However your year has panned out personally and professionally, one thing’s certain, Saigon’s bar scene this year popped and fizzed just like one of Rabbit Hole’s gin fizzes. New bars have come, some have gone, while others like Qui have continued to smash it.
Jericson Co, a co-founder of Asia’s 25th ranked bar in the 2018 Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, The Curator, was moved to comment when he visited Saigon recently: “You wouldn’t expect a cocktail at that level, at that place.” A glowing endorsement of Qui’s mixology if there ever was one.
In Saigon most nights of the week it seems there are pop-ups, tastings and masterclasses by visiting brand ambassadors followed by guest shifts at all our favourite bars. Venues like Layla, Rabbit Hole, Drinking & Healing and 2 Lam Son are leading the way in that area.
Then there have been the glitzy nationwide bartender competitions sponsored by major international brands flouting cash prizes and keenly-sought after airfares for the winners to represent Vietnam somewhere in Europe. Oh, to be in the running!
Brands and their distributors have been clambering over one another to get in on the action, and we’re lovin’ it. It means good things for us all. We have an ever-growing selection of venues to choose from with skilled bartenders serving up quality drinks every day of the week. All we can say is bring on 2019!
So with that, here’s our list of Saigon bars that caught our attention in 2018. What was our criteria? They just had to serve us up a damn good drink!
Drinking & Healing
It’s hard to ignore this newie. D&H screams location and the building has a story to tell. Smarties will point out that the building across the street was the US Embassy during the War. The newly-crowned Campari Vietnam Bartender of the Year works the bar here, so you’re guaranteed quality drinks. Their Aviation made from gin, luxardo maraschino liqueur, lime juice and violet syrup is something a little different from regular menu items at bars about Saigon, and their Sazerac made from cognac, absinthe, sugar and bitters is bang on. Forget the spa, come here instead for some me-time.
Drinking & Healing is on the 2nd Floor, 25 Ho Tung Mau St., District 1, HCMC
We went to Q Bar back in the day when it was the place to go, wedged under the Opera House at Lam Son Square in District 1. After a lengthy hiatus for most of this decade, Q Bar has reopened, except this time in District 2, adding a much needed extra option in this part of town. Yes, it can feel “clubby” when things get going, but who cares, their Happy Hour is a steal with their gin and tonics close to, if not, the best in town. It’s simplicity at its best here. They don’t go over the top with the botanicals, letting the gin talk with a wedge of lime – just right.
Q Bar is at 9A Ngo Quang Huy St., District 2, HCMC
The Iron Bank – Cocktail Vault
We’d been here a number of times since it opened, but it wasn’t until we tried their Sidecar, a New Orleanian classic made from cognac, lemon juice and triple sec, that we decided The Iron Bank was the real deal. If you love your classics, this place is for you. But it’s also the creativity of their signature cocktails that blows us away. Take their chocolate flavoured cocktail that comes served in what’s kind of like Granny’s perfume bottle straight out of the 1920s “floating” gently on a billowing cloud of dry ice. Or what about their tamarind cocktail served up in a gigantic fake tamarind half shell the size of a dinner plate? Hands-down impressive.
The Iron Bank – Cocktail Vault is at 47 Ton That Dam St., District 1, HCMC
This cosy place on busy Xuan Thuy Street in District 2 slips under the radar and lives in the shadows of better-known and much longer-established bars in the neighbourhood. But they’ve grabbed our attention with their excellent whiskey cocktails, including a great Old Fashioned, but it’s their Sazerac that goes close to nailing the best in town gong. Add uber-friendly staff, location and a Happy Hour that’s 50% off between 4pm-8pm, 86 Proof should be on everyone’s bar of the year list if it isn’t already.
86 Proof is at 98 Xuan Thuy St., District 2, HCMC
The crew at Rabbit Hole has a dream of making the Asia’s 50 Best Bar list sooner rather than later, and they may just do it if they keep on their merry way. They have the location, ambience and concept, but it’s their drinks that will get them over the line. Already they’re serving up quality, sophisticated offerings that are setting the benchmark for cocktails in Saigon.
Their twist on the Ramos Gin Fizz – Rabbit’s Gin Fizz – made with butterfly pea, chamomile-infused gin, lemon, lime, egg white and Lebanese orange blossom water is a sublime winner. They do a very good Sazerac, but what impressed us was their Amaretto Sour, made from Amaretto liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice and a slice of orange and maraschino cherry to finish off a ‘wondrous’ little tipple.
Rabbit Hole is at 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St., District 1, HCMC
Why wouldn’t you like a bar with its entrance inside an ATM? Well, it might be a fake one, but still. Kudos for fooling us first time round into thinking it was actually a real cash machine. ATM has one of the best stocked bars in the city with some of the most meticulous bartenders out there mixing up the drinks. This place fits the definition of a speakeasy to the letter. Their great drinks served in an atmosphere perfect for sneaky rendezvous, tastings with close mates or boozy discussions in hushed tones with business associates makes it one of the best bars in the city.
ATM is at 27/10 Nguyen Binh Khiem St., District 1, HCMC
By now you’ll have worked out we’re fans of the classics with a particular soft spot for the ones hailing from New Orleans. What a world we live in when we’ve got bartenders in downtown Saigon serving up classics fom the other side of the world at such a level. The Sazerac is quintessential New Orleans and these guys have got it down, as you would expect from a bar that prides itself on its craft. With the best selection of whiskies in town, a drop dead gorgeous bar with bartenders who can make bespoke cocktails on the fly, Firkin is without doubt at the elite end of whisky bar offerings in Saigon.
Firkin is at 20 Mac Thi Buoi St., District 1, HCMC
Bann Bar & Cuisine
After being tipped-off about Bann, we finally got round to trying it. We’re mighty glad we did. Located on historic Dong Khoi Street in the heart of the city on the sixth floor of a small building, Bann does a fantastic Old Fashioned. Recently they made the decision to move their Happy Hour to 9.30pm till midnight for all classic cocktails on their menu, including a selection of their own twist on the classics. If their Old Fashioned (traditionally made with either bourbon or rye whiskey) made with Mount Gay Black Barrel rum is anything to go by, then this place will gain a lot of fans fast. Go check it out. We’ll be back soon to work our way through the rest of their menu.
Bann Bar & Cuisine is at 71C Dong Khoi St., District 1, HCMC
Hyde Bar & Lounge
Our preview of Hyde prior to its opening back in October turned out to be our most popular post of the year. Visually, Hyde is stunning with its ambiance crafted beautifully by its pink, blue and red neon lighting and its Japanese izakaya concept.
Topping it off is an ultra-creative drinks menu by Richie Fawcett (ex-Sorae and Shri, now The Studio Saigon). If you’re looking to be blown away by creativity, Hyde is your place.
Signature cocktails include the Butterfly cocktail made from gin, sake lees, Aperol, sparkling wine and liquorice powder served in a red and black lacquered box with dry ice coursing over the top.
Equally as mesmerising is the Phases of the Moon cocktail, again made with gin, but this time sake, white Vermouth, sparkling wine and sesame seed oil round out the concoction served with a plastic “slider” that when pulled, reveals each phase of the moon radiating “moonlight” upwards while wisps of dry ice dance about the glass and on the bar. This is theatre at its best.
Hyde Bar & Lounge is at 93 Nguyen Du St., District 1, HCMC
While Renkon isn’t exactly a cocktail bar, it deserves to be on our list merely for being so different. Billed as a modern izakaya – a typical neighbourhood pub in Japan popular for after-work drinking and eating among family, friends and colleagues – Renkon is beautifully designed and finished. The moulded concrete bar and tables beg you to smooth your hands over them and the timber staircase on the ground floor leading up to the second is exquisite.
On the drinks list are cocktails made from all the usual spirits like rum, gin and whiskey, however, Renkon specialises in drinks made with shochu, a Japanese distilled beverage with an alcohol volume somewhere around 25%. Their Hi Chew Mango cocktail with mango shochu, kabosu (a citrus fruit juice common in Japanese cooking) and soda is as good as any place to start working your way through the menu. And with Happy Hour between 5pm and 8pm, it’s the perfect place to kick-off the evening. Kampaii!
Renkon is at 74/10A Hai Ba Trung St., District 1, HCMC
Chin Chin Bar
As soon as you set foot inside Chin Chin, the decor has you conjuring up images of what it might’ve been like in an opium den or Chinese apothecary during colonial times, except this is a much, much happier place. The cocktail menu has a list of “signature potions” that are designed to cure the doldrums, that’s if you’re in them, of course. One that stands out for its theatrics is the Smoky Potion, concocted with two kinds of whiskey, tobacco syrup, red vermouth, cranberry juice and bitters. If you want to get a feel for where much of Saigon’s current cocktail culture is at, this is the drink to order. But if you’re a shy and retiring type and don’t care too much for flamboyance, sit in the corner and have a rum and Coke, ‘cos this baby literally goes up in smoke.
Chin Chin Bar is at 75-77 Ho Tung Mau St., District 1, HCMC
—All photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow him on Instagram at @palumbo_photo