Viet Nam News
A group of young women brave the mostly male atmosphere of a beer garden restaurant inspired by Chinese wuxia novels and films. An Phương reports.
Hoa Sơn Tửu Lầu: a weird but delightful spot for beer, southern dishes, and a wuxia-style chat
“Hey! I wanna have a dragon blood!” yelled a guy sitting in a corner at Hoa Sơn Tửu Lầu, a beer garden restaurant on Nguyễn Thị Nhỏ Street in HCM City’s District 11.
I wouldn’t have expected to hear the term “dragon blood” in such a setting, but I soon discovered that anything is possible in this exotic eatery, inspired by Jin Yong’s famous wuxia novels (fictional tales of martial arts chivalry).
After hearing great word-of-mouth reviews, my friends and I decided to visit the restaurant one fine evening to see if it deserved its reputation: a special fusion of chivalric vibe and southern nhậu rituals, offered up from afternoon to late night.
I have to admit, however, that if I hadn’t heard the reviews, I wouldn’t have considered nhậu (đi nhậu, loosely translated, means meeting friends to chat, have cheap beer and food).
After all, we were a typical group of young women who love to dine at fancy restaurants.
Upon entering, we were surprised to see how busy the place was, given that it was 6.30pm on a weekday.
It looked exactly as I had pictured it. With a big open courtyard that accommodates up to 100 diners, it had a fictional Chinese feel because of the lanterns, fruit trees and painted blossoms on the walls.
However, the most striking feature was the staff, clothed in wuxia costumes, who accompanied us to our seats.
“Oh my God! It’s not a rumour. All of them are wearing exotic costumes that I’ve only seen in the movies!” one of my friends said.
Characteristic: Every item on the menu has a special name related to characters and stories in Jin Yong’s wuxia novels
After taking our seats at a low table in the centre of the garden, we noticed dozens of middle-aged men sitting nearby whose bowls of beer had been clinking before their menu had even arrived.
Yes, that’s right. Everyone drank from bowls! And yes, we were among the few females who happened to “đi nhậu” that day. The place was packed with men.
I would venture to guess that the men especially liked the staff, who were trained to speak with guests in wuxia-like phrases and expressions and treat diners like aristocrats from imperial China.
Though we found it pretty weird, we were also delighted in experiencing something pleasantly surreal that we couldn’t find anywhere else.
The affordable menu featured southern food delights, including spring rolls, grilled prawns, roasted veal and seafood hotpot.
Most of the dishes didn’t break the VNĐ100,000 mark, which helped make everyone’s drinking session comfortably inexpensive.
Perhaps this explained why Hoa Sơn Tửu Lầu was able to attract so many guests on a Thursday night.
Every item on the menu had a name related to characters and stories in Jin Yong’s wuxia novels. For instance, the Sting Energy Drink was called “dragon blood”, while Sài Gòn Red Beer was a “pink lady”.
Occasional female: Hoa Sơn Tửu Lầu’s great fusion of a chivalric vibe and southern nhậu ritual attracts mostly male visitors.
Since the menu lacked images and the waitresses couldn’t speak English, we all agreed that it would be difficult for non-Vietnamese speakers to order food.
Within a span of an hour or so, we ordered five dishes which contained petite amounts of food served on big plates.
So that’s why the business had become so successful!
“No wonder they plan to expand their beer garden chain,” one of my friends said, laughing.
Our first dish was a citrus-cured goat salad with tender goat meat, crunchy onions and tasty herbs. Though we didn’t expect it to be so juicy, it was a fresh yet delightful appetiser.
Next came the stir-fried squid with hot chilli paste, fried chicken cartilage with garlic, and Sichuan tofu.
The standout among the three was the crispy, bite-sized fried chicken cartilage which had a sweet garlicky taste.
We would have ordered another plate, but our last dish had yet to arrive. The spicy Thai seafood hotpot was more expensive than the others, but it had many ingredients: fresh prawns, fish balls and raw beef, among others.
Although I enjoyed the boldly flavoured broth, the dish was a bit too sweet for my liking.
Throughout the evening, we were treated to songs from the wuxia music genre, which added to the authentic atmosphere.
When I heard that the owner Phan Minh Thông’s love for martial arts films extended from weekends of binge-watching Jin Yong’s wuxia to opening up a chivalric-themed beer garden, I thought: “Thông was smart. Crazy but smart!”
In an interview with VietnamNet, Thông said that he “wouldn’t have thought the business would do well because I had so many difficulties during the first few months of operation”.
Though the food was not spectacular, the restaurant was a great spot for lively conversation.
Our group of three, however, decided not to stay late, when several fun activities, including solving puzzles and throwing and catching balls, are held.
However, we’ll definitely be back. It’s cool to escape from reality once in a while. VNS
Hoa Sơn Tửu Lầu
Address: 120 Nguyễn Thị Nhỏ Street, Ward 15, District 11, HCM City
Comment: An exotic, affordable spot for nhậu.