Where should you drink sake in Saigon for World Sake Day on 1st October? Fortunately, Ho Chi Minh City is flushed with authentic Japanese restaurants. There’s everything from cool yakitori joints, to counter-seating ramen shops, to rowdy izakayas.
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Saigon is also home to lots of Japanese restaurateurs building their brands, like the couple behind Pizza 4P’s and Nikichi Nagatsuyu, one of the driving forces behind the growth and evolution of Saigon’s original Japan Town. There’s even a second Japan Town, over in Binh Thanh, that’s one of Saigon’s coolest districts to eat and drink in right now.
All that means there’s lots of places to celebrate World Sake Day 2022. The occasion, which marks the completion of the annual rice harvest and the start of sake production, has been commemorated since 1978. This year, bars and restaurants around the world will be raising a glass of the beloved fermented rice beverage. And 300 of them will be live streaming the global kanpai. You can join one in Saigon. Or, if you prefer, disappear into one of our favorite izakayas or sushi spots, and raise a glass offline.
Where To Drink Sake In Saigon On World Sake Day
So, we’ve chosen five very diverse places to drink sake in Saigon on World Sake Day 2022. There’s a Hong Kong sake institution that opened its second branch in Saigon. There’s a design-conscious joint in District 3 serving made-in-Vietnam sake. There’s a music-driven omakase spot. And there’s a Japan Town dive-bar meets izakaya. And there’s some perfect yakitori and natural sake over in Pham Viet Chanh. Read on.
Sake Central Saigon
Elliot Faber is an authority on sake. He’s even written a book about it. It’s a hefty coffee-table tome full of the history, stories and craft of Japan’s artisanal breweries. The Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council even anointed him as a sake samurai with the remit of promoting the drink around the world. One element of that is Sake Central. The first one opened in Hong Kong’s PMQ. And the second one here in Saigon in conjunction with Eight Four Collective.
The Sake Central Saigon team took a hiatus during the pandemic, but the much loved, centrally located bar and restaurant is back. And, fittingly, it opens its doors again on 1st October. The hip, artisanal outpost was designed by Sean Dix, the creative force behind some of Hong Kong’s most vibrant restaurants – Yardbird, Hotal Columbo, and Ho Lee Fuk.
Outside hangs a cedar ball, a sake brewery tradition to mark the start of the brewing season. And through the door you’re into a winding corridor of dark ‘shou sugi ban’ wood, until you emerge through the noren curtain, into the magical 26-seat spot with its shared table filled with masu boxes that contain rice in different stages of polishing.
“Since we live in a city of sensory-overload, I feel like Sake Central makes a wonderful escape, where you can focus on the drinks, food, and your friends,” the Eight Four Collective’s Michael Piro explains. Besides having the biggest collection of sake in Saigon, and “everything from cloudy nigori sakes to finely brewed Junmai Daiginjo varieties” the team have conjured up a special highball menu.
“But I’d recommend the Hakkaisan ‘snow aged’ Junmai Daiginjo,” Michael adds. “It has a minimalist white bottle, and it’s made with a unique method. They chill it in the snow. And the sake is aged that way for three years. The technique adds a smoother, rounder taste to the already creamy flavor of the sake.”
Sake Central Saigon will be one of the places joining the livestream with a post-stream soundtrack provided by DJ Noizay.
Location: 59 Dong Du, District 1
Mùa Craft Sake
A neon maneki-neko clutching a bottle of sake in its other paw beckons guests in. There’s outdoor seating and open windows that connect the terrace to the inside space. And upstairs the focus is on events and private parties.
The design echoes the process of sake production. Green shoots of rice outside. Inside processing, production…and presentation. And there’s lots of fun details. The upstairs tables are inlaid with layers of glass that look like rice terraces. The Japanese insignia above the kitchen references the four seasons – ‘mùa’ means season. Even the diacritic above the ‘u’ in the restaurant logo is shaped like a grain of rice.
And so Mùa Craft Sake is audaciously attempting to turn Vietnamese drinkers on to Japan’s fermented rice beverage. That’s because this part of Saigon is usually all about beer. For example, one of BiaCraft’s outlets is a few doors down. Belgo is just around the corner. And Mùa Craft Sake does serve beer too. But it’s their homemade craft sake that’s the draw.
They brew it out near the airport. And ship it over. There’s the classic, that’s clean but flavorsome. And there’s flavored sake you can order by the glass or as a three glass flight – a guava kumquat, passionfruit cubeb, and a sparkling mulberry. Each is unique, but they share the same gentle infusion of fruit, soft sweetness and a tart touch of citrus and berries.
And the Mùa Craft Sake team has kept the price point accessible. The classic sake is 85K a glass and only 250K for a carafe. Plus, the food is on-point too, as you’d expect from Tru Lang. The Vietnamese Beef Tataki, Wild Pepper, Garlic is textural and tangy, the Teba Gyoza a perfectly crispy play on the stuffed dumpling. Onto those foundation dishes Tru and the team will add in seasonal specials.
“No sake. No love,” the staff t-shirts say. And there’s a lot to love about Mùa Craft Sake.
Location: 7 Le Ngo Cat, District 3
There’s an almost endless array of great izakayas around the original Japan Town on Le Thanh Ton. There’s the funky Tokyo-style Izakaya Ten. And then there’s the perennially packed-out Mangestu. But we’re going with Hanakurata.
That’s because this joint is fun. The proprietor, Shintaro, is from Nagoya – the home of Toyota. And his food, he says, is as powerful as the motor company. The Hanakaruta menu is full of the usual izakaya staples, edamame and gyozas, with some unusual delicacies like their raw liver sashimi. Raw beef liver is banned in Japan. But it’s available here. And it’s a strangely enlivening dish. The raw liver is relieved of its usual earthy, intense flavor, and it’s topped with a pinch of aromatic ginger.
Plus there’s lots of full-bodied sakes, like the classic canned Kikusui Kunko Funaguchi Nama Honjozo. And Kurota Shintaro is an always-present glowing embodiment of omotenashi – the Japanese spirit of hospitality.
Upstairs is counter seating; downstairs is the perfect hideaway. The basement space is ideal for a conspiratorial tête-à-tête. Or just to detach from the intensity of downtown Saigon outside.
Location: 17/25 Le Thanh Ton, District 1
Hachibei is a jewel in the buzzing Pham Viet Chanh area, which is sometimes known as Saigon’s second Japan Town. And it’s packed out every night. That’s thanks to its perfectly grilled skewers, highballs and a very special natural sake. Duy, the chef, worked in Hachibei in Japan for five years, so he knows how to work the grill. And the sake, which comes from Fukushima, from the Niida-honke brewery, won gold at the annual sake awards in Japan in 2015. “The flavor and aroma is remarkable,” owner Nikichi Nagatsuyu assures us.
Niida-honke has a remarkable history too. It’s currently run by an 18th generation brewer. And it was originally founded in 1711. They even grow their own rice using natural methods of farming to preserve the land that they view as sacred…which fortunately might mean less of a hangover.
Location: 83 Pham Viet Chanh, Binh Thanh District
Kanpai combines two of our passions – music and sake. The concept began when Takayuki began organizing house parties, cooking for friends. MAQman would play vinyl records in the background. “And after quite a lot of parties, we started to talk about opening a place with the same vibe,” Minh Anh Quach, AKA MAQman, tells us.
MAQman is an esteemed local DJ and producer, and Taka a fashion designer. So, Kanpai, is as design-conscious and as music-driven as you’d imagine. There’s decks and shelves of vinyl. And a counter for fresh omakase. “I’d describe us as a neighborhood restaurant,” MAQman adds, “with a cozy vibe on a quiet but animated street.”
They serve delicate, buttery cuts of shima aji and fatty Japanese tuna alongside their house sake, called Masumi, that’s produced in Nagano at a brewery that’s even older than the Niida-honke brewery.
Masumi was founded in 1662 in what’s known as the Japanese Alps – a region renowned for its cold weather and pure water. “Masumi,” MAQman tells us, “is also famous as the birthplace of no. 7 yeast, which helps create a sake with exceptional balance.”
Location: 44B Ngo Quang Huy, District 2