In Part 1 of this Drinking Culture series, I covered the best places to hangout and get the best craft beers in the city. For this article, I will take you to a much more rewarding experience worth every buck: Cuisine & Mixology and Specialty Bars in Saigon.
You have seen the city growing and globalizing, with luxurious department stores, elegant restaurants, shining craft beer taprooms, and fancy nightclubs flocked with young locals. Check my first part of this drinking culture series – about best bars in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for nightlife hanging out spots and craft beer – if you haven’t.
What about the less visible corners of the city? In those quiet and classic bars with golden lights, is there anything interesting to drink in their wooden interiors? My answer is yes, these are the places that you will find the finest and most perfected cocktails and spirits of the city.
- Cocktail Bar Culture of Saigon
- Locals’ Favorite Flavors
- The Refined Harmonization of Mixology and Cuisine
- The Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen – When the Best of All Words Comes Together
- Drinking & Healing – The Place to Cure Your Sadness
- Monde Bar & Restaurant – Authentic Japanese Hospitality in the Heart of Saigon
- QUI – CUISINE MIXOLOGY Lounge – Finest Mixology and Cuisine Innovation
- Expanding Your Comfort Zone – Single-spirit Bars
- firkin Bar – bespoke cocktails & whiskeys
Cocktail Bar Culture of Saigon
With the improving integration of foreign culture in Saigon, people’s drinking habits have changed to catch up with the trends of the world, and even surpass it with a unique quality. In particular, Vietnam is leading the craft beer market of the region. But the cocktail and fine-drinking culture are just about to begin.
The cocktail culture has not fully developed yet because it just started spreading and gaining popularity 2 years ago. Quality spirits and cocktails used to be confined to luxurious hotels, clubs, and bars associated with these hotels, and some high-end restaurants, in a limited quantity. But in the recent years, it is becoming popular with the average income audience, with the appearance of more and more mid-to-high range cocktail bars like Qui Cuisine & Mixology, My House, Monde Restaurant & Bar, and more.
In fact, the development of drinking culture in Vietnam is almost developing backward. Throughout Western history, taverns and saloons first appeared, then pubs, bars, lounges, and finally nightclubs. But here, nightclubs developed first, due to the westernization by the French and the Americans. At the same time, cocktail lounges were traditionally integrated into luxurious hotels around the city, where only classy locals could afford. Then in the 2010s, beer clubs and sky lounges popped up for the young average-earning person to party at once in a while. It is only recently that the very first cocktail – mixology bars showed up. And they are surely the best bars in Ho Chi Minh.
Locals’ Favorite Flavors
Another thing to keep in mind about the culture of drinking in Vietnam is that there are differences between men and women’s flavors of choice. Men typically prefer drinks that are strong, bold, and rich in flavor, while women usually like something light and fruity. All tastes boil down to a traditional Vietnamese flavor profile, which is a bit sweet for Westerners. The most popular flavors among the young people are coconut, pineapple, sweet and fruity (citrusy, peachy, etc.), pandan (Vietnamese screwpine), matcha (Japanese green tea), milky, creamy, and flavors that remind them of childhood treats. Yet, I am a whiskey guy and I prefer drinks with complexities and many layers of taste.
One last thing, almost every cocktail bar in Ho Chi Minh City follows Japanese-style bartending by focusing on the perfection of techniques and flavors, preserving the classics for cocktail enthusiasts, and crafting cocktails with local ingredients based on local tastes. They are introducing the sophisticated yet accessible culture to young people.
So up next, I will recommend to you my own choices of the best bars in Ho Chi Minh – mixology bars with cuisine & cocktail pairing, and specialized single-spirit bars.
The Refined Harmonization of Mixology and Cuisine
Beer or wine is often paired with cuisine throughout history. The right choice of beer or wine can highly enhance a dining experience, and yet it is not difficult to do so with the many popular pairing guides published worldwide. But pairing cuisine with cocktails is a whole different story. The complexity of flavor and the endless number of combinations, modified by thousands of bartenders with their own unique personalities, adds to an impossibly large number of cocktails. Successfully making the right choice of cocktail and food can result in a fantastic and mind-blowing experience. These following bars have totally nailed it!
The Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen – When the Best of All Words Comes Together
If you want the best of all worlds, The Alley is the place to go. With a wonderful vintage decoration, this bar lures its guests into a fantasy world with a cozy atmosphere, chill vibes, and of course, an unforgettable dining and drinking experience. There are countless selections of cocktails and fine wine for you to choose from: martinis, vodka, gin, and rum to tequila, whiskey, cognac, and Japanese sake! Even if you’re not in the mood for drinking, the food menu will satisfy you instead. Do you like having options? If you’re looking for an easy nibble, try the Vietnamese spring rolls, tackle crispy chicken wings, enjoy grilled Australian beef, and lick your lips after an appetizing dish of Italian spaghetti.
While it turns darker outside as night falls, it’s time for acoustic live music to take over inside. Now it’s time to sit back in wood booths, indulge in delicious classic cocktails, or turn yourself over to the bartender’s choice for a stunning twist. The friendly team behind the bar is happy to meet your drink expectations. Come and explore their food and drink, I know you’ll want to come back for a second night!
- Address: 63/1 Pasteur Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, HCMC
- Opening hours: 5 PM – 1 AM (closed on Sunday)
- Price: average 150,000 VND for drinks
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thealleysaigon/
Drinking & Healing – The Place to Cure Your Sadness
A great drink can cure sadness, but if you don’t believe me, check out Drinking & Healing! Nestled in the second floor of a 150-year-old building, this bar is truly a hidden gem that upon entering, all your stress and daily burden will melt right outside the sturdy door. The dim lights, the wood bricks, and the dark wall have harmonized perfectly to bring out a cozy, private, and relaxing vibe so that you can feel comfortable in your own world. Whether you’re going out with friends or for an after-work drink, a wide selection of delicious cocktails with ingredients and garnishes of the highest quality will surely satisfy your tired mind.
The bar specializes in drinks made from gin and tonic with a variety of flavors, from fresh orange, lime, grapefruit, and berry to rosemary, local dried sakura, pink pepper, and sage leaf. If you feel uncertain about what to drink, give the bartenders a heads up so that they can surprise you! Last but not least, while the cocktails and the collection of hundreds of bottles are the main draw to this place, the burgers have their own fans. The Drinking & Healing mixologists will share their picks for quality cocktails that go well with beefy-cheesy goodness, so no need to worry!
- Address: 2nd floor, 25 Ho Tung Mau Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, District 1, HCMC
- Opening hours: 6:30 PM – 2 AM
- Price: average 250,000 VND for drinks
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/drinking.n.healing/
Monde Bar & Restaurant – Authentic Japanese Hospitality in the Heart of Saigon
Monde Bar & Restaurant is a middle-range yet luxurious bar and restaurant serving slow-style, perfect classic cocktails with a fine dining experience. It is highly favored by Vietnamese and Japanese business people for many occasions such as business meetings, private, and family dinners. This high-class Japanese bar & restaurant with a vintage European twist earns its place among the best bars in Ho Chi Minh for its chilling jazz, rare whiskeys, perfected classic cocktails, and refined cuisine.
Located on a busy street between the Independence Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral, Monde is situated in an old colonial manor house with a spacious courtyard and a heavy wooden door.
The moment you step inside, the chaos, the honking, and the rain of Saigon disappear.
The first thing you will notice is the sophisticated yet minimalist interior with a green garden outside the big window, and the 70’s jazz playing in the background, an authentic feeling of a typical bar in Ginza – the most famous upscale dining and entertainment district of Tokyo, Japan. And yes, the first Monde was founded 30 years ago in Ginza, and is famous for its harmony of service, surroundings, food, and drink. Even in Saigon, the third establishment, the experience of Japanese hospitality stays true.
Here, you will have a taste of true Japanese mixology and cuisine, where every little thing is perfected. In Japanese bartending, water is the most important element. You will understand this obsession by observing how the bartenders handcraft every piece of ice. Imagine a perfectly-round, crystal-clear ball of ice spinning in your glass of whiskey. The menu recommends their signatures and some classics, but your choice still depends on your desire, and the bartender is willing to fulfill it. Ask for Mr. Hasegawa and you will experience the Master’s cocktails, of one of the best bars in Ho Chi Minh.
- Address: 7 Bis Han Thuyen, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, HCMC
- Opening hours: 5:00 PM – 1:00 AM
- Price: average 200,000 VND for drinks
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/monde.bar.restaurant/
- Main website: mondevietnam.com
QUI – CUISINE MIXOLOGY Lounge – Finest Mixology and Cuisine Innovation
Situated in the center of the Little Japan corner in Ho Chi Minh city, QUI dining lounge lures in patrons with its soothing lighting and mellow atmosphere, either for an after-work cocktail or a fancy night out. Its concept is a Western-Asian fusion dining lounge with sleek and luxurious furnishings, surrounded by a contemporary background.
First, you will be surprised by how large it is, step inside and see the seats spread back and wrap around the central bar. The seasonal Asian-themed mixology and globally-inspired fusion cuisine are crafted to harmonize with the energetic ambiance and sophisticated surroundings.
Try to sit near the center of the bar if you wish to truly experience the art of mixology.
The liquor selection is extensive with thousands of trendy and rare spirits imported from overseas. “You name it, we have it, and if not, I will give you even better options,” Tung Le, the bar manager once told me. Apart from the amazing drinks, the bartenders deliver mind-blowing performances in the face of the demanding crowd.
For Gin & Tonic enthusiasts, Qui has a diverse menu of 9 G&Ts to be explored. Each variation is different, in which the bartender plays around with herbs, spices, and fruits to enhance the chosen Gin. Take Monkey 47, a mixture of German Black Forest’s potion with dry tonic, rosemary, and raspberry served in a balloon wine glass. You might recognize the fresh botanical, woody, grass notes with wild berry fruitiness, and the intensified spiciness from the herbs of the Gin and the rosemary combined. Imagine being in a Central European pine forest after the rain.
My favorites lie in the Barrel Aged Cocktail list. Every liquor is aged in various types of casks for a precise number of days. Try Lynchburg Highway, aged 27 days in a charred American oak barrel: Rittenhouse 100 Proof Straight Rye, vanilla syrup, and Angostura bitters. The cocktail recalls the climate and vegetation of Central Tennessee with an oaky, caramelized sugar scent. Then the Tabasco and chilly emerge with a kick.
Also, please remind yourself to fill up with the amazing Qui’ck bites or a dinner feast to round-out your night.
- Address: 22 Bis Le Thanh Ton, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, HCMC
- Opening hours: 5:30 PM – 2:00 AM
- Price: 200,000 VND ++
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/quilounge/
- Main website: quilounge.com/hochiminh
Expanding Your Comfort Zone – Single-spirit Bars
One trend is going back to the roots. Mixology is all about creations and innovation yet there is a growing population that wants back to the classics and the neat on-the-rocks.
The basics of a bar are the spirits themselves. Back in the day, cocktails were crafted from good spirits and fewer ingredients, the purpose was to enhance the core essence of the spirit. That is why premium spirits are either served neat or simply mixed like the Old Fashioned and the Rusty Nail.
Backing this principle, there is a new term that has emerged– single-spirit bar. Instead of stacking the back bar with many colorful liqueurs, these bars focus on one particular type of spirit, with options collected from all over the world. Single-spirit bars are user-friendly and you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy it. So, keep your mind open for a conversation with your bartender, exploring layers of flavors unveiled in your glass.
In Saigon, there are several single-spirits bars limited to Gins or Whiskies only. I am sure these places deserve to be in the ranks of best bars in Ho Chi Minh. From the ambiance, the space, to the choices of drinks they provide, these choices will please all guests.
The Gin House – Ultimate Martinis & Perfect Gin Tonic of the 21st Century
Just on an alleyway off the busy street of Nguyen Trai, I stumbled on this Victorian-esque bar in search of a good time to spend the night: a little corner of 1920s London, frozen in time, right in the Asian modern city of Saigon. The luring charm of this Prohibition-era speakeasy makes you want to explore what is lying behind that scarlet curtain.
Founded in August of 2016, in the midst of the rising single-spirit bar trend, The Gin House has quickly become one of the best bars in Saigon. The bar specializes in gin, a medicinal spirit which was the favorite of common British folks in the 18th century. Gin & Tonic is one of the oldest mixes invented, to prevent malaria infection back in the 1700s. And Martini – “the elixir of quietude” – has been the best American cocktail creation since the Prohibition of the 1920s. Here, at the Gin House, you will get the Ultimate Martini and the Perfect Gin & Tonic.
The Gin House is not a gin gallery; there are just 30 well-selected gins, mostly from England. What defines the Gin House is its library of house-infused London-dry gins and collections of homegrown or local herbs, fruits, and botanicals, including organic teas.
Grab a stool and let the bartender quench your thirst, and add in some chips and sandwiches if you are feeling hungry.
The menu is 4 pages long, and if you can’t decide, just talk to the mixologists. A Gin & Tonic with ice and a humble slice of lemon is the story of yesterday. The Gin House has brought G&T to the 21st Century, as well as the Martinis, personalized to fit the guests’ needs. A refreshing green tea and pomegranate infused-gin and Thomas Henry’s cherry blossom tonic will surely take the intense heat of Saigon away. Or try one of the Ultimate Martinis, made from Aussie’s Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin, Peychaud’s Bitters, cardamom pods, and Jasmine-infused ice to spice up your palate before dinner.
Stop by during the daily happy hour from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM which offers G&Ts at half price. They also host Weekly Gin Experience Nights and 1920s-style Great Gatsby Parties. Even on a typical solo night, the bar counter is open for anyone to perform their own cocktail fantasies. The bartender actually invites and encourages you to try out Tom Cruise’s moves in 1988’s “Cocktail.”
Speak-easy & get zozzled!
- Address: 28/3A Ton That Tung, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Saigon
- Opening hours: 5:00 PM – 2:00 AM
- Price: 150,000 VND ++
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/theginhousesaigon/
firkin Bar – bespoke cocktails & whiskeys
Now I bring you “bespoke”. For the past 3 years, Saigon has seen the bar culture expand, each bartender is now an artist. These mixologists come up with their own signature creations like self-driven painters. Meanwhile, bespoke bartenders are like graphic designers, who craft art on demand.
Ordering a bespoke cocktail is about requesting something personal to you. It can be something that you will have once, and possibly never again, an experimental ride. Therefore, you have to trust the bartender.
firkin Bar – bespoke cocktails & whiskeys – is hidden behind a tiny entrance, up a narrow stairway. The gloomy feeling quickly disappears the moment you open the door, a sexy and sophisticated classical bar takes its place. The bar is warm with its wooden textures, dim lighting, comfy seats, and low music. The shelves amaze you with more than 400 different bottles, such a large collection for a modest-sized bar. And around 250 bottles are whiskeys, from fine Scotch to award-winning Japanese whiskeys, and even some rare ones from Tasmania.
The menu serves as a guideline for those who are new to bespoke cocktails. There are three easy categories to start with: Whiskey Sour, Old Fashioned, and Martini, with many recommended spirits and flavors satisfying almost everybody’s tastes. If you are not fond of these bold flavors, firkin bartenders are trained to craft your unique cocktail experience on the fly. There is also a wide variety of bar foods, especially scotch eggs, to accompany your spirit concoction.
But, you have to prepare and know how to make a perfect flawless order:
– First, choose the dominant spirit
Which spirit is your favorite, or which one would you like to try? Either Whisky, Brandy, Rum, Vodka, Gin, or Tequila. You can be more specific by asking about the different brands of the spirit you choose, or just point at an intriguing bottle on the shelf.
– Second, think of the flavors or the style you would like
Sweet and sour? Bold and bitter? Savory or spicy? Fruity or creamy with a hint of chocolate? These tastes serve as cues for your bartender to solve your case. Even better is providing a cocktail style – Manhattan-like or Negroni-like for example.
– Then, enjoy the show
You need magic to make your desired potion. Be mesmerized by the quick motion of the spoon or be dazzled by liquid fire. Maybe the ending garnish, like presenting your drink inside a glass dome with smoking herbs and rose petals, will win you over. You can even request your own performance!
– And lastly: The drinking ritual
Savor your magical cocktail!
Here’s an example. Take Whisky Sour as an easy one. You have choices of all the whiskeys available: bourbon, rye, blended or single malt, or even sophisticated Japanese whiskeys. Not to mention the flavors, the sourness, and the bitters.
“Could you help me with a Whisky Sour based cocktail with Japanese whiskey, refreshing, fruity and sour, but not too sweet. Maybe with nutty bitters, and feel free to spice it up a bit!”
Or something out-of-the-box like:
“I would like something bold with a deep aftertaste, smoky and sweet. Nutty and chocolaty is a plus. Could be Manhattan-like with old whiskey and something aflame.”
Even if you are not sure about what you want, just make a simple request like “I like Dark Rum, and sweet and fruity flavors,” the bartender will consult and discover your momentary desire. The cocktail prices range from 160.000 VND and upward depending on your choice of spirit.
Since they specialize in whiskeys, if you would like to have a small educational session, firkin can be your classroom.
Feel free to ask and share anything with the barman. Then if you want to try whiskey on its own, you can get a dram (40ml) or half a dram (20ml). Likewise, there are also tasting flights of threes so you can compare differences. The flights are provided with detailed tasting notes to help you better discover and realize the flavors.
In the end, you might wonder: What the firk is a “firkin”? It is an old British measurement unit, equal to a cask of 40 liters (10 gallons) and one-fourth of a barrel unit. It speaks to their upcoming crafted cask liquors. firkin is a place for a conversation, sit facing the bar and discover something new, something true to your personality. The staff is fun, at ease, but professional and serious about their work. And it is a playground for old spirits in a bottle to tell their stories of ages and express themselves, if just for a moment.
- Address: 20 Mac Thi Buoi, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Saigon
- Opening hours: 5:00 PM – 0:00 AM
- Price: 160,000 VND ++
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/firkinbar/
This is only the beginning of a long list of the best bars in Ho Chi Minh. I have crafted and shared with you my own preferences and experiences. There are more special bars in the city like various wine cellars and whiskey-cigar lounges. But I will leave these for you to find. Happy drinking in Saigon and don’t forget to comment below on your experiences at my favorite bars!
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Check out the first part of Drinking Culture in Saigon here!