Rothschild Estates Ambassador Chris Thompson’s Saigon City Guide

Liverpool-born Chris Thompson spent four years in Manchester at University and then 12 more in London promoting brands like The Glenlivet, Chivas, Perrier Jouet, and Havana Club. He came to Vietnam in 2013 as Regional Director of Rothschild Estates for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos based in Saigon. Seven years in the city, he has a lot of favourite places to share exclusively with The Dot Magazine.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

After years of brand building at some of the most prestigious hotels, bars and restaurants in Vietnam, Rothschild Estates Ambassador Chris Thompson found a second role as editor-at-large of the international lifestyle publication, Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam. While trying to promote the benefits of the wine category to consumers in Vietnam, Chris Thompson also uses his role at Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam to raise the profile of the Vietnam hospitality scene both domestically and abroad. So we met Chris at newly opened Mia Saigon, the opulent river-side hotel, to find out which places in Saigon have caught his well-trained eye [spoiler alert: Mia is one!]. 

Can you describe Saigon in a few sentences?

Saigon is a melting pot enticing newcomers from across Vietnam and from all corners of the globe with its uniquely cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial spirit.

If Hanoi represents the head of Vietnam then Saigon is its beating heart. This city is equal parts vibrant and welcoming, fast and furious, enigmatic and bewildering… 

The Liverpool-born Rothschild Estates Ambassador Chris Thompson, is also editor-at-large for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam.

Where should we go to feel good?

During an early visit to Vietnam, I met one of Saigon’s biggest character’s “Mama” Lam Burrage who is the owner of Jasmine Spa on 45 Ton That Thiep. Most of the staff I met during that first visit are still there. I always get such a warm welcome. Their 90-minute massage has been my salvation many times from the hangovers that can be an occupational hazard in my line of work. 

And for tasty feel-good weekend comfort food, I’d look no further than Eddie’s New York Deli and Diner in Thao Dien. I’ll order a classic New York-style Reuben with a clam chowder soup. While I’m there I’ll muse how I seem to have time travelled onto the set of Back to the Future 2 and ponder if Marty McFly might coming in for a chocolate milkshake any moment…

Rothschild Estates Ambassador Chris Thompson pouring his favourite Barons de Rothschild champagne.

Where should we go for street food in Saigon?

There are a number of Vietnamese street food dishes that I really enjoy such as the ubiquitous pho and bun cha but also ban xeo and spring rolls. 

Although he doesn’t serve these dishes “streetside”, I love what Peter Cuong Franklin is doing at Anan at 89 Ton That Dam. And the market is only a metre or two outside the restaurant’s front doors.

This passionate creator offers his unique take on Vietnamese cuisine. I really admire the way he waves the flag for Vietnamese hospitality. And I’m blown away by how much international media attention Anan has garnered. I enjoy restaurants with soul. Peter has his fingerprints over all the operational details there and is usually on hand to banter with the guests and enjoy a drink in Nhau Nhau, their trendy, 18-seat cocktail lounge in the same building.

Where should we go for a date in Saigon?

If I’m in District 1, then it’s got to be Quince at 37 Ky Con for their approachable yet intimate setting, open-kitchen style, and a delicious, eclectic, and ever-evolving menu curated by their hugely popular head chef, Julien Perraudin. 

If it is going to be in District 2, I’d go for the double combo of the Thao Dien restaurant Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar and Dram Bar, which is upstairs. I’d ask Head Chef George to find me a place at the chef’s table followed by a clamber up the “stairway to heaven” for one or two cocktail concoctions from legendary mixologist Gregory Jacob.

Rothschild Estates Ambassador Chris Thompson: “Mia Saigon Boutique Hotel in an awesome spot by the river on the outskirts of Thao Dien.”

Where should we go for the best lunch or brunch in Saigon?

It has to be the Social Club on the 23rd floor of the Hotel des Arts Saigon on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. I love the art deco design of the place, and the intimate feeling. It’s a smaller space than most five-star hotel brunch settings. That gives me the chance to see some familiar and friendly faces. Plus, the range of sushi and seafood is delicious, and they free pour my favourite champagne, Barons de Rothschild. It’s the perfect “springboard” to a convivial Sunday in Saigon.

For a lunch catch-up, I’ll often suggest Le Corto on Nguyen Sieu Street as the location is really convenient. It’s also very comfortable, the service is quick and friendly, and the food is always excellent. The set lunch is excellent value for money.

Le Corto is also a really nice size and even though it’s normally full it’s never too loud and you have plenty of personal space. It’s really suitable for a chat. You may need to book however as it’s a real favourite of the discerning and savvy Japanese community in HCMC…

And what’s the best place for a business meeting?

My go-to high-end location for a coffee meeting and perhaps also lunch is the Café Cardinal at the Reverie Hotel. The décor is sumptuous, the service is impeccable and it’s a great location to pitch a new business idea. They also have a suite of business meeting rooms just above the Café Cardinale which are also great for those company off-site planning sessions or if you are welcoming in guests from out of town and want to blow their socks off. 

Where do you like to hangout in Saigon? Any secret hideaways?

My favourite hangout is in District 1. It has to be The Studio Saigon tucked away upstairs at 42 Ly Tu Trong. This is the home of Richie Fawcett who arrived in Saigon almost 10 years ago. He was one of the first international mixologists to really “raise the bar” here by helping to open exclusive outlets such as Sorae Sushi. Along the way he inspired a lot of young Vietnamese bartenders who are thriving on the scene today. With twin passions for history and art he has now forged a second career for himself as a highly regarded artist with an incredible body of work to share – think lots of drawings of Saigon’s streetscapes – which have met with critical acclaim. 

The Studio Saigon embodies Richie Fawcett’s passion and a tour of his studio may betray the presence of a “secret button” which reveals a hidden cocktail bar equipped with all the latest gadgets and the finest spirits in a stylish setting. It’s the coolest and most covert place to enjoy a cocktail from the man himself…

Chris showing us his collection of football shirts including Liverpool’s 1989 title-winning shirt.

Where should we go to meet new people in Saigon?

From a business perspective, if you want to meet new people in Saigon, it would be a good idea to sign up as a member of the American Chamber of Commerce. The organisation has been thriving now for over 25 years in Vietnam and they organise some of the best networking events on a regular basis and are very welcoming and supportive to newcomers. Mary Tarnowka, the executive director, is very active on the scene and their Annual Christmas Ball held at the InterContinental Saigon is a real fixture on the social calendar…and one not to miss.

Where can we drink the best coffee in Saigon?

Godmother Bake and Brunch on Dong Khoi Street was created by Hype Asia, a cool, cosmopolitan and eclectic bunch who also brought us Bam Bam, Commas and Octo Tapas Restobar. 

This joint is a haven for social media junkies mesmerised by the “instagrammable” appeal of the food, drink and the trendy fit-out. Their coffee is imported from Melbourne and they offer so much choice with blends from Brazil and Ethiopia and single-origin beans from Colombia, Kenya and Costa Rica. Served from a “Sanremo Café Racer” aka the “Lamborghini of coffee machines”, it’s a unique treat for coffee lovers in Saigon.

Chris in the garden.

Which newly opened place in Saigon has got you excited?

The guys that created the luxurious Mia Resort in Nha Trang have recently opened the Mia Saigon Boutique Hotel in an awesome spot by the river on the outskirts of Thao Dien. They have about 60 rooms all with river views and the “contemporary Indochine” design is both stunning and almost OCD in its attention to detail. 

The sense of relaxation at Mia Resort is highlighted by the most inviting swimming pool in Saigon while foodies will enjoy the delightful French brasserie and a charming “Kitchen by the River” outlet overlooking one of the largest jetties in Saigon ready to welcome weary sailors in search of refreshment.

The pièce de résistance will be the opening of their rooftop gin bar “Gin on the 8th”. Mia Saigon will be another of those outlets driving the appeal of Thao Dien as a dining and staycation destination in 2020.  

Where should we go on a Friday night in Saigon?

I love what chef-owner Adrian Chong Yen is doing at Sol Kitchen & Bar on Ly Tu Trong in District 1. There, I’d kick off the evening with a couple of his signature Sol Margaritas. After that, I’d order almost anything – their take on South American favourites from Mexico, Peru and Argentina is quite exceptional. The cerviche, empanadas, and Iberico ribs are all personal favourites. 

From Sol Kitchen & Bar I would take the short walk to Summer Experiment to see Jay Moir the alcohol pharmacist who made his name by introducing the hugely popular Layla to Saigon a couple of years ago. 

Nobody makes a more refreshing gin and tonic than Jay. Depending on my energy levels, after that, a trip to hot spot Bam Bam would be the perfect way to end the night and I’d be hoping that bar manager Jérémy Faucan would be able to save a table for me near the “deep end” of this uber cool “tiki” bar styled night club that plays some of the best music in town.

“Saigon is equal parts vibrant and welcoming, fast and furious, enigmatic and bewildering…” says Chris Thompson donning his Vietnam national football shirt.

What should we buy as a gift?

When I first came to Vietnam, I would always struggle to find cool and desirable gifts to take home to my friends and family in Europe or to present to business associates visiting me in Saigon. However, these days we are spoiled for choice.

My go-to is Marou chocolate. I’m so impressed with how they have built a premium brand showcasing the best of Vietnam and the different gifting options look beautiful, taste great and are always gratefully received. 

In the event that I have a slightly higher budget there are also some stunning options from Belami Rhum and Caspiar Caviar, which are both produced in small batches in Saigon and Dalat respectively. 

Which tourist destination in Saigon is worth our time? Which should we skip?

I’ve always loved the junction around the Opera House enclosed by the classic Caravelle Saigon, Rex and Continental hotels. Sipping a gin and tonic by the window of Café L’Opera at the Caravelle, my mind wanders to a bygone age portrayed by Graham Greene when Dong Khoi Street was Tu Do Street and the old café Givral was society’s focal point before it morphed into the behemoth known today as Union Square. 

In the same way, I still enjoy that sketch of nostalgia that is the Rooftop Bar at the Rex, the setting of the famous five o’clock follies.

Finally, I would skip the War Remnants Museum. Let’s look forward not back….

Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen

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