With low rent, lax restrictions, cheap construction – and of course, slightly crazy entrepreneurs – Ho Chi Minh City is becoming a treasure trove of bars. Saigon local Pavan Shamdasani searches through the hidden corners of the city for the most idiosyncratic of them all, with 10 quirky Saigon bars to give your evening an unexpected twist.
Nong Trai Khoai
Bar, Vietnamese, $$$
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| Courtesy of Nong Trai Khoai
Budapest, the ultra-hip Hungarian capital, long ago discovered an inspired way to transform their rundown, formerly empirical buildings; handing them over to bar owners to turn into ‘ruin pubs’. That crumbling-cool eastern-European aesthetic is recreated in all its glory at both branches of Khoai. These French Colonial spaces are splashed with random graffiti and decked out in mishmash furniture from floor to ceiling. It’s an impressive backdrop to enjoy while trying out their large selection of local craft beers.
Japan’s love of the golden age of Americana is celebrated at Hot Rod Garage | Courtesy of Hot Rod Garage
A Japanese bar inspired by 1950s Americana? If that sentence sounds strange, you haven’t been to Hot Rod Garage, a bizarre tribute to the golden-age of the USA, filtered through a very Japanese lens. While Daddy-Os and Peggy Sues bop along to Dick Dale, the bar serves up ice-cold Sapporos and Suntorys on the rocks to its largely Japanese crowd. This bizarre blend of two particular cultures is evident everywhere you look, from the old-fashioned signs to the gas cans turned into tables.
Fans of Vietnamese rice wine should make a pilgrimage to Drink Vietnam | Courtesy of Drink Vietnam
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into some ancient apothecary – and while Drink Vietnam can certainly cure some ailments, its offerings are far from medicinal. Down a discreet alley and on the ground floor of a homestay, walls of brightly lit funeral jars are an ode to the Vietnamese tradition of rice wine. You’ll find it all here, from jackfruit, passionfruit and mangosteen, to ‘Vietnamese absinthe’ with wormwood. Each drink is served up for just VND29K (£1) per shot or paired with fresh teas and juices in their cocktails.
This dive bar is a piece of art: a perfect blend of grimy vibes, worn-in interiors, surly bartenders, ultra-cheap drinks and underground classic tunes. TNR has been around for more than a decade and has that odd mix down pat, with a crowd that’s somewhere between Gen-X and hipster. All that, plus there are chandeliers made out of bicycle chains, a free pool table that’s never quite straight and toilets you can just about handle for a quick pee.
Hip hop and turn-of-the-century decor seem like natural companions at Baroness | Courtesy of Baroness
The sign could be straight out of Paris in the 1920s: “BARONESS”, shining in ultra-bright lights on a quiet corner near Saigon’s most popular bar district. Inside, the interiors are dark and moody, a gaudy decorative ode to the turn of the century. But this isn’t just a simple throwback – the exclusive soundtrack of down-and-dirty hip-hop from Saigon’s most underground DJs makes this a cutting-edge kind of party. Baroness throws it all in the blender and comes out with something wonderful.
In the maze that’s known as District 1’s Japantown, on a rudimentary rooftop on top of an unassuming building, Powers presides over Little Tokyo as the quirkiest bar in the area. Bartenders serve simple draft beers and whiskey highballs, but they’ll also fry up some tacos and quesadillas if you ask nicely. All around you, the bright neon ‘Powers’ sign lights up the old baseball jackets, Okinawa Jazz Fest posters and other little idiosyncrasies that make this such a strange but special bar.
Indika (House of Curiosity) is a little bit of everything and then some | Courtesy of Indika (House of Curiosity)
Set bizarrely in the back of an open-air Vietnamese barbecue restaurant, in a rundown colonial mansion, Indika is sort of a chilled-out multi-room reggae bar, with bits of hip-hop and dashes of ’90s graffiti culture. There’re also rooms that transform into makeshift cinemas, fashion stores, pizza parlours and underground clubs. Paintings hang horizontally from the ceiling and homemade rum punches flow freely. In short, Indika is a little bit of everything great, and simultaneously impossible to pin down.
Saigon wouldn’t be one of the world’s street food capitals without a street-side cocktail stall. It might be called City Beer Station, but it’s the signature mixers that have people coming back to the little blue plastic stools, suffering cramped calves for perfectly blended negronis and mai tais, all priced at a fraction of those at a proper bar. It’s simple and unadorned, but oh-so-Saigon.
Slip away into Peter Pan's world at the Lost Boys Hideout | Courtesy of Lost Boys Hideout
Picture the scene: a hidden alley on a random street on the quiet edge of District 7. Down it, a deceptively sprawling bar decked out with trees, plants and greenery across nearly every surface. And in the centre, a huge pond balances things out perfectly. This homage to Peter Pan’s rowdy group of miscreants is where Saigon’s real-life rascals escape into their own little world. You’ll find sports on every screen, delicious burgers and pizzas, and local craft beers aplenty.