Pick Your Poison: A Guide to HCMC's Speciality Bar Scene
In addition to the wealth of craft beer bars, sports bars, girlie bars, outside drinking dens and beer clubs, Ho Chi Minh City plays host to a superb array of speciality bars. These are the bars that have captured people’s hearts for serving up speciality drinks or offering something a little bit different.
Always more upscale, these bars and restaurants cater to many of the more well-heeled expats in town and the ever-increasing Vietnamese middle class, who like to work hard and play hard. While some are in high-end hotels, some call high-rise towers home and others are in smaller, quirkier venues. They all have one thing in common, though – they truly excel.
Level 23 Nightspot and Wine Bar
Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers, 88 Dong Khoi, D1
+84 28 3827 2828
12 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Situated on the 23rd floor at the top of the prestigious 5-star Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers, the open-air section of this bar offers wonderful views over the famous Nguyen Hue promenade. It’s a light, airy space with opulent decor and lovely lighting. The extensive wine list holds such delights as Penfolds and Koonunga Hill Riesling.
Aged six months in oak barrels, the Altos De Plata from the Argentinian border near Chile has a delightfully fresh, full taste. The Nederburg is a superb South African Shiraz with rich chocolatey notes, firmly suited to accompany a good cigar. The Chilean Casillero Del Diablo Pinot Noir is supremely smokey – a very good wine.
However, this 23rd storey treat reaches new levels with the new Iconic Mojitos. Eight superb flavours grace the menu, leaving guests with the enviable task of choosing the right one for their palate. They are all wonderful:
Classic: Bursts with citrus and rum flavours and just the right amount of mint.
Bitter: With added Angostura bitters, it has a lovely freshness and just a hint of bitterness.
Peach and Strawberry: Served with superb fresh fruit and an amazing hit of strawberry goodness, this one is very popular with the ladies.
Raspberry: This is quite simply an explosion of fresh raspberry flavour. Plus, the mint is well-balanced and the rum provides just the right hit.
Mangojito: My favourite fruit. I was worried that this might disappoint, but thankfully it absolutely did not. This has such a fantastic blend of flavours; nothing dominates and all shine through.
Spicy: A punch of chilli and a kick of alcohol – what a combination!
Passion Fruit: If you like passion fruit you will love this. I was quite surprised at how well this iconic tropical fruit lends itself to the classic Cuban drink.
Bubble: A classic mojito completed with one part sparkling wine, this one creeps up on you. It’s strong on alcohol and flavour.
Better yet, groups can indulge in XXL versions of these superb Mojitos: they come in a classic ice bucket with a number of straws to suit the group.
A special mention has to be made of the molecular cocktails that will be making an entrance in 2017. Look out for the fabulous bubble-fuelled gin and tonic!
The Champagne Corner
The Caravelle Hotel, 19 Cong Truong Lam Son, D1
+84 28 3823 4999
7 a.m. to midnight
The Champagne Corner is on the ground floor of the 5-star Caravelle Hotel, on the corner adjacent to the Opera House. The large window facing Dong Khoi has bubbles constantly running through it to represent, of course, the bubbly. Contracted to Moët & Chandon and renewing their relationship next year, this is a lovely high-class corner of the downstairs area. The live lounge music creates a lovely ambiance and a truly delightful space in which to enjoy a glass of champagne for breakfast, lunch, after work or into the evening.
Cafe De L’Opera is the main bar here with Tapas Kitchen serving classic Spanish food with a Vietnamese twist. In the Champagne Corner, though, each glass is served with a complimentary small plate of exquisite food: smoked salmon with potatoes and caviar, oysters, and anything else that the chef feels like creating.
Just a little more than an amuse-bouche, it is always the perfect accompaniment to the main attraction – the champagne. The well-thought-out drinks menu has eight different champagnes and six champagne cocktails. This was the first champagne bar in the city, and it shows in the fact that they have completely nailed it.
Whiskey & Wares
196 De Tham, Cau Ong Lanh, D1
+84 163 279 4179
4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. (soon to start opening earlier)
I simply love this place, which is nothing more than a small hole in the wall just over the road from Pham Ngu Lao – it just rocks. The name comes from the fact that it sells whisky, artwork, trinkets and the like. The atmosphere in Whiskey & Wares is one of friendship and fun. An eclectic clientele are making this their local spot, and while the bar serves a few of the city’s finest craft beers, it is the 30 or so top-drawer whiskies that capture the heart. The owner and bartender, Derek, is a superb host and is building something really special here. The bar has started moving into the cocktail market, and how! These are not your usual cocktails, with Cilantro Coco (weird and truly wonderful) and Lemongrass Collins popping out of the menu.
It is, however, the whiskies that truly make this place. Auchentoshan Three Wood, that wonderful 12-year-old Speyside The Balvenie DoubleWood, Macallan and 16-year-old Lagavulin sit happily on the shelves alongside the top Japanese bottles of Hibiki and Yamazaki. Knob Creek, the superb Maker’s Mark and the celebrated Woodford Reserve (I really don’t get the popularity of this) represent the bourbons, while the reliable Jameson occupies the Irish contingent. This bar is one of the great hidden gems of Saigon.
The Saigon Cigar Club
24th Floor, AB Tower, 76 Le Lai, Pham Ngu Lao, D1
+84 90 242 6976
5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
As one would expect from a bar that is situated on the 24th floor of one of the city’s prestigious towers, The Saigon Cigar Club is somewhat exclusive. Large comfortable leather seats, rich woodwork, subdued lighting and soft lounge music is the order of the day at The Saigon Cigar Club. Offering spectacular views of the west side of the cIty, the floor-to-ceiling windows are a huge plus. With the air of an old colonial gentleman’s club.
This is a wonderful addition to the speciality bars of Ho Chi Minh City. After two-and-a-half years at this location, it’s now firmly established in the city. The club’s own house cigars are hand-rolled in-house by a Cuban woman who used to work at the Cohiba factory, rolling some of the most respected cigars in the world. All other cigars are imported from Cuba, including vintage cigars which have been aged for at least 10 years. This is serious cigar territory.
Members can rent their own humidor at the club to ensure perfect conditions, whilst being linked to Sorae ensures superb drinks and food.
Sorae Restaurant Lounge
24th and 25th floors, AB Tower, 76A Le Lai Street, D 1
+84 28 3827 2372
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner & Lounge: 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Well known as a top Japanese restaurant, Sorae has been carving out a niche and drawing a loyal clientele to its iconic two-floor venue for over two years. The sushi here is arguably the best in the city. However, not quite as well-known is the fact that it has developed four beautiful speciality bars at the same time: whisky, wine, sake and beer are all superbly represented at four separate stations: sake and beer on the 24th floor, wine and whisky on the 25th.
The whisky menu is well done, covering single malt scotches and Japanese and American classics. They have chosen wisely to bring a balance of styles and flavours to their patrons.
Stroll across the mezzanine level from the whisky bar and the vibe in the wine bar is altogether younger and more vibrant. This is a fun environment, with large windows looking out over three aspects of the city. Soft house music provides a cool ambiance and the cellar is incredibly well-stocked.
For sake connoisseurs, Sorae has a superb variety to choose from at their bar. Unlike the other bars, you don’t take a seat – it’s more of a serving station for Sorae’s diners.
Le Padam - Cheese & Wine Bar
230 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien, D2
+84 9 0704 6281
8 a.m. to 11 p.m. (closed Tuesdays)
The concept here is of a French wine bar from cities like Paris or Lyon, where people can gather to drink a bottle of wine and eat a plate of cheese before going to a restaurant. As often happens in France, one wine leads to another and eventually the restaurant gets forgotten. The decor and the space is reminiscent of a French country town shop. With large wooden benches and a good-sized bar area, this is definitely a place for friends to gather and relax.
The decor and indeed the toilets are quirky, and this bar does not take itself too seriously: it has fun and coerces the clientele to do the same. With large chalkboards advertising the deals, a minimalist approach to everything and friendly faces to welcome you, it is a worthy addition to the District 2 bar scene. All the cheeses are imported by the bar directly from France and all the bread is baked in-house. The wines are all bought in Vietnam and, surprisingly, there are more Spanish choices than French. The top seller is an elegant, velvety Hacienda Rioja.
The Gin House
28/3A Ton That Tung, Ben Thanh, D1
+84 9 1951 3264
5 p.m. to 4 a.m.
This is a really nice, small venue in a typical old Vietnamese side street. Its location provides it with a certain degree of exotic anonymity, and I have to say, I like it. A small, well-stocked bar with about 10 bar stools, half a dozen high tables and one low table provide the Gin House’s locals with a good choice of seating.
The award-winning bartender has crafted 13 gin-infused house cocktails for your indulgence, and is ready to pour you one of their 24 stocked gins, including some true rarities to Vietnam like Ungava from Canada and Larios 12 from Spain. To add to this assortment, 18 gin infusions are on hand for you to experiment with, including flavours like lavender and butterfly pea, and lemon sorbet and cardamom.
80 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, D2
+84 9 0862 4070
Hours: 9 a.m. till late (closed Mondays)
The Italian owner, Attilio, has created a classic here. This is unlike anything else in the city, really. Starting out as a single shop unit, its success soon saw its size double. This is a bar that offers great gins, whiskies and wines to the expat-heavy clientele. It has a great ambience – laid-back and very Continental.
The food is exceptional, including a terrific panini and other Mediterranean goodies. Gins include such delights as The Botanist, Hendrick’s and my own personal favourite, Monkey 47. Aperitivo is a great place to grab a snack during the day, and it draws a great crowd in the evenings and into the night. Simply put, this bar has quickly developed into a firm favourite among the locals.
Cuba la Casa del Mojito
91 Pasteur, Ben Nghe, D1
+84 28 3822 7099
Hours: 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily
Cuba la Casa del Mojito creates an immediate impact from the second you walk in and the joyous Latin music greets your ears – I loved it! There are dance classes twice a week (salsa on Mondays and bachata on Thursdays), when they remove the tables and create a great space for people to learn.
Their classic mojito is one of the best I’ve ever had: it included a superb hit of three-year-old Havana Club rum, a terrific balance, not too much mint and just the right amount of soda. Not to mention the Canchanchara, a truly amazing mix of Brugal Anejo dark rum from the Dominican Republic, mixed with honey and lime. Wow!
The first Cuban chef in Vietnam has created a wonderfully authentic menu of traditional and modern takes on incredible Cuban food. These are great party plates to share with friends – superb tapas and a-la-carte mains. The best part is, this restaurant really does have the feel of Cuba. The clientele is probably split 50-50 between locals and expats, except for the dance nights, when the locals really come into their own.
It has plush bar stools and high tables near the door, changing to restaurant tables as
you move through the bar, and ends with luxurious Chesterfields as you get to the rear of the space. This is a very well thought-out concept, and one of my favourites.
9 Thai Van Lung, D1
+84 28 3822 4798
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Skewers has been in operation for 16 years, opening in July 2000. The kitchen prepares Mediterranean comfort food and the restaurant creates a very warm atmosphere. The lovely decor is augmented by creative lighting and a very good wine list: it carries approximately 200 labels and has been listed in Wine Spectator. It is, however, the terrific scotch list that catches the eye. This must be the largest collection of single malts in the city, with more than 50 bottles of the golden drop. Any bar that stocks Auchentoshan Three Wood is more than alright by me. Bruichladdich Octomore is another serious contender, a peaty Islay malt that you will not find every day.
In addition to the restaurant on Thai Van Lung, Skewers also operates the Saigon Single Malt Club at its sister restaurant, The Elbow Room on Pasteur. This meeting takes place on the third Thursday of each month and has been running for over a decade.