This central hole-in-the-wall bar has plenty of atmosphere and a great selection of whisky. Review by Brett Davis. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Whisky people can be a bit like wine connoisseurs: basically, a bit of a pain. Because of this, it is best that places like The First exist. This is a whisky drinker’s paradise, with one of the best selections of all kinds of whisky you will find anywhere in Saigon. Scottish single-malts, blends, bourbon, Japanese whisky, whatever your whisky-related tipple, this place has it.
This is certainly a good start but it requires something more to elevate a bar from good to great. The service, music, the feel of the room are all factors that contribute to the feeling a place imparts. This is fortunately something The First has in spades.
Occupying a narrow space adjacent to Sunwah Tower in the heart of District 1, The First’s heart and soul is its ground-floor bar. Upstairs there are two levels of dining space where you can sample the direct and hearty French bistro-style menu, but the ground level is where the action is.
A timber-topped bar with about a dozen seats, it is the classic contemplative space, only you can do your contemplation over a dram of Scotland’s finest.
The First has been open for a little over a year and is the baby of Japanese barkeep and owner Hajime Tadano. The Osaka native cannot really be justly referred to as simply a barkeep, for he is an artist of the cocktail and makes the pouring of a simple neat whisky look like an act of reverence.
The staff, including Hajime, wear ties and vests to add to the sense of style about the place. The topper is the selection of classic jazz piped discreetly over the speakers. Miles Davis, Chet Baker and some Nina Simone are the order of the day.
The whisky goes for around VND 160,000-180,000 a shot, although if you start climbing the age range on some selections or go for some of the Japanese single malts then it can climb into the high VND 200,000 range.
The aforementioned cocktails are also well worth a look and are very well-priced at about the VND 100,000-120,000 range. The Moscow Mule (Stolichnaya Vodka, lime and ginger beer) is particularly good, as is Hajime’s signature smoky martini. This is a Stoli vodka martini made with a dash of Laphroig single malt whisky. The peaty, smoky character of the whisky makes it a truly sublime martini.
The First is the kind of place that belongs to an age gone by, but one we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy right now.
23 Huynh Thuc Kang, D1
Tel: 38 21 44 60
11am to late