Over the past few years, secret bars have been popping up all over the world. As thirsty urban explorers slip behind dummy refrigerators and phone-booths, or descend into once forgotten basements, disused public toilets or air-raid shelters, it’s obvious that finding one’s own private corner in the chaos of a 21st-century city is most definitely ‘a thing’. While the trend has yet to fully capture the imagination of Vietnam, there are a few secrets we can let you in on. By Simon Stanley and Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Vinh Dao.
58c Tran Quoc Thao, District 3.
9am – 11pm.
Okay, you got us; the first spot on our list is technically a cafe, but in a country where bars remain very much a foreign import, you need to be a little flexible with us. And yes, most of Era’s menu is taken up with coffees, teas, juices and smoothies, but with an 11pm closing time, bottles of Heineken for VND 44,000 and a handful of cocktails, we’re happy to have it on the list if you are. While the mixology is far from being the best in town, at between just VND 56,000 and VND 76,000 a drink, you can’t fault it. Lit mainly by candlelight and without any signage to be seen, this place feels very secret indeed. Vintage tunes crackle from an old wooden speaker and the hushed atmosphere adds to the speakeasy feel. Just don’t tell them who told you.
36 Chu Manh Trinh, D1.
12pm – midnight.
Stumble into Shanty and you’ll be soaking up the laid back vibes of the only reggae bar in town – at least that we’re aware of.
This colourful spot wouldn’t be out of place in a lazy sun-drenched stretch of the Caribbean and, even more incongruously, it’s run by 34-year-old Takao Saito, a Japanese chef.
Staying true to its Rasta magic, the place has a charmingly passive feel, with its mostly expat patrons chowing down on Saito’s homemade curries and Jamaican jerk chicken as they bob their heads to the thick, offbeat bass guitar thrumming from the speakers.
Saigon Special beer (VND 30,000) and wine (VND 50,000) are available or opt for some of the homebrews, including peach beer (VND 40,000) and ginger beer (VND 50,000).
Dishes range from vegetarian curry with rice (VND 88,000) to taco beans, rice, cheese and vegetables (VND 100,000). Drinks stop at 10.30pm and food at 11pm.
Mary Jane’s The Bar
85 Nguyen Huu Cau, District 1.
8am – 11pm.
Find this rooftop refuge by entering a half used office block, punching ‘9’ in the lift, and walking two flights of stairs.
There you’ll discover a bunch of young, creative Vietnamese puffing shishas amid a vine-draped terrace and enjoying an all-encompassing view of Saigon’s skyline, including the nearby Tan Dinh market and vibrantly pink Tan Dinh Church.
If you need to impress someone with your ‘local knowledge’, this place has everything you need: trippy graffiti, ambient dubstep and a heartening lack of tourists.
Judging on reviews and appearance, the food isn’t anything to write home about, so best buy a can of Saigon Special (VND 25,000) and pick one of the benches lining the low walls.
Shri Whisky Library
Level 23, Centec Tower, 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3.
4pm – midnight.
As the very epitome of what a secret bar should be, this list would not be complete without mention of Shri’s latest, ephemeral pop-up bar. The fact that it hides behind a fake bookcase has set the bar for whoever picks up the speakeasy baton when it’s gone. They also sell smoked whisky cocktails, served after a stint in a bell jar with aniseed smoke, so whoever picks up that baton will have to come up with some seriously good drinks. With world-class spirits on offer, dominated mostly by The Macallan’s single malt range, and a cosy highland lodge-style interior, this is one secret we just can’t keep.
Vuon Bia 2F
79c Dien Bien Phu, District 1.
4pm – 12.30am.
With a lively ground-floor open-air beer garden surrounded by fairy lights and large illuminated signs, once you’ve found 2F you’ll realise that it isn’t really secret at all. However, unless you happen to spot the modest sign out on Dien Bien Phu, or accidentally find yourself in the cul-de-sac of side streets that access it, you’d really never know. Beer is all home brewed and the choices are simple – yellow, red or black, increasing in flavour and price respectively (from VND 25,000 to VND 27,000 a glass). A solid selection of Vietnamese meals and nibbles is also available to keep you going as the attentive staff ensure you never run dry. We recommend the barbecued beef rolls with mozzarella (VND 99,000).