When I moved to Saigon in 2010 the food and drink scene was good but unremarkable, with the exception of street food, which has always been amazing. There were plenty of Western restaurants, but most served merely acceptable versions of what expats were used to back home. To be sure, there were standouts, but on average what you got was just that - average. Craft beer was nonexistent, as low-APV, low-flavor local lagers like 333, Tiger and Saigon Green/Red dominated menus almost everywhere.
Over the last couple of years, though, things have changed dramatically. As it has in so many other areas, Saigon is now rushing headlong into the hipster/craft/locavore/artisanal approach to food and drink that has swept through countless other countries, permanently altering restaurants and bars along the way. Below are a few examples of how things have changed when it comes to drinking. The next post will cover food.
The poor quality of local beer has long been a common gripe among expats, with their ridiculously cheap prices only just making up for the bland flavor and utter lack of variety. One of the first companies to start shaking things up was Platinum, which produces a great pale ale that can now be found on tap at an ever-growing clutch of bars and restaurants.
Things really began to heat up earlier this year when Pasteur Street Brewing opened up. Run largely by Americans, including a brewing team which cut their teeth in Boulder, Pasteur Brewing brought seasonal, creative (and strong) craft beer to Saigon and immediately made waves. Their compact tasting room quickly became the place to go for great beer, and it remains my favorite spot, even if prices are closer to what you would pay back home. Brews like the Passionfruit Wheat Ale, Chocolate Stout, Jasmine IPA and Saigon Saison have blown the doors off of pretty much everything else in town.
While Pasteur Street remains the only brewery with their own tasting room, several other expat-run operations have popped up this year. Several were highlighted at a craft beer fest held at Saigon Outcast last month, an event that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. Fuzzy Logic, Te Te and Phat Rooster all make excellent beers of various styles, and their products are becoming easier to find.
Bia Craft, an open-front bar/restaurant in District 2, is another major recent addition to the beer scene. They offer varieties of almost every craft beer made here, creating a one-stop spot to try the best stuff in the country, including beer from Pasteur Street. Considering how quickly these breweries have appeared and become very popular, it's hard to guess what the scene will look like in a few years, but craft beer has well and truly arrived in Saigon. About damn time.
It should come as no surprise that craft cocktails arrived around the same time as craft beer. It used to be that you could only find cocktail menus with the usual suspects on them, but no more. I prefer beer to cocktails, but stylish new joints like Racha Room, Shrine and the rooftop bar at the Novotel Hotel (as well as old haunts like Last Call) have infused Saigon's cocktail scene with some seriously good stuff. Local ingredients and traditions often serve as inspiration for some of the best drinks, such as Last Call's bun bo hue cocktail or any of Racha Room's specialty drinks. Local tipplers no longer have to weather yet another night of Mojitos and Martinis (perfectly good drinks, but they can be repetitive) if they don't want to. Suffice to say, it's a good time to drink in Saigon.