Elijah Ferrian decided someone needs to write about the origin of this favorite watering hole for locals and foreigners alike. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Before 1975, Nguyen Thi Nam supplied Ruou rum to small bars all over Saigon. At her family’s home, in 1948, what is now commonly known as “the Rum bar” began as a simple supplier of Ruou to various bars and establishments across the city. After the fall of Saigon, some people began to ask her if she would sell her spirits to customers and allow them to drink on the premises.
This location hasn’t changed since the day she agreed to let some locals pull up a chair and sip on her family’s secret recipe. Ruou, a Vietnamese sugar cane-based spirit, has many different iterations. The typical definition of rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation.
The stuff here is, thankfully, watered down a bit, seeing as an entire bottle will only set you back VND100,000. It’s still an interesting spirit, being a self-ascribed rum nerd myself, and they serve it with a soda of your choice for mixing, a big chunk of ice, and a bowl of fresh green calamondin (the little citrus fruits that people incorrectly call kumquats). It’s probably one of the best cocktails in the city for the money, and it is always a great time, because you will be surrounded by people from all walks of life.
It might be one of the best places to catch the mixture of Westerners exploring what it’s like to live like a Saigonese, and the locals laughing at the foreigners drinking a deceiving brown liquid a bit too quickly.
There’s simple food served here. Fried pig intestines (VND95,000) and chicken wings (VND95,000) with fish sauce. There’s a really solid sauteed beef dish with chillies and vinegar for VND95,000, as well.
Nguyen Thi Nam tells me: “First my grandmother started this business. My mother was only five when this started, now she is 80, and it is still operating. They have been making Ruou as a family for quite a while. The recipe and business has been passed down from mother to mother for three generations. Sadly, my children don’t want to run this business, so I may be the last generation to keep it running. My children work in an office, in more modern jobs.”
This is yet another sad story adding to many others about distinctly Vietnamese places like this that are going to keep disappearing as Vietnam turns their economy over to a more global market. If her children decide to not continue the business, she will just give it up, and not sell it to anyone.
There’s a new cafe opening its doors soon on the same corner. This will undoubtedly cut into the valuable sidewalk space that countless plastic chairs spill out onto in the evening. Putting a strain on an already worried family.
There may be a short amount of time left to bond with your Saigonese pals with a bottle of Vietnamese rum, amid laughter and cheer reaching across both culture and class.