Hoang Sa and Truong Sa streets which flank the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal get busy at rush hour, but for the rest of the day there’s an altogether unhurried air about this area. During the early morning and evening, amateur fishermen unwind by the railings, gondolas crawl up the waterway, and locals exercise in the gentle breeze. It would be hard to find a part of the city that’s easier on the eye.
It wasn’t always so. As long ago as the ‘50s and ‘60s the area was dubbed the “black water canal.” As the city’s population swelled in the ‘90s, and urbanisation reconfigured the city, the area once regarded as the northern border of the city grew worse.
But a comprehensive redevelopment project started in the early 2000s has slowly helped to develop the canal’s charm. Since the completion of the project—which was mostly finished by 2012—the central stretches running through Districts 1, 3, Binh Thanh, and Phu Nhuan have become a positive advertisement for urban development in Vietnam.
But here, ca phe sua da still reigns over flat white, the squat wooden chair hasn’t yet been ushered out by the high stool, and you’re usually much closer to a quan oc than a burger house. While there are countless places to eat, drink, or just seek refuge along the 8 km stretch of canal, here are five of our favorites.
#1. BiaCraft Artisan Ales
The brains behind Quan Ut Ut strike again in their second venture. It’s an entirely different enterprise with a connected story. And this time the focus is on drinks…although the food isn’t to be missed either.
When Quan Ut Ut opened in 2014, the city’s craft beer scene hadn’t yet sprung into life, and so they made small batches of their own beer to pair with their BBQ food. Sensing that they were onto something with their recipes, and seeing the surge in craft beer’s popularity, the first BiaCraft opened in September 2015—at a small hole-in-the-wall location in District 2’s Thao Dien.
A second BiaCraft location in District 3 (at 1 Le Ngo Cat) followed soon after. Now, 300 Truong Sa marks their third location. Opened at the end of May, the three-floor beer plaza is, just as its owners intended, completely different from the others in terms of design.
“This one is all about groups—we have these long tables that promote a social atmosphere,” says co-founder Tim Scott over a sunset beer on the third floor. “We wanted to strip away any physical barriers that might make Vietnamese people hesitant to come in. Our locations have this wide-open feel—which is inspired by “nhau” culture. Even with the cutlery, we don’t set it out like in a restaurant…there’s a DIY experience of grabbing your own just like in any pho or com tam place.”
The reverence for Vietnamese ways is a huge factor behind BiaCraft’s spike in popularity. The beers themselves bear Vietnamese names which are often tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes downright lewd. You can choose between a Xao Ba Co (F***ing Liar) India Summer Ale and a Xau Ma Chanh (Ugly But Vain) IPA for example. “We wanted something that was funny and memorable. It’s not the kind of language a normal business would use—it’s street language. People have said it’s unusual and refreshing.”
Before we leave, Scott makes one final point: “We want to be seen not as a Western pub that came to Vietnam, but rather as one that grew out of Vietnam.”
In short: Craft beer by the canal, coupled with comforting pub-grub in a group friendly space.
What to order: Dung choc tao pale ale. Pair it with a flank steak or a reuben sandwich.
Location: 300-302, 304 Truong Sa, Phu Nhuan, Ho Chi Minh City
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#2. Saigon POTO Cafe and Restaurant
Journalist Nguyen Man Vu and his brother Duy acquired the winsome Saigon POTO in August 2017. These days, there’s a relaxed buzz about the place. An eye-catching vintage three-wheel minivan takes pride of place in the garden. And most seating is outdoors, which is almost entirely shaded from the sun.
By day, small groups of millennial Vietnamese hang out for hours at a time chatting, strumming guitars, smoking cigarettes, and reading. By night, it’s a bit more lively; as the sunshine makes way for fairy lights, and coffee makes way for a small selection of cocktails.
“It’s a place where people can come, relax, and have fun with their friends,” says Duy, “But we like to show respect for the old times, even though our customers are mostly young. Our walls are the yellow color that’s reminiscent of old Saigon, and all the pictures we’ve hung recall times past.”
Not just your standard ca phe phin and tea joint, POTO has a generous menu which includes cocktails, special blended juices, smoothies, and egg coffee, as well as some simple Vietnamese dishes.
In short: A low-budget place to recharge away from the afternoon sun, or to fuel up ahead of a night on the town.
What to order: Affogato for the sweet tooth, salted lime juice for the sweat drenched. If it’s after dark, make it a Poto Azul (with blue curacao, orange juice and rum).
Location: 147 Hoang Sa, Tan Dinh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
#3. Cau Ba Quan
During her time in Houston, Texas, owner and chef Nikki Tran witnessed the sensation that is Viet-Cajun dining—a phenomenon that exploded in the city in the late 2000s. The culture-blending cuisine has gained such notoriety that in February one Houston Viet-Cajun outlet was a semi-finalist in the James Beard Awards, one of America’s most prestigious culinary prizes.
Having returned to Ho Chi Minh City, Nikki Tran has overseen Viet-Cajun food’s homecoming…and adjusted it for the local palate. Tran remembers how her ”Viejun” style of cuisine was born: “One day I was drinking and eating seafood that I’d bought from Phu Quoc with my friend. She said the seafood tasted great and I should open a seafood restaurant. I’d failed before in restaurant ventures here so I refused. She persisted, suggesting I open something really simple with extremely low overheads—a fun place for friends to stop by to enjoy good seafood and have a few cold beers. And Cau Ba Quan opened five days after that.”
On opening day, her chef failed to show, and in an attempt to avoid disaster, Tran stepped in. “With little knowledge of traditional Vietnamese food, I did what I liked and knew best with a few bags of Louisiana crawfish boil powder that I brought back from Houston, and those VieJun dishes came out. The rest is history,” Nikki laughs.It’s a no-frills, plastic-chair joint that’s reached a global audience—as it was recently featured on David Chang’s Netflix series “Ugly Delicious.” Trays of shrimps come swimming in a garlic butter marinade, complete with corn on the cob, potatoes and boiled franks. And now it seems Tran’s “Viejun” food is about to come full circle, as she recently announced the opening of a location back in Houston, as well as another oyster-inspired joint on Thai Van Lung called Kau Ba Quan.
In short: Unique as-seen-on-Netflix food and ice cold beer in no-fuss surroundings.
What to order: VieJun shrimps and “Happy Salad,” so called by recent visitor Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Location: 85 Hoang Sa, Da Kao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
#4. Lao Hac Quan
Saigon has no shortage of vintage-style cafes. But Lao Hac Quan’s riverview location gives it a special atmosphere. Aesthetically, it’s still the quintessential nostalgia-fuelled model of a Vietnamese cafe—with old broken TV sets, wooden-shutter windows, and an old french Mobylette scooter in the middle of things.
Don’t be put off if the prime seats overlooking the water are taken—the back of the room makes a wonderful spot to bury yourself in a book, listen to the rain, or just gaze around inquisitively at the other characterful patrons.
Owner Tran Dong first opened the cafe in 2014. Lao Hac Quan, he explains, takes its name from a 1945 story by the novelist Nam Cao, “A story about the poor rural areas of North Vietnam. I gave my cafe this name to hark back to the past, and so the cafe has a classic, rustic style, retaining elements that feel familiar.”
In short: A nostalgic, peaceful getaway that’s perfect for a rainy afternoon.
What to order: Honor traditions with a ca phe sua da, or maybe a beer. Hungry? Try the cha lua.
Location: 299B Hoang Sa, Tan Dinh, Quan 1, Ho Chi Minh City
#5. Quan Ut Ut’s Bacontainer
If you’ve had your fill of seafood, snails, and other traditional staples along Truong Sa street, head over to Quan Ut Ut where the script is altogether different. This is American-style barbecue a with a tip of the hat towards Vietnamese ingredients. Co-founders Tim Scott, Mark Gustafson, and Albin Deforges challenged themselves to do the best they could with what ingredients were available in Vietnam. Upon opening their flagship restaurant in 2014 in District 1, word quickly spread and before long, Scott tells us, they, “Had people happy to wait for two hours to get a table.”
Nine months later, the team opened “The Bacontainer” on Truong Sa street. Never keen on doing the same thing twice, they sought a different vibe, “The original Ut Ut is hot, busy, loud, and thronging. But when we built the second one we wanted there to be more space.” And so there is—it’s a completely outdoor restaurant walled by repurposed shipping containers and with a retractable roof. Much like its sister, it didn’t take long for word to get around about the new Quan Ut Ut. It was even featured on Adam Richman’s “Secret Eats,” where the celebrity foodie tried the fish sauce glazed ribs.
In short: Barbecue worthy of loosening your belt a few notches, washed down with your choice of craft beer.
What to order: Everything. But if pushed, the cashew smoked ribs.
Location: 60 Truong Sa, Phuong 17, Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City