When a list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars came out last year, Ho Chi Minh City was conspicuously missing. In fact, no Vietnamese bar made the list at all.
Are Ho Chi Minh City’s best bars simply not good enough for this exclusive club, selected by Drinks International, or are they simply overlooked by the bartenders, owners, and journalists who make up the group? The curators skewed the list towards craft cocktail bars focused on the menus, so while ambiance, decor, and milieu all factor into each decision, the drink quality and inventiveness carried greatest weight.
Beer halls, rooftop bars, live music dens, and television filled sports bars still form the bulk and confusion of the Saigonese night life. And that won’t change anytime soon. Good cocktails do exist, but they are found in bars that are more “jack of all trades” catering to diverse revellers, rather than the specialist bar built for the discerning drinker.
Still, our reviewers probably overlooked a mini scene on the rise in Vietnam. If they perused these bars of Ho Chi Minh City today, the group might have noticed that these contenders, with novel inventions of their own and with assured performances of the old cocktail classics, are making their way to the top.
14 Tôn Thất Đạm, Nguyễn Thái Bình Quận 1
The owners have taken the nostalgic Speakeasy concept to its natural conclusion, renovating a high ceilinged, spacious room in a paint peeling colonial era building on Ton That Dam. The bar harkens nostalgically back to Prohibition era America with its lovely, bronzed Gatsby color palette. The amber lit walls of objects recalling the glint of jewellery on flapper society girls and gangsters in white rimmed fedoras from another era.
Nothing beats ordering an Old Fashioned here and seeing how well it fits with the decor. It’s delicious as well: smoky, rich, and smooth. Snuffbox reminds me of Alchemy in Taipei, a similarly decorated mixologist’s haven. Its plush chairs are comfortable without being flashy, and are easy to settle into for a slow sip of a perfectly balanced cocktail as you contemplate lost dreams and look into the glow of the bar counter, trying to find that green light.
64 Tôn Thất Thiệp, Bến Nghé, 1
Located a few steps from the newly created Saigon Centre, Shrine has been on the cocktail scene for a while. The first floor is terrifically decorated, with streaks of royal purple breaking up the overall amber glow. Floating stone Buddha heads and chill music create a nice meditative atmosphere that enhances the creative cocktail menu on offer. The classics are done well here too, but the quality can vary depending on the bartender working.
Shrine decided to expand their second floor to form a sports bar version of itself, where you can still get their cocktails but watch television in a more spartan interior, basic wooden tables and chairs. I wish the owner hadn’t done that, as there are plenty of sports bars on the street already, and Shrine has always been a haven of quiet cocktail sipping for me since my first visit three years ago. But regardless, I see the logic in branching out, and the separation of the floors mean the experience isn’t totally diluted.
22 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé
If it weren’t for the fact that on busy nights Qui turns into a rowdy club and it takes forever to get a drink, I’d have no reservations about recommending it. Qui is the in scene at the moment, a place to go to and be noticed. Its frenetic, convivial atmosphere shouldn’t distract you from the real attraction, the drinks. Bartenders know their cocktails here, offering up the classics with great assuredness and giving a few lovely twists to boot (try their complex but balanced Qui martini).
The interior is thoughtfully, tastefully done, and if you come in on an off night, you can take your time getting to know their great cocktail menu and have a leisurely catch up with a close friend. My hope is that Qui doesn’t placate the party crowd too much, or even replace some of those high chairs during the afternoons or slow nights for a quieter milieu of folks who want their drinks to live a little longer on the palate, undistracted by the bustle.
99 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1 | Ground Floor
Much has been said about how great this restaurant and bar is, but the pretension of the name serves as warning. The location and decor give viewers a taste of how Vietnam sometimes views wealth: it’s something that needs to be seen, recognised, even envied. Rich, lavish colonial period furniture is on display behind floor to ceiling glass walls, a hallway allows passersby to glimpse inside and envy the scene. Velvet chaise lounge chairs, elaborate drapery, royal blue cushions, chandeliers, and white plastered columns complete the hyperbolic, nearly kitschy interior.
Having said that, I did sit down for a couple of cocktails and found them both well made, and the bartender friendly and welcoming. The bar is located in a lovely alley of verdant greens inside one of my favourite buildings, the Saigon Garden found just off of bustling walking street Nguyen Hue. It deserves a second tasting.
So where is the Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City cocktail bar scene headed?
My favorite bar of all time remains Bar High Five in Tokyo, third on the best bars list, helmed by that humblest of celebrity mixologist, Hidetsugu Ueno. Bar High Five is a haven for unpretentious drinking; there’s no gimmick to the drinks or their preparation, each decision is made for the sake of taste. Each visit led me to understand my own drink palate a little more.
It’s my hope that Vietnam will soon have a similar bar dedicated to the humble, magical craft of cocktail making. And who’s to say the local spices of this country wouldn’t make great ingredients to infuse a cocktail with, giving distinct flavours that could last as long as the country is long?
For the moment, these three, perhaps four, come closest from the bars I frequent in Saigon, but others are always on the rise. Don’t miss them.