si (18 Hang Bai) with a luxurious style and menu to match.
If you are a fan of quiet speakeasy bars, Kumquat Tree at 1 Nguyen Khac Can is the place to be. Zodiac, on 2nd floor 13 Dang Dung, is new with Vietnamese style mixed with hip-hop and art, and a unique menu inspired by the 12 zodiac signs. And Bee’Znees (163 Phung Hung) brings cuisine into their creative cocktails.
And, of course, do not forget to visit Nê.Cocktailbar to enjoy the full flavours of the capital in every sip of our special cocktails….
What tourist places are worth visiting? Which should we skip?
After that, walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, eat Trang Tien Ice Cream, and feel the simple poetry of everyday life in Hanoi. In the evening, go for a walk around Hanoi Old Quarter. Pick any of the small restaurants along Ta Hien Street and enjoy some small bites and bia hoi.
But if you’re travelling here, try not to miss anything. I think there are unique experiences to be had everywhere you go in Hanoi.
What are some of the best places to visit around Hanoi?
There’s so many places! There’s Tam Dao National Park. It’s a perfect place to cool off during the intense Hanoi summers.
There’s Ha Long too, which is justifiably famous for its beautiful scenery and fresh seafood. If that’s too touristy, then go to Moc Chau or Thai Nguyen and get closer to nature. There you’ll see plum blossoms and tea plantations…
Which new places in Hanoi are you excited to try?
In addition, Attic Cocktail & Wine Lab recently opened. It promised to bring a new level of bespoke service to the cocktail scene here. But I’m most excited about Nê Boong-ke cocktail & wine – our sister bar opening in early 2020. I think it’s going to be a really big deal…
The Neighbor’s Cocktail – Wine Bar’s and Bar’s sister brother has just launched on the occasion of early 2020, promising to storm the cocktail market in the near future!
Photos by Jerry Tuan Tran