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SAVOURING THE TASTIER SIDE OF SAIGON LIFE

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Savouring the tastier side of Saigon life 24-Hour Banh Mi at Banh Nam

 

After arriving in Binh Thanh District in January, Banh Nam has opened its second 24/7 branch, this time on Vo Van Kiet Street, D1. With the same five varieties as the original, prices start at just VND19,000. “Banh Nam is a grab-and-go Vietnamese street-food concept,” says co-founder Timen Swijtink, “with a focus on freshly-made banh mi along with a range of snacks, desserts, and drinks. Banh Nam is not trying to reinvent the banh mi; it is just adding cleanliness, convenience, and consistency. But we are, and always will be authentically Vietnamese.”

 

 

 

151A Xo Viet Nghe Tinh, Binh Thanh District – 24 Vo Van Kiet, D1

French Kebabs in Japan Town

 

From among the ramen shops and sushi counters of Le Thanh Ton’s alleyways comes Panam, a slang term for ‘Paris’, serving up a compact menu of homemade kebabs inspired by those found on the streets of the French metropolis. Having arrived at the end of 2015, Panam recently added a lunchtime delivery service within District 1 (minimum spend VND60,000), perfect for a Touch of mid-week office-based food envy. While marinated chicken and lamb options are standard (starting at just VND30,000), with a falafel version on the way, the American Breakfast Kebab sounds like our kind of lunch (VND100,000).

 

 

15B/62 Le Thanh Ton, D1. FB: Panam Kebab

Cutting the Ribbon on Thai Street

 

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Forget the HCMC Metro; Thao Dien has just been linked to Bangkok’s BTS system. Find the curious-looking (and fake) Thai food-cart parked at 26 Thao Dien and head down the adjacent alley into Thai Street, with authentic signs, neon lights, and yes, a model BTS station. Boasting several (real) food-carts pumping out steam, flames and a variety of superb Thai dishes, it’s one of the most exciting restaurants we’ve seen in a long time. With double thumbs-up from several local Thai-food junkies including our own photo editor and food blogger, Vinh Dao, and prices hovering around VND100,000 per dish, it’s an institution in-the-making.

26 Thao Dien, District 2. FB: Thai Street

 

 

Perfecting the Craft

 

 

The brewers featured in our craft beer cover story for February 2016, Hops and Dreams, are seeing their vision rapidly come to light, particularly in District 2, as Bier Ecke on Nguyen Ba Lan opened its doors in March. The decor feels a little familiar to the district’s original craft beer hub, Bia Craft, but with Pasteur Street, Platinum and a dark Gauden beer on tap, it’s not the end of the world. While other local brews are missing from the lineup, Ecke’s still worthy of a pin in the craft beer map.

Judging by a nearby venue under construction in March, Ecke may not be the last bar in town to follow the trend.

 

14 Nguyen Ba Lan, Thao Dien Ward, D2

New openings

 

Well established Thao Dien restaurant MAD House has recently expanded to District 7.

Furnished with a mix of modern Scandinavian and chic features, the restaurant will use a similar menu to its sister branch. It’s located inside Capri by Fraser at No.2 Street C, Tan Phu ward, D7, and opens daily from 11.30am to 10pm.

 

FB: MADhouseD7.

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SOMTUM DER

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Claudia Davaar Lambie samples spicy dishes at one of the hottest Thai restaurants in town, Somtum Der. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

Diners at Somtum Der are first greeted by paintings streaked in shades of red and yellow of Isan people native to the northeastern region of Thailand. One of the owners, Tran Huy, 29, explains that the artwork merges traditional Isan figures in a Vietnamese propaganda style. These hybrid creations are also present in the Isan cuisine; a delightful mix of Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese fare.

 

The three-story restaurant opened in February 2016 after the success of its sister branches in Bangkok and New York, the latter boasting a Michelin Star. Thanaruek Laoraowirodge launched the restaurant with the sole purpose of bringing traditional Isan cuisine to Vietnam. “The food is as authentic as ever and we don’t compromise on the taste,” says Tran.

 

Isan cuisine is known for its abundant use of spices and chili. The word ‘spicy’ appears as a prefix to most of the dishes on the menu yet anyone sensitive to that burning sensation shouldn’t be scared off. The spices are blended well, and are offset by the tang of pla ra – Thai for fermented fish sauce. 

 

Tran says the dishes are meant to be shared “family-style” and recommends some key ones to try. Sontum, or green papaya salad (VND95,000), is the star of the menu. Served with pla ra, vermicelli noodles and pork crackling, it bursts with a freshness and fragrance that, if too fiery, could be doused with a few swigs of the Thai Sabai cocktail, harbouring cooling hints of rum and Thai basil (VND110,000).

 

A coating of chili flakes runs deep in the Der-styled deep fried chicken wings (VND85,000), seeping through the skin and into the tender meat. For any wing connoisseurs out there, they taste similar to former District 2 haunt Baan Thai’s offerings. 

 

The prawn sashimi (VND150,000) appears a little strange upon arrival. The de-shelled uncooked prawns remain whole and are cured in chili, ginger, lime juice and palm sugar. The result is tender zingy prawns but boy do they pack a punch. A hearty bowl of spicy catfish soup (VND85,000) was up next. The fish is barbequed before it is added to the soup and the combination of spicy, sour and charcoaled flavours blend well together.

 

Der, or ‘warm invitation’ in the Isan language, reflects the casual and friendly ambience of the restaurant. Lights made from Isan wicker baskets hang from the walls while the baskets stowed on the shelves are also used for sticky rice. All of the decoration is imported from the region and some of the ingredients are imported from Thailand, adding authenticity to the food. As it’s time to leave, pla ra arrives by the box load. Tran enthusiastically waves me off. He’s achieved his main aim of the day: for “customers to leave with happiness”. 

 

136 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: 09 0294 2457

somtumderhcmc.com
Open 11am – 2.30pm and 4.30pm – 10.30pm

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NAMO

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Simon Stanley visits the artisanal pizzeria everyone’s talking about, Namo. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

 

“Why are your pizzas so ugly?” – Namo’s staff hear it all the time. For diners used to the mass-produced, perfectly round, photogenic pies churned out by those hangover-friendly pizza chains, the sight of a true Neapolitan pizza, it seems, can be quite a shock. Rustic? Yes. Homemade? Definitely. Artisanal? It’s in their tagline. Thick, bubbling, delicately charred crusts infused with the sweet smoke of a wood-oven? Mmm, yep. But ugly? No, no and no.

 

So, what makes an artisanal pizza?

“It’s the difference between a printed poster and a painted canvas,” says Julia Underwood, Namo’s marketing manager. “The more conventional pizzas aim for visual perfection. We aim for perfection in terms of taste and ingredients.”

 

Indeed, after a three-month search across Italy for the perfect pizza, Namo’s owners brought back more than just notes. Let’s start with the 3.5 tonne, dome-topped wood-oven sitting in the downstairs open-kitchen / bar area. Handmade in Naples, its bricks were forged from the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius itself. The flour, Caputa 00 – also imported from Naples – is one of the finest in existence and is widely considered to be a hallmark of genuine Neapolitan dough.

 

Throw in some of the best Italian chefs in the world, a pinch of salt, a Touch of yeast and mineral water, and after just one bite you’ll understand why many are already hailing Namo’s “ugly” offerings as the best in town.

 

Split into classics and specials, choices cover everything from a Margherita (VND170,000) up to the Pescatora (VND450,000), a seafood feast of fresh crab, Atlantic salmon, seaweed, and shrimp roe.

 

Namo’s relaxed, homely decor, spread over four unique floors and layered with natural tones, contrasting materials and Scandinavian-esque purity, provides a cosy setting for informal, sociable dining. For groups, the La Famiglia is ideal, offering a taste of six pizzas in a single, one-metre-long sharer (VND1.8 million / VND900,000 for the half-metre version).

 

Pastas are also receiving plenty of attention. The veal fettuccine in particular is superb, consisting of handmade pasta, a Touch of spice and a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano (VND270,000).

 

Italian wines start at a very reasonable VND120,000 per glass, and cocktails are all VND190,000, though the daily happy hour (5pm until 7pm) offers a 50 percent discount on everything (excluding bottles).

 

Proving that Italian cuisine goes far deeper than pizza and pasta, the enticing range of antipasti, salads, soups, grilled meat dishes and seafood is extremely hard for diners to overlook.

 

The truffle and pork sausage-stuffed chicken roulade (VND330,000) sounds too good to miss… but those pizzas, that dough… wow. Life is tough. 

 

 

74/6 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
Tel: 08 3822 7988

namo.pizza
Open 11am – 11pm, 7 days

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MALT

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Malt, an American-style bar offers a casual setting, good beer, and, in a groundbreaking move for Saigon, shuffleboard. By Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

 

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Continuing its endless embrace of Uncle Sam’s cultural pastimes, Saigon now has shuffleboard, which is like bowls but with discs.

 

King Henry VIII of England would have me hanged for saying that shuffleboard originated in the US. Supposedly, it’s from Europe, but this miniaturised American version of the game fits into Malt neatly.

 

It’s not the only reason to visit the District 1 bar. Go there for its casual ambience and warm atmosphere amid brickwork, Miller posters and wooden furnishings.

 

Just remember, if you need something new in your life, it has shuffleboard. Tournaments take place every Thursday, usually around 7pm. You play in pairs and you play to win because there’s two bottles of quality spirits for the champions.

 

Malt’s non-smoking so you can see your disc glide clearly along the smooth table while conveniently lowering your chances of contracting cancer.

 

It opened in December without much fuss and has steadily attracted a regular crowd through word-of-mouth, striking a good balance between tasty snacks in a relaxing hangout and somewhere you can visit to start a big night.

 

Happy hour is buy two, get one free, from 4pm to 7pm, except on craft beer and cocktails.

 

On the independent brewery roster, Malt’s got bottled Belgian wheat beer Te Te (VND120,000), draft Fuzzy Logic (VND60,000) and Pasteur Street Brewery’s Jasmine IPA and Saigon Saison (both VND95,000).

 

Among the usual offerings, draft Tiger is VND45,000 and bottled Saigon Red VND35,000.

 

The menu is interesting enough for a second glance, with the pub grub options including Truffle Parmesan Garlic Fries (VND60,000) and Chicken Enchilada (VND120,000).

 

Revellers can order shared cocktail jugs or Malt’s signature cocktails like Mac Thi Buoi (a revolutionary who gave the street its name) which blends gin, sweet vermouth, lime, orange and cinnamon. Classic cocktails are VND120,000 and shots can be chased with a pickleback for an extra VND10,000.

 

Despite this, owner Thao Tran doesn’t want to give the impression that Malt’s a cocktail bar, and it’s not.

 

Flanked by fancy hotels and high-end bars, you can stumble in with crumbled shorts and a stained t-shirt and people won’t bat an eyelid.

 

Themed nights are in the pipeline so keep in the loop via its Facebook page. Drop in for a drink and enjoy the good part-US culture without that tangerine, reality TV chap with the funny hair who may actually destroy the world.

 

46 – 48 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: 09 1848 4763
FB: Malt
Open 4pm – 12am

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ROLL OUT THE BARREL

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In a bar far far away, at a time long, long ago (2009 to be precise), the seeds of one of the greatest cocktail trends the most recent cocktail golden age has seen were sown. In 2015, the  world production of miniature oak barrels could not keep up with demand.

 

The trend had spread its high-alcohol infection from North London in 2009 at a bar called, well, it doesn’t have a name. The address is 69, Colebrook Row. The owner, Toni Conigliaro, was experimenting with aged Manhattans in glass jars. Visiting bartender from northwest USA, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, tried Toni’s aged concoctions. So impressed, he went back to his own bar, The Clyde  Common, and did the same, but in oak barrels.

 

From there the trend spread from the Portland, Oregon, bar scene, reaching the West coast and East coast of the USA in the same year.

 

By late 2010, notable London bars were in on the act, from Mayfair to Hackney. Edinburgh, famed for its cocktail bar scene. wasn’t far behind. Then the migration of ideas and knowledge was rapid in today’s nano-fast cocktail culture. Asia was exposed to the trend through Hong Kong bartenders Antonio Lai  and Maxence Traverse. Max started with rum aged  Negronis, Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs  in 2012 at Honi Honi tiki bar – Antonio in the same year with a six-month aged Manhattan at Quinary.

 

Manhattan bar in the Regent hotel, Singapore, opened with a barrel aging programme that features over 100 barrels, proving the trend has gone from little more than an experiment in a bar in North London to being the central feature on a serious five-star hotel bar menus in little over five years.

 

Meanwhile in the sleepy cocktail backwater that is Vietnam, at last the waters are stirring…

 

Ratcha Room, Sorae, Shri and soon-to-open Qui all feature various forms of barrel-aged cocktails on their menus.

 

 

Ratcha Room, 2014
‘Ratcha Nail’ by Greg Jacobs: Cutty Sark Whisky and Drambuie (aged two months)

 

Sorae, Sept 2014
‘Sumo Old Fashioned’ by Richie Fawcett: Bacon-washed Brugal rum, orange bitters and maple syrup (aged 30 days)

 

Shri – Whisky Pop-up Bar, Nov 2015
‘The Grandfather’ by Richie Fawcett: Macallan 12 yr and Amaretto (aged six to eight months)

 

Qui, April 2016
‘Boulevardier’ by Thanh Tung: Gin, Campari and Martini Rosso (aged 35 days)

 

 

Shri Restaurant and Lounge manager Richie Fawcett is a designer and artist who sits on Asia’s 50 best bars voting panel and is responsible for training many of Vietnam’s best bartenders.

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MON NGON VIETNAM

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Monica Majors discovers some of Vietnam’s ancient royal cuisine at Mon Ngon Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

“Not another Vietnamese restaurant with a menu as long as the Iliad,” you may be thinking. With heavy-hitters like Cuc Gach Quan, Chi Hoa and Nha Hang Ngon, what specialties could possibly be left uneaten? Well, have you ever tried authentic royal Vietnamese cuisine?

 

Mon Ngon Vietnam’s restaurant and cooking class sits tucked in District 3, its brightly-coloured sign trimmed with blooming flowers. The building is a modestly converted home, but here beautiful monochrome tiles and lotus drawings elevate the elegance. Natural light shines through the wrought-iron trimmed windows and bold splashes of turquoise pillows add just the right amount of colour to the intimate dining room. The dark wood of the dining tables and chairs tie together the look and feel of an upscale home ready to serve some of the most delicious food in the country.

 

Director Vo Dinh Quoc created the restaurant’s menu with the intention of providing some of the nation’s most regal dishes to us poor peons. With experience of cooking for the Singaporean Prime Minister’s family on a visit to Vietnam years back, Chef Vo Quoc is well-known among locals; as the country’s first Vietnamese Culinary Culture Ambassador, as a Council Member of the 2013 World Street-food Congress (photographed on Facebook alongside number one Vietnamese food-fan Anthony Bourdain), and as a leading TV personality on shows like Masterchef.

 

When I sat down with him and business director Trinh Tuong Van they told me their goal is to, “set up a home-style restaurant, like family dining.” Van continued, translating for Vo Quoc, “We have a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in HCMC, but here we feature a little of all the regions, focussing on the authentic flavours of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine.”

 

A beautifully presented spread of three salads (red grapefruit with crab, baby shrimp and flower, and coconut tree and scallops – VND139,000 to VND199,000) led the presentation, followed by stir-fried Vietnamese abalone with shredded vegetables (VND119,000). My absolute favourite was the braised pork with orange (VND139,000), a simple, yet sumptuous dish that I refused to share with others. Other dishes like the sautéed tuberose (VND159,000) are unavailable in other Vietnamese restaurants, and I have never had a sweet and sour soup (VND99,000) quite like the one here.

 

Drinks are no less tasty, and it’s rare that I can find cinnamon tea (VND49,000), let alone in iced form with such zest. Guests can also opt for the cooking class on the second floor, with either Chef

 

Vo Quoc or other notables offering two hour classes at US$40 per person including a market tour to purchase the best ingredients. It all takes comfort food to the next level.

 

72/1 Tran Quoc Toan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: 08 3601 3022

monngonvietnam.vn
Open 7.30am – 10pm, 7 days

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QUAN UT UT BACONTAINER

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For the meat lovers of Saigon, there could only be one thing better than Quan Ut Ut: more Quan Ut Ut. Simon Stanley checks out the popular barbecue joint’s new canal-side pop-up in Binh Thanh District. Photos by QUU.

 

 

As 2015 drew to a close, a new resident quietly snuck into the several-mile-long row of restaurants and cafes that is Truong Sa, that fabulous, winding strip of tarmac running alongside the Thi Nghi canal on the Binh Thanh side.

 

Formed largely from repurposed shipping containers, steel girders and industrial features, with a vast open-air dining space at its heart, Quan Ut Ut’s second restaurant is far from being the awkward sequel some may be expecting. “Is it as good as the original?” people have been asking. The answer is, yes. Oh yes.

 

Offering breezy views of the canal and District 1’s glittering broadcast tower (when lit) on the opposite bank, its kerb-side bar is enough to win over many diehard fans of the original. With a range of local craft beers on tap and in bottles, it’s the best alternative to BiaCraft for those of us on the ‘wrong’ side of the Saigon River. This one has over a dozen bar snacks too, ranging from fresh

Nha Trang oysters (VND150,000 for six) to Buffalo wings (VND80,000) and panko crusted mozzarella (VND70,000).

 

Space-wise, Ut Ut 2.0 is a winner. Strung with a ceiling of fairy lights (and retractable rain covers for when that inevitable day arrives), the two-floor al fresco layout feels a lot cooler and more spacious than its older brother. The menu is the same at both locations. For the uninitiated, the cashew-smoked pork ribs are a must at VND550,000 for a full rack, VND300,000 for a half. In all honesty, everything on the menu is standout – you cannot go wrong. The giant, tractor-sized smoker at the back of the room is the first scratch of proof of Ut Ut’s authentic ‘low ’n’ slow’ cooking style; the OMFG tenderness of the meat is the second.

 

60 Truong Sa, Binh Thanh District, (between the Dien Bien Phu and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai bridges)
Tel: 08 3840 0420

quanutut.com

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TOP 5 HIDDEN BARS

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Over the past few years, secret bars have been popping up all over the world. As thirsty urban explorers slip behind dummy refrigerators and phone-booths, or descend into once forgotten basements, disused public toilets or air-raid shelters, it’s obvious that finding one’s own private corner in the chaos of a 21st-century city is most definitely ‘a thing’. While the trend has yet to fully capture the imagination of Vietnam, there are a few Secrets we can let you in on. By Simon Stanley and Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

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ERA Coffee

58c Tran Quoc Thao, District 3. 
9am – 11pm.

 

Okay, you got us; the first spot on our list is technically a cafe, but in a country where bars remain very much a foreign import, you need to be a little flexible with us. And yes, most of Era’s menu is taken up with coffees, teas, juices and smoothies, but with an 11pm closing time, bottles of Heineken for VND 44,000 and a handful of cocktails, we’re happy to have it on the list if you are. While the mixology is far from being the best in town, at between just VND 56,000 and VND 76,000 a drink, you can’t fault it. Lit mainly by candlelight and without any signage to be seen, this place feels very secret indeed. Vintage tunes crackle from an old wooden speaker and the hushed atmosphere adds to the speakeasy feel. Just don’t tell them who told you.

 

 

 

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Shanty 36 Chu Manh Trinh, D1.
12pm – midnight.

 

 

Stumble into Shanty and you’ll be soaking up the laid back vibes of the only reggae bar in town – at least that we’re aware of.

This colourful spot wouldn’t be out of place in a lazy sun-drenched stretch of the Caribbean and, even more incongruously, it’s run by 34-year-old Takao Saito, a Japanese chef.

 

Staying true to its Rasta magic, the place has a charmingly passive feel, with its mostly expat patrons chowing down on Saito’s homemade curries and Jamaican jerk chicken as they bob their heads to the thick, offbeat bass guitar thrumming from the speakers.

 

Saigon Special beer (VND 30,000) and wine (VND 50,000) are available or opt for some of the homebrews, including peach beer (VND 40,000) and ginger beer (VND 50,000).

Dishes range from vegetarian curry with rice (VND 88,000) to taco beans, rice, cheese and vegetables (VND 100,000). Drinks stop at 10.30pm and food at 11pm.

 

 

 

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Mary Jane’s The Bar

85 Nguyen Huu Cau, District 1.
8am – 11pm.

 

Find this rooftop refuge by entering a half used office block, punching ‘9’ in the lift, and walking two flights of stairs.

 

There you’ll discover a bunch of young, creative Vietnamese puffing shishas amid a vine-draped terrace and enjoying an all-encompassing view of Saigon’s skyline, including the nearby Tan Dinh market and vibrantly pink Tan Dinh Church.

 

If you need to impress someone with your ‘local knowledge’, this place has everything you need: trippy graffiti, ambient dubstep and a heartening lack of tourists.

Judging on reviews and appearance, the food isn’t anything to write home about, so best buy a can of Saigon Special (VND 25,000) and pick one of the benches lining the low walls.

 

 

 

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Shri Whisky Library

Level 23, Centec Tower, 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3. 
4pm – midnight.

 

 

As the very epitome of what a secret bar should be, this list would not be complete without mention of Shri’s latest, ephemeral pop-up bar. The fact that it hides behind a fake bookcase has set the bar for whoever picks up the speakeasy baton when it’s gone. They also sell smoked whisky cocktails, served after a stint in a bell jar with aniseed smoke, so whoever picks up that baton will have to come up with some seriously good drinks. With world-class spirits on offer, dominated mostly by The Macallan’s single malt range, and a cosy highland lodge-style interior, this is one secret we just can’t keep.

 

 

 

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Vuon Bia 2F

79c Dien Bien Phu, District 1. 
4pm – 12.30am.

 

 

With a lively ground-floor open-air beer garden surrounded by fairy lights and large illuminated signs, once you’ve found 2F you’ll realise that it isn’t really secret at all. However, unless you happen to spot the modest sign out on Dien Bien Phu, or accidentally find yourself in the cul-de-sac of side streets that access it, you’d really never know. Beer is all home brewed and the choices are simple – yellow, red or black, increasing in flavour and price respectively (from VND 25,000 to VND 27,000 a glass). A solid selection of Vietnamese meals and nibbles is also available to keep you going as the attentive staff ensure you never run dry. We recommend the barbecued beef rolls with mozzarella (VND 99,000).

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GRAIN COOKING SCHOOL BY LUKE NGUYEN

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Acclaimed Australian-Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen’s mission is to connect people with Vietnamese culture through food. He talks to Brett Davis about Grain, his new cooking school in Saigon.Photos by Jonny Edbrooke.

 

 

Entering the new cooking school Grain, it looks like you have stepped onto the set of a slick cooking show. The vast space has two classrooms with wooden benches laid out ready with all the tools needed to create culinary masterpieces.

 

There is also a purpose built market and store at the school located on Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1.

 

The polished look of Grain is not surprising given chef Luke Nguyen’s experience hosting numerous cooking shows including being a judge on Master Chef Vietnam. He was in town recently between filming for his new series on street food around Southeast Asia.

 

Grain is his first venture in Vietnam, while he still runs several restaurants in Australia, including the groundbreaking Red Lantern in Sydney.

 

Seated in the larger of the school’s two ‘classrooms’, he explains that the purpose of Grain is to showcase Vietnamese food and ‘demystify’ the cuisine. And this includes locals as well as expatriates and visitors.

 

“I want people in Vietnam to get back to their roots and start cooking again, especially the younger generation,” he says.

 

 

So far there have been people from all walks of life walk through the doors of the school, he says, from tourists to local families to corporate groups doing team-building exercises.

A typical class involves preparing a four-course meal, with dishes such as pumpkin flowers stuffed with prawns and dill, chicken salad with cabbage and jellyfish, and sea bass steamed in banana leaves.

 

The students are first shown how to make a dish by the instructors, and then they go to the market at the school to select ingredients. “We show them how to choose a great green mango…we show them how to pick the perfect lemongrass, for example, or what galangal is, and demystifying all the unique ingredients of Vietnam,” Nguyen says.

After that it is back to the work stations and the process of creation begins. The smaller of the two class rooms can accommodate 10 students while the larger one has workstations for up to 40.

 

Interestingly, the school also caters for up to 80 people at a time for corporate team building activities. These are almost like a segment out of Master Chef. Groups are divided into teams of 10 and a leader is chosen for the cooking of each course. The ‘captain’ is taken to another room and shown how to assemble the dish, before they must return to the team and explain what needs to be done.

 

Nguyen says it is a great activity that helps teach leadership, delegation, communication and teamwork skills. However, it is reconnecting Vietnamese youth to their culture via the country’s cuisine where his real passion lies.

 

“I wanted to introduce Master Chef Junior to Vietnam, and by doing that research I found that a lot of our young kids can’t actually cook.

“What happened to our cooking culture? My generation has it for sure, my parents’ generation has it, but the young generation really need to get in Touch with that again. We are the biggest rice producer in the world but some young children don’t know where rice comes from or how it is cultivated.”

 

This is the genesis of the name Grain for the school. Nguyen explains that it is about reconnecting to where that grain of rice came from and what process it goes through to become what it becomes.

“From this small grain, we have this abundance of food that we call Vietnamese cuisine, so let’s get back to the roots of Vietnam and let’s get cooking again.”

“[At Grain] I do a lot of cooking classes with kids, and when they come in they love it. Get them off the computer, bring them here, show them the produce at the market, get them using a knife safely, learning how to choose great ingredients and get them cooking in a way that is fresh and healthy.”

 

Nguyen says he has found younger Vietnamese often have a less than healthy diet these days. He would like them to start cooking again and appreciating where food comes from, but also “appreciating the Vietnamese history and culture of food.”

 

It is a noble, if somewhat daunting, cause, particularly in the face of an ever-increasing tide of international fast food chains. But in between his many commitments around the globe, Nguyen seems determined to take on the task, one student at a time, to reconnect and introduce people to what he believes is Asia’s most refined cuisine.

 

 

Watch the interview on YouTube

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TOP 5 CHICKEN WINGS IN SAIGON

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Theres something to be said about that vestigial appendage that is the humble chicken wing. Like most parts of the flightless fowl, it can be prepared all sorts of ways. Vinh Daoand Brett Davis travelled far and wide throughout the city to give you our top five places to get your wing fix.

 

 

 

 

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1. Game On

 

Probably the most famous of wings hail from Buffalo. These deep fried goodies are as ubiquitous to sports bars as pitchers of cheap beer. There are a bunch of places that do buffalo wings in Ho Chi Minh City. We’ve pretty much had them all and found the wings at Game On the best in town. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, the thermonuclear red vinegary Franks Red Hot Sauce clings onto the wings perfectly. Licking your fingers isn’t just optional, it’s a must with these wings. Accompanying the wings is the obligatory celery/carrot/blue cheese garnish. Orders are done via six, 12, or 18 wings.

115 Ho Tung Mau, District 1

 

 

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2. Banh Xeo 46A
Oddly enough, we find the best Canh Ga Nuoc Mam in town at a place that is known in the Lonely Planet for a completely different dish. Yes, we know, Banh Xeo 46A is a bit of a tourist trap but do yourself a favour and order these wings the next time you are entertaining out of town friends. The smell of potent fish sauce based glaze can be offputting but take a bite and you will be converted. The perfect amount of sweet and savoury with little flecks of finely chopped garlic in the mix makes for a heady combination. The portion is quite large, even with the inclusion of the most useless of the useless, the wing tip.

 

46 Dinh Cong Trang, District 1

 

 

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3. B.O.C
One doesn’t usually put tom yum and chicken wings in the same breath. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad combination as B.O.C. has shown us. The Thai-inspired dish is a deal at VND 55,000 for a portion of  six wings with a refreshing side salad. The skin of the wings were the crunchiest we had in the bunch with B.O.C.’s special flour mixture. Thankfully, the meat managed to stay moist and tender. The punchy tom yum sauce wasn’t too spicy as one might expect with hints of ginger and lemongrass with each bite.

 

43 Nguen Van Giai, District 1

 

 

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4. Quan Ga Nuong Anh Tuyet

 

It might seem wrong that we’ve mentioned this hole in the wall in a previous issue but if wrong tastes this good, I don’t want to be right. Walking up to the joint, one can see that grilling is king here. And the wings reflect that. The crisp, slightly charred skin belies the tender juicy meat on the inside. The chicken is marinated in a fish sauce/ sugar concoction that most Vietnamese restaurants use. And it’s used to good effect as the flavour punches through the smoky skin to complement the wings.

 

71 Ngo Tat To, District 1

 

 

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5. Tavern

 

For those that live in the far­-flung outpost that is Phu My Hung in District 7, there is still salvation for wing lovers. At this venerable watering hole they serve up deep­fried buffalo­style wings but with a selection of six different sauces. You can go hot or mild, zingy Asian, spicy garlic, spicy BBQ (a personal favourite), Caribbean jerk, or just plain old plain. Orders come in half­-dozen, 12 or 24, while a platter of crudites with ranch dressing is an optional extra.

 

R224 Bui Bang Doan, D7

 

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TIKI CULTURE AND A POP-UP BAR

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An exciting combination of Tiki culture and a pop-up bar is set to shake up the city’s nightlife, if only for a month. Lorcan Lovett visits the new rooftop bar. Photos by Jonny Edbrooke.

 

 

Some bars may be unrecognisable on the second or third visit. That’s probably down to the alcohol.

 

But a fresh venture in Saigon’s upmarket drinking scene has heralded the arrival of a fastidiously detailed pop-up bar that lingers like a hazy dream.

 

Shri Rooftop Bar and Restaurant perched at the top of District 1’s Centec Tower has transformed an underused room, metres away from the stunning skyline view, into a slice of Hawaii, although not for very long.

 

TIKI certainly could be a tipsy illusion, with its hammocks, birdcages, and a projector showing surfers, topped by goldfish bowls hanging over the tables, harbouring a few oblivious fish.

“The idea for a pop-up was an obvious one,” says Richie Fawcett, mastermind behind the project. “Where you are standing now (in TIKI) was empty all business hours.

“This is a bit of fun. It’s different; it’s fantasy, a break away from the staff’s normal routine and good for moral.”

 

Opened to a party of 150 people on Friday, 4 September, TIKI claims to be the first of its kind in the city – a temporary concept set to disappear after its first month.

 

Pop-up bars have appeared across the city before, usually in vacant plots among building developments, but TIKI has forgone cheap beer and barbecues in place of a curious, kitsch den.

 

Fawcett describes the project as a way of “showing there’s still a Pulse somewhere at Shri”, which is among the oldest rooftop bars in Saigon.

 

“There are a lot of serious places out there,” he says. “I do not know whether they’re fun or not.

“I think (creating TIKI) is because of the artistry in me. I like to draw and take pictures, and it’s coming out like that.

“An artist is never satisfied unless he is making something – drawing or pop up bars.

“Everyone loves something that is new. If you have a good collection of ideas that can keep going in a circle, there is no reason why you should not have something every few months.”

 

Designers in District 2 used Fawcett’s sketches to plan the layout. From there, TIKI was fitted out in 24 hours. Within 36 hours all the exotic cocktails were ready to be prepped and guzzled down.

 

The Tiki movement spawned from 1930s USA, fusing Polynesian-style décor and mythology with Californian beach-bum panache that soon spread worldwide.

 

The bar serves a medley of cocktails created in the era, including the Headhunter, served in a totem pole, and the classic Zombie, a combination of fruit juices, liqueurs and rums.

“Two of these and you are a zombie,” says Fawcett, as the Black Pearl, a large pirate ship sharing cocktail, bubbles dry ice on the bar.

 

It’s a venue full of quirks. The Shipwrecked Sailor is served on a castaway raft and those feeling lucky can spin a wheel for VND 250,000 where the pointer lands on dud or pricey prizes.

 

Fawcett brings substance to the novelties too, presenting three homemade syrups including pandan leaf and coconut for that local familiarity.

“Cocktails are only as good as the quality of ingredients you have in them,” he says. “You want something that is going to stand out.”

 

Like his concoctions, Fawcett stood out during the cocktail renaissance in the 1990s where he worked as head bartender for years at Hush, actor Sir Roger Moore’s business in London.

 

Bond fans may be disappointed to hear that Sir Roger favoured a weak Bloody Mary over a Martini.

“It was an amazing experience to work there,” he says. “I met all the old A-listers and held his 75th birthday.”

 

After learning from the best, Fawcett opened numerous bars around the globe, about 10 in total, and began his operations in Saigon four years ago.

 

Things could have panned out a lot differently for him. Fawcett’s career began with deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics; intrepid endeavours are no rarity in the Fawcett family.

 

His great, great, great uncle and explorer General Fawcett famously ventured deep into the Amazon in search of a lost civilisation, and was never seen again.

 

Fortunately, modern day Fawcett is a familiar sight around these parts after launching bars Sixsenses and Sorae, and taking on the task of training a division of Vietnamese bartenders in the progress.

“If I have a bartender working with me I say take attention away from the tools,” he says. “The way you make your money is connecting with the guests.

“The real joy of bartending is making something from scratch. I ask you what you like and if you do not like it, I will balance it out in a different way.”

 

There’s a plan to renovate Shri in the next six months while creating a whole new world on floors 24, 25 and 26 above the restaurant.

 

So far the team are reluctant to reveal the details, only sharing that it will have a “natural concept” with a 360-degree view over downtown Saigon. More news is expected next year.

 

Breezy, quirky TIKI may well be washed away by a wave of creativity soon because Fawcett has plenty of new sand castles to build in the space.

This could be the dawning of a new style of pop-up bar in a city that embraces transience like no other.

“I think people need to think originally,” adds Fawcett. “They need to create something from scratch themselves. They can’t just copy and paste. There are so many extra concepts out there that you can do well.”

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TEQUILA TIME FOR SAIGON 

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Tequila is often associated with heavily inebriated partygoers licking salt and slamming back a shot before wincing as their teeth sink into a slice of lemon, but one Mexican wants to change all this by promoting possibly the highest quality tequila in Vietnam.

 

 

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Renowned brand Tequila Patron sent its Asia Pacific ambassador, Milton Alatorre, to the serene setting of The Boathouse in District 2 on Wednesday (July 29) to tell people why drinking his company’s tequila will guarantee you a pleasant evening and surprisingly clear-headed morning. 

 

Like the soothing Saigon River flowing next to the outdoor restaurant, the night went wonderfully smoothly, and with an incredible menu of Mexican classics, served along side unique tequila cocktails such as Cucumber Twist and Saigon Heat with Patron Reposado, this was no surprise. 

 

“It’s really really beautiful here,” says Alatorre. “I’m pretty sure this will feel like the profile we’re looking for, to get in some venues with a high end level. This is one of the best places I visited in Saigon.

 

“Basically I travel around the region, promoting the brand and doing educational work about the product, teaching more about the drink itself and why patron is different from other brands.”

 

Skilled Jimadors, the name for farmers who harvest the plants, work steadily in the highlands of Jalisco in Mexico to uproot only the finest blue agave and use a sharp tool called a coa to reveal the plant’s core, the pina. 

 

The pinas are hand chopped and baked before being crushed by a roller mill to release their sweet juices. 

 

It’s then fermented for three days, distilled and placed in a variety of handmade barrels to age, creating a range of artisan and premium products made from 100 percent agave.

 

“Since the beginning the company just focused on producing high end and premium tequila,” says Alatorre.

“We try to keep in a very traditional way: the bottles are hand made from recycled glass, the boxes are from recycled paper.

“There is a potential market here in Vietnam. We know that people get some cheap products but they are also looking for high end and premium products to drink and enjoy.

“We are confident that the image and the presence within the bars in Vietnam will increase probably from two three times more than what we sell now.

 

“There is a big misconception about tequila. Most people have the idea tequila is a cheap low quality product (drank) just to get drunk.

“Once you get to know all the varieties you have with tequila and once you have a product like Patron you can really spend the whole night drinking and the next day you will not have a hangover.

“This is one of the few things that makes a big difference between tequila (made from) 100 percent agave and (other) tequilas.”

“Of course, I love tequila. My favourite one is Patron Silver, the basic tequila after double distillation. For me it’s really really tasty, the more you drink it the sweeter you find it.”

 

 

Patron is distributed in Vietnam by Lighthouse Group Indochina, www.lighthousegroupindochina.com  

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THE BEST LATE-NIGHT EATING SPOTS

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Brett Davis, along with some brave AsiaLIFE colleagues, seek out the best late-night eating spots to take the edge off the next day’s pain. Photos by Kendra Bernard.

 

 

 

We’ve all been there: it’s midnight, and after several hours of having more than a few drinks you manage, through the fog, to cast an eye towards the following day. Some food is required to soak up the booze and hopefully minimise tomorrow’s hangover. Never a group to back down from a challenge (unless it’s, like, kinda hard) theAsiaLIFE team decided to go gonzo and after a night of research for a story on rice wine (page 32) we hit the following five after-hours eateries and reported on the fly.

 

 

Matsuzakaya

17/34A Le Thanh Ton, D1. 
Open until 1.40am.

 

This area is a rabbit warren. It’s generally known as the ghetto, but my colleague Dana Filek Gibson has christened it ‘Japansville’, and declares it her favourite part of town. The place is kind of cosy, with a typical Japanese setup and chairs lined along an L-shaped counter. You do see some weird individuals around here. We are located at the junction of two alleys and, I shit you not, a guy just walked past with six girls dressed in sexy air hostess outfits. I’d like to know where that party is. Anyway, good gyoza (fried dumplings, VND 50,000). I’ll let Dana sum up the place: “You walk out feeling kind of greasy, but that’s what you should do after a night of drinking.” It reminds me a little of the place in the great Japanese food movie Tompopo, just missing the cute ramen lady and the truck driver in the cowboy hat. I can’t believe none of my companions have seen it. “See the damn movie, all of you.”

 

 

Pho le

413-414 Nguyen Trai, D5.
Open until 1am.

 

Wow, I get loud when I get drunk. Not aggressive loud (I hope), just the volume seems to go up a notch. Which kind of works here, since it is packed with mainly locals and the sound bounces off the hard surfaces. Not the cheapest bowl of pho in town, but the pho bo (VND 72,000) is big and comes with slices of beef and meatballs. Some of the others are getting a little slurry, while a few among us seem suspiciously composed. I’m looking at you, art director Kendra. Seriously, the last stop on the rice wine research tour was a curb-side place that sold home-made ‘rum’. Not sure what it was exactly but Kendra was knocking that stuff back. She even refused the coke mixer the rest of us used. I put it down to her Jamaican heritage. I also think I am going to get in trouble for saying that, or thinking it. Did I just say that out loud?

 

 

Tan hai van

162 Nguyen Trai, D1. 
Open 24 hours.

 

This is actually a proper Chinese restaurant. It looks like it, smells like it and is never closed. Not a bad Shanghai dumpling (VND 45,000) either. They have a section on the menu called ‘Recovery Dishes’. Ha, quite appropriate. Holy crap! There is something listed called 1st Class Soup and it goes for VND 9.8 million. Doesn’t say what’s in it, but I’m guessing shark fin and panda penis. It does make me think fondly of the two years I lived in China and the great food in Beijing, where you could get every cuisine from around the country, from the simplicity of Hainan food, fiery Sichuan or the meaty goodness of Uyghur cuisine from Xinjiang province in the far northwest. Everything else about living there was, frankly, balls. Polluted, dirty, freezing most of the year and people were as hard as a coffin nail. Still, food was great.

 

 

 

Long phi

207 Bui Vien, D1. 
Open until 5am.

 

I think, possibly, where we have gone wrong on this little experiment is continuing to drink as we search for food to recover from drinking. I’m not complaining though; this kind of commitment to journalism comes with a price. So, this place is known for its crepes. I just thank Christ they are savoury crepes. If someone put a dessert crepe in front of me right now it would be spontaneously topped with the contents of my stomach. However, the mushroom, onion and bacon crepe (VND 115,000) is pretty good. You know how it’s said that ‘nothing good happens after 2am’? Well, combine that with being in the general vicinity of the Pham and it’s like a factor of 50. God, and we have to literally run the length of Bui Vien to our last stop.

 

 

Mcdonald’s

Corner Pham Ngu Lao and Tran Hung Dao, D1. 
Open 24 hours.

 

And so we reach our nadir. Dana is hanging in, just, trooper that she is. Anyone who can drink like that has a bright future in journalism. Kendra, damn you, still looking way too sober. Anyway, I don’t have to describe what is on the menu or what it tastes like because at 2am we have all been here and we all know: it tastes like self-loathing. Now, just go the fuck home.

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VIETNAMESE RICE WINE

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While beer remains the standard Liquid propellant of a night out in Vietnam, Simon Stanley felt the need for something a little stronger, Vietnamese Rice Wine. Photo by Vinh Dao.

 

 

For foreigners in Vietnam, rice wine is often seen as something of a novelty – often one to be wary of, with tales of methanol poisoning abounding. It’s that throat-singeing local blend of alcohol and God-knows-what that gets passed around at ‘traditional’ celebrations by an over-enthusiastic tour guide, or that which lurks ominously in a bamboo skewered pot on the floor of a Sapa homestay as backpackers dance the hokey-pokey around it. For the brave, that first exposure may have taken the form of ruou thuoc – medicine wine – and those cling film-covered jars of dead snakes and scorpions and empty promises of virility, fertility and everything in between, all suspended in…well, again, God-knows-what.

 

While this is all very fun, you’re unlikely to choose a glass of Vietnam’s most (in)famous spirit as your next aperitif.

 

 

The Modern

 

Since opening in early 2015, Saigon’s Chi Hoa restaurant has been offering the discerning spirit-seeker a far more palatable taste of the Vietnamese countryside. Visit for the amazing food but be sure to check out their lineup of traditional rice-based tipples. The one that immediately catches our eye is the 100 percent homemade banana wine.

 

In their ground floor store, where many of their homemade products are available for take-away, Nghiem Xuan Quang, manager and business partner, shows us to a huddle of those ubiquitous plastic ‘sweetie-jars’ with red screw-on lids. Magical concoctions lurk inside. Quang selects one, pops the lid and introduces us to the deep brown elixir.

“This is not a normal banana,” he says. “It is not for eating, just for soaking in rice wine. We leave it for two years. This gives us the brown colour, the caramel colour. It’s a natural process.”

 

It starts life as your average fermented rice wine, but according to Quang, having infused for so long, a large proportion of the alcohol has evaporated, mellowing the potion from a scalding forty percent alcohol to a perfectly sippable thirty. “It’s like the way they make whisky,” he adds. “It becomes very easy to drink.” And my, it is very easy to drink.

 

As the AsiaLIFE tasting team readied their glasses, we were secretly expecting a sickly, sugary concoction akin to the free shots handed out at the end of a meal in a cheap Greek restaurant. But no. What we got was heavenly. The first thing to learn about Chi Hoa’s banana wine is that it tastes nothing like banana.

 

“It’s like a really mellow bourbon,” is my first reaction. The sweetness is subtle, the caramel-like flavour carries a slight smokiness, and the after-burn… doesn’t arrive. Oh boy, that’s good. “How much is a bottle?” are my next words. VND300,000 is the answer (a single shot sells for VND50,000). So are there any other bars or restaurants making banana wine in Saigon? “I don’t think so,” says Quang with a wide smile. “We are the original!”

 

He then introduces us to a wheat wine spirit from Hanoi, Nep Moi, a high-quality rice/wheat hybrid. For me, however, it lacks flavour. But Chi Hoa are on the case and Quang points us to their home-infused vodkas. Ginger, coffee and basil and cucumber are on offer tonight, all priced at VND50,000 a shot, but Quang disappears briefly to conjure up a hibiscus flower vodka mojito (VND85,000). If you thought you knew mojitos, think again. It’s a knockout.

 

 

The Traditional

 

Our next stop takes us to a traditional street-food restaurant in the shadow of the new Vietcombank Tower. Squatting around the standard plastic table beneath the standard Pepsi awning, before we’ve even been shown the food menu it arrives. Two repurposed 75cl glass bottles filled to the brim with the homemade Liquid nourishment that has earned this nameless establishment its unofficial moniker: The Secret Rum Bar. A deep, golden brown colour, it certainly looks like rum. The taste is…okay. Not as sweet as we were expecting. And it’s weak, very weak. At VND100,000 a bottle, it was hardly going to give Captain Morgan a run for his money. We sense danger here, though. Sloshed over ice and topped up with coke, it’s like drinking Haribo cola bottles…and we end up drinking a lot of Haribo cola bottles.

 

Gao, gao,” says the owner when we ask how it’s made. He stumbles around a little and I suspect he is also the joint’s quality control officer too. Of course, Vietnamese vodka is going to be made from rice, but it seems the rum is too. A nearby regular cuts in to tell us it’s actually made with fruit – hence the colour. We’re finding it difficult to say which type of fruit, maybe grape or plum, but by now the owner is finding it difficult to say anything.

 

 

The Foreign

 

From his District 2 apartment, Frenchman, cook and former Réunion Island resident Christophe Guillemin has been serving up all the flavours of the Indian Oceans’ French outpost since 2008.

 

Book in for one of his gastronomic Creole dinner parties, delivered and served at your home or venue, and Guillemin will bring along a selection of his much sought-after homemade rum.

 

A common practice among Réunion residents, Guillemin produces island-style macerations, soaking a range of Vietnamese fruits and dark sugar in a white rum base for up to a year, creating a rainbow of golden, flavoursome indulgences. Passion fruit, lychee and Dalat raspberry are on offer the day I visit. Previous batches have included banana, coconut, lime and mulberries, all sourced locally.

 

“If you go to the mountains on Réunion island, there are small shops and [here] you will find maybe forty or fifty different kinds,” says Guillemin. “Mint, mulberry, vanilla, sometimes they will have a snake inside…” Sound familiar?

 

Like Chi Hoa’s banana wine, Guillemin’s creations are extremely subtle in their flavourings, resulting in a supremely smooth and drinkable tincture that’s neither too sweet nor nostril-flaringly potent.

“I take only the fresh fruit for my rum,” he says. “My style is, the more fruit the better.”

 

Priced at between VND390,000 and VND440,000 a bottle, his current batch is disappearing fast.

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SAIGON’S BEST-KEPT HAPPY HOUR Secrets

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Dana Filek-Gibson uncovers the city’s best-kept happy hour Secrets by forcing everyone to drink with her. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

Years ago, eking out a miserable existence on the east coast of the United States, I was forced to live in a Puritanical state which did not believe in happy hour. The skies were grey, the days were long and every single drink you purchased was full price. It was hell.

 

While I have since managed to escape from a life of such hardship, Saigon’s overabundance of drink deals sometimes means that finding a happy hour spot worth its salt can be tough. We’ve all sat down for an after-work drink only to find that the place is too crowded, the drinks too expensive or worse – the bartender has only managed to put half the alcohol in your half-price beverage. A handful of old favourites divide many of Saigon’s happy hour goers – Xu Bar, for instance, is a venue both loved and hated throughout the city. For a change of scenery without sacrificing your beloved happy hour discount, head to these five watering holes and unwind after a long day’s work.

 

 

Racha Room
12-14 Mac Thi Buoi, D1  //  5pm – 7.30pm

 

For a trendier, candlelit happy hour at the end of the day, Racha Room provides swank without being overpriced. Half-price signature cocktails, house wine and Asahi, Singha and Saigon beers are on offer from 5pm to 7.30pm every day. Racha’s strength is its mixed drinks, which include the cool Concubine, a blend of St Germain Elderflower liqueur, lychee, lime juice and fresh cucumber, as well as the Hot & Stormy, a concoction which includes dark rum, sugarcane juice, maple syrup, ginger beer and chilli for a spicy kick. During happy hour, these run around VND 70,000 apiece. The bar also has a food menu available and its low-lit, chic barroom doesn’t get busy until the later hours.

 

 

Novotel
167 Hai Ba Trung, D1  //  5.30pm – 8pm Mon to Fri

 

High above the downtown bustle, Novotel’s Ontop Bar manages to combine rooftop drinking with a casual ambiance devoid of the pretense often associated with hotel watering holes. On weekdays from 5.30pm to 8pm, the bar serves half-price drinks by the glass, both alcoholic and otherwise, with cocktails coming in around VND 75,000. Ontop’s menu includes an array of cocktails as well as an entire page dedicated to martinis of all varieties. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also on offer as is both indoor and outdoor seating. To make you even happier, there are also rotating daily specials from 8pm to 10pm, including all-you-can-drink martini Mondays, Mojito Madness and a free flow beer night.

 

 

La Habana
6 Cao Ba Quat, D1  //  4pm – 7pm Mon to Sat, 12pm – 8pm Sun

 

In a city of cocktail lounges and beer bars, La Habana adds something different to the mix with its Latin flair. Beyond the colourful paintings and fairy lights, this downtown spot organises live music every evening as well as regular salsa nights. During happy hour, which runs from 4pm to 7pm Monday to Saturday, all Tiger draught, house wines, cocktails and mixed drinks are half price. The same promotion runs from 12pm to 8pm on Sunday.

 

 

The View
Duc Vuong hotel  //  195 Bui Vien, D1  // 10am – 6pm

 

One of the city’s most affordable rooftop bars, this open-air terrace rises well above its backpacker bar competition, both thanks to the view and the happy hour drinks. From 10am to 6pm everyday, business hours are also happy hours at The View, where you’ll get two-for-one Long Island Iced Tea. At VND 99,000 for the pair, this is a good deal, especially when you take into account the heavy pour on the part of the bartender. Throw in The View’s fun atmosphere, decked out in neon lights and lanterns, and a clear line of sight toward the Bitexco and you’ve got yourself a great afternoon drinking spot.

 

 

O’Brien’s
74A3 Hai Ba Trung, D1  //  3pm – 7pm

For those who’d prefer to skip the cocktails, O’Brien’s Irish pub makes for a more laid-back setting than others on this list. Blessed with a top-notch pool table upstairs and regulary featuring live music, the rustic bar slings Tiger draught for VND 35,000 from 3pm to 7pm everyday. You’ll also find other foreign brews like Guinness here as well as foreign sports channels.

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THE BEST LUNCHTIME BARGAINS

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Simon Stanley searches for the best lunchtime bargains in District 1. Photos by Jonny Edbrooke.

 

 

If you’re chained to a desk or simply trying to save cash – or, in my case, both – making lunchtimes count can be a chore. Since the day my favourite bun cha wagon disappeared from outside our apartment building, my midday ritual has become a lacklustre cheese sandwich eaten at my desk over YouTube videos. Whether time or money is your enemy, I fear I am not alone in my solemn routine. Here are five affordable lunch options that beat watching cats do the ‘Thriller’ dance any day.

 

 

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Decibel

79/2/5 Phan Ke Binh, Dakao, D1
08 62 710 115  //  Lunch Mon to Sat 12pm – 2.30pm

 

Decibel and its weekly movie screenings, open-mic nights and free food events may be the worst-kept secret in Dakao but its two lunchtime deals are news to the evening crowd. The VND 90,000 Western menu offers either a sandwich, a salad or a pasta dish with a soft drink thrown in, while the real bargain lies in their popular daily rotations of homemade Vietnamese cuisine, priced at VND 49,000. Poached pork in coconut juice and caramelised chicken with ginger are among the highlights but bun thit nuong cha gio is always on the menu. Order up and you’ll be presented with a giant bowl of noodles and beautifully grilled pork, fresh greens and piping hot spring rolls, a worthy rendition of the dish.

 

 

 

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Khoi Thom

26 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, D3
08 39 300 233  //  Set lunch Mon to Fri 11am – 3pm

 

With its killer margaritas, party-like atmosphere and some of the best Mexican food in town, you may well have promoted Khoi Thom to the ‘only for a special occasion’ list but its weekday lunch menu could change your mind. Thirteen dishes are available across three price levels, starting from VND 110,000. Freshly-made tacos are a highlight – the Baja-style fish quickly ranks among my top five meals in Saigon. Alternatively, opting for a plump burrito or torta will set you back VND 125,000 with a salad included. For the ravenous, four main-course favourites come in at VND140,000 each. At these knockdown prices you’re onto a winner already, but Khoi Thom also throws in free flow soft drinks, including homemade lemonade, and a choice of Mexican desserts or fresh fruit.

 

 

 

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La Rotonde

1st Floor, 77B Ham Nghi, D1
09 09 368 201  //  Lunch Mon to Fri 11.30am – 1pm

 

Blending Parisian cafe stylings with old Saigon charm, La Rotonde could be one of the prettiest spots in the city. This cool, breezy loft space of whitewashed brick, tropical greenery and antique photography is the ideal place to lose yourself for a few hours. But visit during a weekday lunch hour, however, and things are a little livelier. With a buffet lunch on offer for VND 65,000, it’s not surprising that La Rotonde is packed to its extremely high rafters. In addition to ‘all you can eat’ salad, rice and vegetables, one main meal is included from a rotating list of up to eight, including shrimp in chilli sauce and a Chinese sausage omelette.

 

 

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Robata Dining An

15C Le Thanh Ton, D1
08 38 225 329  //  Lunch 11am – 2pm

 

In terms of quality, portion size and variety, Robata’s extensive lunch menu is one of the best deals you’ll find on Le Thanh Ton. With most dishes hovering around the VND 100,000 mark, this authentic Japanese open-kitchen diner serves everything you could think of, from a mixed tempura and rice (VND 90,000) to steaming bowls of pork ramen (VND 100,000). At VND 150,000, the beautiful 13-piece assorted sushi platter is a steal. Overflowing with generous morsels of freshly prepared seafood, everything on the platter is flown in each morning from Danang. A long wooden bar allows for a relaxed atmosphere, ideal for solo diners, while the private booths upstairs provide a more intimate experience.

 

 

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Truong Dinh Lunch Lady

Corner of Truong Dinh & Vo Van Tan, D3
Lunch 11am – finished

 

 

Escape the air-conditioning and lunch al fresco like a local. Every weekday morning, two local ladies build a sprawling Vietnamese buffet restaurant right on the pavement of Truong Dinh. With a beaming smile, the proprietor offers a plate heaped with rice, inviting diners to construct their meal from a series of roughly 15 metal serving trays, each containing a separate dish. Several varieties of fish are lined up alongside potatoes, green beans, cabbage, mushrooms and grilled tofu but it’s their speciality fried chicken that really makes this spot worth a visit. Meaty and flavoursome with a crisp skin and plenty of seasoning, it’s obvious why the tables are soon full and a line of hungry office workers has formed up the street. Plates start at VND 25,000, with each portion of meat or fish costing an additional VND10,000. Arrive early or it may all be gone.

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kgbagent

JAKE’S BBQ

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Jake’s BBQ joins Saigon’s growing American barbecue club, offering big portions and food made with passion. By Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Jonny Edbrooke.

 

 

Marinated, grilled meat bridges the culinary worlds of Vietnam and the US, which explains why fans of dishes such as bun thit nuong will happily cross over to pork shoulder cooked low and slow.

 

Bearing that broad appeal in mind, both expats and Vietnamese have driven Saigon’s American barbecue spots to wild success recently, and attracted the newest kid on the block, 36-year-old chef Jake Pulkrabek.

 

“I’m very honoured to be part of this community,” he says. “The reception has been very warm.”

 

Pulkrabak has renovated the former burger joint Mogambo’s into a tin-roofed slice of Americana, with a long bar dominating the first floor and a smoker outside on one of Saigon’s busiest streets.

 

Inhaling the bar’s smoky aroma, I take a bite out of The Jucy (sic) Lucy (VND270,000 plus a 5 percent service charge on all dishes). The burger was invented in Pulkrabak’s home state of Minnesota and he stays true to its roots by using US imported meat while stuffing the bun with sautéed onions and bacon cured and smoked in-house. There’s also a choice of blue cheese or cheddar for the burger as well as a side (fries, in this case).

 

The veteran chef asked me for candid feedback. It’s a project close to his heart, after running restaurants in the US, the Philippines and China, but never owning one until now.

 

Within the next two months he plans to expand upstairs, increasing the seating by 40, and add Tex-Mex to the menu.

 

Having opened in February, Jake’s is still finding its feet, although the food is consistently good and the portions hefty in typical US fashion.

 

Diners can test Jake’s slogan ‘falls off the bone good!’ with the St Louis Ribs (VND575,000 for half a rack and cooked for over eight hours) with two sides.

 

Lightly smoked, slow-cooked and basted in the kitchen’s signature sweet and tangy sauce, the meat was indeed fall-off-the-bone good, and tasted delicious too.

 

The spicy mustard dip, also homemade, pulls no punches, and a generous squeeze of the vinegary North Carolinian sauce is recommended for the Pulled Pork Sandwich (VND180,000).

 

Out of the sides, Grandma Lois’s Potato Salad stands above the rest. Hats off to Grandma, and to Pulkrabek’s for having the initiative to learn her recipes in his youth.

 

The buy-one-get-one-free happy hour runs everyday from 3pm to 6pm, with beers like Tiger draft at VND45,000 and spirits like Jim Bean at VND75,000.

 

Jake’s has the occasional musician for entertainment and a typically US range of desserts too, so you can leave with a sweet taste in your mouth.

 

 

50 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: 08 3825 1311

 jakesamericanbbq.com
11am – 11pm, Sun – Thurs, and 9am till late Fri – Sat

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Doodie

I've only heard of 2 or 3 of these places, I need to get out more. My regular haunts are open air Viet restaurants. We met at one kgb ;). Just a few addresses off the top of my head:

 

Quan 01 Tran Phu, Dist 5

Thuy Tien on the corner beside Quan 01

Quan 71 Phan Viet Chanh, Dist 1

Quan 04 Ly Thuong Kiet, Dist 5

Quan 108, 506 3/2 street, Dist 10

Quan 299 Pham The Hien, Dist 8

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kgbagent

I've only heard of 2 or 3 of these places, I need to get out more. My regular haunts are open air Viet restaurants. We met at one kgb ;). Just a few addresses off the top of my head:

 

Quan 01 Tran Phu, Dist 5

Thuy Tien on the corner beside Quan 01

Quan 71 Phan Viet Chanh, Dist 1

Quan 04 Ly Thuong Kiet, Dist 5

Quan 108, 506 3/2 street, Dist 10

Quan 299 Pham The Hien, Dist 8

 

 

Cheers matey ... thanks for adding .... hope to pop over your way soon so will give you a call  :GoldenSmile1:

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LA MAISON WINE BAR & RESTAURANT

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Monica Majors makes herself at home in District 3’s newest French eatery, La Maison Wine Bar & Restaurant. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

There’s a breeze that kicks up in the courtyard of La Maison Wine Bar & Restaurant, and you’d never know that you were just a few steps from the bustle of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia. This is one of chef Sakal Phoeung’s newest projects; a more accessible version of sister restaurant Le Corto in both space and ambience. Nightly live music has kept me coming back to try more of their French classics while also enjoying the easy-to-drink selection of wines. If I’m stuck for a sumptuous snack I often hop over for their ‘Bubble Aperitif’ offer: a bottle of Cava or rosé Prosecco, and oysters for

VND 700,000 nett, every day from 5pm to 6pm and Sundays 11am until 6pm. It was precisely in mid-slurp when Chef Phoeung decided to sit down and discuss why his French cuisine works so well at La Maison.

 

“The cuisine we make here isn’t complicated, and when I put together the menu I keep it simple and focus on the flavours so that the chefs can copy,” he says. The restaurant isn’t meant exclusively for the local community, but it does tend to attract them. “We want to give authentic French cuisine to the middle-class of both expats and locals,” he continues before bouncing back into the kitchen.

 

It’s obvious that his hand is all over the success of the restaurant; he hires and trains all of the kitchen staff, in addition to creating the menus. Every six months he changes about 40 percent of the menu to keep both the returning guests and the chefs intrigued. This month will see the addition of more grilled meats and Mediterranean dishes; perfect for the summer months. I did the hard lifting for all of you and sampled my way through much of the rich food.

 

Among my favourites are the grilled salmon, a hefty 150g at a reasonable VND250,000 which was grilled to such perfection that each section just flaked away from the rest. The grilled lamb rack was not only juicy, but was also a spectacle, as it was revealed on the table with an abundance of smoking thyme. Somehow I found space for the ubiquitous French dish: foie gras. La Maison’s generous slab of pan-fried foie gras with mango (VND230,000) is listed as a starter, but is so sumptuous and sweet that it could easily substitute as a savoury dessert. That is, if you can stay away from the After Eight Chocolate dessert (VND190,000).

 

My choice of seating is somewhat between the courtyard’s delightfully non-invasive and reasonably piped music (offered in both English and French every night from 7.30 to 9.30 pm), and the stylistic monochrome design of the two-storey interior.

 

Business lunches are also popular and offered between 11am and 2pm (from VND199,000). This homey environment is sure to be one of Saigon’s newest localised spots for expats looking to blend in while eating large.

 

 

201B Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel:08 3932 2462

lamaison.vn10am – 3pm and 5pm – 11pm, 7 days

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BO KHO RESTAURANTS

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I don’t remember the first time I ate bo kho but the last time was only a few days ago, so when AsiaLIFE asked me to write about it I jumped at the chance. Bo (beef) and kho (meaning to braise, stew or simmer), is an aromatic stew consisting of tender chunks of beef shank and tendon, thickly sliced carrots, onion, garlic, shallots, lemongrass and star anise. No one is quite sure exactly when and where bo kho came about and you’ll be hard pressed to find its origin.

 

There are, however, many possible influences from various regions of the world. Bo kho is as exciting as an Indian curry and quite similar to an American beef stew or a Hungarian beef goulash. Personally, I lean more toward the connection between bo kho and the French beef bourguignon, the late-19th-century colonisers having introduced Vietnam to the cow and various new ways of cooking it. They also brought with them the baguette – the banh mi – a popular accompaniment to bo kho.

 

Bo kho is one of those comforting dishes and one of my favourites for weekend mornings or after a late night out. The tangy lemongrass is absolutely delicious. Hearty, savoury, spicy if required, it is arguably one of the most popular breakfast dishes in Vietnam. It’s normally served with a Vietnamese-style French baguette, along with acafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee), iced tea or fresh coconut juice. Also available throughout the day in certain places, you can swap the banh mi for hu tiu (vermicelli noodles), mi (egg noodles) or pho (flat white noodles).

 

Here are a few good places to start your bo kho journey:

 

Diem tam 134
134 Ky Con Street, D1 // 08 6659 9528 // 6am – 12.30pm
 

I am a big fan of this place, and it just happens to be located right in the centre of District 1. It is well-known for the freshly-made hoanh thanh (wontons), siu cao (prawn dumplings), handmade egg noodles and, of course, the simmering cauldron of bo kho. The service here is quite good – sometimes a rarity for local eats. Be sure to order their freshly-made hot soy bean drink.

 

 

Hu Tiu Mi 27
27 Ky Hoa, D5 // 08 3857 8636 // 6am until sold out (normally around 11am)
 

Located on Ky Hoa Street next to Trieu Quang Phuc, between Hong Bang and Nguyen Trai, you really need to pay attention otherwise you’ll miss this place. It’s a small house with an open door and a noodle stand in front. It’s little more than a few tables, chairs and wall fans, but draws a steady stream of hungry locals, so come early.

 

 

Hu Tieu Bo Kho Ba Nam
Hem 162, Tran Nhan Ton, D10 // 7am – 11am (or until sold out)
 

This old eatery has been popular since before 1975 and is a bit off the beaten path. It can get pretty crowded and service is non-existent, so be patient; you will be served eventually and it is worth the wait. Make sure you mix together a side dish of salt, pepper and lime juice (and the optional fresh chilli) to dip the beef. If slightly gristly tendons aren’t to your taste, try asking for ‘thit bo’ (‘cow meat’) to get only the tender morsels of beef.

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JANE’S BISTRO

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Simon Stanley samples the fine-dining, farm-to-table scene of America’s Pacific Northwest. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

When Jane Nguyen and Michael Rose relocated to Saigon, they initially struggled to find restaurants that shared their clean-eating, homemade philosophies. “We’re from Portland, Oregon,” says Nguyen, “so farm-to-table is what we’re used to.”

 

With 15 years of restaurant experience behind her, and with Rose’s high-end culinary credentials (he’d previously been the sous-chef at the Portland Marriott), the pair opened Jane’s Bistro in 2015. “We wanted to bring this new concept to Ho Chi Minh City,” says Nguyen, adding that with only a handful of seats and a maximum of 20 covers per day, they really are a ‘bistro’.

 

While the focus is on fine-dining, the atmosphere is cosy and welcoming, and the soundtrack an unobtrusive playlist of jazz. It’s informal and refreshingly laid-back. “This is our home, and our kitchen,” says Nguyen, who treats her guests like old friends rather than customers.

 

Rose’s seasonal, modern American-Italian menu boasts a range of organic homemade pastas (priced from VND175,000 to VND210,000), alongside an equally impressive (and well-sourced) list of salads, soups, meats and freshly-caught seafood.

 

We begin with a carrot cappuccino soup (VND90,000), served with a minty foam topping. The flavour is unbelievable, almost fruity, with a rich silken texture. Next comes an organic quinoa and cauliflower salad (VND210,000). Like many of their ingredients, the quinoa was carried in their own luggage on the return flight from Oregon. “Our regular guests know that we close down for a week or so every five or six months to get fresh supplies,” explains Nguyen.

 

Exploding with the vibrant colours of fresh beets and sakura plums, the quinoa is accompanied by grilled shrimp over a balsamic reduction. The combination of flavours is superb, yet each element also stands out on its own. Then Rose disappears into the kitchen to begin preparing one of their specialities: homemade, cut-to-order, organic pasta.

 

Today he’s trialling a dish for their summer menu. Looking like pink bubblegum as he runs it through the pasta cutter, his beet infused spaghetti is one of several coloured varieties on offer. Once cooked, it carries a subtle yet unique flavour that’s light, fresh and perfectly suits the Saigon heat. Entwined with smoky mushrooms and herbs, it’s another example of how simple, high-quality ingredients are being elevated to the next level here.

 

Finally we’re treated to a tiramisu (VND100,000). Light and not too sweet, it’s the ideal finale to a meal so exquisitely prepared and presented that I’m already lining up my next visit. For those living in D2, or D1, Phu My Hung is a schlep, but with food this good, you need to get down here.   

 

 

19 Hung Gia 4, Phu My Hung, District 7, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: 09 0909 6505 (reservations preferred)

janesbistro.com
11am – 2pm and 5pm – 8.30pm, closed Mondays

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SNUFF BOX

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Mixology and vintage curiosities are the focus at this speak-easy bar, the Snuff Box.  By Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Vinh Dao.

 

 

Cool people like exclusivity. San Francisco’s Bohemian Club encompassed figures such as Richard Nixon, while one of his best buds, FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, was a ‘Master Freemason’ by the age of 25. They’re pretty cool, right?

 

Snuffbox is cool too. Hidden away on the first floor of an old apartment building in District 1, it doesn’t even have a sign – just a logo – and potential punters push a button that signals a green light inside.

 

Staff then slide back a slot in a metal door to hear whether the person has the right password. At least that was the initial idea until the business seemed awfully quiet, so now you can just walk in.

 

The interior is broody despite a large disco ball hanging above the bar. There are many vintage curios scattered about the establishment’s two floors, which, as a whole, touts itself as a “1920s themed speak-easy lounge celebrating the end of Prohibition”.

 

Prohibition ended in the 1930s. But let’s not be picky. Snuffbox has jazz on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Otherwise there’s a genuinely decent playlist of house, dub and electric. The last time I visited, there was a jazzy Jungle Book remix on the go.

 

The main focus here is the mixology. That’s fortunate, because bottles of Tiger are VND90,000 and the cheapest cognac shot VND200,000. Classic cocktails are VND150,000.

 

I sipped on a Boulevardier on my first visit and slipped out to the balcony to get some natural light. Snuffbox, I felt, was better judged on a night visit.

 

The second visit started with a New York Sour (bourbon-based and including an egg white). It was a weekend, the bartenders were friendly, and, after working my way down the list, I began to see a different side to Snuffbox.

 

It’s a speak-easy after all. The clandestine entrance, the loan-inducing drinks, the pompous huddles of cool people; it’s all intentional.

 

If Hogwarts had a private club for alcoholics, this would be it. Cool, I thought, and then I looked down at the menu again. A single malt shot priced at VND200,000 stared back at me. Cool.

 

There will be lots of students who save up all week to nurse a drink here on the weekends. I can see the attraction: the place is a secret, but I don’t really want to know about all of Saigon’s Secrets.

 

There’s a thin line between speak-easy and sigh-hard. Check it out to see whether you agree.

 

 

14 Ton That Dam, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: 01 2638 72603
FB: Snuffbox
12pm – 3am, seven days

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