24-Hours In Saigon With Legendary Bartender And Restaurateur Tan Pham

There really wasn’t much happening in Saigon’s bar scene when Ben Tre-born Tan Pham started out. “Back then, six years ago I barely even went to bars – there really wasn’t anywhere to go. That is except for the Park Hyatt Saigon, where I worked for five years,” Tan Pham tells us. His Minh Tan Hospitality Group has done a lot to change things. So when he’s not building his bar and restaurant empire, we wondered how he’d spend his 24-hours in Saigon. 

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

After his years at the Park Hyatt Saigon, Tan Pham stayed with the company, and went to the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi for two years. Back since 2016, he still drops by the Park Hyatt Saigon from time to time, he tells us. “Even now, my favorite restaurant is the Opera, the food is consistently delicious and the service impeccable,” he assures us. 

Ben Tre-born Tan Pham contemplating how he’d spend his last 24-hours in Saigon at Tre Eatery & Bar.

His Minh Tan Hospitality mini-empire has really pushed the scene here in Saigon. In 2016, he opened The Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen. “I mean, it’s in an alley – that wasn’t a time for complicated names or concepts, only good cocktails in a Prohibition-inspired speakeasy just off Pasteur Street in the middle of the city.” Since it opened it’s remained a comforting bolthole from the buzz of the city right outside. After that came the ATM Cocktail Bar & Kitchen. It has an equally welcoming interior, plush armchairs and sofas and a dimly lit bar, only a far more secretive entrance…behind the fake ATM which gives the bar its name. 

Tan Pham in front of ATM Cocktail Bar & Kitchen: “We’ve had a lot of confused customers.”

“Actually, the misdirection doesn’t end there,” he laughs, “there’s two doors either side of the fake ATM – one leads to the bathroom and the other to the bar. We’ve had a lot of confused customers.”

With his next project, The Liquid House, Tan Pham changed the focus, bringing his same passion for spirits to wine. Then, he opened Tre Eatery & Bar in the early days of the pandemic. The timing wasn’t all bad. Tre Eatery & Bar was inspired by the trips to Japan he’d taken…which he wouldn’t be able to return to in the intervening few years of lockdowns and restricted travel. At least he’d brought his own bit of Japan to Saigon. 

Tan Pham meticulously preparing a cocktail for us.

“I always loved the meticulousness Japanese bartenders and restaurateurs bring to their craft,” he muses, “so I always wanted to create a place serving a fusion of Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine.” Now, he’s added The Yellow Cup in the same building as Tre Eatery & Bar, a cozy ground floor cafe focused on specialty coffees. 

The pandemic was fruitful in other ways too. Tan Pham returned to Ben Tre for six months. There, he embraced the slow life, and decided to apply the brakes to his relentless bar and restaurant building, and focus on evolving service standards and developing products. His new training school, the Passionate School of Hospitality, is part of that. 

So, with so much insider knowledge of Saigon from both sides of the bar, we invited Tan Pham over to Wink, to give us his bespoke city guide.

Tan Pham with the team at ATM Cocktail Bar & Kitchen.

Imagine it’s your last day in Saigon. Where would you go and what would your 24-hours in Saigon be like?

I’d wake up early – it’s my last chance after all! I’d ride around on my bike at sunrise, stopping for a breakfast of bun bo at Thuan An on Hoang Sa street. The cooly, airy restaurant overlooks the embankment of the Nhieu Loc canal. The owners are from Hue, and so the beef noodle soup is authentically tasty. Then I’d go over to The Yellow Cup, or maybe upstairs to Tre Eatery, put on some jazz music, sip a good cup of coffee, and talk to friends, and old colleagues or fellow bikers till noon. 

In the afternoon, I’d go for some craft beer. It’s always hot after all, so a couple of beers would be the perfect thirst quencher. My recent discovery is Hoprizon Brewing Company on Vo Thi Sau Street. The bar is situated in a spacious villa, with a garden that’s full of trees. It’s perfect whether you’re with friends or even when you’re alone, needing a bit of time to chill and recharge. 

Then it’s evening, and it’s time for some bar hopping. Of course, I would do the rounds of my places, The Alley, The ATM, The Liquid House or Tre. I’d also pop by some of my favorite places, like Stir – Modern Cocktail, Yugen, PK Maltroom or Cozy Eatery & Bar. But there’s such a buzz in the bar scene right now, with so many young people opening their own concepts, I might go check out somewhere new…

Finding momentary peace from sleepless Saigon. “This may come as a surprise, I love the traffic!” Tan Pham admits.

What would be your one tip to get the most out of your 24-hours in Saigon?

Wake up early. This really is a sleepless city, and by waking up early, and finishing late, you’ll get the most out of your day!

If you have friends visiting Saigon, where would you take them?

Cuc Gach Quan. It still retains a uniquely Vietnamese ambience. And the dishes have that traditional flavor. They remind me of the food I ate growing up. It’s always been and is still my go-to when eating out with friends visiting. 

Other than that it would be Tre Eatery & Bar. I’d order the chim tri soup. The pheasants are raised on our farm in Ben Tre – another positive by-product of the pandemic restrictions. When I saw our neighbors raising pigs, and chicken and ducks, I thought I’d spend the time doing something different. Now we have over 400 pheasants. We use the bones and meat to make a broth that we cook for eight hours, until it’s really clear. We add wantons and mushrooms to create a really harmonious dish. Another dish I’d insist visitors try is banh tam, a silkworm cake from my hometown. I use a creamy carbonara-like sauce, with grilled pork, and a Japanese crab stick bringing together elements of Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine, with a little of my own interpretation. 

At the Yellow Cup, Tan Pham’s team focus on speciality coffees. But Tre is upstairs if you need something stronger.

You always look very dapper. Where do you shop for clothes?

When I’m not wearing a suit, I tend to go for something more utilitarian – blue jeans and a plain t-shirt. So I’ll go to stores with good basics, like H&M. But I do love a good pair of shoes. There’s one local brand I particularly like, Giày Một. Their shoes are traditional, but at the same time modern. I’ve even set aside a corner at The Yellow Cup to display them. 

Minh Tan Hospitality Group’s venues all share the same sense of secretiveness…and calm amidst the storm.

Finally, tell us the three things you love most about Saigon.

This may come as a surprise, but I love the traffic. I realized how much I missed it during those months in Ben Tre. It’s uniquely Saigonese, and I’m in love with the chaos. Then there’s the weather.

People say “Sài Gòn như một cô nàng đỏng đảnh” which means something like “Saigon is a sassy lady,” kind of moody, and unpredictable, and that includes the weather. But I love the sudden downpours we get here. The morning can be bright, clear and sunny. And then the rain falls suddenly, releasing the intense heat of the morning. And finally, I love the tangle of electric wires. They can be a bit of an eyesore. At Tre Eatery & Bar, we have this beautiful balcony, but all you can see is these knotted lines of wires outside. I gradually grew to love it. Something else that feels uniquely Saigonese that one day, once they’re gone, we’ll miss…

Photos by Nghia Ngo.

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