Walking through the heady streets of Vietnam, you’ll be guaranteed to see locals and tourists alike partaking in the communal drinking of bia ho’i. Literally translating to ‘fresh beer’, the daily brewed, low-alcohol beverage is served on draught (often with ice) to groups of drinkers sat on small, brightly coloured plastic stools – the perfect perches for people watching and for quenching one’s thirst in tropical climes. Vietnam’s food and drink culture is, of course, one of its biggest draws – and it’s perhaps the prospect of that local beer met with the likes of roasted pork banh mi, fragrant bun cha, fried prawn cakes and traditional warming pho that’s been at the top of the traveller’s mind when visiting this beautifully chaotic and charming country. What haven’t always been on that hit list, however, are cocktails – but the tide might now be turning.
2022 has already seen three big-deal Vietnamese cocktail bars – ASMR and Hybrid in Ho Chi Minh and Kuusi by TUNG in Hanoi – open their doors. And this year saw Ho Chi Minh bar Stir hit the Asia Best 100 Bars list. When its owner, Lam Duc Anh, first started bartending in 2008, it was all about flair and mostly serving soft drinks, mixers and juices with spirits like vodka and Cognac. Nearly a decade later and things have shifted substantially: ‘The cocktail bars and lounges trend boomed from 2014/2015,’ he explains. ‘From 2016, several hidden speakeasy bars were opened in Ho Chi Minh city and that trend reached Hanoi three years later. Now, there are around 20 new bars and clubs opening every month, nationwide.’
Indeed, small pockets of Vietnam are beginning to explode with reputable bars. Naturally, most of the boom is happening in the two largest cities: Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. In the former, a small one-street neighbourhood called Phạm Viết Chánh has seen a steady rise in eclectic bars, from small hole-in-the-walls serving the classics to whisky-focused concepts. In Hanoi, hotel bars typically rule supreme, but smaller neighbourhood bars are starting to get some attention too.
The young generation of Vietnam bartenders keep searching for and learning the new modern techniques of bartending skills
There is also a burgeoning spirits scene in Vietnam, with local gins and rums starting to take up space on backbars. It’s a growing trend that Drink Magazine Asia managing editor Holly Graham sees as a contributing factor to the rise and rise of Vietnam’s cocktail scene. ‘I think a lot of it is not just looking at the bars themselves, but the accessibility and access they have to the different spirits coming out of Vietnam,’ she says, referencing Song Cai gin as one of her favourites globally. This year also saw the country get its first ever Whisky Festival – a sign of the rising local interest in the spirit.
It’s also heartening to see young locals behind the bar. According to Duc Anh, there is a growing interest in the bartending profession that is no doubt driving quality too. ‘The young generation of Vietnam bartenders keep searching for and learning the new modern techniques of bartending skills, or even molecular and modern culinary skills from chefs,’ he explains. ‘I’m so excited about the new trend of modern cocktails and modern classic cocktails in Vietnam, where we play with modern skills, machines and techniques but still stick to our traditional and seasonal ingredients.’
While it might take time for smaller cities to cultivate a cocktail scene, Graham is only hopeful for the future: ‘If they carry on, Vietnam could even supersede places like Malaysia,’ she says confidently. ‘I think Vietnam is in the next five top places to watch.’
7 cocktail bars to visit in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh
Having popped up in the city’s tropical bubble of Thao Dien in District 2, ASMR is one of the latest openings in Vietnam and delivers clean lines and a dark, enigmatic energy behind its unassuming visage. Founded by Vu Ngoc, Diageo World Class Champion 2021, its acronym stands for Acid, Sweet and Sour, Molecular and Rich, with fermentation, smoke and foam all on the agenda and in keeping with cocktails that include ingredients like pandan, caviar bitters and popcorn – served alongside the classics as well.
Ho Chi Minh
You might feel like you’re in a birdcage at this late-night spot on Ho Chi Minh’s burgeoning bar street, Phạm Viết Chánh. The bar stands at just 16 square metres and only has eight seats at its downstairs bar. While cocktails may not be as high-concept as some of the other entries on this list, Birdy feels like a proper neighbourhood bar where you can enjoy a well-made, low-key cocktail (from a Salty Dog to a New York Sour, a Pantomime to a White Lady) alongside the electric energy that marks the establishments along this street. Start at Birdy and work your way up.
The Hudson Rooms
Atop the recently opened Capella Hanoi hotel sits The Hudson Rooms, a beautiful bar that pays homage to 1920s travel. More specifically, it honours NYC’s Grand Central Terminal and the destinations it has served along the way, from Chicago and Miami to LA and even Canada – with cocktails including ingredients representative of each. The bar homes in on its extensive, 200-strong whisky list and comes with its own signature trolley for serving guests oyster and whisky luges bar-side. Be sure to order the Grand Signature Dog for some sustenance, too – a homemade hotdog with salmon, Boston lobster, king crab scallop and caviar.
Strip lights on its waved ceiling and a rock-like bar give the interior of Hybrid, found in Southern Vietnam’s coastal city Nha Trang, a tactile and visually pleasing edge, while its savoury-leaning menu shines a light on clarified drinks. Standout cocktails include the bright-pink Beet Boom with beetroot, sour cream, agave and Cognac, the Black Tomato, a delicate and refreshing highball using rum-washed chocolate milk, tomato, miso and mint soda, and the Maestro Mushroom, earthy and full of umami with shiitake mushroom, honey, Umeshu and chicken fat-washed Scotch. Owner Lam Duong has also recently opened a second site in Ho Chi Minh.
There is one main reason to visit this cool little bar by Hoan Kiem Lake – its Pho cocktail. That’s right: owner Pham Tien Tiep’s award-winning cocktail is based on the famous Vietnamese soup dish. The gin-based drink (which also contains Triple Sec) combines three standout ingredients – cinnamon, star anise and cardamom. Using a flaming filtering device, the resulting cocktail is uncanny in its honouring of the local dish. Ne isn’t a one-trick pony, though – there are plenty of other cocktails that give a nod to local influences, and the staff are pretty fun, too.
Ho Chi Minh
Walking through the alley of nail salons on the edge of Ben Thanh Market, you wouldn’t expect to find Lam Duc Anh’s award-winning Stir – perhaps Vietnam’s most well-known bar – which is much smaller than anticipated, but has a relaxed and cosy atmosphere, the type you get when both the drinks and the service come together perfectly. The cocktail menu really celebrates local ingredients and drinking rituals (like herbal tea and iced tofu soup), while also championing modern classic cocktails.
Among the bright lights of Da Nang, Te Bar manages to mix the city’s party atmosphere with well-turned-out cocktails served from the Polaroid picture-lined backbar, which is one of the best looking destinations on this list. To a backdrop of techno, hip hop and everything in between, cocktails at Te include twists on classics as well as more inventive signatures from its team of talented bartenders.