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Saigon's Best New Bars

In Vietnam's busiest city, fresh downtown drinking options have transformed the way locals hit the bar. CONNLA STOKES hunkers down in the modern speakeasies and ambitious beerhouses. Photographed by MORGAN OMMER.

Published on Feb 23, 2018



It's easy to stumble past the nondescript entrance to Layla, and you might have your doubts as you ascend a staircase that leads through a shabby, decades-old apartment block. But, fear not, you're on the right path. At this modern-industrial venue where drinking eclipses dining, you'll be rubbing shoulders with a lively and eclectic crowd of locals and expats, who appreciate Layla's unpretentious vibe and universal approach to alcohol consumption. "Our philosophy is pretty simple," says Jay Moir, the inked Australian co-owner and mixologist-in-chief, as he whips up an order of bespoke martinis from a selection of his prized botanical gins and infused vodkas. "We want people to drink whatever they like, kick back and be themselves. Some customers come in cocktail dresses or suits, some come in shorts and sandals. At Layla, it's come one, come all." Privately, Moir has been known to confess that he has a soft spot for making theatrical cocktails (order his signature Licky Tiki Mai Tai—two kinds of Bacardi, orange curacao, orgeat syrup, lime juice, black walnut bitters and "a little fire fun with my absinthe spray"). But at Layla, there's no judgment, whether you order a classic Negroni, one of several imported beers on tap, or a glass from the long wine list. Be warned, all the seats may be occupied by 9 p.m. Our advice: come early for happy hour (5 p.m. to 8 p.m.) and grab a pew by the far window overlooking the storied Dong Khoi street.; drinks for two from US$15.

Co-owner Jay Moir
Layla's co-owner Jay Moir.



Located on a laneway off central Pasteur Street, The Alley's charming interior has the look and feel of a mellow French wine bar, but the focus is on the cocktails. The owner, Pham Tan, is the kind of barman who never forgets a face (or what you ordered last time). If you're unsure of where to start, just tell him how you're feeling. "I believe cocktails can be made to match a mood," says Tan, a former Diageo brand ambassador, who earned his mixology stripes at Park Hyatts in Saigon and Abu Dhabi. Should you opt for one of The Alley's signatures, you can expect a local touch: "For this month's signature cocktail special, the Mekong Negroni, we use organic bitter melon–infused gin rather than actual bitters, and for the Mekong Delta, we use dried banana–infused bourbon, and serve it in a coconut shell," says Tan. If the latter sounds gimmicky, bear with us. Behind each detail— from the décor to Tan's concoctions—there is invariably a story, which he will happily share. "Growing up in the Delta, my family was so poor we had no bowls, so we ate rice out of coconut shells," he says. "But, of course, it added flavor to our rice just as it does for this cocktail." As well as offering a range of local craft beer, wine and a long shelf of aged single malts, The Alley also keeps its kitchen open until midnight.; drinks for two from US$13.

Pick tour US$44. your poison at The Alley.
Pick your poison at The Alley.



Since 2015, a host of excellent craft taprooms and independent breweries have lifted the city's beer drinking scene, but none has made as big a splash as East West Brewing Company, a vast, upscale bar and kitchen with an in-house brewery in the heart of District 1. "Why East West?" asks Loc Truong, the Vietnamese-American owner. "It's who we are and everything we do. Each of our beers has been crafted by our brewers Sean Thommen from Portland and Trung Dau from Saigon." He raises his glass of Far East IPA, an amber elixir with hints of citrus and gooseberry, and a pleasing, soft maltiness—truly an IPA made for tropical climes. In total, there are eight regular fixtures flowing from the taps with occasional seasonal brews added to the mix (try the pumpkin ale around October). For a full beer education, East West also offers brewery tours and classes where you can develop and bottle your own 100-liter barrel.; drinks for two from US$7; lunch and brewery tour US$44.

The multi-level brewery and taproom.
The multi-level brewery and taproom. Courtesy of East west Brewing Company.



Even with the aid of Google Maps, Snuffbox is another bar that can be tricky to find, but that only heightens the prohibitionperiod- fantasy that awaits. Furtively located in a run-down 1950s residential complex, in an oddly quiet part of town (the city's original financial district, incidentally), first-time customers are always taken aback when they step into the louche, stylized interior (think "The Great Gatsby goes East"). "We have no dress code, but some customers love to dress up in 1920s or vintage outfits anyway," says Thai Nhu Quynh, one of the bar's four dexterous bartenders (let's just say, they can handle a crowd with aplomb). "I find more and more customers don't need a menu. It's a speakeasy, after all," Quynh adds. "Tell us what you like, and we'll give you what you want." Quynh's preference, to drink and serve, is an Old Fashioned, but Snuffbox's most popular cocktail is one of Quynh's signature creations, the Golden Woman (gin, Galliano, elderflower syrup, thyme and lemon juice). "I wanted to make something very elegant, that's flavorsome and feminine," he says, "but men love to drink this cocktail, too." Expect low-key live jazz, blues or 'electronic swing' on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, and on Thursdays, customers can build their own cocktail with help from behind the bar. If it's a keeper, you get to name it and they'll add it to the menu (not, of course, that anyone needs one).; drinks for two from US$15.

At the Art Deco–style bar.
At the Art Deco–style bar.



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Layla's Licky Tiki Mai Tai is set ablaze.
  • As well as creative cocktails, The Alley also does classics.
  • East West's beers are inspired by Vietnamese flavors.
  • East West Brewing Company
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