Elijah Ferrian talks with Richie Fawcett about his new book Cocktail Art of Saigon, and gets a tour of the most storied streets and corners of Ho Chi Minh City from a comfy seat at the bar. Photos by Vinh Dao.
If you have just arrived in Saigon, and have never been here before, you might as well head straight to Shri Restaurant and Lounge to grab a copy of Richie Fawcett’s new book. You’ll end up having one of the most creative history lessons you could possibly experience here.
His new book Cocktail Art of Saigon is a grand-tour of the city . No need for hopping on a motorbike, and best of all, you get to sip a drink for your troubles. Grab a seat on the rooftop and peer out over Ho Chi Minh City.
Fawcett’s work is a cocktail menu for Shri in the form of an illustrated book outlining the cultural history of Ho Chi Minh City. If someone would have told me about this idea before I experienced it, I admit I would have been skeptical. Cocktail Art of Saigon speaks for itself, and it does so fabulously.
“So, what we’ve got is the areas of the city in cocktail bottle form, premixed with small-batch-made, natural ingredients,” Fawcett says. “For instance, lychee and ginger forms the taste profile for Ben Thanh, because they sell these items around that area. It’s a lively drink, based on a shrub, a vinegar based, acidulated beverage commonly used in batched cocktails in lieu of fruit juice acids.”
The drinks come neatly packed in mini soda bottle form, and are presented in a metal carrying case with the book as the visual guide to their stories. The whole six-bottle-set is priced at VND320,000, and it’s just simply fun and engaging.
The six cocktails are based on the areas of Ba Son (peach and vanilla), Ben Thanh (lychee and ginger). Thao Cam Vien (cucumber and elderflower), Dinh Doc Lap, District 1 (almond and cherry), and the all-encompassing city of Saigon (smoked barbeque).
The drinks are well-balanced, and scale from fruity and easy drinking, to complex, vegetal, and hearty. Now, the cocktails are great and all, but the real star of the show is this book and the immense amount of effort and time cast into it.
“This book is basically five years in the making,” Fawcett beams. “I’ve always wanted to develop a concept that would be attractive to tourists. A launchpad for tourist experience. I was here a year before I started figuring out what to do with the drinks and such. This was a personal challenge to make a statement, and admittedly, kind of intense putting my art and my love of drink all into one neat little package.”
Richie’s drawings are fantastic. When he told me he really only started illustrating around five years ago, I couldn’t believe it. He has developed impeccably detailed renditions of some of the most iconic alcoves of Saigon, all wrapped up in a style that is very much his own.
There’s so much thought put into every detail. There’s a repeating illustration throughout each cocktail page that shows what each drink is going to taste like. Little doodles and inside jokes for the wandering eye. Historic lessons and anecdotes peppered through every page.
Fawcett offers up each recipe for the cocktails, and the featured bottles are only the beginning. The entirety of the book is packed with 41 cocktails, paying homage to 41 years of peace after the war. Each drink is served like a story.
One of the aspects of the whole premise that really shows how cool this concept is, centers around how the historic and cultural lessons outlined by the menu offer the staff an opportunity to connect with their guests in a deeper sense.
Not only is it fun to be served a freshly shaken Nguyen Trai cocktail out of a faux-designer handbag with smoke billowing out of the top, but Vietnamese servers and bartenders are also able to share their nation’s proud history while doing their job.
“The future of cocktails is being identified with the people that drink them, and these days people are worldly, and they are asking for an emotion attached to a narrative for each drink,” Fawcett explains. “I realised this quite a few years ago. To connect storytelling and narrative with this medium. Giving the staff a story of their own country.”
“Our staff can talk to the guest about the story of Vietnam. In many cases they are learning their history still as well. The foreigners may not care, but the local Vietnamese find it so interesting. For them to get involved in their own culture is just a great effect of this whole process.”
Each time a drink is set down in front of me, I watch while the bartender glows and gets to explain not just what the drink is, but why it is being served nestled on the back of a turtle with a plastic sword rising high over the glass.
Cocktail Art of Saigon performs as combination art book, restaurant menu, and slice of Vietnamese history seamlessly. It’s honestly a phenomenal work, and Fawcett seems to have enough material from wandering the streets and alleys of Saigon, drawing what he sees, to publish two or three more of the works.
“We’re trying to do something more. It’s cocktail, people, and story development,” Fawcett says. “Bars and restaurants are the modern day campfire. Stories are told and dramas are played out under the glow of neon and candle.”
Cocktail Art of Saigon will be opened by Shri Restaurant and Lounge for VND500,000.