Local Herbs, Chili and Salt – Cocktails You Should Be Drinking in Vietnam

Gerry Flynn being served a drink

Apparently it’s no longer acceptable to slump in a dilapidated bathtub in the garden clad in yesterday’s underwear while drinking hard liquor from the bottle. RIP Good Times, it’s been real. No, everyone’s a gastro show-pony nowadays. Londoners love their cocktails as much as they hate seeing me in my underwear and I’ve been forced to concede – with age – that the bathtub whiskey sessions have seen their last days. That still doesn’t mean I’m willing to sell my organs on the black market in order to meet the monetary requirements of the London cocktail scene. Londoner’s have been busy adding a variety of Delia Smith approved organic, celiac-friendly, gluten-free mollycoddled ingredients to a perfectly good whiskey, but Hanoi has been giving them a run for their precious money. Unlike London, bars in Hanoi don’t turn their customers on to the oldest profession in the world so they can afford to drink.

In short, let the trendy wankers spend a small fortune on a drink, I’ll take the vehicular mayhem of Hanoi any day of the week, especially given some of the hidden gems for cocktails are littered all over the city. HOT TABLE caught up with some friendly bartenders to get to grips with the up and coming cocktail trends that are sweeping the city.

Xuan Dieu - owner at Unicorn Bar

Xuan Dieu – owner of Unicorn Bar.

The Unicorn Pub

Tucked away off Yen Phu, The Unicorn Pub is a personal favourite – at once cosy and inviting, it’s a fine spot to do some liver damage with some bizarre drinks. There’s an appreciation for the intricacies of cocktails at The Unicorn and so I began my enquiries here.

“We’ve got 15 more cocktails coming for Spring – seasonal drinks that fit with the changing weather, I can’t say too much about it, but we’ve got an Early Grey infused cocktail coming, along with one involving dates, chestnuts, pumpkin syrup and of course, gin.” The ever-chirpy Xuan Dieu – owner and head bartender at Unicorn – treated me to a few drinks as she explained their upcoming menu and trends we’re likely to see.

Unicorn Bar cocktails

“We mostly sell signature cocktails here, the Pho cocktail, Crazy Hanoi Traffic and the Clam Sour are still the most popular, we work with the demands of the customers rather than trends, but I like my staff to feel free to experiment.”

One of London’s latest cool-kid cocktail ingredients is allegedly salt. Not just in the decorative Margarita sense, but as a means to controlling the flavour and disguising the brutality of the alcohol. Did Xuan subscribe to such fanciful methods? “Of course! We actually make our own salt here, we have one salt infused with thyme leaves, one infused with chilli – that goes into the Crazy Hanoi Traffic – and one more kind of salt that’s infused with a variety of fried Vietnamese herbs for our more unique cocktails.”

Something I’ve always wanted to ask a bartender and never quite had the balls to ask – which cocktail is the biggest pain in the arse to make? “The Summer Island takes a long time to prepare, it’s got a giant ball of ice and we want it to look presentable, which is tough when it’s busy. Otherwise, Margaritas – they need so much shaking to taste right and your arms start to ache by the end.”

For the record The Summer Island is a veritable work of art and worth the hassle.

Chopsticks bartender

Chopsticks – Hanoi Old Quarter’s latest addition its bar scene.

Chopsticks

Slap bang in the palpitating heart of the Old Quarter, Chopsticks have been toying with new cocktail ideas courtesy of bar manager, Tran Van Tien. “We’ve noticed that the classic cocktails are our most popular, people know these, they’re familiar with them and so on a Friday or Saturday night they know what they’re getting into.”

Tran notes that while there are trends that come and go in terms of cocktails, “Remember when Espresso Martinis were everywhere?” but prefers to go with what the customers are looking for. “The ingredients we use most frequently? Probably a lot of fruits native to Vietnam, ginger, lemongrass – mostly things we have easy access to here in Hanoi.” What about salt like my London brethren, I enquired, “Not really – beyond a Margarita, it’s not that great for classic cocktails.” That settles that then.

Making Cocktails at Chopsticks

Cocktail at Chopsticks

As for what Tran hates having to serve, “Anything involving the blender. Frozen Margaritas are the worst! Customers can tell if you get it wrong too, so you can’t cut corners, but I always taste the cocktails before they go out to customers.”

Ne Cocktail Bar - Barman

Nê – An award winning Hanoi-based bar known for its cocktails.

Nê Cocktail Bar

Pham Tien Tiep knows more about cocktails than I could ever dream of and with 12 years of experience, a host of senior positions with five star hotel bars and a spot in the 2012 list of Top 50 Bartenders IN THE WORLD, he seemed like the right man to speak to. Nê is everything a cocktail bar should be, decadent, cosy and loaded with blues and booze. Named after his son and his favourite cocktail – a Negroni – Nê was a fine place to conclude my investigation. Pham explained candidly, “We aim to be different, most bars – they follow the global trends, but Nê wants to set Vietnamese trends. We want to use Vietnamese ingredients to show that Vietnam can compete with the rest of the world when it comes to making cocktails.”

Ne Cocktail

On the use of salt, he concurred that it has a place, but then went on to detail the variety of more home-grown ingredients that bring the flavours of Vietnam straight from the street food into the cocktail lounge, “We have a Vietnamese Bloody Mary, a Fish Sauce Cocktail – Under the Bridge using the dipping sauce from snails, lemongrass, kumquat, ginger, botanical herbs and fruits we hope it shows Vietnam can create unique and impressive cocktails.”

Pham’s love for cocktails doesn’t extend to the Bloody Mary, “We maybe sell one a month so this means having all of the fresh ingredients in stock all of the time, but it’s a classic cocktail so we can’t really take it off the menu, we are after all a cocktail bar.”

Ne Cocktail - Bloody Mary

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