By Vincent Vichit-Vadakan
Oct 28, 2022
THAO DIEN, A FORMER WARD of District 2 in Ho Chi Minh City, is an expat enclave, residential and staid. Seen from District 1, ground zero of social life in the city also known as Saigon, Thao Dien was long considered too far away (thanks to the traffic) to go out at night, and a tad boring anyway.
But change has been afoot for a while now. Four years ago, D1 steakhouse Stoker opened an outpost here. The wagyu tomahawk from brand-new chef Elliot Hardy is about much more than just throwing steaks on the barbie, while Dram Bar, the speakeasy-slash-billiard room upstairs is the place to be for a nightcap.
However, the last few months have seen an explosion of new openings that are making even District Oners sit up and take note. Young chefs, cool vibes and serious drinks are a winning combination that keeps people coming from all over the city. Here’s our guide to the best of Thao Dien, that District 2 neighborhood you might not have heard of but should definitely visit on your next trip to Saigon.
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK IN THAO DIEN
Lua opened seven months ago and has been one of the area’s best-kept secrets ever since. It serves up a killer wine list that ranges from easy-drinking to biodynamic. Meats and cold cuts are cured in house and crusty sourdough is baked on site, while a French-style tomme cheese served with grilled batons of guava is sourced from a producer outside Hanoi. Dishes like blood sausage spring rolls are perfect drinking food while the uni XO sauce gnocchi is a flavor bomb on a plate.
Lua’s founders, a Japanese sommelier with 15 years’ experience and a Japanese-Filipino chef who came to Vietnam to spread their wings, are publicity shy but given the quality of their output, their little white villa won’t be able to avoid the limelight for long. “We are just a small wine bar,” said the sommelier in an unguarded moment. And that’s just the way we love it.
Lua; snacks from VND150,000; sharing plates from VND300,000.
Madame Lam is another new arrival to the neighborhood. Originally the in-house Vietnamese restaurant of Mia Saigon (see below), it now sits in a peaceful little courtyard along with sister establishments La Cala by Mia (southern Italian) and Banh by Mia (a pastry shop and café).
Award-winning chef Nguyen Nhu Cưong serves up much more than your run-of-the-mill Vietnam’s greatest hits. Hen xao xuc banh da is a flavorsome stir-fry of chopped clams eaten on rice crackers; ca chem nuang la trau is sea bass served with savory cassava mash; and goi buoy thanh long do, a classic grapefruit salad served in its own hollowed-out dragon fruit, comes out looking like an edible, bejeweled Fabergé egg.
Madame Lam; mains from VND189,000; sharing plates from VND279,000.
Mancunian and long-time Sydneysider chef Jimmy Garside doesn’t wear labels easily. His no-nonsense approach to everything makes him an engaging dinner companion who tells it like it is. The menu reads the way the chef speaks—straight-talking and to the point, laying out ingredients with no embellishments. For example: “anchovy, capsicum, almond” or “sausage, plum, endive.” The “blood cake” is about as poetic a description as you’ll find, a zesty disk of black pudding topped with squid and salsa verde.
His inspiration at Aalto is partly Mediterranean in the largest sense, where labneh on a potato canapé shares the spotlight with stracciatella garnished with carrot and mandarin orange. The flat breads might be more akin to Indian naan and paratha and the way he uses the grill is a clear nod to his time in Australia.
Aalto; small plates from VND110,000; large plates from VND390,000.
The best seat in the house at Sono is facing the open kitchen that turns out cosmopolitan fare with a Vietnamese twist. Iberico pork secreto is a modern take on la lot, a classic Vietnamese betel leaf roll with grilled pork and fish sauce gel that will leave you wishing you’d ordered seconds. Or thirds. The aged duck breast paired with translucent sheets of pickled green papaya may look simple but the tang of the papaya is the perfect foil for the juicy duck meat.
The name Sono itself is an echo of the sonority of the music and buzz in the air. Located at the end of a mostly residential street in Thao Dien, Sono is the neighbor you always wished you had, in Saigon or elsewhere.
Sono; starters from VND289,000; mains from VND329,000.
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is an induced sensation of pleasure akin to a tingle or frisson. This new minimalist bar in Thao Dien suggests that the letters stand for acidic, sweet, sour, molecular and rich — and yes, that’s one S too many — which seems like a roundabout way to describe an incredibly solid cocktail list of house drinks and classics.
This is the place you want to chat with the friendly staff behind the bar. Their expert guidance might lead you to Balance, a refreshing long drink of gin, dried jackfruit, pineapple and pandan or the early twentieth-century classic Last Word, which looks daintier than it is. We can’t guarantee that ASMR will send shivers down your spine, but we’re pretty sure that you’ll want to come back for more.
ASMR; cocktails from VND220,000.
In a beautifully restored house with an interior garden and a picture window that frames the pass in the kitchen, newcomer Olivia really raises the bar. Chef David Green, whose résumé that reads like a gastronomic Who’s Who, is best known for his 12-plus years at The Lake House, consistently rated one of the finest restaurants in Australia.
There he honed the art of making razor-sharp kitchen skills look effortless and white-linen fine dining feel friendly and approachable. Classic French sauces on dishes like the textbook white asparagus and braised endive magically feel bright and modern, while a brimming picnic basket cheese course shows the chef’s confidence and sense of humor. Everyone will be eagerly watching what Olivia does next.
Olivia; the seven-course menu (plus surprises) is VND2,090,000.
WHERE TO STAY TO EXPLORE THAO DIEN
A short drive from the D2 action, Mia Saigon is the perfect base from which to explore Thao Dien. Every corner of the hotel is crammed with art and artifacts, from antique ceramics to mid-century propaganda posters. The all riverview suites are equally packed with furnishings hand-picked by the owner. During the day, the hotel offers guests regular speed boat service to D1, while in the evening, its rooftop bar has one of the best sunsets in town.
Mia Saigon; Mia Suites start at VND5.575 million.