It’s a Friday night in Qui, Trinh Lai’s latest creation, and the place is pumping. In the ground-floor lounge bar and top-end yet casual restaurant located on the premises that once housed Sin Lounge, the clientele is a mix of young 20- and 30-something Vietnamese, internationally minded foreigners not stuck on their beer, and people who like the nightclub-esque atmosphere of a club in the environs of a beautifully crafted bar.
Lai is in his spot at the back, glass of wine in hand surveying his realm. He’s watching, talking to friends and enjoying himself. If Lai could choose anywhere to spend his nights in this city, he would spend them in Qui. This venue is an extension of himself.
Yet this is not the first lounge and restaurant the Danish-Vietnamese entrepreneur has been involved with in Saigon. Before, there was Chill Skybar, Sorae and San Fu Lou, a behind-the-scenes role in MAD house in District 2 and District 7, and a range of other projects. Just the names reveal his calibre; if anyone has shaken up the drinking and dining scene in this city, and broken new barriers, it’s Lai. There’s more to come.
“I’m shortly opening Envy, and I’m doing something in Nha Trang, too,” he says. “There are two more [restaurants] coming on the waterfront on Ton Duc Thang. Saigon Centre is opening in September 2017 — three outlets on the 28th and 29th floor; a Japanese garden, a lounge and a Chinese restaurant.”
Yet Lai is not just a serial entrepreneur. Food and beverage is his life. It’s something he’s passionate about.
Coming from humble roots, Lai found his first job in the fast food industry in his teens. Over time he worked on all sides of the business — in the kitchen as a chef, as service staff and as a bartender. The entrepreneurial bug came young and at the tender age of 18, he opened a small takeaway shop. “I did burgers, hotdogs and other small things,” he recalls.
From there he “built himself up”, and travelled the world taking up short-term jobs in restaurants, before ending up back in Denmark and finally, less than a decade ago, Vietnam. Since he’s been in Saigon he’s been creating new dining and drinking concepts and building up teams to run them. He hasn’t stopped.
“All these things, the passion comes from myself,” he says. “I don’t know why. I like to create something new, a new concept, I hate copying. I like challenging myself with something.”
He adds: “I always ask myself, how can I do something new in Vietnam? How can I do something good for the young Vietnamese to learn F&B, be passionate about F&B. It’s tough. Food and beverage is a tough business.”
In the years since Lai first opened Chill, the competition has become immense. Everyone is trying to outdo everyone else and come up with that killer concept. Lai’s response is simple.
“I focus on myself, I also focus on the market, what the market needs,” he explains. “I don’t want to do something too crazy that Vietnam has never seen. But it’s difficult, sometimes you’re lucky and you hit straight away — boom. Sometimes you open and you see that you need to fix things a little bit. But when I create a concept, I always say to myself, I am 50/50 confident that I won’t lose, that I will break even.”
For him, details are king, it’s something that drives him and makes him feel he can always do better. It’s this determination, this passion for perfection, that makes him the success story he is.
“I can still work day and night,” he says. “But nothing is ever completely done. There’s a lot of things I have to learn.”