District 2 is a world in itself these days. With high rise apartments, and high-end bars and restaurants dotted with local life it’s one of the fastest-changing parts of the city. So we asked local restaurateur Camilla Bailey to show us her side of the district with her Thao Dien guide.
It’s not like it sounds. ‘Mad’, in the owners’ native Danish language, means ‘food’. In the case of their MAD House restaurant, homely, no-frills comfort food that last year won them an award for the city’s best neighbourhood hangout. This converted former villa in District 2’s affluent Thao Dien area distils everything that makes this part of Saigon so loved by foreigners and locals alike – there’s the shady tropical trees and plants, the infrequent buzz of motorbikes navigating the sleepy cul-de-sac outside, and dreamy weekend acoustic sets on the terrace.
Camilla Bailey and husband Casper retreated to this corner of the city after spending a few years in the spotlight at Chill Skybar – a bar and restaurant that kickstarted Saigon’s sky-high drinking and dining trend. After, four and a half years here they know the area well. So, we asked Camilla to add to our guide series by taking us to her favourite places in Thao Dien.
Why: A hidden spa and hammam with its own peanut-shaped pool.
Camilla’s tip: “Book a weekday morning, if your work allows, when it’s quiet. You’ll have the pool to yourself, and benefit from their early-bird promotions before 12pm.”
We start our Thao Dien guide at Villa Aesthetica. You might miss this spa and wellness centre, if you’re not looking carefully. There are the distractions of the cocktail haven, Q Bar, Vietnamese home-style eatery Quan Bui, and the storied French restaurant La Villa all along Ngo Quang Huy Street. But Villa Aesthetica is worth seeking out. “This is my Monday afternoon hideout,” Camilla smiles, leading us inside.
We admire the peanut-shaped pool and then take a look inside at the hammam while one of Villa Aesthetica’s well-trained team set up a massage chair beside the pool. Then a waitress brings out a glass of wine “although I sometimes come with a group of friends for a spa afternoon and we bring our own bottles,” she adds settling in for the massage.
Where: 54 Ngo Quang Huy, District 2
Why: All-day Mediterranean-inspired dishes and an extensive selection of wines.
Camilla’s tip: “Visit after work on Friday for a glass of wine and their half-price tapas”
We hop back on our bikes to continue our Thao Dien guide and take the five-minute drive down to Lu Bu. The Mediterranean restaurant, like MAD House, is a real all-rounder serving sun-kissed breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Lu Bu’s owner, Jim Cawood, is waiting by the entrance to welcome us when we arrive. Dishes like their Grilled Prawns with White Beans, Parsley, Lemon, Mint & Olive Oil, he explains, have a simple formula – great produce prepared simply.
There’s an extensive wine list too – in Lu Bu’s walk-in wine room – with a liberal mix of old world and new world wines, as you might expect from a Mediterranean restaurant run by an Australian. Camilla orders a glass of sauvignon blanc, and Jim opens a bottle of craft beer and they sit on the restaurant’s shaded outdoor terrace and catch up on developments in the industry. “The lunch sets are really good here, and every Friday evening they have half-price tapas,” Camilla reminds us as we say farewell to Jim and head to our next stop.
Where: 97B Thao Dien, District 2
Bún Chả Hà Nội – Hải Hội Quán
Why: Local life – and great noodles and grilled pork – along gentrifying Xuan Thuy.
Camilla’s tip: “Go early for lunch – as this place gets busy, but people get through their bowls quick, so the wait won’t be long.”
Despite rampant development along Xuan Thuy street that’s turned this formerly sleepy tree-lined artery into a foodie haven, pockets of local life remain. Bun Cha Hanoi is a good example. Although the owners were forced out of their previous location across the street two years ago by rising rents, they quickly found this new location sandwiched between Family Mart and Quan Ut Ut. But while the Quan Ut Ut operation has a polished sheen, Bun Cha Hanoi still grill their meat by the entrance where the owner’s wife is wearing safety goggles and working her way through a pile of racks of pork, oblivious to our appearance. “This family are badass,” Camilla laughs, “always working.”
She orders us two bowls of bun cha and a nem ran to share. “I can eat this any time of the day,” MAD House’s co-owner smiles contentedly tucking in to her bowl. It helps that Bun Cha Hanoi opens at 7.30am and doesn’t close until around 9pm seven days a week.
Where: 84 Xuân Thủy, District 2
Sushi Hung Hanare
Why: Incredible quality, affordable ‘omakase’ menus in a sleekly minimalist restaurant.
Camilla’s tip: “Bring your own champagne or wine – the corkage is 200,000VND a bottle.”
Every day is different at Sushi Hung Hanare and its sister restaurant, Sushi Hung, in District 1’s Japan town. That’s because every morning Hung visits the market to pick out the freshest produce to pair with fish flown in from Japan that he then curates into his ‘omakase’ menus that range from 700,000VND to 1,500,000VND. With limited seating, it’s a good idea to book ahead.
It’s still early when we arrive and the two assistant chefs are setting up. Chef Hung enters with a cursory nod and surveils their work. A testament to the Vietnamese sushi chef’s talent is that both restaurants fill nightly with a predominantly Japanese crowd. “This place has really elevated the standard of sushi available in District 2,” Camilla says.
Where: 49B Quoc Huong, District 2
Why: Perhaps the best pizza in District 2.
Camilla’s tip: Order an Estevi pizza and a glass of reasonably priced wine.
Our next stop on our Thao Dien guide is the Italian restaurant Cugini, part of the Bloq development on Trần Ngọc Diện – and, conveniently, a short walk from MAD House. “I really like this place,” Camilla nods approvingly, “they deserve much more credit for what they’re doing here.” Its proximity to MAD makes it the perfect post-shift refueling station. “And the wine list is very affordable,” Camilla smiles ordering a glass of rose.
The bold red walls and dark interior have the feel of a steakhouse. But the name ‘Cugini’, chef and co-owner Cyprien Pierlovisi tells us, means ‘cousins’ in Italian and there’s also a family-table feeling to the restaurant. They serve house-made pasta and grill meat and seafood. “But, I think the pizza is the best in Thao Dien,” Camilla says.
Where: 19 Trần Ngọc Diện, District 2
86 Proof Whisky Bar
Why: The bartenders start making your favourite drink before you’ve even asked for it.
Camilla’s tip: Order the Espresso Negroni…and maybe another.
We’re back on Xuan Thuy Street at 86 Proof Whisky Bar. “So this is my regular spot,” Camilla says leading us inside. “They know my order and I love the bar team here.” True enough, the bartender starts making Camilla’s favourite, an Espresso Negroni – a caffeinated twist on the classic cocktail that incorporates Vietnam’s abundance of the bean – without bothering to check in with her. “His name’s Hudson, but I just call him ‘Darling,'” she laughs reaching over for the glass.
The punchy single-origin coffee sits well with the fruity bitterness of the Campari. Plus, Hudson reminds us, we’ve arrived in time for their happy hour (serving daily between 4pm and 8pm). And although it’s not dark outside yet, 86 Proof already has a cozy vibe.
Camilla says she usually comes in late after work when the bar is winding down for the evening. “It’s not drinking alone when you have your bartender here,” Hudson laughs as he begins making Camilla another Espresso Negroni as we finish up our Thao Dien guide.
Where: 98 Xuan Thuy, District 2