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Our predictions for Saigon’s drinking scene in 2019

Zero-waste, craft, neon, Japanese & themed bars

Whoa there a moment. Just because it’s 2019 already, doesn’t mean it’s the new year yet.

What are we talking about?

In our part of the world, the new year hasn’t technically arrived until Lunar New Year, or Tet as it’s known in Vietnam. The first day of the new year begins when the new moon appears between January 21 and February 20.

This year, Tet falls in the first week of February, so that has given us a little more time to get our predictions together for what and how you’ll be drinking in Saigon in 2019.

We have five of them.

Zero-Waste Cocktails

In 2018, much of the trash talk in the bar industry globally centred on single-use plastics, specifically plastic straws in drinks. It was no different in Vietnam. Last year proved that bar culture in Vietnam is keeping pace (or near enough to) with the rest of the world. We witnessed bars go postal on plastic straws in favour of stainless steel, paper, bamboo or grass ones.

Who turned the screws on who? Was it consumers pressuring bars into change, or was it the other way round? Whatever the case, it was change for the better.

Think root-to-flower-to waste

In 2019, we expect that some bars in Saigon will go one step further and start offering zero-waste cocktails, or what has been alternatively coined “closed-loop cocktails.”

Essentially this means that bars will begin repurposing their kitchen or bar scraps and turning them into ingredients for your drinks. Think root-to-flower-to-waste. Pulp, skins, seeds, leaves, stems and other goodness will more likely make their way into your drinks than landfill.

Already one bar in Saigon due to open soon has jumped on it and is planning to reduce their waste. It’s forward thinking because they’ll be prepared for when that first batch of customers comes in, sits down at the bar and asks, “ What’s on your zero-waste cocktail menu?” It’s a case of prepare or perish.

More Neon

Trends are cyclical, and so it seems is neon. Neon signs have been associated with bars pretty much since the end of Prohibition in the States when it was discovered that drinkers were drawn to them like moths to a flame.

In Western countries, neon signs lost their allure for a time when electric and digital versions became cheaper. Neon’s fall from favour can also be partly blamed on more nefarious reasons. Seedy establishments gradually became associated with neon, so it wasn’t good business sense for high-end cocktail bars to be blazing with neon lights.

Think neon and you’re reminded of the clack of billiard balls in a pool hall

Still, for many of us, neon conjures up nostalgia, bringing back memories of what reflected more broader cultural trends of the time. Think neon and you’re reminded of the clack of billiard balls in a pool hall (The Colour of Money), ice rattling in shakers (Cocktail) and corny Top 40 hits (Power of Love).

Recently, retro has returned to popularity, with the Netflix series Stranger Things a prime example. In Saigon, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the trend of blazing neon signs in bars. In Drinking & Healing, they use it to great effect, although their decision to use the word ‘Nasty’ remains baffling. But hey, perhaps they’re just trying to appeal to the nostalgia in us.

Getting Craftier

Should we even bother mentioning that craft beer is still booming in Saigon?

2018 saw all the popular local brewers like Pasteur Street Brewing Co., Heart of Darkness, East West Brewing Co. and BiaCraft take things to the next level after a huge couple of years finding their feet.

HoD is being sold regionally – including in Japan and Hong Kong – and has a new tap room coming online in District 2 soon. East West has cornered the convenience store market across the country and is expanding, with reportedly a new brewery in the ‘beerline’, while BiaCraft continues on its merry way opening up outlets at will on all the best intersections in the city.

And you know what? We’re lapping it up, so expect more of the same in 2019.

Meanwhile, cold chain specialists and self-proclaimed ‘beerhunter’ extraordinaires Beervana, who burst onto the scene in Vietnam with a lavish beer cruise last year, will drown us with even more craft beer imports and gala VIP beer tasting events this year. Do you hear us complaining?

In terms of product, we expect the craft brewers to keep up with developments globally and perhaps brew more lagers as the double and triple IPA brews begin to lose favour among drinkers looking for something less hoppy.

Global trends suggest more sour beers, but in Vietnam we expect local drinkers to be looking for lower alcohol and perhaps lower carb beers which will give brewers greater opportunity to appeal to a growing market.

Don’t be surprised if you see collaboration between craft beer breweries and cocktail bars

Also, don’t be surprised if you see greater collaboration between craft beer breweries and cocktail bars. Until now, they’ve largely remained at arm’s length from each other – although some cocktail bars offer local craft beer on tap – but expect to see cocktail ‘collabs’ with craft beer used as an ingredient in signature cocktails. Newly-opened Irusu Lounge already has a cocktail on its list called Hola Sayonara (Hello Goodbye) featuring IPA and tequila.

Which brings us to gin and rum. If local craft beer brewers can do it, then why not craft gin and rum distillers, too? We already have Rhum Belami and Saigon Liquorists that we can call our own. Expect these guys to grab more of the spotlight (and market share) in 2019.

Now that Saigon has its own annual gin festival complementing Hanoi’s gin fest, before long we’ll be G&T-ing with local brands, mixed (hopefully) with locally-made craft tonics.

Nihon Desu Ne

Everything Japanese is cool again. Japanese cuisine and whiskey bars aren’t new to this city, just take a quick peek down the alleyways of Saigon’s Japan Town and you’ll see what we mean.

What began to emerge in 2018 were Japanese-style cocktail bars and lounges. Hyde Bar & Lounge, Renkon, Sake Central and Irusu Lounge have all been founded on the basis of Japanese-style food, beverages and design; they join Birdy as establishments hoping to attract Vietnamese with a fascination with the nation that brought us kawaii culture. We get the feeling there will be more love in 2019.

We get the feeling there will be more in 2019

As for drinks, Japanese distillers have historically built their reputation on whiskey and sake, less so with gin and vodka. However, now it’s becoming more common to see a bottle of Roku gin as it is a bottle of Hibiki or Yamazaki whiskey on Saigon bar shelves.

Will whiskey and Coke highballs become more of a ‘thing’ in Saigon? If Beam Suntory has its way, yes. But for now, it’s hard to see the signature cocktail craze being usurped just yet – maybe next year once everyone decides it’s time to get back to basics. For now, people are content to see a show with all the theatre.

Themed Bars

2019 will see the emergence of bars that extol the virtues of ‘escapist drinking’ where the rank and file get to escape their daily reality for just a little while.

Already the aptly-named Escape Lounge & Rooftop in District 2 is set to transport us to another era with a concept that will invite you to return to the romantic days of airlines, leggy hostesses and tiki-inspired drinks – yes, tiki. Mad Men anyone?

Finally, tiki will begin to return to Saigon nightlife, something we’ve been waiting for since Mogambo closed a number of years back, although we mostly went there because it was one of the few joints in town that served a decent burger. The closest thing we have to a tiki bar in Saigon at the moment (as far as we know) is Hien & Bob’s on Hai Ba Trung Street, but even that’s just hanging on.

We have the climate, the ingredients and the so-called laid back attitude that’s associated with tiki bars, so don’t be surprised if one or two pop-up this year or next. We can already smell the coconut and rum.

—All photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow him on Instagram at @palumbo_photo

The Bureau covers stories of interest to people living and travelling in Southeast Asia. We're always on the look out for interesting stories and things. Follow us on Facebook at @thebureauasia & Instagram at @thebureauasia

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