Sipping a botanical journey across Vietnam and talking Trinity in Ho Chi Minh City

The following two tabs change content below.
Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.
Jochem Lisser and I toast the success of his extraordinary entrepreneurial story as we wend our way down the Saigon River

I’ve conducted interviews in some amazing settings around the world over the 37 years I have been blessed to work in travel retail publishing. Few though can compare with chatting on a river boat over a drink while motoring down the mighty Saigon River, which flows like a main artery through Ho Chi Minh City.

And what a chat it was. Meet Jochem Lisser, a Dutch entrepreneur who after first visiting Vietnam in 2002 and falling in love with the country returned here in 2008 to live and later with a business partner to create Vietnam’s first craft gin – Saigon Baigur.

There’s an intriguing back story to our interview location. Jochem had been in the boat business in Utrecht in The Netherlands – the vessels (including the one on which we chatted) being built in Vietnam.

After moving here, Jochem spent weeks touring this beautiful land from south to north on a motorbike (as he does to this day), discovering its myriad natural wonders, including, fatefully, an extraordinary range of botanicals

That sparked an idea. Being from the Netherlands – the original homeland of gin – Jochem was partial to the spirit but knew nothing about how to make it.

A Saigon Baigur & Tonic – Dry Season. Best consumed while out on the Saigon River.

Having decided to embark on a mission to produce the country’s first craft gin, Jochem set about acquiring the requisite expertise, studying gin-making back in the Netherlands.

In 2020, early in the pandemic, District 9 Distilling Company and its brand Saigon Baigur were born. In the ensuing four years the brand has gone from a start-up to a success story in Vietnam complemented by exports to more than 50 countries.

Look out for my interview with Jochem coming soon on our main website. I can promise you it’s a fascinating story of a man committed to a culture, to quality and to pursuing an unlikely dream thousands of miles from home.

And Saigon Baigur Gin itself? Well perhaps I was swayed by the beautiful surroundings, the compelling narrative, Jochem’s pleasant company and the balmy Vietnamese evening, but I don’t think any of that actually altered my immediate perception of this being a superb spirit. It’s balanced, floral and fragrant with an enduring freshness that I can still recall two days later.

The ingredients read like something out of a local cookbook. Fresh Buddha’s hand (a floral citrus fruit from Hanoi), vapour-infused lotus flower, Phu Quoc peppercorn, star anise, bird’s eye chilli and dragon fruit feature among the 12 distinctive local botanicals combined with a quartet of classic ingredients such as juniper to deliver this delicious Vietnamese take on the classic dry gin. As one writer nicely put it, “a botanical journey across Vietnam with each sip”.

The bottle is a standout too (especially this year), designed to resemble a dragon’s egg. A dragon logo sits on the metal-plated label imbedded on the front, adding to the super-premium allure.

Jochem and his wife Hanh enjoy the fruits of their labour on the Saigon River
Master Distiller Phu Nguyen

I vowed to buy a bottle at Tan Son Nhat International Airport on the way home to Hong Kong but was disappointed not to find it at the DFS SASCO shops despite a wide range of gins – mainstream and craft – being present.

Fortunately, I have a bottle at home courtesy of Jochem and I suspect I’ll be broaching that immediately upon my return to Hong Kong tonight.

I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City this week, along with my colleague Vincci Chung and colleagues from Airports Council International Asia-Pacific, to finalise the venue and logistical arrangements for The Trinity Forum 2024 to be held here on 5-6 November.

I’m super excited by the prospect, as are many people in the industry given Vietnam’s burgeoning status as one of Asia’s key aviation, tourism and travel retail markets.

Perhaps we should discard the ‘emergent market’ tag so often ascribed to Vietnam. In IPP Travel Retail CEO Phillip Nguyen’s view (and mine) – Vietnam has already emerged.


I love the ceaseless vitality of this great city, although whenever I successfully cross a road in the face of a cascade of motorcycyles headed my way, I also consider myself a survivor of it. Take a look at the four-seater, Ho Chi Minh-style I have highlighted.

IPP Travel Retail is hosting The Trinity Forum (more exciting news on that subject coming very soon) and I’ve spent quality time with Phillip this week. I also had the opportunity to catch up with his father Johnathan, truly a legendary figure of Vietnamese aviation and travel retail and indeed one of the very few individuals in our industry to whom the moniker ‘pioneer’ can be credibly applied. You can read my landmark interview with him (his first with a foreign journalist), which explains that status here.

Johnathan Hanh Nguyen is Chairman of Southern Airports Services Joint Stock Company (SASCO) and Chairman of Cam Ranh International Airport Company. He is equally renowned for his philanthropy and wider CSR contributions to Vietnamese society.
Pictured left to right with me are ACI Asia-Pacific & Middle East Head Member Services & Events Simon-Alexandre Chicoine and Senior Manager Events Cindy Chee; Imex Pan Pacific President Le Hong Thuy Tien and Chairman Johnathan Hanh Nguyen; The Moodie Davitt Report Associate Director, Events Vincci Chung; and Linh and Phillip Nguyen (IPP Travel Retail CEO)

That evening Phillip hosted us to dinner at The Deck, a superb modern Pan-Asian restaurant just a 15-minute journey from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City offering unforgettable views of the Saigon River. When you come to Vietnam for The Trinity Forum, I urge you to add in a few extra days to discover this magical city and country.

Out to dinner with (from second left) Phillip Nguyen, Vincci Chung, Cindy Chee and Simon-Alexandre Chicoine

Last night I joined Phillip at The Crab Shack, a buzzing seafood-led restaurant owned by his sister-in-law in the effervescent atmosphere of District 2. Over some great crab, scallops and steak and a good bottle of French rosé, we hatched some exciting, positively disruptive (and possibly crazy) ideas for Trinity and beyond.

Anyone who has met Phillip will know he is a human ball of energy, ideas bursting from him constantly like fireworks exploding in the Lunar New Year night sky.

I’ve got to know him well since we first connected over a long zoom call in the early days of the pandemic – that feels an eternity ago, doesn’t it? – and he almost transfuses his enthusiasm for life, grand notions and business when you’re in his company. Don’t miss this year’s Trinity Forum. Without revealing any secrets, it promises to be a dazzling affair in more ways than one.

I am writing this blog near my gate at Tan Son Nhat International Airport Terminal 2 en route to home in Hong Kong where I am staying for all of four days before my next trip to Bangkok.

The big challenge facing the airport’s retailers and food & beverage operators here is the erosion of dwell time caused by long queues at check-in (27 minutes for me) and immigration (37), though security was impressively rapid (4 minutes). That’s 68 minutes. Imagine the transformational impact on commercial revenues if it could be halved.

Fortunately, that improvement won’t be long coming, in the shape of the new Terminal 3, designed to alleviate the overcrowding.  Airports Corporation of Vietnam kicked off T3’s construction on 24 December 2022 and the project is due to be completed in April 2025. With its architecture inspired by the traditional (and beautiful) Ao Dai Vietnamese attire, T3 will be able to serve 20 million passengers a year and stand as a symbol of this bold and vibrant nation.

These renderings, courtesy of Airports Corporation of Vietnam, capture the scale and modernity of the new terminal

T2 has a myriad of stores, including multiple duty free shops managed by a DFS/SASCO combo and a smattering of specialist retail. There are two standouts, the sensationally good SASCO Shop, dedicated to Saigon products, the other an excellent DFS/SASCO liquor, tobacco and confectionery store (pictured immediately below).

I don’t so much have a bee in my bonnet as a whole hornets’ nest about the lack of Sense of Place in most airport retail offers. The SASCO shop shows what can be done with investment, imagination and a real understanding of a culture and its associated crafts and products.

What an outstanding store from the offer to the design, the segmentation and the beautiful staff uniforms. As reported, we are introducing an annual Sense of Place Awards for our industry later this year (in association with Denizen Destination) and this store will surely be well in the running.

I bought some beautifully packaged Vietnamese coffee, some sublime (yes, I have opened already) local dark chocolate and would have bought other goodies too had time been on my side (see earlier comment about immigration).

Seeing a local liquor section, I tried for one final time to source a bottle of Saigon Baigur. Alas no such luck there either. Perhaps it will have to wait until my next trip down the Saigon River on a botanical journey across Vietnam with Jochem Lisser. ✈