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Sipping Cocktails on Plastic Stools Is a Special Saigon Street Treat

Is there anything more synonymous with Saigon than the humble street cart? With stalls citywide on every corner, it’s our version of the public house — places where people come together and connect, as close as possible to the beating heart of the street.

From your early morning bánh mì, to a syrupy-strong cà phê to get your through the day, all the way to a sunset beer on a blue plastic stool — street carts are the lifeblood of Saigon’s local F&B scene. And as with any metropolis where international influences abound, what’s popular in brick-and-mortar eventually trickles its way down to the back-alleys.

Case in point, the rise of street-side cocktail bars. Our pandemic-weakened economy has created an inspiring breeding ground for the city’s cocktail entrepreneurs, setting up simple bars on rent-free footpaths and bringing drinkers back to the affordable streets. But these aren’t shoddy carts serving questionable mixed drinks: the owners are young and hungry, the drinks often mixology-focused, and the patrons a varying mix of locals and expats.

And among the bars, there’s a dividing line: those that firmly appeal to cocktail aficionados, making waves with a dedication to the craft and no-holds-barred experimentation, such as Ba Street Cocktail in Binh Thanh and Golden Land over in Phu Nhuan. And those more scaled-back spots serving you a good, strong classic cocktail at a fair price, such as HÚT in northern Binh Thanh and Eck in Tan Dinh.

But the grandfather to all quality street cocktail bars is City Beer Station in Da Kao, oft-visited by underground Saigon cocktail fans and a bar that’s had a surprising influence on this fresh crop of street spots. Over its four years of on-and-off existence, the simple cart that once only sold beers (hence its name) has evolved with the times, from classic cocktails to complex craft mixology.

A cocktail at City Beer Station.

“We like to think we offer a similar experience to many cocktail bars around the city, a relaxing evening after the chaos during the day — but on the street,” says Hana Pham, the manager. “Originally, when we opened, there weren’t many cocktail bars around Saigon, but as the scene changed, our drinks have changed as well.”

Bartender Jose Hau is a trained mixologist who tended bar at the now-defunct Bann. His inspired sense of experimentation means he often hand-makes much of what goes into his cocktails; sarsaparilla-infused red wine, for example.

And while the cocktail menu changes every six months or so, you can always count on his two award-winning drinks to be present: the Perfect Day (gin, Campari, rose, ginger, red cinnamon bitter) and the Saigon 1975 (rum, jasmine tea, lychee, egg-lemon).

More than its cocktails though, City Beer created a blueprint of sorts for those wanting to open a street bar, one that’s still being used to this day: a sturdy bar-top and signage set half-indoors, alongside a proliferation of chairs and tables haphazardly spread across a quiet side street, but all of it with its own individual charm. 

Head over to Phu Nhuan to see that influence in action. At Golden Land, the setup feels surprisingly similar, a series of laid-back tables and chairs around a curved corner façade. And the bar, with its bright fairy lights and pumping club tunes, is like a hipper, Gen-Z version of City Beer.

Golden Land's corner spot.

“I was about to go to America to become a chef, but COVID hit and my plans had to change,” says owner/bartender JJ Ng, who opened the bar last December with his sister Julie. “I took my sister out one night and we saw City Beer Station and thought that was exciting. Both my sister and I like to drink, so we thought we’d open our own.”

With no cocktail experience, JJ took over the street-side location outside his family’s Phu Nhuan coffee shop/house and hired a drinks specialist to teach him the basics. He then started experimenting, trying out different concoctions and flavors on quiet nights at home.

The result is a fascinating mix of solid classics (Negroni, Daiquiri, Clover Club, etc.) and fresh fruit-heavy signatures (try the Golden Dream or Bloody Kiss), alongside a notable selection of shooters.  All of them are served strong, and priced at just VND50,000 or less.

“I don’t even know if we make any money on our drinks, I don’t really count,” he says. “We opened the bar just for fun, we try not to take it too seriously. Sometimes we’re busy, sometimes we’re not, and some days I don’t even open if I don’t feel like it.”

That laid-back attitude is a large part of this newfound trend’s appeal, letting those with a lower budget delve into the shared dream of opening a bar, but without the worries of rent or even customers.

BA Street Cocktail, in the shadow of Wilton Tower in Binh Thanh, takes a similar approach. Founded by three fresh graduate friends (the name alludes both to the Vietnamese wor for "three," as well as for the phonetic "bar"), it initially only opens on weekends, as all of them have demanding weekday jobs and studies.

Hanging out at BA.

And again, it’s set in co-owner Ngo Vinh Hien’s family house. By day, his mom runs a coffee shop out of the spot. But by night, Hien and friends shake up almost 50 different cocktail varieties, as well as over a dozen original mocktails. Drinks run an expansive range, from classics (Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Martinis) and Tiki-style (Planter’s Punch, Jungle Bird), through to long-forgotten cocktails such as the Royal Hawaiian and Joe Crow.

“I discovered a passion for cocktails in late 2018 and we opened a few months later. All three of us had no cocktail experience. We all were servers at Cowboy Jack’s for less than a year, but that wasn’t helpful,” says Hien. “We learned how to make drinks online and through books, how to combine flavors and spirits.”

A sizeable menu is often cause for alarm, but every one of BA’s cocktails are solid and well-made, using quality mid-range spirits and fresh ingredients and the price reflects that, at around VND100,000 per drink.

“But we’re not focused on making money — I want to show people the variations in cocktails, and we’re just here to make good drinks and good friends,” says Hien. “Street cocktail bars are a new experience here; they’re more accessible than a regular lounge. And street drinking is a part of Saigon culture.”

Indeed, the local pastime of street-side drinking is literally part of the charm for the next tier of new street cocktail bars. HÚT for example, in Binh Thanh, is as unassuming you can get: nothing more than a couple of stools and a cart with a few bottles.

But décor can be deceiving: owner Danny Nguyen is far and away the most experienced of all the people profiled here, having bartended for six years at such prestigious names as the Hotel des Arts, Qui and Blanchy’s Lounge. He wanted nothing more than to open his own bar, and the simplicity of his space reflects the pared-down appeal of the drinks on offer.

Plastic stools and classic cocktails at HÚT.

“We opened in Binh Thanh because I live here, and because it’s cheap,” says Nguyen. “Our cocktail menu is simple and classic: Whiskey Sour, Margarita, Mojito — I wanted to keep things easy. Most people around here don’t even know about classic cocktails, so we wanted to educate them a bit.”

Having only opened two months ago, Nguyen admits that most people order mocktails and juices, but he has seen an uptick in his quality, affordable cocktails (just VND45,000 each). And more importantly, it’s an exciting break from the norm. “It’s a fresh trend," he says. “It’s not better than a bar, but it’s fresh and exciting, and Vietnamese like to drink on the streets.”

And finally, there’s Eck in Tan Dinh, a place that is, in fact, technically the oldest street cocktail bar in Saigon, at five years, not to mention arguably the most popular. This is where most city folks come for a street cocktail: stools lined up on a wall opposite Tan Dinh Market (its second branch on Nguyen Hue doesn’t serve alcohol) and a relatively safe selection of sweet, fruity drinks, interchangeable between vodka, rum, whiskey and tequila.

We couldn’t talk to the owner, simply because none of the staff knew who the owner was, but a server did tell us a little about the space: “We’re the first street cocktail bar in Saigon,” she said. “We’re more professional than most, we have uniforms, we also train all our staff here, including the bartenders, they learn how to make drinks here.”

In a way, Eck is the street cocktail trend’s fast-food equivalent: drinks are reliably consistent (if far from special) and served in paper cups, the staff all wear bright-yellow bowling shirts, tables are placed evenly in intervals, and you both order and pay at the counter. It’s not exciting, but it serves a purpose, although that might soon change.

Evening entertainment at Eck.

Because as the city’s nightlife scene continues to progress, street cocktail bars feel like an exciting alternative to the endless glitzy lounges, bringing together locals and expats alike in a thoroughly Saigon way. And on a smaller scale, it’s equally as interesting to consider the immediate future of the trend’s current players.

Golden Land’s JJ wants to turn his parents’ coffee shop into a cocktail lounge, “when they retire in a couple years”; Hien at BA is planning to renovate the space to make it “more bar-like.” HUT’s Danny Nguyen is the most ambitious, his dream of opening a rooftop speakeasy is in the works, he says, but for now, he’s happy running his street cocktail bar.

As are they all, it seems. Hien says it best, though, when asked his opinion on the trend. “There are so many cocktail bars opening in Saigon and most don’t understand the product, so it feels like copy-paste. But if it’s a place that’s passionate about the drinks and the bar is a reflection of the owner — even if it’s on the street — that’s where things can get interesting.”

Addresses:

  • City Beer Station: 28ter Mac Dinh Chi, Da Kao, D1
  • Golden Land Street Cocktail: 58 Hoa Su, Ward 7, Phu Nhuan
  • BA Street Cocktail: 71/6 Nguyen Van Thuong, Ward 25, Binh Thanh
  • HÚT Cocktail: 107 Hoang Hoa Tham, Ward 7, Binh Thanh
  • Eck Street Cocktail: 327 Hai Ba Trung, Ward 8, D3
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