The Library: Prohibition-era Nightlife Right in the Heart of Saigon
After a long 10-hour work day full of crying, kicking and screaming, from me, not my students, I just wanted to kick back and relax in bed. My boyfriend was witness to how emotionally draining the week had been for me and suggested that I may sleep better after a drink or two. He had to convince me, not because I didn’t want a drink, but sometimes the nightlife in Saigon on a Saturday night is just too much of the things you don’t want: the chaos, the crowds, excessively loud music. It really is just too much.
But I gave in. Dressed up in my leather jacket and gold-studded peep-toe heels. My partner and I made our way to The Library: a once-a-month pop-up bar at the top of SHRI Restaurant & Lounge.
Upon arriving to Centec Tower on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai in District 3, we were quietly escorted through the quiet lobby of this business building to the elevators and up to the 23rd floor. I really wasn’t sure what to expect once the elevator doors opened. Would it be complete madness with strobe lights shooting from every corner of the room? Would people be drunkenly stumbling across the floor? The elevator door opened. It’s calm, casual, with a bit of muffled music in the distance.
As we walked past SHRI Restaurant & Lounge two charming, dapper, clean-cut men dressed neatly and polished with suspenders guide us towards a looming wall of bookshelves filled with ancient tomes. Slide open the sides of the unassuming bookcase wall and you are lead into... The Library, Saigon’s most interesting speakeasy.
Hear me out. Before you get annoyed of the numerous self-proclaimed speakeasy pop-ups sprawling around the city, The Library offers something truly special. It brings a proper understated coolness without the pretentious crowd, and thankfully, The Library isn’t annoying the way you may encounter a speakeasy elsewhere in the world. You don’t need to do a secret entrance ritual like clap 4 times-snap-shimmy-and give a drop of your first-born’s blood.
I don’t know about most people, but I find it difficult to enjoy the nightlife here simply because I just can’t stand VinaHouse with the speakers about 30 decibels too high. To give you an idea of what 30 decibels too high is like, according to WikiHow, 90 decibels is “likely to cause hearing damage after lengthy exposure” and 120 is “usually immediately painful,” which is exactly what happens every time I’m socially obligated to show up at another Saigon dance club. The repetitive, intense beats quickly become a little tedious and leaves me weary. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for everything, but living in Vietnam has had me yearning for something different.
At The Library, there is a subtle swagger that fills the air between the music, the people, and the ice clanking against the steel bar shakers. It’s like walking into the type of room where you might find Rick James, Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogan casually sitting in the corner chatting away, or Jimi Hendrix and Freddie Mercury comfortably lounging on the deep, crimson red velvet sofa, which lines the side of the bar. I imagine Amy Winehouse smoking her cigarette between sips of her Rickstasy cocktail as she’s listening to Dizzy Gillespie chime in with his musical improvisation.
The Library, like the celebs imagined behind this place, is a whimsical, light marrying of hip hop funk, and jazz, yet somehow still very sultry. And the men setting the tone for tonight’s pop up event? Juan Anthony’s impromptu trumpet notes dances and add layers to Miroslav Sakazov a.k.a. MAD BEAR on the turntable with bottles of Macallan lining the wall behind him. It had people dancing and bopping with a carefree atmosphere. No one was concerned about anyone else or the fact that there is a random oversized stuffed bear in the room, or random lights strung across the ceiling. It’s no nonsense, nonsense fun.
Drink menus were discreetly disguised on the cover of hardbound books and offered an intriguing collection of cocktails. Seven signature drinks were featured on their menu like Raspberry Martini - a raspberry vodka mixed with raspberry liqueur and raspberry puree, or a Classic Bramble - gin, fresh lemon juice, and sugar syrup laced with crème de cassis.
After people-watching, we decided to make our way to the bar where two gentlemen, Thomas and Paolo, known for their years of experience as bartenders in one of the world’s most prime hot spots, were shaking it up and slinging cocktails for guests. Paolo and Thomas worked parallel in London at well-known bars such as LAB, Hoxton, Pony, Embassy, Sketch, Kingly Club, 10 Rooms, Momo’, and Kosmopol, among many others.
You’ve heard it all over the place. Mixology. Mixologist. But do not mistaken The Library to be one of those places that over-promise and underdeliver. Thomas and Paolo were manning the bar like the kind of bartenders you’d find long before hipsters coined the term “mixologist.” With 7 special cocktails listed on their menu priced at around VND 150,000 a glass, I aligned myself in front of Thomas, who happens to be General Manager of SHRI Restaurant & Lounge, and asked him to mix me something off the menu. With the kindest smile, “lets make you a Pornstar Martini.” Amused. I nodded for him to proceed.
He added each bespoke ingredient and shook two steel tumblers effortlessly, while having a very honest and frank conversation about his vision for SHRI and, specifically The Library. We’re asking him questions. He’s grabbing a bottle. He asks his staff to grab another bottle of vodka. He’s answering us. He’s answering them. Yet, he has everything under cool control despite having so much action going on around him. And within a few minutes, he sets in front of me a beautiful soft pink-hued martini and a shot of sparkling wine, which Thomas explains releases that perfect blend of vanilla vodka and passion fruit puree.
Thomas was nothing short of entertaining. He had a certain swagger about himself that made you curious how this man, who carried himself so neatly and was so well-travelled, made Saigon his home. His impressive background in developing multiple establishments in the food and beverage industry around the world like Bali and Dubai, where it earned him accolades and respect amongst his peers. So what brings him to a place like Saigon, why Saigon? Aside from having familial connections from his Swedish-Vietnamese background, “Saigon is an exciting, vibrant place full of potential to experiment and play with different ideas,” he shares enthusiastically. There’s more ahead for SHRI that we can look forward to!
So what’s a girl to do when she’s confronted with one of the greats in the business? She asks for an old-fashioned, of course. Would he disappoint me as I’ve been so underwhelmed by mistakenly expecting a proper old-fashioned in Saigon previously? “The problem is that people take shortcuts for a drink that requires time with things like simple syrup, which makes the drink lose a bit of that texture in an old-fashioned,” he divulges as he muddles the bitters against the cube of sugar until it dissolves. I’m not sure what voodoo spirit left his fingers and made its way into my glass, but it is easily the best old-fashioned I’ve ever had. It is uncomplicated in its presentation, but greets my senses with the intoxicating air of tingling orange zests before I sip on that Kentucky straight bourbon. Is there anything better?
The Secret to Atmospheric Magic
So what makes this mysterious monthly pop-up event work so well? “It’s all about having the right mix: a DJ, live artist, and a performer,” Rebecca Morris, Event Producer of The Library informs me. As someone who has lived in Saigon for many years and witnessed this city develop and progress into what it is now, Rebecca can testify to the gap in Saigon’s nightlife that The Library fills. In the past, The Library has hosted live musicians featuring sounds from the flute, violin, upright bass, and accordion just to name a few and have had live performances or acts such as tarot card readers, magicians, drag queens, and bop readers. Indeed, it does create a place unlike any other.
If you’re looking for something different, The Library is hosting its next event on Saturday 14th December 2019 from 9 PM – 1 AM,
The event will feature an illusionist who plays with levitation. Just look for the lads in suspenders by the bookcase.
Image source: Shri Restaurant and Lounge