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Hẻm Gems: In Saigon's First Shots Bar, Usain Bolt and Princess Peach in Test Tubes

Pham Ngu Lao Street, along with its sister street Bui Vien, has been known for almost two decades to foreigners as the perfect place to drink, bunk-in and conveniently repeat. In other words, a booze-filled heaven complete with affordable hostels and hotels for first-timers in Vietnam.

A little-known stretch at the start of Pham Ngu Lao street, however, hides a secret. A secret laboratory of dazzling alcoholic colors.

“We used to study economics in Poland… shots are a big thing there.” Reuben, from the Netherlands, fell in love with Vietnam and planned to start a backpackers hostel in Saigon with his business partner Martin. That idea changed along the way, when they realized there was a lack of alcoholic shots in a city that infamously calls beer a light drink.

The Lab - Shots & More pairs a scientific theme — complete with test tubes, beakers, syringes, flasks and lab coats — with a huge menu of the most creatively named named shots I've ever encountered with almost 100 choices and growing.

The first one I asked for was the Dead Nazi, part of an intimidating list of strong shots.

“It’s very simple, really. Two German alcohols, Peppermint Liqueur and Jagermeister. It’s strong so it's deadly,” Reuben said with a slight grin, and a healthy dose of famous Dutch directness. With shots named Irish Flag, John Lemon and Teq me to the Moon, I was convinced that Reuben’s knack for wordplay, coupled with his sense of blatant descriptive obviousness, is an essential marketing tool that makes barhoppers stay and down more than a few shots.

“I don’t think we’ve come to a point where people are bored of the menu,” he said.

We then discussed the prospects of perhaps rewarding the first patron who succeeds at the mammoth task of trying every shot on the menu, including any new ones they might add to the menu in the near future. Reuben revealed that he and Martin were still thinking about a suitable prize for that effort. Perhaps one of their gigantic shot towers?

In a feeble attempt at being direct, I then questioned Reuben’s business prospects. How was he certain that locals would accept shots as a mainstream form of booze?

“When we tell them about the light ones, especially [the] sweet ones, they really enjoy it. We just need to get them to get used to the idea [of shots],” Reuben explained.

A bartender’s classic, the Jellyfish, was an example of sweet and visually mesmerizing drinks that locals love at The Lab. Jellyfish-like white blobs magically appear when pouring Baileys into a pool of blue Curacao. Cookie Monster, not named from visual references, tasted exactly as described: chocolate chip cookies.

“Do you want something strong?” Reuben asked cheekily, almost inducing in me a pre-hangover of sorts.

“Yeah, why not?” I said without thinking too much. It turned out to be one of the strongest shot available at The Lab; half absinthe topped with a bird’s eye chili pepper. Something which I think might be ‘comfy' for a cold, rainy day. Unsurprisingly, the shot grew consistently in spiciness with time.

 

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 3.5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness  5/5

Location: 5/5

Mervin has serious Camera Gear Acquisition syndrome (GAS) and has bothered to acquire multiple books about pre-75 Saigonese pronunciation.

Shots & More

101 Pham Ngu Lao, D1

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