Just a couple of years ago, Ho Chi Minh locals often struggled to find a quality cocktail in a city dominated by street-side beer bars. How times have changed. Vast foreign investment means that you’re never far away from a so-called cocktail artisan. But how does one separate the true mixology kings from pretenders? Pavan Shamdasani is here to help, with his pick of the best bars for a blended beverage in Ho Chi Minh City.
Snuffbox was the game-changer. Taking a gamble in 2012 by opening a speakeasy bar in a dilapidated Communist-era apartment building, they hit on the trend as it found global prominence. It’s been around longer than most on this list and still serves some of the best drinks in the city – classic favourites that pair perfectly with its industrial-chic setting as well as the relaxing sounds of weekly live jazz.
The First is a no-fuss Japanese cocktail bar that’s been around for donkey’s years. Far from the many mixology-focussed bars on this list, the menu here is simple and straightforward, as the owner/bartender dishes out his own inspired takes on time-honoured classic cocktails. It gets busy, so make sure to call ahead and reserve a couple of those coveted bar stools. You can order up some fine Japanese comfort food to go along with your booze, including the delicious fried pork cutlet curry.
Most would place Layla, the uber-chic, insanely popular D1 cocktail spot among their best – but we’re going for its newer, cooler, smaller offshoot: Summer Experiment. Because when it comes down to it, it’s all about the drinks, and these guys are breaking fresh ground with the most exhilarating flavour combinations this side of Asia. Oysters in your vodka? Puréed purple sweet potato drinks? Peanut butter and jelly cocktails? They sound crazy, and some of them are, but you can’t deny their sheer inventiveness.
Rabbit Hole is set down in a deep, cavernous dwelling, a former carpark basement ripped apart and decked out in chic, surreal Henri Matisse style. Regularly winning top prizes at the city’s cocktail competitions, the bartenders here find a deft poise between wonderfully balanced classics and more avant-garde mixes. And with regular guest stints from some of the world’s best mixologists, it’s a place that forever surprises.
Irusu is literally a hidden gem – with a cheap-looking Vietnamese-style sign leading you down a grimy alley, hidden behind its discreet door, is a world unto its own: a chic, opulent cocktail bar that puts a decidedly contemporary Japanese take on its drinks. Here, inventive high-balls and classic cocktails are given a Nippon spin, alongside a choice selection of sparkling sake drinks. But go deeper still, up onto its secret balcony, and you’ll find stunning views of the Notre Dame basilica that add a bit of local charm to the excellent drinks.
Possibly the city’s most expensive cocktail bar, the hole-in-the-wall spot Firkin is one of those ‘what’s your mood’-style spots, a place where you leave your choice up to the bartender, trying not to think about that exorbitant bill until the cocktails have done their work. In all seriousness, while the drinks are pricey, the concoctions are fascinating, and you’ve got to give props to its inventive artisans for truly reading a person’s character before shaking up something exciting.
For true cocktail fans, those folks obsessed with a perfectly balanced blend of alcohol and mixers, there’s nowhere quite like Cocktail Merchants. The maritime-themed bar represents the half-decade its owners scoured the world for inspiration, harnessing that globe-trotting into a choice selection of inventive drinks. They do it all here – molecular infusions, sous vide, yeast strain blends, zero-waste mixes – alongside flavoured wines and classic drinks made with local spirits.
A pollution-themed cocktail bar? Makes sense, because when that daily dark mist settles on the city, how better to escape than with a delicious beverage? Up an unassuming metal staircase just off touristy Ben Thanh Market, SMOG’s setting is part-anime, part-dystopian otherworld, with a pared-down menu of just a few choice cocktails, each perfectly made and paired with appropriately smoked snacks. It’s not cheap here, but like with a good mask on a smoggy day, you’re paying for quality.
As Ho Chi Minh’s cocktail scene has changed, so too has its culinary world – Anan is the city’s most exciting restaurant, with inspired contemporary takes on classic Viet dishes. But few know that, deep in its belly lies one of the city’s coolest cocktail bars: on the second floor is Nhau Nhau, a self-proclaimed cocktail and pho bar. Decked out in retro tile work and with a balcony looking over a bustling local market, the street-side noodles here blend perfectly with such innovative drinks as the Cotton Candy Old Fashioned.
Most of Ho Chi Minh’s best cocktail bars are in District 1, and with good reason; its bustling centre is prime placed for boozy nights out. But Thao Dien, the expat enclave in District 2, is quickly growing its reputation for quality drinks. 86 Proof is leading the charge, a whiskey-centric bar that keeps things simple, with its stark setting playing host to strong Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, alongside an incredibly impressive wall of rare whiskies.
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