The Search For The Best Martini In Saigon

Consider the Martini. An ice cold slap around the face. The sting of lemon. The seadog brine. Then a creeping, woozy warmth. Hopefully, that’s something like the same warmth you feel knowing we’ve searched and searched for the best Martini in Saigon. Here’s our list.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Described as the ‘elixir of quietude’ by American writer E.B. White, the Martini is a drink that allows the spirit to shine. It’s like a boozy blank canvas splashed with bitters or washed with vermouth.

First: A Bit Of Martini History

If, as they say, simplicity is the ultimate of sophistication, then the Martini embodies true refinement. It’s not a characteristic associated with too many bars in Saigon beyond the grand dame hotel bars, like the Park Hyatt’s 2 Lam Son. But that’s our kind of quest, searching for the best Martini in Saigon.   

But first, a bit of Martini history. Surprisingly, for such an iconic cocktail, the origins of the Martini are as cloudy as an extra dirty one. Perhaps it came from Martini Vermouth – the brand would certainly like to think so. 

Or maybe it came from the Martinez, a drink first served in the mid 19th century to guests heading to Martinez, California. Or, maybe the drink was first made in (and not on the way to) Martinez itself – as its residents would like to believe. Either way, that cocktail was undoubtedly a direct predecessor of the Martini.

Perhaps, most likely of all, the Martini was just in the air at the time, and emerged in a few places all at once, rather than being the result of a eureka moment. 

It’s The Subtleties That Matter Searching For The Best Martini In Saigon

At its core, the Martini is a blend of gin or vodka and vermouth. However, in the realm of simplicity, it’s the subtleties that matter. The precise temperature, a hint of bitters, a substitution like Lillet for Vermouth, as famously requested by James Bond in Casino Royale, all matter.

“A Dry Martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’ Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”

Keep your eyes as peeled as that slice of lemon when you order a Martini in Saigon. Did the glass come out as ice cold as Outkast-era Andre 3000? Is the drink as chilled as a face plant in the snow? Did they return your drink to the fridge while you disappeared to the bathroom? It matters.

But, as Robert Simonson correctly put it in The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World’s Greatest Drink, the Martini is: “Gin, vermouth, sometimes bitters, lemon twist or olive, and lots of opinions.” 

A Dry Martini at The Deck Saigon beside the river in District 2.

Your Saigon Martini Cheat Sheet 

Setting out, as we did, to find the best Martini in Saigon? Feel you Martini mastery is shaken shaky? Here’s a connoisseur’s corner to help you bluff your way through. 

Perhaps, before that, a disclaimer. The best Martini is your favorite one. “The thing is, when it comes to the Martini, everyone thinks they’ve got the straight dope,” Robert Simonson concurs in The Martini Cocktail.

We default to a Dry Martini (and so, most likely, will your bartender), like the famous line goes from the 1942 film, ‘The Major And The Minor: “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” 

That means a dash of dry vermouth (a ratio of around 5:1). A wet Martini has more vermouth, making it sweeter than its dry counterpart. Then there’s a Perfect Martini, which contains an even mix of both vermouth and spirit. 

Onto the eternal question: shaken or stirred? Although James Bond gave us the Vesper, he probably did more harm than good here – or more accurately Bond’s creator, the author Ian Fleming – with his preference for a stirred Martini. He believed that shaking the drink preserved its flavor better. 

However, most err towards the stir. Shaking it can leave ice in the drink. And the beverage dilutes more (so if yours tastes weak, it’s probably been shaken or the ice cubes have melted too quickly when it was stirred). 

Next up: gin or vodka? Vodka provides a clean slate that helps the vermouth to become the main character. In Mad Men, Roger’s go-to is a Vodka Martini – usually made with Stoli. 

But gin adds complexity, thanks to its botanicals, that come to the fore in a Gin Martini. But, why discriminate when you could have both in a Vesper – try an all-Japanese version with Haku Vodka and Roku Gin, plus the Bond-approved splash of Lillet.  

Where to find the best Martini in Saigon? 

Satisfyingly, there are a number of contenders for the best Martini in Saigon from a classic dry Martini to twists with truffle or fish sauce. 

Layla – Eatery & Bar (2nd Floor, 63 Dong Du, District 1) has been cannibalizing this whole building on Dong Du. Its recent expansion took it from 160 to 240 seats in that eccentric old block that spreads across the Dong Khoi end of Dong Du Street. The expansion comes with the confidence of a bar that’s been packing in guests for years thanks to its accessible price point and great drinks and snacks like fresh oysters, quesadillas and loaded fries. 

Layla Eatery & Bar
The calm before the storm as Layla – Eatery & Bar prepares for another busy night.

Naturally, the please-all menu – which now includes some fun, house-made, sustainably-minded draft cocktails – has two dedicated Martini sections, making it a strong contender in our search for the best Martini in Saigon.

There’s the ‘Straight Up Martini’ section with a discerning choice of Tanqueray London Dry Gin or Tanqueray No. TEN, or Ketel One or Ciroc Vodka, all mixed with Mancino Vermouth and served stirred, clean or dirty, with olives or a twist (VND 190K or 320K for the premium Tanqueray No. TEN and Ciroc versions).

Then, beside it, there’s the Martini Delights menu. It contains 14 variations like their Not Any Ordinary Gimlet, with citrusy yuzu puree and savory basil oil, and Layla’s Salted Caramel Espresso, a silky, salty-sweet take on the Espresso Martini. In fact, the Martinis are so good, Giancarlo Mancino, the founder of Mancino Vermouth, recently dropped by to bless the place with a guest shift. 

The Deck Saigon
The Deck, the riverside bar and restaurant, with a dedicated Martini menu.

There’s rules. Always order steak in a French restaurant. And, let an Italian make your Martini. And so it is at The Deck (38 Nguyen U Di, Thao Dien, District 2) – that beatific bar and restaurant beside the river in District 2. Remarkably, it’s been around as long as most of us can remember. There, the Italian head bartender, Andrea Pisani, has created a menu that contains 9 Martinis. 

There’s a classic New York Dry Martini and a Very Dirty Martini. There’s a Pornstar Martini and an Espresso Martini. And there’s even an Earl Grey Martini (all VND 240K). Working through the whole list would make a fine challenge. There’s the soft landing of the Saigon River running alongside the restaurant in case it gets too much. 

Stir - Modern Classic Cocktail and their legendary Truffle Martini
Stir – Modern Classic Cocktail and their legendary Truffle Martini.

Stir – Modern Classic Cocktail (136 Le Thanh Ton, District 1) blazed a trail across the Vietnamese cocktail scene kissing the badge of its Vietnamese football shirt as it did so. The team were all plucky young local bartenders like Nguyen Cong Truyen, and they were led by a World Class winner, Thep Dinh, and DIAGEO Brand Ambassador, Lam Duc Anh. 

The menu was in Vietnamese, with local flavors infusing lots of the signatures. And their Truffle Martini, another strong contender for the best Martini in Saigon, quickly acquired legendary status, thanks to its base of Tanqueray Gin that’s fat-washed with truffle oil, and includes a little elderflower cordial for lychee-like tropical warmth. 

Maybe it’s the throw-back, bow-tied bartenders or the timeless wooden counter that make Hajime Tadano’s The First (8A/7B2 Thai Van Lung, District 1) a first choice for the after work reward of a stiff Dry Martini. 

Their Smoky Martini – where a peaty Scotch stands in for vermouth – is tenacious too. The location adds to the allure. Now, The First is located in the alleys of Saigon’s Japan Town, and it looks right at home. Plus, disappearing through the famous gate on Thai Van Lung is the ultimate form of escapism – like being teleported, in an instant, to Tokyo. 

The Pi's Ultimate Martini
Drip. Drip. A few drops of walnut oil going on to The Pi’s Ultimate Martini.

Chun’s The Pi (45 Nguyen Khuong Ninh, District 1) is a neighborhood bar in hip Dakao Ward. It’s a small space punching way above its weight, with guest shifts from Jungle Bird, Employees Only Singapore, 28 Hong Kong Street, and, recently, The Pharmacist in Knokke-Heist, Belgium. 

The Pi makes this list for its boozy Ultimate Martini. It’s a rendition with smoky Mezcal as its base spirit, some Calvados and Chartreuse, and a few drops of walnut oil. “Not for the faint hearted,” the team is quick to warn any guests gravitating to that section of the menu. Maybe that’s the point.

Through the wardrobe at Tủ Bar
Through the wardrobe at Tủ Bar.

Tủ Bar (160 Ngo Tat To, Binh Thanh) might have been gimmicky. After all, you enter through a wardrobe, bravely parting the rack of clothes and stepping into darkness. 

Fortunately, inside is an unwaveringly brilliant bar, presided over by Toan, formerly of The Alley and Con Voi. It feels Japanese: the 360-degree wooden counter and the precision with the cocktails. But there’s lots of influences here, including The Connaught Bar in London’s Connaught Hotel. 

Famously, there, the bartender pulls the cocktail trolley up to your table, and performs a long pour. As he does he squeezes into the cascading liquid a large slice of Amalfi lemon. Perhaps because lemons are scarce here, Toan cuts his into small, squeezable discs. Then he performs the same feat, only at Tủ Bar he has to keep picking up fresh pieces of lemon while simultaneously trying to steer the liquid into the glass. Mesmerizing. 

Tireless tinkerer Peter Cuong Franklin is a fish sauce fanatic. So, it’s no surprise that at Nhau Nhau (2F, 89 Ton That Dam, District 1), his ode to Saigon’s pre-1975 era of Vietnamese pop culture, above Anan, his MICHELIN-starred restaurant, he serves a dirty Martini with a splash of fish sauce in the mix. Already acclaimed as the best restaurant in Vietnam, this Martini is a contender for the best Martini in Saigon. Because, true to the ethos of the place, where Peter uses modern techniques and elevated ingredients to reimagine Vietnamese classics, this one comes with a spoonful of caviar topped with a pinch of gold. 

Nhau Nhau above Anan Restaurant
Nhau Nhau and their typically opulent take on the Martini – this one with caviar and a dash of fish sauce.

We had to include a hotel bar. And it had to be this one. After all, The Park Hyatt Saigon’s 2 Lam Son Bar (2 Lam Son, District 1), is also fondly referred to as The Martini Bar. It has hosted guest shifts from some of the best bars in the world – the teams from both Alquemico, in Cartagena, and Paradiso, in Barcelona, dropped by last year. And, inside, you get that widescreen view of downtown Hai Ba Trung through the floor-to-ceiling windows. And, of course, there’s a refined selection of cocktails, that includes a renowned Lychee Martini and a Saigon Coffee Martini. There’s also a killer Dry Martini, if you ask nicely. 

Baron Bar Japanese style cocktails
Japanese-style Baron Bar on Nguyen Binh Khiem.

Japanese bars feature strongly on this list because they invariably make a great Martini. Baron Bar (38 Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1) is no exception. Oddly, the closure of Monde Bar & Restaurant, a precursor to all the great Japanese-style bars in town, scattered its talent across Saigon, gifting us (directly or indirectly) with bars like Yugen, Rabbit Hole, and Baron Bar. At Baron Bar, they keep the spirit alive in a broom cupboard-sized space with counter seating only and a small lounge across the hallway. 

Firkin Bar a retro cocktail bar in Saigon
Firkin Bar with its vintage posters and speakeasy vibes is like being in Mad Men.

Firkin Bar (20 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1) is a fitting location for a Martini. Through the inconspicuous entrance and ascending the stairs, you could be entering a scene from Mad Men. Maybe it’s all the vintage posters on the walls. Or the dimly-lit speakeasy energy. A bit like the show, Firkin Bar attracts industry people from the office buildings all around it. There’s a 30%-off happy hour from 6-8PM daily that includes their classic Dry Martini. And they’re right to quote James Thurber as they serve it up: “One Martini is all right. Two are too many. And three are not enough.”

Dram Bar (2 Dang Huu Pho, Thao Dien, District 2), from the same team, conjures a similar atmosphere, And it possesses and equal devotion to the classics, only Dram is across the river in District 2. There’s a welcoming horseshoe-shaped bar, a pool table, and the Thao Dien branch of Stoker Woodfired Grill in the same building for dinner then drinks upstairs afterwards. 

2 Lam Son at Park Hyatt Saigon
2 Lam Son Bar at Park Hyatt Saigon.

The clue, clearly, is in the name at Vesper (5B Ton Duc Thang, District 1). Historically, the Martini became the de facto drink when the work was done. The Martini shot in movie-making, for example, was the nickname for the last shot of the day. And, although the lunches are great, diving into the voluminous Martinis at Vesper is the perfect absolution from the worries of work. Three and you’re speaking in tongues and ordering a Grab home. 

Yugen Cocktail bar Saigon
Yugen Bar, a cocktail bar in Saigon in search of perfection.

Wow. That flew by. Yugen Bar (95 Le Thi Rieng, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1) just celebrated four years of serving up its head-spinningly long list of classic cocktails, all made with perfectionist precision. Even the name Yugen refers to the unattainable pursuit of perfection. But their Martinis come as close as anywhere to perfection, especially their Vesper (VND 280K). 

Kohei Yamamoto at his bar, Kohei's
Kohei Yamamoto musing on the Martini at his eponymous cocktail bar, Kohei’s.

At Kohei’s Bar (151 Dong Khoi, District 1 – on the left as you enter through the arcade), Kohei Yamamoto’s got endless stories from the decadent era of Shanghai’s economic boom time when he ran bars like Y’s Table Bar and Kitchen, el COCTEL, el Ocho, and Bikini. 

That el COCTEL gig was particularly transformative. There, he started to work with Chef Willy Trullàs Moreno, AKA El Willy, which in a roundabout way is how he found himself here – working with Willy’s partners on the Saigon Tomatito project at his eponymous bar, Kohei’s. 

At Kohei’s they serve their Martini in an icey, copper-colored goblet which helps it stay cool. There’s tall stools at the counter, sofas at either end, a mean selection of cigars, and, what Kohei calls “Japanese attention to detail in your living room…”

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