7 Hidden Music Gems in HCMC

attractions - Saigon/HCMC: Sept. 30, 2016

With the closure of major venues, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of EDM-conversions (I’m looking at you Saigon Ranger), it is hardly surprising that the Saigon live music scene has taken a battering.

No one knows this better than local punk legend, Seamus Supervivre, from the punk rock group James and the Van Der Beeks:

“I’ve heard lots of people in HCMC confess dismay [at how things are turning]. It's not awesome to see institutions like Cargo and Decibel shut, while other venues struggle.

“The live music scene here is strong, yet has maybe embraced an unsustainable genre formula that tires listeners. From my point of view, it's not as diverse as [it is in Hanoi. Yet, it doesn't need to be, if you want to go out and see music every night of the week, you can find a place. You just need to look and pay for it.”

Maybe Saigon’s live music scene isn’t dead then, but you definitely have to look a little harder for it. A good place to start would be:

YOKO
8 a.m. to 12 a.m. every day
+84 9 0858 0198
22A Nguyen Thi Dieu, D3

Founded nearly two decades ago, YOKO is one of Saigon’s most respected and established live music venues in HCMC. However, a string of management issues had left its reputation somewhat in the gutter. It was until ex-YOKO singer Tofu got the call from her old employer asking if she might be able to step in and save the venue from bland mediocrity that things started to turn around.

Along with her business partner Anh, Tofu has transformed YOKO into a true creative hub - a place for musicians to create, meet, perform and share ideas.

The decor is clean, stylish and achingly cool. The acts are fresh and adventurous while respecting the need to pander to the locals’ thirst for covers. And the clientele are young and predominantly Vietnamese (although a lot of Westerners are catching on to the YOKO vibe).

Music varies from night to night. Most evenings the artists will put their own twists on classic songs - so essentially a cover night, albeit with a unique YOKO flavour.

Some nights however, YOKO plays host to the sort of international artists who would never play anywhere else. This year, for example, Tony Kaye, director of American History X stopped by to entertain the crowd with a secret show of his original music project.

Drinks are reasonably priced, and the signature Matcha Chacha (matcha tea with vodka) is a must-try.

INDIKA
5 p.m. to 12 a.m. every day
+84 12 2399 4260
43 Nguyen Van Giai, D1

Nestled in a sleepy suburb just south of Binh Thanh, Indika is a bit of a trek out of the centre of town, but it’s worth it. Situated down a rabbit hole of alleys and tunnels, Indika is a relaxed lounge-like venue with a fantastically different attitude to music, food and life in general.

Set up by friends Calvin and Anh, the ethos is a direct transplant from a similar business they ran in Mui Ne. A surf shack that catered to beach bums, travellers and reggae-heads, the bar was incredibly popular. However, as time progressed, the business had to end. What grew out of the end of that story was a renewed energy and ambition to bring that vibe to Saigon.

And it works… somehow. The hippyish vibe is strong here, and the clientele will often turn up as early as possible just so they can lounge around and relax, insulated from the insanity of the city just a short walk away.

The music is varied, from reggae to psychedelia, rock to indie. Calvin is a reggae-dub-head at his core but with a truly eclectic spirit, he wants there to be something for everyone.

A bottle of delicious micro-brewed beer from local brewery Three on a Bike, will set you back VND 80,000, and cocktails are cheap at VND 100,000. Not only that, the VND 100,000 cover charge will get you a free drink of your choice.

Oh, and they are planning chocolate-inspired special events, in order to satisfy the cravings of their “super-chill” customers.

Indika is everything a music venue should be - relaxed, unpretentious and inclusive.

SAIGON HOT WINGS
5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
+84 12 0459 5000
200 Cong Quynh, D1

For years the best place in Saigon to get authentic Buffalo hot wings (the lemon pepper wings and signature Philly cheese steak are to die for), Saigon Hot Wings has always had a sideline in live music: there’s always been a guitar hanging by the door and with so many musicians coming in and out of the place it was only a matter of time before they got organised and set up a night for live music. That night is now every Tuesday and it’s an open mic like no other. Every performer gets a free shot, the food and drinks are on special discounts and the music is varied, often amazing and always exciting.

Proprietor John Kang says: “The music night we run brings out the best in people here, the vibe gets crazy and there’s an atmosphere like no other: the music starts at 9, the party lasts ‘til 2. Come on down.”

ACOUSTIC
7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
+84 12 7677 7773
6E Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street, D3

Dimly lit, tastefully decorated and with enough instrumentation to power half an orchestra, Acoustic takes its sound very seriously, although it is a shame that the sound usually consists of top-40 covers.

Still, their spokesman assured us that there will be more original music appearing in the near future. It is, he explained, a source of great consternation to him: he would love to put on originals acts, but given the fact that Acoustic’s clientele demand songs they know, that simply isn’t viable. If they want to fill the place they need to pander to their audience. I couldn't help but feel that this is the sort of bar that would benefit from not being too busy though.

I’m not here to tell you how to do your job, Acoustic, but maybe pair these two concepts and find a solution for both of them in one: promote original music, charge a cover, offer drink promos and see what changes. Otherwise you’ll end up just the same as every other tepid cover bar in every city in Asia.

SAIGON RANGER
6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
+84 9 0647 6747
5/7 Nguyen Sieu, D1

Following a recent revamp, this once-legendary rock venue is now almost exclusively an EDM joint: dubstep, techno and house have all but replaced the punk, rock and hardcore that made Saigon Ranger what it was.

However, if you keep your ears to the ground and wait for the right night you might still get a chance to catch one of Saigon’s heavier acts play at a venue that, in many ways, embodies the very soul of Saigon’s underground music scene.

Just make sure you don’t get the wrong night.

AN CAFÉ
6:30 a.m. to 12:00 a.m.
+84 9 0305 0710
10 Tran Ngoc Dien, D2

Tucked away in the depths of D2, An Café is in the heart of HCMC’s thriving expat community. Gone are the backpacks and sandals of D1, in their place are leafy suburbs, fancy cars and clientele that exudes class and charm.

Head mixologist and deputy manager Roddy Battajon has crafted each cocktail with love, and creations such as the El Drake and the signature Shiva’s Daiquiri are amongst the best cocktails our party had ever tasted.

Every Thursday is live music night and the band’s focus on slow jams, 80s classics and ballads make this a perfect date-spot. Bring your partner, order the best-selling Banh Xeo and take your pick from the superbly curated drinks menu.

Our top pick was the Sentinel - a light, fruity yet reassuringly strong cocktail, light and heavy at the same time with a clean start and lingering, exotic finish.

It may be a bit out the way, but An Café is definitely worth a visit.

THI BAR
5.30 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.
+84 8 2210 2929
224 De Tham, D1

After five years in the Pham Ngu Lao area, Thi Bar is well established with locals and expats alike. Under new management since early 2016, the venue has enjoyed a dramatic overhaul, and with its delicately understated lighting and balanced decoration it carries a vibe of class and character.

The house Filipino band plays expertly with panache and style and the occasional guest musicians are always well-curated, looked after and beloved by the super-cool regular crowd.

Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. every evening not only are all drinks 50% off (from the original price of VND 100,000), but also buy 2 get 1 free. That’s three cocktails for VND 150,000. Definitely one for the for the after-work session.