Three Legendary Saigon Mixologists Describe The Evolution Of The City’s Bar Scene And Where To Drink Right Now

Three people. Three nationalities. One passion – bartending. But it’s not only that which connects them. Richie Fawcett, Hajime Tadano and Thanh Tung are all originals, each one helping to develop bar culture here in Saigon in their own special way. 

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

However, their directions have been very different lately. One has dedicated himself to art (although his gallery does at least have a secret bar, and he occasionally dusts off the shaker for a guest shift elsewhere). Another is the chef and head bartender at an ageless Saigon institution. And the last one has left cocktail bars behind…for the most part. 

After catching up with the most exciting new chefs in town, and with some of the biggest names in the local F&B business, this time we decided to focus on three bartending legends. Here, they tell us about the evolution of Saigon’s bar scene and where to eat and drink in the city today

Hajime Tadano, Thanh Tung, and Richie Fawcett [from left to right].

Qui Lounge at 22 Le Thanh Ton redefined Saigon bars when it opened in 2015. Sky bars were still the most popular venues. Qui’s location across the street from Japan Town had consistently failed to live up to its potential in its previous incarnations. 

Thanh Tung was bar manager there for three prime years “focussing on concept cocktails that featured local ingredients” at a time when most bars couldn’t make a passable Negroni. “We had barrel-aged cocktails too,” the stylish bartender smiles about the Manhattans and Old Fashioneds they used to bottle up and print with a label featuring one of the bartenders. It would be four or five years until Drinking & Healing and other next-generation venues applied the same potent barrel-aged process. You could take them home too, which means Qui was well ahead of the game for home-consumed cocktails that really took off this year during lockdown. And they pioneered “flowing bowl” sharing cocktails like their “Who Let The Dog Out” with rum, yoghurt, lemongrass and pink peppercorns. Because of all that creative energy, every night between 300-500 customers packed the place.

Thanh Tung is now brand ambassador for Beams Suntory.

Now he’s left the daily buzz of packed bars behind to become brand ambassador for Beams Suntory. 

Back when he arrived Richie Fawcett was making drinks at Koh Tai, then he led a young bar team to successfully open Sorae, and then he was manager of Shri, and later he helped open the uber-cool, but now closed down, neo-Tokyo dive bar Hyde.

Richie Fawcett only makes occasional detours back to the bar.

“Now making drinks is an occasional detour for me,” Richie Fawcett says modestly about appearing behind cocktail bars as a special guest as he did recently at Summer Experiment. He’s not counting his own secret speakeasy Studio Saigon (technically there’s no bar to get behind there anyway). In fact, most of the time you’ll find him out front in his one-room gallery obsessively inking in a new piece – a Khmer temple, or a Saigon street scene, or a view from a District 1 rooftop. He does throw the occasional “very private invitation-only party” but more often he’ll use the bar for a quick afternoon nap before returning to his desk. 

Hajime Tadano has created one of Saigon’s most timeless bars, The First.

Hajime Tadano had arrived slightly earlier in 2008. The chef (he wasn’t a full-time bartender yet) worked in a Japanese restaurant owned by The Dragon group in the shadow of Centec Tower “serving ramen, beef, sake, the usual”. When, four years later, the restaurant closed he took the lease on a building a couple of doors down. And he called it The First after his own name, Hajime, which means ‘the first’ in English. It’s been the go-to spot for classic cocktails for as long as most people here remember. And you’ll still be lucky to land a seat at the downstairs bar even after eight years of being open.

Hajime is proud of the menu at The First. He frequently, and with some justification, claims to make the best curry rice in town. But that’s just a small part of his long menu that goes from izakaya food to Japanese-Italian, to fresh oysters in the space of a few pages. “I try to carefully manage everything from the choice of ingredients to the careful selection of proper cooking methods,” he smiles. The First is an institution, and it’s led him to open Osouzai in Saigon’s Takashimaya Center (on floor B2 in case you get lost) “where you can pick up traditional Japanese food including bento box lunches for eating in or take out, and healthy handmade tofu, soy milk, salads, and grilled fish.”

For now, we’re more interested in his drinks. “I think we have over 200 options, beer and sake imported directly from Japan, classic cocktails, of course, and lots of whiskey from around the world.” At our shoot he brings along a rare (and rather expensive) 21-year-old-Hibiki in a ceramic decanter to prove his dedication to the spirit. 

“Growing up in Osaka, I guessed being a bartender was simply about pouring sake. Only when I began to learn the craft did I realize that this very challenging profession required much more that dispensing sake. Bartenders are not liquor making robots. My rigorous training has led me to try to be the best bartender for each customer and to serve them all distinctly…”

Richie Fawcett, Thanh Tung and Hajime Tadano [from top left to bottom].

As true bartending originals, can you plot a timeline of all the bars that have been game-changers during your time here?

Richie Fawcett: In that pre-Chill era there was Au Parc and The Refinery, both restaurants. We had to take what we could get. Then Shri Rooftop opened in 2010. Koh Thai which I came over to kickstart and Chill Sky Bar both opened in 2011. The following year was kind of flat. The market was too young and its focus was beer clubs like Vuvuzela. Snuffbox, one of Saigon’s first speakeasies, opened in 2013. Then Sorae, with me setting up the bar in 2014. In 2015, it was quiet too — lots of planning, lots of waiting for the market to blossom. 

The following year, 2015 and into 2016, was a big year. Qui Lounge and Envy opened. The market began its forward momentum. The following year I left Shri and opened The Studio Saigon. And 2018 was rooftop bar after rooftop bar. In 2019, Bam Bam opened. And it blew up. And it felt like every bartender in town was opening their own place. Half closed almost immediately. Then came COVID and a load of single-origin, Insta-ready coffeeshops opened where the bars used to be…

Thanh Tung: Yes, I think Quo Lounge changed the bar scene in Vietnam a lot. Besides that, I think The Rabbit Hole deserves a mention. That wonderful basement speakeasy opened in 2017. And then in 2019 and 2020 were two really important bars you didn’t mention, Hybrid in Nha Trang and Yugen in Saigon…

Thanh Tung shaking it up.

Where did you use to hang out when you first came to Saigon?

Thanh Tung: My favourite place back in the day was Chill Sky Bar. It was one of the first high-end sky bars around and being out in the open gave you these amazing views of Saigon especially during sunset.

Richie Fawcett:  Like Tung, I remember the scene around the time Chill Sky Bar opened. Things were completely different then. Nights started at the Martini Bar at the Park Hyatt. And they went rapidly downhill from there – maybe to Apocalypse Now or Go2 when that closed. It was like put your fucking hands up or go home…that was it. Luckily Blanchy’s Tash opened and I made that my home for the next three years…

Hajime Tadano: Honestly? I used to go to the bars of five-star hotels, places like Martini Bar at Park Hyatt Saigon or Saigon Saigon at Caravelle Saigon, to study how they made drinks…and to test a few.

I remember bars were a very male place. Very few bars had a gentle or hip jazzy soundtrack, bartenders weren’t very characterful…there weren’t that many interesting bars in general at all. Now there are a lot, and thankfully women frequent them a lot, either alone or with friends, which balances things out a bit.

What’s your favorite personal cocktail creation that incorporates local ingredients? And what’s your favourite that someone else made?

Thanh Tung: My favorite personal cocktail is called Baby Corn. I used this recipe in the World Class Competition in 2014. The ingredients consist of rum, pandan leaf, Thai basil, coconut water, and pineapple… 

My favorite cocktail created by someone else is the Pink Me Up by Neung Ronnaporn. He created it because he felt there weren’t any rum-based cocktails that were the equivalent of a Bloody Mary. 

Richie Fawcett: There are 45 recipes in my new book, Cocktail Art Of Saigon Drinks Manual Volume II. As in the first volume, the inspirations all come from the city and streets of Saigon. But if I had to choose one it would be The Studio Saigon Gin Fizz.

As I mentioned, I don’t get out too much anymore so I haven’t tried many new cocktails out there. However, I did have a fantastic Roku Gin cocktail from Thanh Tung at the recent Gin Festival at the Caravelle…and I’m not just saying that because he’s here.

Three legendary Saigon bartenders getting down to business.

Speakeasy bars were a big trend here a couple of years ago then maybe party lounges. What’s the next big trend?

Richie Fawcett: Hole-in-the-wall bars. We’ll go more and more underground.

Thanh Tung: It’s probably going to be modern cocktail bars, or super opulent high-end concept bars… 

Catch Thanh Tung popping up around town or hanging out at his old haunt Qui Lounge.

Can you tell us about your dream 24 hours eating and drinking in Saigon?

Thanh Tung: First up, I would have breakfast. I’d get banh mi chao at Cao Thang Street. Then, I would have a cup of hot coffee in a branch of Cong Ca Phe. The one at 129 Bui Vien would do. It’s surreal there in the morning, a party street that comes to life after dark that’s just waking up. 

For lunch, I’d head over to the legendary Cuc Gach Quan, in District 1’s Dakao Ward, for a Vietnamese home-cooked style lunch. Later I’d revive, and go to ROS – Dining and River Lounge. There, I’d order a cocktail upstairs while looking out across the Saigon river…and wait for happy hour at Chill Sky Bar. When the clock strikes 5pm I’d go over and have more cocktails taking in the urban views at the top of AB Tower. 

Then it’s dinner time. I’d go to The Ox Not Only Ox for some more elevated Vietnamese cuisine by Harold Ngo. After that, I’d head over to The Rabbit Hole for another drink. Kiddy Kawaii makes great cocktails (I know as we just teamed up at Gin Fest). Then, I’d head back to Qui Lounge to finish my day with my dear friends. 

Richie Fawcett: I usually wake up around 7 or 8am. I’ll go and eat pho at 59 Nguyen Du. It’s a place called Pho Bac. I’ve been going there for 10 years. It’s still the same. Then I need caffeine. I’ll make my own at The Studio Saigon and I’ll review and catch up on the latest commissions as I drink it which carries me through the day until I take a late lunch round the corner at the iconic Ngon Restauarant at 160 Pasteur Street. I’ll order Saigon Beer, pad thai, and some fish cakes. 

Then I’ll wander back to the studio. I’ll continue sketching as darkness falls. Lately my evenings have been accompanied by a few gin and tonics with the new Alchemy Spirits Gin, Lady Trieu Delta Dry Gin. When I’m finished I’ll walk back to Japan Town where I’ll have a cup of cold sake from the fridge. And it’s lights out at 12. Then repeat…

Richie Fawcett deep in thought.

And which are the best bars and restaurants in Saigon right now?

Richie Fawcett: I’m choosing Anan, Quince, Ryu, and Summer Experiment…in no particular order.

Thanh Tung: And, besides The Rabbit Hole and Ox Not Only Ox, there’s a hidden place I like called Lost and Found.

Hajime Tadano: I really don’t have the chance to see so many places. Let me think. There’s the steak house, Il Corda, on Le Thanh Ton….

Hajime Tadano with his prized Hibiki.

What’s the first thing you drink when you get back to Saigon from out of town?

Thanh Tung: I would seek out a bottle of 333 on Bui Vien Street…

Richie Fawcett: For me, it would depend on the time of day (or night). It might be a cup of camomile tea, or a gin and tonic depending on the time I get back. 

The future’s bright for these legends in the game.

And finally, what’s in your fridge at home?

Thanh Tung: Some bottles of ready-prepared Negroni. And a lot of chocolate because I have the habit of eating chocolate while drinking a good Negroni…

Richie Fawcett: Lots of food for my son, Harry. There’s milk. And a bottle of sake. There’s some natural honey from the north of Vietnam, coriander, homemade cinnamon cordial, ants eggs — belonging to my wife — and some silk worms — again, which are also my wife’s. There’s half a grapefruit, a Buddha’s hand, and half a cold pizza…which might be my breakfast if I don’t make it to Pho Bac…

Photos by Nghia Ngo

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