An Expert’s Guide to Ho Chi Minh City’s Two Japantowns
Ho Chi Minh City is home to a large number of authentic Japanese restaurants and bars | Courtesy of Torisho
A unique culture like Japan’s isn’t easy to replicate, especially when it comes to its distinctive nightlife and cuisine. But Ho Chi Minh City’s sizeable Japanese immigrant population means that the city taps into the charms of its residents home country – so much so that two Japantowns exist in the city. Pavan Shamdasani walks Culture Trip through the best of both.
Japantown – District 1
Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest Japantown lies on the north end of District 1 (D1), hemmed into a series of winding, maze-like streets that recall the age-old alleyways of Tokyo and Kyoto. Here’s the best of its many bars and restaurants.
Robata Dining An
Bistro, Japanese, $$$
One of the longest-running restaurants in Japantown, this spacious robata (fireside-cooking) spot specialises in everything grilled, from yakitori (chicken skewers) to beef platters. Robata Dining An has branched out over the years, though, also offering impressive sushi, ramen and other Japanese favourites, making it ideal for those seeking a sampling.
Tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) is done right at Fujiro. It’s a favourite spot that serves set menus that are the very definition of Japanese comfort food – melt-in-your-mouth, lightly breaded pork served with steaming bowls of miso soup and heaping mounds of white rice. Since it’s incredibly popular at lunchtime, drop by in the middle of the day to snag a seat.
Run by a passionate Nagasaki chef who is always behind the counter, Gyoza Chikara is a little izakaya that specialises in the dishes from the chef’s native city, gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) and karaage (deep-fried chicken). Both are exquisite and perfectly paired with a Sapporo beer. Oftentimes, the eager, friendly chef is also available for a bit of chat with the customers.
Cooked fish is the order of the day at Ginza Umemoto, deep in the heart of Japantown. Flown fresh every few days from Japan, its salmon, mackerel, eel and other straight-from-the-sea dishes are divine and come with generous helpings of tofu and vegetables. It serves until it runs out, so get here early in the day.
Tucked away in the very back of Japantown, Mutahiro is a tiny chicken ramen spot that is as simple as it gets, serving just noodles in broth and nothing else. However, the bowl placed before you is like a party in your mouth, with the rich broth, home-made noodles and fresh accompaniments (cooked egg, seaweed) all combining for one of the best ramens you’ll ever have.
These two venues create a classic Japanese concept within a concept. Downstairs, it’s Blues Bar, a jazz-inspired space that keeps things simple with a selection of ice-cold draught beers, warming Japanese whiskies and a few simple cocktails. Upstairs is a small but impressive omakase (chef’s choice) sushi restaurant, serving fresh fish on perfectly cooked rice.
Pizza 4P’s now has over 15 branches across Vietnam | Courtesy of Pizza 4P’s
Just on the edge of Japantown, the Japanese-owned Pizza 4P’s was a game changer when it opened in 2012. House-made cheeses (mozzarella, taleggio) made from Dalat highland milk combine with traditional thin crusts for some of the best pies this side of Italy. The boys have done good, with this small spot kicking off a series of restaurants (over 15) across Vietnam.
Quieter, yet still home to a thriving international scene, Bình Thạnh’s Japantown is just over the bridge from D1, running along Phạm Viết Chánh and its sidestreets. Here are Culture Trip’s favourite spots.
Torisho in Bình Thạnh offers an authentic izakaya experience | Courtesy of Torisho
While the original Torisho is in D1’s Japantown, its Bình Thạnh spot, a more traditional izakaya hidden in a backstreet, comes highly recommended. Specialising in yakitori, Torisho also offers affordable house sake and plenty of Sapporo draughts, for a rowdy, Japan-style night out.
Head to Kiyota for the best bang-for-your-buck omakase | Courtesy of Kiyota
Kiyota serves arguably the best bang-for-your-buck omakase experience in town, and its skilled sushi master chef Kiyota Koutarou knows his fish. He hails from the surf-friendly Miyazaki Prefecture and serves up both traditional cuts alongside rarer varieties imported directly. Omakase menus start at 600,000 Vietnamese dong (£20) per head, a real bargain for a quality meal.
Specialising in cuisine from Kyoto, Kyoichi offers all of the city’s favourite dishes | Courtesy of Kyoichi
Kyoto cuisine is hard to find outside of the ancient former capital of Japan, but Kyoichi is targeting that niche. The yakitori are plumper than the norm, and the hotpots are richer. Best of all, the Kansai-style okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake), with its mix of pork, cheese and vegetables, are perfectly formed – you’ll notice the difference.
Okonomiyaki is split country-wise between the Kansai variety and Hiroshima version. The Hiroshima variety is messier but no less delicious, with Muteki doing it right with a mixed bag of pork, cheese and vegetables topped with an egg. As simple as it gets, Muteki pairs them well with plates of fresh vegetables.
Japanese-style Italian food is a real thing back in Japan, with the country’s residents preferring creamier, richer versions of classic pasta meals. KAKI no KI brings that Nippon influence to Ho Chi Minh City, with its chic, European-style dining experience making the perfect date spot, while the dishes find that ideal balance between traditional Italian family cooking and Japanese precision.
When it opened, Birdy – a hole-in-the-wall Japanese cocktail bar that ushered in the area’s thriving bar scene – was a trendsetter in Bình Thạnh. However, the owners haven’t let that influence them, keeping the decor simple and the menu limited to Japanese lagers, highballs and a couple of cocktails. Sit out on the street and watch the area’s revitalisation live and in person.
Japan’s love of the golden age of Americana is celebrated at Hot Rod Garage | Courtesy of Hot Rod Garage
Johnny Cash blaring on the soundtrack, whisky highballs swilled all around, remnants of good-time Americana plastered on the walls – Hot Rod Garage epitomises the Japanese obsession with 1950s America. The pompadoured bartender is happy to indulge with refreshing beers and plates of freshly made popcorn.