Take your tastebuds on a cocktail connoisseur’s walking tour of downtown Saigon. Sip your way through the city’s District 1 – the downtown area sometimes called its CBD.
Read on in Vietnamese
Central business districts conjure up images. Faceless glass frontages. Concrete facades. Alienating outdoor spaces. But this doesn’t feel like a sprawling Asian metropolis like Jakarta and Bangkok. Here, you’ll experience accessibility and conviviality…especially if you follow our tasteful itinerary.
We promise you’ll never have to traipse more than ten minutes between bars. And, especially for you, we’ve asked each spot to give us their own insider advice. That’s to guarantee that you get the best out of your cocktail connoisseur’s walking tour.
Named after a sake distillery that stopped a typhoon, Ryu is the first stop on our cocktail walking tour. That’s because you’re already likely to be near. Ryu is on Dong Khoi street, a shoppers paradise. It’s also surrounded by hotels like the Reverie and the Grand. Which brings us to the other reason to start here. As night falls around 6pm you get to see the neon outside flicker into life, cocktail in hand.
And the drinks are good. Of course, the sake is fresh-tasting and flavoursome. But so are the Japanese- and globally-inspired drinks on the Dreamland menu. All served by dapper bartenders like Alexander, or owner Duc Tien himself. “Those special cocktails have a touch of exquisite Asian notes you won’t find elsewhere – ingredients like coconut-brewed coffee, genmaicha soda, and Tokachi wagyu bourbon…” Duc Tien smiles from behind the bar. They also, as you’d expect, do a series of solid classics, like Moscow Mules and Mai Tais.
Insider tip: “Ryu’s spirit lies with its custom-made cocktails – those that are based on customers’ personal taste and also mood. So, tell our bartender you want something sour, sweet, spicy…and we’ll serve you a pleasant surprise!”
Duc Tien promises.
Address: Level 5, 71C Dong Khoi Street, District 1.
Even though it’s early, and you still have lots of stamina, Firkin is an easy three-minute walk away on Mạc Thị Bưởi street. Look carefully, or you’ll miss the imposing but inconspicuous entrance. Up the steep stairs you’ll be rewarded with the warm glow of row upon row of fine spirit bottles – probably the widest selection in Saigon. But whisky experts will have already been prepared to be impressed because of the name – a firkin is a nine-gallon oak whisky barrel.
First opened in October 2017, Firkin draws a classy clientele. There are post-work tête-à-têtes, dating couples, and friends on long-overdue catch-ups. Helpfully, for a bar with such a range of spirits, the menu provides staff recommendations to help guide you to the most suitable drink. Just don’t have too many, as the stairs seem even steeper on the way down.
Insider Tip: We are on a cocktail tour, but Bar Manager Grace Van Truong recommends taking a break and trying one of their whisky flights. The team like to showcase single distilleries with different aged whiskeys up to 40-years-old. However, the cocktails are worth ordering too. “Currently we have ‘The Glenlivet Blackberry’ as our cocktail of the month where the creamy whisky is complimented by blackberry and lychee,” Grace explains.
Address: 20 Mạc Thị Bưởi, District 1
Layla Eatery & Bar
Parellel to Mạc Thị Bưởi is Đông Du street. And that’s where you’ll find Layla Eatery & Bar, the next stop on our Saigon cocktail tour.
Nothing screams ‘new’ Vietnam like Layla Eatery & Bar. Seven days a week, and even throughout the traditionally tuned-down Tet Holiday, Layla is packed. Media darlings, fashionistas, and inquisitive out-of-towners head to this heritage building opposite the Sheraton Hotel at 63 Đông Du – a street that could rightfully stake a claim to being the epicenter of Saigon’s after-dark experience.
Tasty cocktails like their Toblerone Martini keep regulars coming back for more. And so do the bountiful bowls of New Zealand mussels.
Insider Tip: Co-founder and ‘Alcohol Pharmacist’ Jay Moir strongly recommends that you get to know Layla Eatery & Bar’s mixologists. “They can whip you up some pretty mean cocktails on request. And they’re not averse to slipping you a sneaky shot now and then too,” he promises, “plus Layla is a social center – so be ready to strike up a conversation at the bar or around the pool table.”
Address: 2nd Floor, 63 Đông Du, District 1
Enigmatic entranceway, check. New Vietnamese and pan-Asian cuisine served downstairs, check. Insta-ready cocktails, check. Two minutes away from Layla (towards the other end of Đông Du Street) is LABAR. As the name suggests, you’ll find it in an enigmatic alley at number 52.
But cast aside the kitchen part for a moment and trip straight up to the second-floor bar…or LABAR. You’ve probably arrived in time for their happy hour too. So, take a seat at the counter lit by its dramatic overhead curve of light and let the attentive bar staff serve you up something special.
Insider Tip: LABAR’s bar manager, Tam, suggests you “order a Coc Cocktail for its spiciness, sourness and unique flavor,” and, he adds, don’t be put off by the hidden entrance and steep stairs, “because the staff at LABAR offer one of the warmest welcomes in town.”
Address: 2nd Floor, 62/3 Đông Du, District 1
Next, chart a course for the Refinery courtyard. Watch out for the fabled, faded yellow arch that marks the entrance with its opium poppy insignia a few hundred meters ahead.
Today, this former opium depot is better known for its decadent drinking and dining options…like Renkon. You’ll immediately notice its glowing sign in the far corner. Inside, you’ll feel a stark contrast between the historic courtyard whose trade hit its heyday in the late 1880s, and the refined Sean Dix-designed Renkon interior.
Let’s call it a modern izakaya – a sexier (just check the winding wooden staircase if you don’t believe us) version of Japanese after-work drinking establishments.
Insider Tip: Co-founder and partner of the Eight Four Collective, Sean Scott, says “try to visit on Fridays – which we call ‘Jet Fresh Fridays.’ That’s the day we fly fresh produce like uni and oysters in from Japan.” And for drinks, “try our Roku HI made with Suntory’s Roku Gin,” he adds.
Address: 74/10A Hai Bà Trưng. District 1
We’re staying with the Eight Four Collective, the innovative F&B Group behind Renkon and another Japanese-themed bar you will have passed leaving Layla – Sake Central Saigon – as we head over to the Collective’s Irusu Lounge. It’s a seven-minute walk up Hai Bà Trưng Street. Turn left onto Nguyễn Du and watch out for Irusu’s alley – yes, another alley – beside Ivoire Pastry. This is classy cocktail bar as Yakuza hangout: Dark booths. Gangster rap. Hi-ball cocktails.
Click, snap. Take a selfie in one of Saigon’s most opulent bathrooms. And take a date with you too because upstairs you can bask in the romantic views of Saigon’s Notre Dame Basilica while sipping on an 84 Old Fashioned.
Insider Tip: Bartender Nguyễn Hữu Phú is the Vietnam Four Pillars Gin Australian Open Champion. He says that as a first time visitor, know that the Irusu menu has three sections: “Sparkling hi-ball cocktails that aren’t overly strong, a second section that reinvents classic cocktails with Japanese ingredients, and a final section that uses sparkling sake as a base.”
Address: 57 Nguyễn Du, District 1
Turn left out of Irusu’s alley and left again down Đồng Khởi until you see the cacophony of Nguyễn Huệ walking street on your right. By the time you reach the warmly welcoming lodge that is The First, in the shadow of Sunwah Tower, you will probably be ready for one of owner and bartender Hajime Tadano’s perfectly prepared cocktails. Drinks like his Smokey Martini. Or alternatively, try a whiskey. They have everything. Scottish single malts. Kentucky bourbon. Japanese Yamazaki.
The only problem is The First’s reputation means it’s full every evening. And space is at a premium. So, call ahead to be sure of a seat at the counter.
Insider Tip: Hajime Tadano tells us that: “The First’s greatest secret is probably our Japanese curry. I think it might be the best in the city.” The First also has over 200 kinds of whiskey and wine. “So, ask the handsome bartender for advice,” he laughs.
Address: 23 Đường Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, District 1
Below Whisky Den
Two minutes away is Below Whiskey Den. The bar takes its name from its position right beneath another of Saigon’s favorites, Broma. Here, you can ask Hungarian mixologist, Kata Simon – former head bartender at Mr. Fogg’s in London – for something bespoke, or dive into one of the elaborate concoctions listed on the menu.
Alternatively, inquire about one of their see-to-believe-it Disney-themed drinks, like their Beauty & The Beast.
Insider Tip: Kata is quick to highlight the uniqueness of Below Whisky Den’s guest relations. “We’re a bar that strongly focuses on our custom service,” she smiles. “We appeal to vintage lovers, and people who love my crazy cocktails! Besides that, we change the music depending on the customers. We might play soft rock for an older businessman drinking whisky or ballads for a dating couple…”
Address: 41 Nguyễn Huệ, District 1
Secluded. Stylish. Spirited. Nhau Nhau is officially a pho bar. However, Nhau Nhau (which means ‘drink, drink’) does creative cocktails, homespun sakes, and intimidating shots too. This eighteen-seat bar is in the belly of Anan, the award-winning Vietnamese restaurant. Find it a few streets over from Nguyễn Huệ.
Anan’s owner and founder, Peter Cuong Franklin, wanted to create something more personal – and where better than on one of the building’s unused intermediate floors. That means you can order dishes from downstairs, including Anan’s infamous US $100 pho (or their more accessible entry-level pho at around $10), try the special Nhau Nhau menu that includes tamarind candy floss for dessert, or stick to drinks like their gin-based Mulberry Clover Club and Tamarind Whisky Sour.
Insider Tip: Because Nhau Nhau is walk-ins only, chef and founder Peter Cuong Franklin says to wait on the rooftop if they’re temporarily out of space. “There, you can have a drink while marveling at the 262-meter Bitexco Financial Tower and the panoramic Saigon skyline,” he explains. “And when you’re seated at the bar, abandon your preconceptions and try a coconut worm shot,” he adds mischievously.
Address: 2nd Floor, 89 Tôn Thất Đạm, District 1
It’s another short walk, this time to Snuffbox which is at the other end of Tôn Thất Đạm. This hidden bar might have been Saigon’s first speakeasy. When it opened, it fitted perfectly into the crumbling but characterful 14 Tôn Thất Đạm Street building that’s featured on an endless number of travel blogs.
Inside, it’s all very Gatsby-esque. There are the classic jazz-era cocktails – Mint Juleps and Dry Martinis – and free-flow Tuesdays with cocktail tributes to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin. Plus there’s regular live music – on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays – which is something in short supply in the city.
Insider Tip: “I recommend you put down your phone,” Snuffbox’s bar manager, Thợ Mỏ, laughs, “because we’re home to a lot of talented performers – from instrumentalists to vocalists and DJs.”
Address: 14 Tôn Thất Đạm, District 1
Drinking & Healing
The name Drinking & Healing was inspired by the healing power of alcohol – something the young local bartenders here are convinced of. By this point, your walking tour may have become a stagger. Never mind. Không say không về – or no going home until you’re drunk.
This final stop, a few minutes from Snuffbox, is the perfect pick-me-up. That’s because, besides their belief in the recuperative powers of a stiff drink, Drinking & Healing is a contender for best bar in the city. Alongside real connoisseur choices like the barrel-aged Vieux Carré and barrel-aged Negroni are fun cocktails served in smoke-filled boxes or in glasses nestled on inflatable flamingos – check the specials section on the iPad menu for more.
Insider Tip: “The best tip I can give you is to ask us to make a cocktail based on your preferences,” head bartender Lê Ngọc Phiên says, “but the specials are best sellers. Which one? All of them!”
Address: 2nd Floor, 25 Hồ Tùng Mậu Street, District 1