It’s that time of year in Saigon when I’m caught in another early-evening monsoonal downpour at traffic lights somewhere between home and what feels like nowhere.
Before me is a mangle of motorbikes, cars and pedestrians jockeying to get through a flooded intersection swirling with grey water.
Thank God it’s dark because I’m less than eager to see what’s lapping at the underside of my motorcycle.
Reluctantly, I put a foot down to maintain balance through the throng before continuing on my way to my appointment.
Boy, do I need a drink.
It just so happens that tonight I’ve been invited by Richie Fawcett for a sneak preview of Hyde Bar & Lounge before its official opening.
Hyde is the latest cocktail bar in Saigon he’s had a hand in launching, and there have been quite a few.
The last 12 months have been a watershed (no pun intended) year of sorts for cocktail bars in Vietnam’s most dynamic city.
Bars like Drinking & Healing, Chin Chin Bar, Below, Alley 50, Rabbit Hole, ATM and others have arrived on the scene giving cocktail geeks more to get excited about.
Even the iconic Q Bar has reopened in Saigon, albeit quite a distance from its original location under the Opera House.
Things are fast becoming survival of the fittest. Who will survive?
When I arrive at Hyde, I’m in a frazzle, as is often the case after a commute in heavy traffic and rain. What I notice as I enter is that things slow down. I had scampered to the door, now I find myself sauntering through it. It’s like I’ve been harnessed to a large invisible elastic band and it’s gently pulling me in-tune with the venue’s tempo.
The Hyde in me is progressively being overcome by my Jeckyll.
It’s dark in here, partly because my eyes need time to adjust from the basement lights and the glare in the lifts during the ride up, but mostly because it’s the way the owners want it.
The main lighting source comes from pink, blue and red neon signs written in kanji and hiragana — two of the three Japanese writing scripts — from behind frosted glass panelling along one wall.
The effect is that you might just catch yourself thinking you’re sitting inside a Shinjuku cocktail bar down a dark, gritty alleyway on a wet, wintery evening. It’s not too unlike a bar scene from a Wong Kar Wai movie.
What’s actually concealed is a concrete wall on top of an inner-city corporate tower block. It’s clever.
However, the centrepiece of Hyde is its bar – naturally – and it sits literally in the centre of the space, lit up like a sushi station in a downtown Tokyo sushiya san with its “halo” of light hovering above, looking otherworldly.
Given the attention to detail at this place, it shouldn’t have surprised me that there’s a small sushi station behind the bar, but it did.
Then it had me half expecting a “sushi train” laden with sashimi would round the end of the bar at any moment.
In some respects, the bar might easily be imagined as a UFO touching down with its rounded corners at each end, ethereal lighting and bar stools anchoring it in place.
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There’s something Stranger Things or perhaps David Lynch happening here, whether that’s intended or not, I don’t know.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty here for the keen observer.
They’ll notice how cool the ceiling looks and the messages engraved in Japanese on the bar tops at random intervals.
Above all, it just feels like they’ve got the feng-shui right. And it’s a novelty to be able to look across the bar and not see yourself reflected back at you from a mirror.
Hyde lends itself to socialising.
But that’s about as futuristic as this place gets because this is already the future. Saigon nightlife is in the grip of, dare I say, Japanese fever.
It’s not uncommon to hear young bug-eyed bartenders tell you that “our concept is omakase.”
I’m told the verb makasu in Japanese translates to entrust in English, so the idea behind omakase (the ‘o’ is honorific) service is that the experience brings guest and bartender closer together, so that guests then “entrust” their bartenders to come up with a drink that best suits their tastes and state of mind, well, in theory at least.
At Hyde, the owners entrusted Richie to expand on a brief that emphasised Japanese, tattoos and something never seen before in Saigon with the drinks menu.
They chose the right person for the job.
Richie’s not one to shy away from experimentation. After all, he’s the man who brought us the Nguyen Trai, a cocktail served in a handbag named after the popular shopping street in central Saigon, the Ba Son Shipyard served in a galleon with dry ice flowing over its decks, and the eponymously named Pasteur cocktail after the French chemist who still has a street named in his honour in Saigon, which is served in a milk bottle with matching straw.
Each signature cocktail at Hyde comes with an explanation, its ingredients and how it’s made.
For instance, the Butterfly cocktail made from gin, sake lees (a by-product of sake production), Aperol, sparkling wine and a dusting of liquorice powder arrives with all the hallmark flair you would expect, that is, in a red and black wooden lacquered box with dry ice coursing over the top and onto the bar.
The butterfly symbolises beauty, rebirth, metamorphosis and change, things that many of us living here in Saigon — local or not — can relate to one way or another.
Just as ostentatious is the Phases of the Moon cocktail, again made with gin, but this one comes with a spoonful of sake, white Vermouth, sparkling wine and seven drops of sesame seed oil served in a coupe glass standing on a black box.
A plastic “slider” with the phases of the moon in it can be pulled back and forth revealing each phase, while beneath, “moonlight” radiates up illuminating the luna-looking drink as wisps of dry ice flow about the universe.
The Phases of the Moon represents change, circles, life, and karma. Theatrics aside, the drink is a fine example of how something that smells like food, doesn’t have to taste like it.
For some, the smell of sesame is a turn off in a cocktail, but in this, it can’t be tasted. It just requires you to have the courage to go beyond your comfort zone in order to understand.
Much like many aspects of life, really.
There’s no question that Hyde is one of a kind in Saigon, from the drinks to the decor to the ambiance and its tattoo concept (I’ve never seen an airbrush behind a bar before), which makes it an exciting addition to Saigon’s nightlife scene.
It would indeed be a strange case if it weren’t to succeed.
Hyde Bar & Lounge is at 93 Nguyen Du, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
For more information, go to Hyde Bar & Lounge Facebook page