Ask most Saigon locals about Binh Thanh, and they’ll say it’s a little bit of land between city centre District 1 and expat enclave District 2. But step back from the map and you’ll see a huge area, stretching close to the airport’s edge and above to village-like islands. Rich in diversity, the area is home to many craft-beer spots, unique bars, cafés and restaurants. Pavan Shamdasani talks us through the best that Binh Thanh has to offer.
Nong Trai Khoai
Bar, Vietnamese, $$$
| Courtesy of Nong Trai Khoai
It’s hard to ignore Khoai, arguably Binh Thanh’s most famous game-changer. Taking a risk on a ramshackle spot in what was then a quiet expat, mainly Japanese neighbourhood, Khoai started a movement, one that now stretches from upscale cocktail bars through to hipster cafés. It’s never lost its original charm though, serving up Vietnam’s best craft beers at affordable prices in a thoroughly charming ramshackle setting.
An alleyway wine bar owned and run by a pair of Japanese ladies, Lozzi epitomises Binh Thanh’s fascinating appeal, and welcomes guests with a comfortably warm and lived-in atmosphere. Featuring an impressive selection of old and new world vintages, the drinks are paired with sizeable cheese and cold-cut platters, served downstairs at the speakeasy-style bar or up on the terrace, overlooking the rambling crowds of Phạm Viết Chánh.
Co. is a fairly new addition to the Binh Thanh scene, taking its chances down a side-street away from the area’s popular bar district. The stark, industrial interiors are squeezed into a tiny spot, but that doesn’t stop its class bartenders from serving up thoroughly unique cocktails that riff on classics. It might not be groundbreaking in any respect, but what it lacks in innovation, Co. more than makes up for in personal charm.
Set north of Binh Thanh’s bar district, Arcan presides as a risky venture that somehow works – a former French villa converted into a massive Berlin-style club. Downstairs, there’s an airy bar/restaurant with an tiny outdoor pool for quick, refreshing dips. Upstairs is a behemoth club space, completely soundproofed and hosting everything from hardcore bands to techno DJs. Arcan is bold and brash, and its nightly parties bring Saigon’s scenesters together into its unique little world.
Recently opened and bringing a bit of old-school French flair to the neighbourhood, Tartine is a comfortable wicker-chair sort of place, its Franco-brunch menu proudly made using mostly in-house ingredients – pesto, hummus and jams, as well as wonderful sourdough breads. At night, the lights are turned low, and it becomes a chic place to sip an ice-cold cider or one of their simple cocktails.
Tucked away in a basement space near Binh Thanh’s western canal, Santorino’s Greek island-inspired name hints at its European influence, and the health food-focused spot never skimps on flavours. Coffee here is classic Viet and Italian, mixed up with touches like fresh coconut or matcha powder. Dishes are veggie-focused, but riff on shakshuka or go old-school with homemade pastas. And at night, the dimmers are turned down and the wine and craft beer brought out, with board games a-plenty to while away the evening.
Deep on the riverside in the Saigon Pearl apartment complex, Bosgaurus presides as one of the oldest cafés in the area, a proper hipster joint that imports beans, roasts in-house, serves varying styles (espresso, V60, AeroPress) and does it all in the classic minimalist setting. A great place to work or spend a weekend afternoon, sit out on the stunning terrace facing the snaking Saigon River.
Retro ‘60s Saigon is on a bit of a trend lately, and the wartime pop music, fashion styles and interior aesthetics are all channelled wonderfully at famed café, Ngach 160. Drinks here are simple, mostly classic Vietnamese iced coffee with plenty of condensed milk, while dishes run the gamut between salads and rice-and-meat – but you’re not really here for that, instead soaking up in that gleeful golden-era charm while rubbing shoulders with proper Binh Thanh locals.
Phook is another beautiful Binh Thanh mishmash – a hole-in-the-wall kitchen with just six counter seats, its Guatemalan chef fries up British-style fish and chips, or delicious corn tacos, alongside local Viet craft beers. Its simplicity is welcome in a world of overwrought concepts, the blend working wonderfully as an affordable stomach-liner before hitting the area’s many bars.
Feeling a little charitable? Drop into Maisen, a massive villa converted in a European cuisine training school/restaurant. The staff here are students, and while the service isn’t always perfect, make no mistake that they’re learning. The food is influenced by stodgy German fare with hints of classic Viet cuisine – the spring rolls are as good as the schnitzel – and the tree-lined terrace is wonderfully old-world, especially with those incredibly affordable prices.
Located on Binh Thanh’s northern end, on the border of Go Vap, this down-an-alley spot has been serving up heaped plates of roast chicken for years. In fact, it’s the only thing on the menu, the dish as plain-looking as its interiors of metal tables and plastic chairs. But what a dish it is, crispy on the outside, tender inside, paired with fresh baguettes and a delicious dipping sauce. And at just VND130K (£4.30) for a huge portion, it’s worth the journey.
You can see the smoke billowing out from streets away, its sweaty cooks barbecuing up hefty pork ribs at all times of day for hungry takeaway folk. Nothing rivals a heaping box of com tam, the worker-favourite specialty of broken rice and marinated pork, and the humbly named 236 does it better than anywhere in Binh Thanh. Pull up a stool in its stark interior, or better yet, grab a box and dig in while overlooking the nearby canal.