Shaken not stirred - the rise of Vietnam’s bartending profession

5/3/2017| 1:15

Hoang Oanh talks to young bartenders in Vietnam to find out more about their passion for the job.

With the rapid growth of Vietnam’s tourism and hospitality industry bartending has become an attractive job, with many more prospects and exciting positions and destinations to work in. Many young people are choosing this path for its creative potential. 

Pham Ba Ly, bartender at Press Club Hanoi

Bartending ambition:to create unique cocktails with Vietnamese ingredients

Signature drink: “Com” cocktail - a cocktail made with young sticky rice

Awards: First prize in Bartender Vietnam 2015

While working as a waiter in a coffee shop eight years ago, I’d go out to bars and see bartenders impressing customers with their mixing and blending techniques. Desiring this recognition, I quit my job and started working at a bar. I worked with excitement and passion, but for the first four months the only jobs I was assigned were washing cups and make iced tea.

Bartenders tend to wake up late and leave work late. Dawn with us starts at 1 - 2pm and our working day ends at 3 or 4am. These unsocial working hours and the working environment can negatively impact bartenders.

I always work with passion and a desire to use traditional Vietnamese alcohol in all my cocktail recipes. Korea is famous for soju and Japan is known for sake, and I believe Vietnam should be proud of its sticky rice alcohol. While other bartenders use foreign liquors for blending, I choose only pure Vietnamese ingredients.

After eight years working and creating dozens of cocktail recipes, “Com” cocktail (also known as autumn young sticky rice cocktail) is the drink that I am most proud of and receives the most attention from my customers. The cocktail has a hint of com, reminiscent of the fragrance of Trang Tien ice-cream from the childhood of Hanoians. Com combines the sourness of bitter orange juice, the sweetness of honey, lingering wine mixed with the coolness of mint, and finally, the milky taste of com to pamper the tongue. The idea for ​​this cocktail originated one afternoon as I wandered the streets, listening to the public speaker broadcasting songs about autumn in Hanoi. This made a deep impression on me and I wanted to create a drink that was unique to Hanoi - the city that led me to become a bartender.

Dien Van Dung, bartender at Lotte Hotel Hanoi

Signature cocktail: Single Mom

Awards: First prize, Cocktail Competition Vietnam 2012; runner-up, Diageo World Class 2015

I was born in a poor area of the countryside in North Vietnam. My father left when I was three years old, leaving my mother to struggle alone bringing up five children. I felt distressed hearing my mother crying every night because her children didn’t have enough food to eat or warm clothes to wear. This inspired me to create Single Mom – the cocktail that helped me win second prize in the Diageo World Class 2015.

Besides Bulliet Bourbon whiskey, most of the ingredients I choose for blending remind me of my mother. The sweet white milky colour is reminiscent of star apples, corn milk - the gift of childhood my mother used to buy us every morning in the market and magnolia seeds, reminding me of the hot trays of rice served when I was a child.

Working as a bartender has helped me to become more confident and have a better life. I have worked in other jobs such as a waiter in a coffee shop, but only in preparing cocktails and other drinks have I found any real joy. To me, bartending is not simply a job but also a career that I will strive to get better at. There have been times when it was difficult, but my passion has always been the motivation for me to stay.

Nearly ten years of working as a bartender has given me many experiences, but the one that stands out and helped me mature is when I used the wrong ingredients in a customer’s drink. The customer didn’t create a big fuss, but he did tell me, "Customers are very important people. Although you are in a hurry, the first rule is always be careful."

Nguyen Duy Khanh, freelance bartender

From a dawdler to the most famous bartender in the North of Vietnam

Signature cocktail: Breath of Mu Cang

Award: Winner of the Bartender Performance Competition in the North of Vietnam 2014

I entered the bartending profession through the direction of my parents. Ten years ago, I was unfocused and lazy. My parents were anxious about my future and sent me to their friend’s coffee shop to work and avoid some friends who they felt were a bad influence. Thanks to this experience, I had the opportunity to enter the bartender industry and I fell in love with the job immediately.

I think a bartender's work does not stop at measuring ingredients to make perfect cocktails, it also requires the ability to bring new experiences to audiences. Therefore, I try to make the blending process a performance. The bartender at that time is like an artist trying to attract customers with both visuals and taste.

"Breath of Mu Cang" is a special drink I made after a trip to Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai province on a freezing day at the end of last year. Sitting by the fire, enjoying wine and grilled buffalo meat with “mac ken” seeds, I thought, why not make a cocktail originating from my hometown. The idea inspired me to create "Breath of Mu Cang" with the main ingredients being apple cider wine and mac ken seeds. I hope that anyone who tries this drink can experience a taste of the northwest.

Pham Tien Tiep, bartender at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi and The “fifteen” guy famous for creating the “Pho” cocktail

Signature: “Pho” Cocktail

Award: Champion of Diageo Reserve World Class 2012, CEO at Bartender Nê Class training centre, Owner of The Unicorn Pub

I grew up in a poor family and had to quit school before grade 9. I had the chance to study music in Hanoi and applied to work as a waiter at a bar to cover my expenses. Seeing the bartender dancing with glasses and bottles to create drinks for guests, I realised that music was just a temporary inspiration, and that bartending was my real passion. However, becoming a bartender is not easy. In the beginning I spent all my earnings visiting various bars to try their drinks and find out how to mix them.

For a long time, the most difficult thing for me was to remember the names of wines. Bartending requires using English, but I hadn’t focused much on learning English before. I had to learn fast, by studying ten types of wine and five English words every day. This became so obsessive that I even read the cocktail recipes as well as the name, origin and characteristics of many wines in my dreams. Maybe that is why my friends used to call me "fifteen".

The idea of the “Pho” cocktail came from the desire to create new drinks showing the glamour of pho Hanoi. I spent a period of time working in a pho restaurant where I discovered that pho is made from a combination of aniseed, cardamom, cinnamon, spicy pepper and fragrant coriander. After that, I started experimenting with Tanqueray Gin with lemon and grapefruit as these were suitable for Pho. This cocktail, tasting of pho and served with a plate of chili and thought to be “crazy idea”, brought me the championship at the Diageo Reserve World Class Vietnam 2012.

Through more than ten years experience, I have had the opportunity to train in many places. I think the bartending profession in Vietnam is developing. However, many bartenders are unemployed or can not stay in the profession because they earn a low income. I would like to set up a bartender association to connect my colleagues as well as open a bartender training class and coordinate with some bar owners to create more employment opportunities. I believe to pursue this career, the most important thing is to be confident and creative.

By Hoang Oanh