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Searching for the past: Three historic bars in Ho Chi Minh City

Searching for the past: Three historic bars in Ho Chi Minh City

 

I really didn’t love Ho Chi Minh City. It was my first experience of Vietnam, a country I’d heard was a slow burner, so maybe I should have started somewhere that was less of a brick to the face. But I was sucked in by my romantic ideas of Saigon…a town full of history with a seedy, decadent underbelly. The reality was the polar opposite. Obviously things have moved on and the name change isn’t all that’s different about Saigon these days. Ho Chi Minh City is a sweaty, traffic-choked, ostensibly unwelcoming, modern metropolis. It’s deeply pedestrian-unfriendly which, for someone who likes to walk, was often frustrating to the point of tears (trying to cross the road – any road – was a logistical nightmare and that’s before you add in the fact that people just drive their scooters on the pavement as well). This made exploring the city challenging – I really didn’t want to just Uber from place to place even though this is what I eventually ended up doing. The fact that I was in the grips of a morbid depression did not help matters.

So I decided to do what I usually do when things get tough on the road. Take it slowly, don’t put too much pressure on myself to “do everything” and seek out what’s likely to make me happy. In Ho Chi Minh City that was its fascinating history. Specifically, its drinking history. Like I said, I had this idea in my head that there the city had once been a hedonistic melting pot, where literary types like Graham Greene mixed with hard-bitten war reporters all trying to grapple with being in a strange, humid country; where the locals found themselves confronted by the unrelenting, shifting sands of politics. I was determined to get a taste of it by checking out three of its most historic hotel bars: the Rex, the Caravelle and the Hotel Continental. They were all located fairly close to each other, in District 1, which made things considerably easier – I could visit each place with only minimal risk of getting run over. That’s pretty much what my trip to Ho Chi Minh City had boiled down to at this point. Whether or not I might get my toes flattened by a swarm of mopeds…

The Rex
I checked out The Rex first. Built in the 1920’s, it became famous during the Vietnam War as the location of the American military command’s daily briefing. These came to be known as the Five O’Clock Follies because they were so far removed from what was actually going on out in the field. The rooftop bar was a popular haunt for reporters and US military-types. Nowadays the only “Five O’Clock Follies” you can find here is the Rex’s signature cocktail, made with vodka, rum, midori, mint and lime. The bar itself feels classy with that slightly raffish air you can expect from a place that used to host a bunch of war-weary journos. It’s a great spot to watch the sun set over Ho Chi Minh City and you can feel smug in the knowledge that you’re high above the heaving carnage below and you have a cold drink in your hand.

 

Hotel Continental
I had such high hopes for this one. The building is gorgeous – built in the French style at the end of the 19th century. It was apparently created to provide luxury accommodation for French travellers after the long journey to their new and exotic home. Somewhere along the way, something went terribly wrong because I can’t imagine anyone with even an ounce of Gallic style wanting to linger here now. Hell, I’m one of the least stylish people around – particularly when travelling – and even I was horrified. It felt like one of those sad, seaside hotels in the UK that are still inexplicably inhabited by pensioners and people “of a certain age” who are looking for comfort, not class, and who leap onto a well-regarded name like a tame monkey desperate for a secure branch. The decor could once have been called “ornate” but today just seems tired and naff – all pleats and frills and wedding-reception bows on the backs of chairs. It’s the kind of place your nan might visit when she wants a “nice” lunch out. Graham Greene is one of the most notable former guests but I imagine he would be hard pressed to find much to inspire him there today.

The Caravelle
This was the least inviting of all three hotels as far as outward appearances went, particularly as a tower block was tacked on to the original construction at a later date. However, it ended up being my favourite because the Saigon Saigon bar, on the roof of the old building, is a total gem. Decoratively, it buys into the whole Indo-China vibe more than the others with a black and white tiled floor, lacquered shutters and ceiling fans. Their cocktail list is also by far the most inventive and one that makes the most of Asian ingredients. I could have easily wasted the entire afternoon here, polishing off cocktail after cocktail, watching steamy Saigon sweat and shift below me as the sun sat low and fat in the sky. But, alas, I did not have the budget of the usual Caravelle guest so one cocktail had to suffice. Another hotel famous for its associations with the Vietnam War, it was partly blown up in 1964 and is known for the Caravelle Manifesto – a document written in 1960 criticising the South Vietnamese government and presented at a press conference held at the Caravelle.

Ho Chi Minh City is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a loud, chaotic, frustrating, uncomfortably humid, not particularly lovely to look at assault to the senses. But once you get to grips with the place there is also a lot to like. I still won’t go as far to say that I loved it, but I did eventually start to get underneath the skin and get a sense of both the city’s history and its bohemian streak. But that’s a whole other article….

What else to do in Ho Chi Minh City:
Visit the War Remnants Museum to understand the horror of the Vietnam War. Be warned: it’s arresting and potentially upsetting but it’s a must-see, not least to get an alternative perspective of events.
Eat all of the street food. All of it. That’s an order.
Walk down Bui Vien Street at night. It’s tacky and loud and touristy but you should experience it at least once in your life. This is the modern day seedy underbelly of Ho Chi Minh City.

Don’t do what I did:
Attempt to walk everywhere. You will get very hot. You will get very wet (either from rain or sweat). You will get pissed off with all the people on scooters. Ubers are cheap and plentiful so use them to get around.

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6 unmissable bars in Kuala Lumpur

6 unmissable bars in Kuala Lumpur

Bars in Kuala Lumpur are…secret and sophisticated

To be honest, Kuala Lumpur was never on my extremely rough itinerary. But a combination of circumstances led to me spending an inordinate amount of time there. My first impressions were not favourable. I thought the city was ugly, traffic-choked, smoggy and sweaty. Over time, however, I grew to love it. It may not be an obviously lovely place, unlike other capital cities, but it has a vibe about it that keeps tugging at your sleeve saying “there’s more to me than meets the eye”. It helps that the bar scene is excellent, especially if you’re a total boozehound like me. From glitzy roof top establishments in among the soaring skyscrapers to speakeasies that are genuinely tricky to find (unlike *cough* the ones in London *cough), the bars in Kuala Lumpur are just one reason why this city is so much more than just a convenient transit point.

Sky Bar
If you’re in KL for the first time, chances are you’ll want to head straight to one of the many rooftop bars for a glimpse of that famous skyline. Sky Bar, on the 33rd floor of Trader’s Hotel, is a good place to start. Unlike a lot of the rooftop bars in Kuala Lumpur, Sky Bar manages to be sophisticated without being snobby.There’s no dress code, meaning it’s easier to visit if you’re backpacking and haven’t brought your high heels with you. The bar itself is dominated by a massive swimming pool with seating areas sunk into the floor surrounding it.These prime spots have floor to ceiling windows affording a cracking view the Petronas Towers.There’s an extensive cocktail menu and various nightly discounts, making Sky Bar one of the more affordable rooftop bars in town.
Sky Bar, Level 33, Trader’s Hotel, KLCC

Omakase + Appreciate
This quirky speakeasy is near impossible to find unless you know what to look for. And even then, I still had to ask somebody. Hidden away beneath a nondescript office building on Jalan Ampang, Omakase + Appreciate doesn’t even have a name its extremely unprepossessing door. The only giveaway is a sign saying “No Entry” in several different languages. “Omakase” is a Japanese concept meaning “it’s up to you” and that’s exactly what the bartender here let you do. Sure, there’s a cocktail list – divided by bartender rather than spirit – but the real fun here lies in letting the bar staff make up a bespoke cocktail just for you. Let the guys know what you like and they’ll use their mixological talents to create something unique.
Omakase + Appreciate, Ampang Bangunan Ming Annexe, Jalan Ampang

Botak Liquor
A relative newcomer on the KL bar scene, this garden-themed hideaway is above Chocha Foodstore in Chinatown. Head up the wrought-iron spiral staircase and enter a gorgeously green, foliage-filled drinking den, with a shabby-chic vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in the likes of Hackney. The inventive, horticulturally-inspired cocktails are created with botanicals grown on site, making use of local ingredients such as pandan, starfruit and calamansi – flavours that are perhaps unusual to Western palates. A particular highlight is their Chocolate x Chili, which contains tequila, gin, sweet vermouth, bitter orange liqueur and chocolate. It packs a punch both in terms of booze and heat so it’s not for the faint-hearted!
Botak Liquor, 156 Jalan Petaling

Marini’s on 57
My first attempt to visit Marini’s ended at the front door due their very strict dress code and my pink flip-flops. However, a quick trip to H&M later and I was back the following night. As one of the highest bars in Kuala Lumpur, located on the 57th floor of Petronas Tower 3, it commands a fantastic view of the twin towers. It’s a bit of a mission to navigate both the dress code then the trip up to the 57th floor, but the cocktails alone are worth it. Try the Mango to Tango – a tequila based cocktail with yellow chartreuse, mango, honey, lime and egg white. Marini’s is brash, bold and noisy with big beats and brusque service. If that’s not your cup of tea then it’s best avoided. If it is, get there early for a seat next to the windows.
Marini’s on 57, Level 57, Menara 3 Petronas, Persiaran KLCC

PS150
PS150 has a reputation as one of the best cocktail bars in Kuala Lumpur and it certainly has bags of character. Once again, I had to ask someone for directions as it’s hidden behind a “toy shop” facade. Open the door and follow the dimly lit passageway until you hit the jackpot –  a tiny, jewel-like respite from the mayhem of Petaling Street with a very well-stocked bar. The cocktails are divided up by era – Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-War, Dark Ages (the 70’s-2000’s) and Revival (contemporary). It felt very much like a genuine speakeasy; the glowing red lanterns, calligraphy and crumbling brickwork transported me back to an era that was perhaps naughtier, more daring and more exotic than the present. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising considering the building used to be a brothel! A must for anyone visiting KL.
PS150, 150 Jalan Petaling

Pahit
If you’re a gin lover – and let’s face it, who isn’t these days – then Pahit should be on your radar. It’s tucked away on a pretty residential side street and, while it’s not as well-hidden as some of the other speakeasy bars in town, its entrance is still fairly discreet. It feels like you’re at someone’s colonial house rather than a bar and, even though its in the centre of town, you will believe that you’re a million miles away from the madness of KL. Sink into a wicker chair in the courtyard garden or head inside where it’s all louvered doors and crumbling, white brickwork. With over 70 varieties of gin to choose from, where do you even start? A good place is their list of fruit-infused gin and tonics. Try the calamansi and asam boi version for a Malaysian twist on a classic.
Pahit, 3 Jalan Sin Chiu Kee, Bukit Bintang