The Observatory Saigon has begun its third life. Dan Bi Mong’s underground house and techno club first opened at 145/21 Nguyen Trai in October 2013. The space in the heart of District 1 was an art gallery, an open-fronted cafe, and a club. “We wanted it to be a cultural center and we even had a gallery and a curator…but the parties quickly started to take over…” Dan Bi Mong, who is also known as DJ Hibiya Line, shrugs.
The Observatory Saigon introduced the city to DJs like Frank Gossner, Oskar Offermann, and Toby Tobias. But in a year, it was closed. When the Observatory relocated to District 4 in late 2014—at 3 Nguyen Tat Thanh—it was as a straight-up club with guests like Nick Hoppner from Berghain, the Giegling crew, and DJ Shhhhh from Tokyo. “He was my favorite,” Dan interrupts, “because of the unique way he mixed genres and BPM. He played for six hours and got so much applause at the end that he did two encores…” he continues. “They’re the kind of nights you never forget…if you can remember them.”
But then it too had to close when the landlord reclaimed the property. “Because of the future transformation of the port area they are taking our building back,” Dan Bi Mong announced suddenly at the end of August 2017. The Observatory was homeless for almost a year hosting the occasional remote party in the “desert” and “jungle” beneath the Phu My Bridge in District 7.
Now, at its third location at 85 Cach Mang Thang Tam, The Observatory has its biggest home so far. At the 500-person venue, the club has returned to its roots with a kitchen, cultural events, and an open-air lounge—besides resurrecting the club space that has inspired record releases and repeat visits by international artists. So we asked the Godfather of Vietnamese house and techno to take us around town. This is Dan Bi Mong’s night tour of the city he’s called home since 2011. And it features some of his favorite underground and hidden places with a Japanese twist…just like Hibiya Line’s Tokyo-metro inspired DJ name.
5.30pm: Kau Ba Oysters
Nikki Tran’s had fluctuating fortunes. Her Cau Ba Quan restaurant served fresh Phu Quoc seafood to its rowdy regulars until 2017’s pavement clean up almost killed the business.
The American restaurateur David Chang was Cau Ba Quan’s unlikely savior. He featured Nikki’s Da Kao restaurant on his Netflix show “Ugly Delicious” and Cau Ba Quan was revived. Now she has opened Kau Ba Oysters on Thai Van Lung (8A/1D1 Thai Van Lung, District 1) and Kau Ba Kitchen Saigon in Houston in the space of a couple of months. “I’m back to film ‘Chef’s Table’ for Netflix,” Nikki says presenting a plate of six Fine de Claire oysters from Ha Long Bay. “I also have some Japanese oysters coming and some Seattle oysters too…”
The breezy, brightly-lit restaurant is busy…and hard to find. “I didn’t even advertise yet or anything,” Nikki shrugs.
Dan had a late night last night so we quickly order their spicy, aromatic Ginger Mint Gimlet cocktail and eat the oysters with wasabi and soy sauce. “Fine de Claire oysters are so sweet and fruity,” Dan nods finishing the last one. Then we walk over to Sake Central Saigon.
6.30pm: Sake Central Saigon
“These glasses are beautiful,” Dan Bi Mong says admiringly of the Kimura sake glasses as we sit down at Sake Central Saigon (59 Dong Du, District 1). “We couldn’t have these at The Observatory,” he laughs recalling the chaotic parties at the club’s previous two venues. Sake Central Saigon’s manager Jesse Selvagn serves us their special pilsner created with Heart of Darkness Brewery. Then he fills the glasses with our first sake—the Sakuragao Tokubetsu Junmai. “It’s a light smooth sake from Iwate prefecture in Japan,” Jesse explains. “It’s named after sakura—Japanese cherry blossom—because it makes you happy and your face pink…”
“That’s amazing—when you pick the glass up it doesn’t weigh anything…” Dan says, still thinking about the sake glasses.
We have another drink. This time we try the Kubota Senju Ginjo. “This sake is so fresh and elegant,” Dan smiles. “It’s one of the most famous Japanese sakes,” Jesse Selvagn elaborates. “People say the sake reflects the super fresh, snowy climate where it’s made—in Niigata which faces the Sea of Japan. They were one of the first breweries to switch from wood to steel tanks.”
We finish the Kubota Senju Ginjo and descend the dimly lit “shou sugi ban” paneled staircase. “We should serve some sake at The Observatory,” Dan concludes in the taxi on the way to Birdy Bar, our third stop.
8.00pm: Birdy Bar
Ken Umezawa opened Birdy Bar (80 Pham Viet Chanh, Binh Thanh) in October 2016 “with the aim of making it a European-style bar with coffee, or orange juice, in the morning and beer and cocktails in the evening.” Once a hidden corner of Binh Thanh, this street between District 1 and District 2 is home to a burgeoning Japanese community. “I thought that if I lived in either District 1 or District 2 the other would be too far away. Pham Viet Chanh is right in the middle. I guess lots of the people moving here think the same…” Ken Umezawa smiles. “And my favorite drink at Birdy Bar? Probably the Lychee Martini, or our Oolong Hai.
Birdy Bar now have a Dutch manager, Andy Woortman. “I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City for eight months, and at Birdy Bar for three months,” Andy explains. “You can come here alone and have a great night,” he nods, “but it’s fun when there’s lots of people here too—there’s usually a nice mix.”
When Andy hears the name The Observatory he realizes they share connections in the Dutch underground scene. “You know Ernst Mertens from De School in Amsterdam, the successor to Trouw club where I used to work?” Birdy’s manager asks. “I met him…” Dan Bi Mong remembers. “He came to my place.” “I know, he told me all about it,” Andy laughs.
Everyone orders Rhum Belami from the bespoke barrel created for Birdy Bar. “It’s a new chapter for The Observatory,” Dan says excitedly raising his glass.
We have one more stop so we finish the drinks and prepare to leave. Andy Woortman decides to join us at our next location—The Rabbit Hole.
9.45pm: The Rabbit Hole
The Rabbit Hole (138 Nam Ki Khoi Nghia, District 1) is an underground cocktail bar. As the name suggests, it’s hard to find. “You can really hide away in here,” Dan Bi Mong nods approvingly. “We’re still deciding whether to put a sign outside,” co-founder Leon Nguyen Le Chi says about the bar that’s filling the gap left by the closure of Japanese-owned Monde bar late last year.
The Rabbit Hole’s approach to cocktail making is similarly understated. “Our concept is avant-garde classic,” Leon tells Dan Bi Mong—who’s perked up since the tour began. “We want to serve every kind of classic cocktail…I think we currently have 88 types that you can ask for. The menu only shows signature cocktails like The Mad Hatter and some monthly suggestions,” Leon smiles. “But let’s start with our twisted butterfly pea gin and tonic, The Wonderland. When you stir it the color changes.”
“We actually looked at this space for The Observatory…but it works much better as The Rabbit Hole,” Dan Bi Mong concedes. Then Leon serves us their Ramos Gin Fizz, a cocktail that was invented at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon in New Orleans in 1888. “It’s one of the hardest cocktails to make,” the co-founder says sliding the drinks across the bar.
By the time we leave it’s almost midnight. “On a night like this, you get drunk then you wake up with a hangover…but it feels good,” Dan Bi Mong laughs climbing into a Vinasun taxi after Andy.