Food & Drink

Saigon, One Cocktail at a Time

Young, discerning cocktail drinkers and single-malt connoisseurs are raising the stakes in Vietnam. Connla Stokes sips his way to the source of this intoxicating tale.

By Connla Stokes

Jul 3, 2019

NOT SO LONG AGO in Saigon, a night of cocktail consumption most likely involved a hastily made mojito or a slapdash margarita, typically shaken and served in a clamorous club or a flashy rooftop bar. But lately a more mature species of watering hole has created a far mellower habitat for those who prefer more considered concoctions.

Curiouser, and curiouser…

Rabbit Hole is an urbane, underground lair with a long bar and chiaroscuro lighting that attracts a young, cosmopolitan clientele through the night. I am immediately tempted by the themed cocktails and Drink Me (gin, Lillet Blanc, Chartreuse Green, orange bitters) would seem an appropriate starting point for the evening but, emerging from the shadows, co-owner Leon Nguyen reveals the catalyst for Rabbit Hole was a city-wide search for just-so classics rather than creative cocktails: “We drank a lot of Negronis that night, but couldn’t find anywhere that nailed one, so we opened our own bar to do just that.” Despite Leon’s hint, I can’t resist summoning The Mad Hatter (Earl Grey–infused bourbon, strawberry syrup, lemon juice, homemade spiced palm syrup and tonic).

BF, 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Dist. 1; cocktails from VND200,000; open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The Murakami Effect

With a sheepish grin, Hoang Nguyen admits he hadn’t heard of an Old Fashioned just a few years ago. Now he’s the co-owner of In the Mood, a snug but sophisticated speakeasy, squirreled away in a French-period apartment block by the Opera House. “I started to drink whisky after reading novels by Haruki Murakami in my 20s,” says Hoang, who became so obsessed with single malts he traveled to Scotland, Taiwan and Japan solely to visit distilleries. Now thanks to pioneers like him, in a city where peaty Scotch and premium spirits were once exclusive to the corporate domain, hip, young Saigonese think nothing of sipping on Bruichladdich or a Sazerac made with Pikesville Straight Rye. Overwhelmed by an inventory of 180 scotches and whiskies, I opt for an After Dark (cacao bourbon, Campari, Martini Rosso and the essence of sous-vide shiitake) and raise my glass to Haruki-san.

3F, 151 Dong Khoi, Dist. 1; cocktails from VND220,000; open 6:30 p.m. to 12 a.m.

The Backlash Theory

Sorry, it’s a bar, not a bank

Despite the au courant portal (an ersatz cash machine at the end of an otherwise typical Saigon alleyway— fear not: you don’t need a pin code), there’s a throwback vibe inside The ATM Cocktail Bar and Kitchen: jazz music, a gorgeous high wooden bar, and low, leather seating in a lounge area. “I used to have customers asking for an Old Fashioned with apple juice, but day by day, drink by drink, everyone’s knowledge has been growing,” says the ever-dapper and utterly charming owner, Tan Pham, who partly attributes Saigon’s speakeasy trend as a backlash to the city’s brash clubs and pubs, where deafening tunes negate confabulation. Make sure to try Tan’s Mekong Negroni that eschews Campari for a homemade bitter melon infusion, and for those in need of ballast, there’s also a full dinner menu.

Lane 27, 10 Nguyen Binh Khiem, Dist. 1; cocktails from VND170,000; open 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. (1 a.m. weekends).

The Time Has Come

Following a creaking staircase to the third floor of a French-colonial building, a soundproof door opens to reveal Drinking & Healing, a livelier affair than its peers (i.e., less soft jazz, more throbbing bass). “Drinkers” and “healers” trade banter across a funky, photogenic bar lined with fermenting potations, botanicals and syrups—all house-made—and distinctive glassware (I’d caution against the signature creation Your Toilet). Though there’s an iPad with a fun, build-your-own cocktail platform, I elect for a top-shelf G&T (Monkey 47 with Thomas Henry and berries, served balloon-style). “It’s crazy. We’re full every single night, even Mondays,” says head “healer” Vien Du as we step out onto the smokers’ (and, of course, vapers’) balcony, facing the 68-story Bitexco Tower—a handy visual reminder of how quickly this city moves when the time comes.

3F, 25 Ho Tung Mau, Dist. 1; cocktails from VND210,000; open 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. (3 a.m. weekends).


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