Our Foodie Friends’ Guide To The Highs And Lows, And The Best Bars And Restaurants In Saigon And Beyond In 2021

So 2021’s gone. And for most of us, it’s good riddance. A blisteringly bad year was marked by health woes and money problems as business ground to a halt and hospitals were stretched to breaking. The arrival of 2022 offers hope. But even in 2021, we found ways to connect and grow, despite it all. So, in the community spirit that’s been nurtured all year, we invited some old friends of The Dot Magazine back to recap their 2021, and tell us what they ate and drank this year.

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

Matt Cowan is the founder of The Bureau Asia. He specializes in providing lifestyle stories about places to eat and drink, and places to travel to in Asia with a focus on Saigon. Lately, he’s been getting to know his history better, and building his YouTube channel, Ticket To Ride, along the way.

Matt Cowan when we photographed him in his favorite barber’s chair in August 2019.

Bao La was born and raised in Australia. But circumstances conspired to keep the chef here during COVID…and he’s happily embraced his fate. He’s explored the food scene in the Dalat of his grandparents, and led two happening pop-ups, one at Que Kaarem and the latest at Madam Kew.  

Bubu Food Show’s Uyen Dang, always on the hunt for what’s new, and what’s good.

Uyen Dang, who you might better know as Bubu, is a tireless F&B explorer always on the hunt for what’s new, and what’s good. Just following her Instagram is exhausting…and inspiring. It also makes us a bit hungry.

Sometime dining partner, Chris Thompson, is director of business development at Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam. After eight years of working in marketing, and media, and in F&B as Rothschild Estates Ambassador here, he knows the food scene well. 

Chris Thompson, is director of business development at Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam.

The force of nature known as Petey Majik was called the “magician of the Vietnamese screen” for starring roles in movies like Bitcoin Heist.

These days he’s more content as a media master with regular livestreams and video content under The Party Never Stops name. And he still does the odd magic show now and again.

Kohei Yamamoto is another bundle of energy. The Japanese bartender arrived in Vietnam in the early days of the pandemic, and made an immediate impression with endless stories about his bar years in Tokyo and Shanghai, and cocktails to return for. Masterchef Harold has made a big impression too with his restaurant, Ox Not Only Ox, whose name was inspired by both his birth sign and his work ethic.  

Harold Ngo, one of the five OG chefs we shot in July 2020.

Brian Letwin founded the endlessly fascinating Saigoneer online publication with Alberto Prieto, that’s offered in-depth insights into Vietnamese culture, and culture creators. And the vision continues with imprints like Urbanist Vietnam.

Tsusuhara Shozo at Fume.

Tsusuhara Shozo just opened the fun new Japanese Town standing sushi restaurant Sushi Tiger, and before that Japanese fusion restaurant, Fume.

And Thao Le opened another restaurant, Nage Eatery in District 2, that immediately wowed us and other diners with its fresh approach to seafood. 

Thao Le learning to love cooking at home: “A challenge and also a highlight of the year was that I didn’t go out to eat at a restaurant for 5 months!

Describe your year in one sentence.

Uyen Dang: I learnt a lot…and not enough.

Bao La: Extremely appreciative and grateful for the journey and path I am taking myself on. I found that personal development is the belief that you are worth the effort, time and energy needed to develop yourself.

Brian Letwin: Blursed

Saigoneer’s Brian Letwin feeling “blursed”.

Matt Cowan: This wasn’t about me, it was about my refrigerator because during lockdown because I learned that it has an alarm if I leave the door open for a minute!

Chris Thompson: I learned we should keep our heads up and not to be afraid of the dark because the storm is almost over and we will see a better tomorrow again.

Harold Ngo: I learned how challenging a year could be.

Petey Majik: 2021 in one sentence? Interesting to say the least and there was a lot to learn from. I can describe it in one word too… “Adaptation”

Kohei Yamamoto: This has been a special year…and an especially difficult year. 

Kohei Yamamoto, at his spot, Koheis Bar: “This has been a special year…and an especially difficult year.” 

Tsuruhara Shozo: For me, the takeaway was that passion can help you overcome the hardest of challenges. I still got to feed people good food. And I got to put smiles on their faces. 

Thao Le: Me? I just hope this year ends quickly!

Bao La, who we photographed last month, when he dropped by to talk natural wines.

Tell us about your challenges…and your highlights of the year.

Uyen Dang: There weren’t so many successes to recall this year. I didn’t reach the goals I set out at the start of 2021. The year passed by. At least I managed to make the most of the opportunities I had. 

Petey Majik: I had to transition to online. I’m so used to being around people and enjoying their reactions to magic. Online, no one turns their camera on and they often mute their mics! I’m left performing in silence. But I learned a lot. Highlights would definitely be getting in shape and learning new skills: cooking, gardening, and crafting to name a few. Plus, I started a podcast and a livestream channel to keep the vibes alive!

Petey Majik spent the year transitioning to online.

Matt Cowan: My challenge was trying not to blame everything on COVID. My highlight was being able to blame everything on COVID.

Chris Thompson: The events of the past year 2021 affected the consulting profession that I am currently working in. But, I am also very proud of the projects I have completed in the past year. Those projects have raised funds for Saigon Children’s Charity and Foodbank Vietnam.

Kohei Yamamoto: It was a challenge trying to manage personal finances during the pandemic. I found a balance, and kept going, but some ambitions were curtailed. 

Thao Le: A challenge and also a highlight of the year was that I didn’t go out to eat at a restaurant for 5 months!

Bao La: 2021 was challenging for everyone. But I think our mindset and outlook and how we handle things are super important. I used this time to really work on myself such as building positive habits. I actually took up yoga as well. Which is something I never thought I would ever do!

Brian Letwin: For me, it was learning how to balance, deal with, and grow a business during a pandemic. Being confined to an apartment with a three-year-old was both a challenge and highlight. Spending three months in the States with family was also a silver lining, especially since we usually only visit for 2 weeks most years. 

Tsuruhara Shozo: This year has been undeniably difficult. At Fume, we almost had to close the restaurant due to the difficulty of the pandemic. But it compelled us to devise a delivery plan to be able to survive. Admittedly, delivering Japanese food is difficult, but we found a way…

Which were your most treasured new discoveries in a turbulent 2021?

Uyen Dang: Bom Gastronomy, a restaurant with a fairy tale inspiration. The menu features dishes that are purely Vietnamese, but with a western fine-dining way of preparing them. 

Bom Gastronomy where the dishes are “purely Vietnamese, but with a western fine-dining way of preparing them.” 

Thao Le: The just-opened Maguro Studio on Dong Du Street.

Tsuruhara Shozo: Quince is still my favorite restaurant in town. This year reaffirmed that! Going there still feels like a discovery.

Chris Thompson: Å by TUNG on Saigon’s Dang Dung Street really impressed me. Hoang Tung, from T.U.N.G Dining, offers a tasting menu and open kitchen-style concept that is really catching on. Their attention to detail is really driving standards throughout the dining scene in Saigon and beyond. 

Brian Letwin: Con Voi in Thao Dien is a dope spot for drinks, but I think they are temporarily closed. Also, don’t sleep on the nasi lemak at Makiucha.

“Con Voi in Thao Dien is a dope spot for drinks.” – Brian Letwin

Matt Cowan: Infiniti Cafe & Bistro on Con Son Island. It’s an extremely pleasant surprise where beach chic meets beef cheek, if you know what I mean. A must-visit any time of the day when you visit the Con Dao Islands.

Petey Majik: My kitchen! Haha. But revisiting Anan Saigon again sparkled some feelings. I went back to Japan Town too, discovering old and new gems. However, I still need to check out Sushi Tiger. It looks a treat!

Can you create one special meal from drinks and dishes from your favorite restaurants?

Bao La: Chef Julien Perraudin’s French Fried Chicken from the Staples delivery menu with a side of Chef Viet Hong’s crispy scaled rouget and Vietnamese dried squid dashi. Then I’d pair this with a bottle of Il Vei Ortrugo 2019 from Pizza 4P’s. Natural wine, fried chicken and Vietnamese food are easily my favorite combination.

Brian Letwin: The Racha Room’s Whiskey Sour. Eddie’s Reuben. And Anan’s crème brûlée and a side of 4P’s chocolate lava cake.

Pizza 4P’s Chocolate Lave Cake.

Tsusuhara Shozo: Sashimi and sake. They’re simply the perfect combination wherever I am!

Matt Cowan: Before dinner, drinks at Summer Experiment. It’s too cheeky to leave out. I’d have a gin and tonic. Then as entree Sol Butcherant’s Wagyu La Lot, chargrilled Wagyu wrapped in lá lốt with shredded lemongrass, pickled asparagus, and a demi-glace dressing – it’s a taste of Vietnamese street food tradition but with class in air-conditioned comfort. Also, a must-have is Golden Jade’s banh bao hap nam thap cam, a savory, fluffy bun delight as big as your palm that looks like a super mushroom in Super Mario Brothers.

Then CCCP’s Shubu Salad with layers of potato, herring, carrot and beetroot and served up like a birthday cake from the 80s minus the candles and sparklers. The beetroot reminds me of home. For main course, Cowboy Steakhouse & Grill’s Bun Bo Dac Biet. It’s next level bun bo with crab cake stuffed inside a small soft-shell crab bobbing round in an impressive simmering noodle soup. Takes me back to life on the farm, kind of, not really, yeehaa! And for dessert Anan Saigon’s fish sauce ice-cream with vanilla, fish sauce caramel and Phu Quoc pepper, and you can even upgrade to a caviar version – sounds hideous, I know, but something like this has never killed anyone…yet. Then, after dinner, drinks with Richie Fawcett at The Studio Saigon. I’d have his Old Fashioned. It’s by far the best I’ve ever had.

Richie Fawcett from The Studio Saigon who serves “by far the best [Old Fashioned] I’ve ever had,” according to Matt Cown.

Thao Le: A latte from Aramour and the watermelon cake at CTY Kitchen + Bar.

Petey Majik: Drink-wise, Sinh To Sau Rieng from 3T Cafe in Tan Dinh, D1. Amazing! And food-wise, lately I’ve been hooked on banh canh cua. It’s the famous one on Tran Khac Chan, with the old man out the front that handles all the payments. It’s super tasty Vietnamese-style crab and seafood noodles that are like udon, with a squeeze of lemon, chili. OMG! This makes me want to go get some now! Who’s in? My treat…it’s only VND 45K!

Uyen Dang: I’d order bone marrow pho from Peter Cuong Franklin’s Anan Saigon. Then I’d head over to Fume for some sake.

“Oysters from Adrian at Nomu Izakaya” part of Chris Thompson’s meal of the year.

Chris Thompson: Oysters from Adrian at Nomu Izakaya, the otoshi appetizers from Koutarou san at Kiyota Sushi Sake and assorted sashimi’s from Shozo-san at Fume Restaurant. Then octopus from Julio at Mia Saigon, Charsiu Iberico Pork with Choy sum from Bao La at Madam Kew, and then Wagyu sashimi from Mizo-san at Yazawa. After than, Bo Lat Lot Pethivier from Julien at Quince, Pate en Croute from Sakal at Le Corto, Ginger Crème Brulé from Harold at The Ox, and to finish, Sticky Rice with Mango from Dixon at Am Dang Typhoon. I’m pairing them with bubbles from Champagne Barons de Rothschild, a cheap and cheerful rose from Van Lovren, a Baroness Nadine Chardonnay from Rupert & Rothschild. And I’m closing with a spicy red Languedoc from Domaines d’Aussieres. Of course, responsible drinking is important, so I’d also be having copious amounts of San Pellegrino with this magical meal. A nightcap you ask? Go on then, I’ll take a generously poured dram of Macallan 18 YO. 

Kohei Yamamoto: Pastis…with a ham and cheese sandwich.

Which streetfood did you love the most in 2021?

Bao La: At 8 Phạm Viết Chánh theres a cart that sells vegetarian noodles like hủ tiếu chay and bún chả giò chay. I would go there every morning when I was doing my chef residency at Que Kaarem. It was the best pick me up to get ready for a long day of work.

Bao La when we caught up in May during his residency at Que Kaarem.

Matt Cowan: The lady who cooks up snails on a street corner for lunch near Front Beach in Vung Tau. No one really seems to know about it. But they should. It’s super fresh, straight off the boat, and washed down with some local lagers. What could be better?

Harold Ngo: Bun thit nuong on Nguyen Trung Truc St. It’s a place with a long history and delicious food.

Uyen Dang: Roasted duck with salt and pepper. It’s from a shop on Le Quang Sung street in District 6. Eating food this flavorsome and fresh is a world away from the usual processed stuff we’re dished up.

Chris Thompson: Like a lot of us, I’ll never forget those harsh times at the height of the lockdown. But back then Tram Le, the owner of Der Imbiss Saigon, personally ran the cannonball run on her bike on a daily basis delivering to poor people. Occasionally she was able to call past our street and drop off some freshly-baked bread, which was more gratefully received than ever during that time. 

Petey Majik: My fave street food. I think banh mi thit is an all-time top 3. But I might have to go with goi cuon. I do love a good freshly rolled and packed prawn and pork goi cuon. A perfect snack on-the-go. I could probably smash 10 in one sitting!

Brian Letwin: Mi Nguyen Loi’s hủ tiếu where the noodles are so good that they keep them safe in a felt-lined drawer. 

Thao Le: Bánh mì heo quay at Tuyen Ky in Thao Dien. Try it, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. 

And which comfort food got you through the year?

Matt Cowan: Sorry, this is not Vietnamese, but my girlfriend cooks this amazing Filipino adobong pusit which is baby squid with ink, chili, onion, garlic, pepper and vinegar – with rice it’s become the dish that will drag me home every time. 

Harold Ngo: Canh chua, ca bop nau ngot, OG Vietnamese dishes.

Bao La: Staying home for so long, I found a lot of comfort in making use of whatever vegetables I was able to get my hands on. I’d simply roast the vegetables and beans in the oven and dress them with some vegetarian fish sauce and olive oil. Nourishing, wholesome. 

Chris Thompson: I think comfort food means different things to different people. For me, George Bloomfield’s lunch set at Stoker in Thao Dien. Wonderful flavors, variation and value set in a stylish, fine dining environment.    

“Wonderful flavors, variation and value set in a stylish, fine dining environment.”    

Brian Letwin: The mac and cheese from Scott’s Kitchen because I’m a fat American at heart.

Thao Le: Back in Sydney, it was always ramen. And now that’s changed to pho…

Petey Majik: Anything that reminds me of Mum’s cooking. Rice and two or three dishes. On the Japanese side, thanks to my Japanese ‘mama’ some home-cooked Japanese food, and not the usual ramen, but the other good stuff.

Uyen Dang: I’m a Hue girl, so it’s bun bo Hue for the reassuring feeling of home.

Which delivery food was your favorite?

Bao La: Truthfully? Nothing beats MacDonald’s. It’s comforting, delicious, and always consistent. They just have the formula down pat. It just never disappoints. It’s my most favorite restaurant in the world!

Matt Cowan: Baba’s Kitchen has been pretty seamless all year. 

Uyen Dang: Sol Kitchen & Bar District 7. The food arrives quickly, it’s still hot…and always tasty.

Sol Kitchen + Bar District 7 sending out some of the freshest deliveries in 2021.

Chris Thompson: Both Eddies outlets, the one on Thao Dien Street in D2 and Pasteur Street in D1, set the standard in terms of promptness of reply and dispatch, accuracy and condition of the order. And it’s all served up with a fun and friendly tone of voice. 

Petey Majik: I’m a sucker for banh uot, banh cuon and banh hoi heo quay! I just love the nuoc cham taste with the heo quay and banh uot. So underrated.

Thao Le: Quince, and their Staples delivery. They’re always perfect, and that goes for the delivery service too. 

Brian Letwin: Jimmy’s New York Pizza because in the hardest of times, pizza is the best medicine. 

Kohei Yamamoto: Fujiro. Everything here is perfect from the delivery time to the service and food quality.

Tsusuhara Shozo: Agreed. Fujiro. Somehow they manage to have the fastest delivery service I know!

How about your favorite OG restaurant of the year?

Brian Letwin: K-Cafe. That’s because they’ve been serving up some of the city’s best sushi since the ‘90s.

Harold Ngo: Hoang Yen Cuisine on Ngo Duc Ke street. I would usually order thit kho mam ruoc and ca luoi trau chien gion.

Tsusuhara Shozo: It has to be Mangetsu. Either location. After all, they’re within walking distance of each other. The price, quality, and consistency make it evergreen.

Petey Majik: Tough one. But I have to stick to my old favorite, Mangestu, the same as Shozo. And I’d go with the original Le Thanh Ton location. My friend Tani-san is the owner. I’ve even performed in there. Great menu. Delicious food. Good value. And always an atmosphere. For Vietnamese, Com Tam Kieu Giang. I love that place!

Matt Cowan: I love Elbow Room for breakfast. One, because it’s the same every time I return, and two, because if I’m there for breakfast early at the weekend, it means I haven’t been out partying further up the street the previous night, and that’s a good thing.

Bao La: Quan 13 in Thao Dien. I think they have been around since the ‘90s or even before that at another location. A beautiful view and some breeze right by the Saigon river. And they serve some of the most delicious and well-executed Vietnamese dishes you will eat in the city. The lẩu mắm there is like chronic, not for the faint-hearted but very, very delicious. I don’t agree when people say they find it overpriced for Vietnamese food as I find Vietnamese food already incredibly undervalued and undercharged.  

Thao Le: Quan 13 Restaurant in Thảo Điền too for their banh khot!

Uyen Dang: Yazawa Saigon. It’s not such an OG place, but I can’t stop thinking about their Wagyu beef!

The Park Hyatt’s Square One, “unique amongst its peers.”

Chris Thompson: The Park Hyatt Saigon. It’s unique amongst its peers in that they seem to have actually improved their service standards and offer during the Covid. Upstairs, Square One continues to operate to international fine-dining standards under the leadership of Heath Gordon and new menu options such as the resurrection of the Beef Wellington and the introduction of the Parisian Sunday brunch have kept this outlet feeling fresh, relevant and desirable. 

Onto the big questions. Which was your bar of the year?

Matt Cowan: YoBe. Even after our last long lockdown, they still remembered what I like to start my night off with – Mixtape Peaches & Cream, which is the craft beer of the year for me! After that, they encourage me to step outside my comfort zone and try something weird and wonderful, like C-BREWMASTER’S Pho Essence beer, which is probably more weird than wonderful in retrospect.

Harold Ngo: Layla and The Racha Room. They both have an interesting vibe which enhances their unique bar experience.

Petey Majik: I didn’t go to too many bars, but if I had to choose then I’d say Le Café des Stagiaires in Thao Dien. I like open spaces and rooftops. It’s vibey.

The vibey Le Café des Stagiaires.

Chris Thompson: I was delighted to see three bars from Vietnam enter Asia’s 50 Best Bars Top 100 List in 2021. This year I wasn’t able to get to Hybrid in Nha Trang or Ne in Hanoi, who placed #96 and #76 respectively. But I have been several times to see Jay Moir at The Summer Experiment, which placed #77, and so I’ll happily plump for Summer. 

Uyen Dang: For me, it’s been Dot Bar. It’s one of the few places where I trust the bartenders to make me something based on my mood. Le Ngoc Minh and his team never disappoint. 

The Dot Bar, one of the few places Uyen Dang trusts to make her a drink based on her mood.

Thao Le: I haven’t had much to drink this year! But Con Voi’s Elephant Dreams is an umeshu cocktail that I ordered often at home during the lockdown. It’s really delicious.

Tsuruhara Shozo: Koheis Bar, I was impressed with the bartender Kohei Yamamoto’s sense of humour.

Kohei Yamamoto: I don’t know. I was always at my own bar trying to be funny!

What was the best restaurant of 2021?

Bao La: La Villa French Restaurant. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest restaurants in the city.  It’s just no-bullshit, exemplary French food and cooking. Chef Theirry Mounon is there day-in and day-out sourcing and cooking with the best ingredients from original terroirs and locations. The dining room is elegant yet has a very approachable atmosphere. And the attention to detail of the service is charming, confident and patient. Go with a couple of friends and pre-order the duck pithivier. Trust me, meal of the year without a doubt.

Harold Ngo: Quince, everything there is just perfect. 

Uyen Dang: Chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s Anan Saigon restaurant was, for me, the most impressive place in 2021. The dishes are creatively presented with a nod to the best cuisine in the world, all while retaining authentic Vietnamese flavors. 

An epic year for Anan. Best restaurant in Vietnam and #39 in Asia.

Chris Thompson: Me too. I was delighted to see Anan Saigon rank on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant List for 2021 at #39. Peter Cuong Franklin has been working tirelessly and with great passion ever since he first turned on his stoves there and I see this recognition as a vote of confidence for Peter and the team at Anan but also for Vietnamese cuisine in general. Since receiving this award around March 2021, Peter seems to have invested further in his menu, people and overall environment at Anan and I wish them further success for the future.

Matt Cowan: Baseball Cage. What’s not to like about a venue that has four batting cages inside it and serves beer and food?

Petey Majik: Also hard. Lockdowns meant we cooked a lot. But my answer is probably Anan Saigon too. The last few visits, and the new dishes were crazy good. His nuon mam ice cream almost made me faint…it was that good.

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