Vietcetera's Quarterly Saigon Guide For Winter 2018
In a crowded city, discovering Saigon’s charms takes time. Here, we pull together the places to eat, drink, work, and see art in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietcetera's Quarterly Saigon Guide For Winter 2018
We’re often asked for our up-to-date Saigon guide—the kind you share with best friends and out-of-town guests. So, with tourist numbers hitting a record peak and locals increasingly on the lookout for newly opened and off-the-beaten path places, here’s Vietcetera’s Saigon guide to the most interesting places to work, eat, drink, and see art in the city right now.
L’Usine is the city’s original concept-store and cafe, so it’s a good place to start our Saigon guide. Carrying their tote bag used to mean you’d found the characterful art alley that led to the first location at 151 Dong Khoi and climbed the stairs through wafts of BBQ smoke from the famous 60-year-old bun thit nuong restaurant at 88 Nguyen Hue Street the other side of the alley.
L’Usine Dong Khoi helped launch District Eight, the modern-industrial furniture brand, and a number of other made-in-Vietnam labels like Clae footwear and Martial Artist menswear. Then they offered more of the same at the second concept-store and cafe they opened on Le Loi. Now, you’re also likely to find prestigious international labels in store, like French brands Commes Des Garcon and Maison Kitsuné.
The opening of their flagship lifestyle store on the corner of Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung was something of a departure from the previous two locations. First, they moved away from the factory aesthetic for something more refined like the plantation shutters and custom tiles. And Rice-Creative added the branding zeroing in on the iconic “L’”. But most importantly, the food is back to its best with a 17-item “killer all day breakfast menu.”
In Short: The original concept-store and cafe back to what it does best: brilliant brunches.
What to order: The rosti with spinach, avocado, chorizo, and poached eggs, and an americano afterwards.
Where: 19 Le Thanh Ton, District 1 and also at 151 Dong Khoi and 70B Le Loi
The Vintage Emporium
Although it is a ward of District 1, sleepy Dakao seems a world away. That’s especially true if you’re spending your morning at The Vintage Emporium. The design-conscious cafe has a distinctly Indochine feel. Inside, you’ll also find old cassette decks, antique TVs, and ethnic minority wall hangings. The mindful menu includes Moroccan poached eggs in a spicy ragu, a classic steak sandwich with caramelized onions and homemade chilli jam, and with options for gluten-free bread. They also serve thick green smoothies with ingredients like kale, spinach, avocado, and ginger.
Added to that, The Vintage Emporium is a short walk away from Galerie Quynh, one of the most interesting contemporary art galleries in Saigon. [A] Coffee is nearby as well, if you want a serious cold brew coffee after your breakfast. Or you can grab a beer over at Bunker Bed and Breakfast if it’s later in the day.
In Short: The Vintage Emporium is a chic retro cafe in sleepy Dakao with great green smoothies and a creative breakfast menu.
What to order: A green smoothie and a “healthy breakfast.”
Where: 95B Nguyen Van Thu, District 1 (now also open in District 2)
The Old Compass Cafe
At four years of age, The Old Compass Cafe isn’t really that old. However, its building goes back to the sixties when the alley below buzzed with busy food stalls. Considering its proximity to the metro line construction work, and the always-on noise of the center of District 1, The Old Compass Cafe is a tranquil hideaway with a composed breakfast menu and some strong coffee.
It might also be worth sticking around into the evening, ordering a Pasteur St Jasmine IPA or a glass of wine, and catching one of The Old Compass Cafe’s author talks by writers and historians like Andrew Lam, Nguyen Qui Duc, Denish Chong, Jim Laurie, and Tim Doling. The Old Compass also features regular live music events.
In Short: A tranquil central Ho Chi Minh City cafe perfect for reading the Mekong Review over a strong iced Vietnamese coffee.
What to order: Watch out for specials like their bun thit nuong or stick around for the set lunch menu that changes daily.
Where: 3rd Floor, 63 Pasteur Street, District 1
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Along a sleepy street in District 3 that connects to the chaos of Cach Mang Thang Tam, Publik Office has introduced a design-consciousness to the coworking ecosystem. The space, designed by the Japanese architect Sanuki Daisuke, is a departure from his usual breezy tropical architectural style.
Although there are lots of plants on the balconies, the most distinctive feature is the steel zig-zagging “origami” frontage that changes color as the light changes throughout the day.
The interior is sophisticated, but fuss-free to help coworkers concentrate at their shared desks, or in the offices and meeting rooms. There’s also a seminar room on the top floor.
In Short: The coworking space gets a Sanuki Daisuke-designed revamp.
Where to work: Take a shared table on the first floor available by the day, or for design-conscious startups, take an office on the second floor.
Where: 38A Nguyen Thi Dieu, District 3
Toong “Jungle Station”
Envisioned as “your first place after home,” Toong serve good coffee in a tropical environment at their “jungle station.” There’s lots of natural light, a deliberate design feature by G8A architects, and a cost-efficient approach to the interior that retains the industrial building’s original elements. Toong also stands out for its series of events.
They’ve held TED-style talks by some of their more interesting residents, the film director Tran Anh Hung has run workshops there, and there’s a regular roster of art shows amidst the greenery.
In Short: A coworking space where tropicality meets industrial design.
Where to work: Grab a “day tripper” ticket and a quiet corner with access to the pantry and communal spaces or a “resident” monthly pass that allows you to access Toong’s eight locations in Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and Vientiane.
Where: 126 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3, and seven other locations in Southeast Asia
The Hive Saigon
It’s not just the eyes of investors and food and beverage groups that are on Saigon. Due to its business success stories, a number of regional—and even international—coworking companies have identified Vietnam as the place to get a foothold. That includes The Hive, a coworking company originally set-up in Hong Kong in 2012 by the British entrepreneur, Constant Tedder.
And with the large number of itinerant workers and fledgling startups taking advantage of the relatively low apartment rents, international restaraunts, and sunkissed lifestyle of District 2, it made sense for The Hive Saigon to open along the district’s Xuan Thuy. It’s joined Hive’s 15 other international locations including nine in its home of Hong Kong and three in Singapore. And due to its success here a second location is already opening, The Hive Villa, at 29 Nguyen Ba Lan.
The core of The Hive Saigon and The Hive Villa’s concept is to create spaces as comfortable as home, something Vietcetera can attest to having spent a few weeks in their Xuan Thuy space before we found our own home at 6 Thi Sach.
In Short: The homely coworking space in District 2.
Where to work: Day, week, and monthly passes for their hot desks and dedicated desks, or host a team meeting on their breezy rooftop.
Where: The Hive Saigon, 94 Xuan Thuy, District 2, and The Hive Villa, Nguyen Ba Lan
Going through the gate at 8A Thai Van Lung is like disappearing into another world. That’s because it’s the entrance to Saigon’s original Japanese district and like the yokocho of Tokyo this “Japan Town” is a kitsch neon-lit film set that has some of the most affordable Japanese food in the city.
Umemoto is a grill restaurant opened by an entrepreneur from Osaka, Umemoto Hiroki. There are ten heavy wooden seats around a kitchen that’s separated from the customers by glass. You’ll likely be sharing the counter with a line of Japanese salarymen keen to explore the menu of fresh fish like the grilled salmon, the amberjack served in plum sauce, or the mackerel that’s grilled or served in soy or miso sauce. If it’s full when you arrive, there’s always Mutahiro’s famous chicken ramen or Fujiro’s crispy pork cutlets nearby.
In Short: Grilled Japanese fish at a counter filled with hungry Japanese salarymen.
What to order: The mackerel in sweet soy sauce.
Where: 8A/A1 Thai Van Lung, District 1
Padma de Fleur
You might miss Padma de Fleur with its nondescript entrance obscured by a bank of motorbikes. But inside is a haven of ornate picture frames, wooden furniture, and vases filled with flowers. In fact, flowers are the main source of income for the owner, Quynh Anh, and her team of “wild-at-heart floral artists.”
But every lunchtime they serve some simple but flavorful homemade dishes that depend on what the chef could gather from the market in the morning. And nearby you can browse the sneakers and apparel at Inside the Box, or grab an after-lunch coffee in the open air at Chat Coffee.
In Short: One of Saigon’s sweetest and most flower-scented cafes.
What to order: The set lunch that changes daily.
Where: 55/6 Le Thi Hong Gam, District 1
Stoker Woodfired Grill and Bar
In a Saigon guide full of new openings, it’s reassuring to return to a relative classic that launched in 2015 and discover it’s still a crowd-pleaser. Stoker Woodfired Grill and Bar was one of the first restaurants to serve an elaborate concept alongside its aged beef steaks. Stoker’s backstory involves an intrepid patron named Francis Oldric C. Stoker and, appropriately, the place has the feel of an eccentric hunting lodge.
The same group behind Stoker has other venue concepts on the street. Besides Stoker Woodfired Grill and Bar, there’s Thai-style Racha Room and the Firkin speakeasy. Phat’s Dumplings and Relish & Sons Burgers are just a block over. Afterwards, you could also grab a coconut coffee at Cong Cafe, or if it’s the evening, get grimy at the famous street rum spot at 13 Phan Van Dat.
In Short: Meaty set lunches in middle of District 1.
What to order: The lunch set that includes woodfired capsicum and feta flatbread and soy glazed 12-hour-smoked beef brisket.
Where: 44 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1
La Viet’s first cafe in Dalat was such a success they’ve headed down from the mountains to this corner on the border between District 1 and District 3. In a city full of coffeeshops, it’s hard to stand out and feature in our Saigon guide. But La Viet manages it.
That’s because they’ve added a modern aesthetic—lots of minimal decor and clean white walls—to their cafe that serves proudly grown-in-Vietnam arabica coffee. There’s also framed pictures of beans in various stages of preparation, four large filled coffee sacks that hang ominously over one of the shared tables, and there’s a balcony that looks down onto the shady alley and the characterful yellow-walled Mam Vietnamese restaurant directly opposite. They also sell beans direct from their farm in Dalat, some curated local products like Marou chocolate bars, and coffee-making equipment like long-spouted kettles.
In Short: Dalat coffee served in a minimalist modern cafe in a sleepy alley off Hai Ba Trung and Dien Bien Phu.
What to order: A perfectly balanced cappuccino and a homemade cookie.
Where: 191 Hai Ba Trung, District 3
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Vietnam Coffee Republic
The cold brew pioneer Vietnam Coffee Republic was quick to get its branding as good as its coffee.
And Vietnam Coffee Republic, founded by Phong Lam, already has a strong local and global presence thanks to the brand’s bags of beans and bottles of long-life cold brew. The two cafes are in close proximity, the Bar and Showroom on the edge of Saigon’s Japan town, at the bottom of Thai Van Lung and a more homely one inside the Japanese enclave, called VCR House.
In Short: Cold brew pioneers with three Saigon locations and a global outlook.
What to order: Their cold brew served with a squeeze of lime.
Where: Bar and Showroom at 8A/6D2 Thai Van Lung, District 1, The House at 8A/7B2 Thai Van Lung, District 1, and The Thao Dien House at 9 Street 4, Thao Dien, District 2.
The Workshop on Ngo Duc Khe was one of the first coffee shops to put Vietnamese single-origin arabica center stage when it opened in 2014. And alongside Vietnamese highland coffee they serve Ethiopian and other beans using a variety of brewing techniques from syphon to V60 to woodneck and AeroPress.
The Workshop was also early on the cold brew trend. They serve their brews straight-up, with a spritz of sparkling water, or as a cold brew latte that comes out something like a fuller-bodied iced cafe sua. And the location helps. The venue features a high-ceilinged coffee vault with a roaster in the corner, window seats, and counter seating for front row at the barista show. If it’s the evening, go downstairs after your coffee for a Central American cigar and a whisky at Siqar, or if it’s the afternoon browse the tiny but beautifully curated antique shop on the first floor, Atiq Saigon.
In Short: One of the first coffee shops to showcase single-origin Vietnamese arabica in a dizzying range of brewing techniques.
What to order: The cold brew latte, a modern tribute to the traditional cafe sua da, and depending on the time of day, a fried breakfast, a salad, sandwich, or a burger.
Where: 27 Ngo Duc Khe, District 1
Licensing problems and a shortage of local collectors have meant galleries have had to look to international art fairs for an income.
Gradually, a local audience engaged with artworks as collectible items is emerging according to galleries like Galerie Quynh.
They’ve spent 15 years nurturing talent like artist Hoang Duong Cam. And their latest three-floor location, in Dakao, is allowing artists like Cam to fill the space with installations and artworks while Galerie Quynh invite exciting guests over like the Vietnamese-American artist Lien Truong for her show “Mutiny in the Garden.”
In Short: A contemporary art gallery that’s nurtured some of Vietnam’s most exciting artists.
Where: 118 Nguyen Van Thu, District 1
The Factory Contemporary Arts Center
From their very first show, “Technophobe,” it was clear The Factory Contemporary Arts Center planned to push the boundaries.
Since then, The Factory Contemporary Arts Center has continued to showcase the best Vietnamese conceptual artists’ works, like Bui Cong Khanh’s “Dislocate,” while cataloguing Vietnam’s recent art history, in shows like the “Gang of Five” that surveyed over three decades in the lives of five of Vietnam’s most pivotal art figures.
The cavernous venue allows The Factory Contemporary Arts Center to host more than one show at the same time giving extra value to the small entrance fee. You can also start at the Factory and go on a District 2 gallery tour that also takes in Soma Art Lounge and Vin Gallery. Alternatively, grab a bite at MAD House or browse the funky ceramics at Tuhu, both walking distance away.
In Short: Cutting-edge and cavernous, The Factory Contemporary Arts Center put on some of the city’s most exciting shows.
Where: 15 Nguyen U Di, District 2
Since its founding, the VinGallery always mixed international and local artists, showing off painters like Yohei Yama and Vietnamese artists like Nguyen Thi Chau Giang. The small gallery in District 2 has been through a number of changes in that time.
Now, the space houses the independent publisher and art bookstore, Inpages. Sandwiched between that and Soma Art Lounge is the gallery space. Lately, they’ve been offering more performance-inspired events and talks by artists like Karine Guillermin who read poetry at the opening of her show “Upopo O Hana Spirit,” and Yohei Yama and Anabelle Ng’s duo-show and music performance in VinGallery’s new space in Georgetown, Penang.
In Short: A District 2 gallery that shows international and local artists in a corner with an independent bookstore and a neighbouring art lounge.
Where: 6 Le Van Mien, District 2, and 5 Persiaran Gurney, Georgetown, Malaysia
Shamoji Robata Yaki
From the moment you duck through the tiny door to be greeted with drums and a rousing “irasshaimase,” it’s clear the Japanese grill restaurant Shamoji Robata Yaki is going to be a theatrical dining experience. Besides the welcome, the chefs set up a station where they pound mochi and invite guests to join in.
Then, at around 8 PM every evening, they switch off the lights and flame grill tuna over a bed of burning hay. Added to that, if you sit at Shamoji Robata Yaki’s counter, the cook will pass your orders over to you on the end of an oversized oar. And if you order sake bombs, served with beer or cider, the staff encourage you to play a noisy game that draws the attention of the whole restaurant. Fortunately, by that time you’ll be too drunk to care.
You can order sushi and sashimi from Sushi Yen next door—owned by the same Vietnamese group—or dive into Shamoji Robata Yaki’s kushiyaki like the snakehead fish that’s grilled whole, or the skewers of pork with asparagus, while you enjoy watching the streams of rosy-cheeked drinkers tripping down the stairs from the mezzanine floor above.
In Short: An interactive Japanese dining experience that delivers almost as much fun as it does good food.
What to order: Start with a sashimi set from next door then move on to the grilled snakehead fish and some sake bombs.
Where: 8 Ngo Duc Khe and 133 Nguyen Hue, District 1, and also 25 Tong Dan, Hanoi.
Over a year since opening, Anan is still the place to take out-of-towners in search of elevated Vietnamese street food.
Now chef and founder Peter Cuong Franklin has decided to fill one of the five-floor building’s intermediate rooms with a more refined concept called Nhau Nhau where there’s truffle pho, Dalat lavender-infused cocktails, and some more outre experiments like the coconut worm and foetus-egg shots.
Old vinyl records of Vietnamese “golden music” crackle on the turntable, and a balcony looks down on District 1’s last wet market two floors below, in a dining-bar designed by Sean Dix, the creative mind behind Yardbird and Ronin in Hong Kong that’s perfect for anyone who said Anan was too tightly packed with diners.
In Short: Anan transformed into a cool, design conscious 18-seat dining-bar.
What to order: The truffle pho or the special pho, and a coconut worm shot…if you’re feeling brave.
Where: 89 Ton That Dam, District 1
Founder Chris Huynh has brought “strictly good vibes and good food” over with him from Hackney in East London. His take on the pork belly bun is one of eleven Taiwanese-style buns served at Baozi’s two locations.
There are also some interesting starters like Baozi’s Scotch egg and desserts like the carrot cake that have customers queuing outside their first location at 165 Nguyen Thai Hoc that opened in 2016, and their second that opened a year later at 106 Hai Ba Trung.
In Short: Taiwanese-style pork buns and some tributes to the founder’s upbringing in London—like the Scotch egg and carrot cake.
What to order: The pork belly bao.
Where: 165 Nguyen Thai Hoc and 106 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
Chef Willy Trullas Moreno’s arrival in Saigon was another sign the city is attracting international interest from the food and beverage industry. Tomatito began as a Shanghai concept intended to be more accessible than his fine-dining restaurant, El Willy, which was featured in the world’s 50 best restaurants list.
Chef Willy wanted Tomatito to serve the same creative Spanish food, but with an added sense of fun “and sexyness.” He brought the concept to Manila, and now Ho Chi Minh City. The decor, created by Willy’s brother’s design firm—featuring matador outfits and a painted Vespa and sidecar—might have felt cliched had it not been done so well. And although El Willy isn’t there too often, Mexican chef Julio Gomez ensures the standards are kept high.
In Short: Fun decor and sexy Spanish food.
What to order: The salmon TNT with sour cream, truffle oil, and honey that you eat with “two fingers and one bite.”
Where: 171 Calmette, District 1
Lots of restaurant cause a stir when they open, few manage to successfully maintain the buzz. Quince Saigon is one of them. Even conservative reports proclaim that the restaurant “lives up to the foodie hype.”
The fruition of a goal to “create an eatery unlike an other in Saigon,” Quince is hidden among the shophouses and hardware stores at the less fashionable end of Ky Con Street.
In fact, the restaurant has a Southeast Asian sibling—Quince Eatery & Bar in Bangkok. It’s a restaurant that’s earned Michelin-guide approval. But rather than replicate the model, the Quince team set about sourcing the best Vietnamese ingredients like trout from Sapa and the freshest Dalat fruit and vegetables. The result is an innovative one-page menu of flavor-packed dishes like their hay-smoked kingfish ceviche or their BBQ chorizo sausage with pickled Hanoi plum, burnt cabbage, smoked yoghurt and rice powder. And it’s all served in understatedly chic surroundings.
In Short: Perfectly pitched casual fine dining from a restaurant team with Michelin pedigree.
What to order: Dip into any of the menu served from the open kitchen, from the BBQ wagyu ox heart to the BBQ octopus with fennel skordalia and parsley and garlic oil.
Where: 37bis Ky Con Street, District 1
Octo Tapas Restobar
Although they serve set lunches and dinner, we’ve added Octo Tapas Restobar here because of their late-night happy hour, which means you can watch a film across the street in the Bitexco Tower and still grab a drink and some small plates of innovative Spanish-inspired cuisine at Octo Tapas Restobar afterwards.
Executive chef Julien Thabault and head chef Pedro Goizueta make everything in-house, and while there are signatures like the pulpo a l’OCTO—a braised octopus dish with truffle mash—keep an eye on the specials board to see which new dishes they’ve come up with like their Iberico secreto katsu, with prune and sobrasada sauce.
In Short: Truly innovative Spanish cuisine now serving lunchtime, evenings, and into the night.
What to order: The signature pulpo a l’OCTO or the Chilean mussels with chorizo and a cocktail, like the Big Daddy with aged rum, Martini Rosso, bitters, orange, and a smoking cinnamon stick, during the 10 to 11:30 PM late-night happy hour.
Where: Level 2, 75 Ho Tung Mau, District 1
Bars and Speakeasies
Drinking & Healing
Speakeasies were rare as recently as a year or two ago. Now, exposed brickwork and industrial lighting is almost passé.
But Drinking & Healing is one of the newly opened bars that is adding depth to the drinking scene in Saigon. Located on the edge of Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, beneath the Bitexco Tower, Drinking & Healing is the sister spot of the sporty Guru Bar in District 3. There’s a hip hop soundtrack, occasional DJs, and a welcoming atmosphere bathed in the light of the well-stocked shelves of spirits.
In Short: A modern speakeasy with exposed brickwork and dimmed lighting and some flavorful cocktails.
What to order: The dry gin sous-vide lychee, with sake, and Maraschino Luxado, and bar bites including the fois gras burger.
Where: 2nd Floor, 25 Ho Tung Mau Street, District 1
The Rabbit Hole
If you want classy classic cocktails made with precision, go to The Rabbit Hole. They make almost one hundred classics that aren’t even listed on the menu.
Test them by asking for a Vesper—a martini with gin and vodka—or a Sazerac, a New Orleans cognac cocktail. Or order monthly specials and themed-house cocktails that reference Alice in Wonderland and the surrealist images of Rene Magritte. Although there’s no connection besides the name, this Rabbit Hole recently invited over The Rabbit Hole Bangkok for a pop-up—one of Asia’s top 50 bars.
In Short: The best classy but no-fuss cocktails served at a counter decorated with images by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.
What to order: The infamously hard to perfect Ramos Gin Fizz or an off-menu Vesper martini.
Where: 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1