Late-night eats in Saigon

In the early 1990s Saigon at night was a setting in film noir. With extra noir. The city was almost in wartime blackout. Not a light shone after 10pm, not even street lights, for there were none. And the often cloudy tropic skies would obscure even the moon and stars, so the dawn would become the only counterpoint to darkness. Every business was locked up tighter than a drum. Not a single bar, restaurant or even street vendor was operating. With one exception: the original Apocalypse Now, first on Dong Du, then on Mac Thi Buoi. By 10pm the joint was a lovely, lonely woman in need of company. It was an island of light and mirth in a city bound in darkness and silence.

Of course at the time it was just a scruffy little hole-in-the-wall. And the misspelled little yellow neon sign advertising the house whisky, the only neon in town, emphasised its loneliness. Just a shabby little dive in any other city. Yet here it was, a come-hither siren to the would-be mariners of the night. And it really did have that poster of the movie with Martin Sheen’s signature across the bottom. Within a few years it was joined by the place on Pham Ngu Lao now known as Hung Vy. Then it was known as the Rolling Stone bar, and featured a huge collection of Stones music. It was open from “can’t to can”, 6pm to 6am. And Kim Café sometimes stayed open till midnight, though it was mainly for drinks, as the regular cook would be off by then. But while drink still flowed, none of these places was good for a nosh after the witching hour.

And that sad late-night nosh situation hasn’t changed much. The “Porklips Now” thunders the night away on Thi Sac Street. And De Tham Street in the Pham has become a corridor of late night music and dance, and, one would hope, glorious excess. But getting decent feed after midnight has always been a tough row to hoe in Ho Chi Minh.

But one little late-night island has recently emerged. Cafe Zoom at the corner of Tran Hung Dao and De Tham in District 1 has been a fixture for some time. And it has been popular with daytime and early-evening crowds. But it’s under new management now, a management that is looking late into the night with a food lover’s eye. It’s true that in this neighbourhood you can get a post-midnight cockle or a mussle at a shop around the corner. Or you can settle for a white bread sandwich with canned ham or tuna at one of the music venues. But at Zoom you can tuck into true comfort food.

Sausages, even the hot dogs, are made special by a Swiss charcutier. The hot dogs taste like the World Series and the Chorizo will send your mouth to Mexico. Nachos are made with tortillas provided by the only man in Vietnam who makes genuine Mexican masa cornmeal, all from locally-grown corn. And the salsa is house-made. The pannini sings of Italy, while a few Vietnamese staples remind you of where you are. All the buns, breads and anything else out of an oven come from the same specialised bakery that provides for top-flight places like Black Cat. The menu is necessarily short, but every item is lovingly prepared from quality ingredients. A short drinks menu features high end spirits, beer and wine priced to make you want to return some late night.

We still don’t live in a 24-hour city, and I doubt we ever will. But since that scruffy little dive opened back in the 90s, with its crazy neon sign and tattered but famous movie poster, we’ve had places to drink the night away. Now, finally, at the end of our revels, or just anytime the mood strikes, whether dine in, take out or deliver, sustenance sits on the corner. See you there at 2am.


Read more Sterling’s Saigon