Tucked in the back alley on the outskirts of District 1 is the budding hub of Japan Town, a quiet enclave of Japanese culture that offers something a little different.
Much like the city itself, Saigon’s expat community continues to grow at a pace that makes it almost difficult to keep up. Bringing with them more than just manpower, as a growing international crowd flocks to Vietnam’s largest city, so their unique culture finds a home amongst the traditional Vietnamese lifestyle.
One of the largest and most established expat groups in Saigon, the Japanese community, settled into the city center well before skyscrapers and mega malls began springing to life in the concrete jungle like cherry blossom trees in spring. And, since the 1990’s, their enclave of Little Tokyo has provided a taste of home for the Japanese community in Vietnam. Over the years, it’s popularity has increased, drawing masses to its lantern clad maze of restaurants serving authentic cuisine and izakayas pouring Japanese beers and cocktails. The attraction is undeniable; however, now, a lesser-known, more hidden neighborhood has rolled into town, offering more than just delicious sushi (not that the delicious sushi isn’t enough).
Only three kilometers outside Saigon’s boisterous District 1 lies Binh Thanh District, a comparatively quiet area rarely visited by tourists and primarily populated by locals. The streets are lined with food vendors and markets. If you don’t know much about Saigon, Binh Thanh is easy to miss, overshadowed by its bordering districts 1, 2 and 3. However, city growth, increased rent and infrastructure changes have forced many business owners to rethink their strategy in these busier locales, populating the previously low-key Little Japan with new and up-and-coming ventures.
Many of Little Tokyo’s longest-standing establishments have now packed up shop and relocated to the quieter street of Pham Viet Chanh, introducing a new must-visit neighborhood. Unlike it’s strictly Japanese-inspired bigger brother, Binh Than’s Japan Town introduces a unique vibe, probably best described as Vietnamese-Japanese fusion. Rather than creating a separate world within Saigon, Japan Town has found a balance with the two cultures, allowing them to live together rather than side by side. For example, outside Sushi Nhi, arguably one of the best sushi restaurants in the city and one of the largest offerings on the street, you’ll most likely run into a queue, whatever the day of the week, as well as a traditional banh mi cart.
Although Japan Town’s popularity hasn’t yet reached the heights of its big brother Little Tokyo, many of the latter’s prominent business owners are relocating to this more subdued neighbourhood, and as they make the move, their loyal customers follow right behind them. The atmosphere reflects that of Little Tokyo back in the day, before it joined the likes of other popular destinations such as Ben Thanh Market and 42 Nguyen Way, or Saigon’s “Walking Street.” There’s still a feeling of intimacy, most establishments are individually owned and visited only by those who know Saigon well. This is all helped by the fact that the chances of stumbling upon Japan Town are almost nil; you need to know it is there in order to find it.
This intimate feeling is apparent as soon as you walk into one of the small restaurants or bars sprinkled along the street, whether that’s a tiny hole in the wall selling delicious udon noodles or an izakaya full of fanfare and beers. The majority of diners are Japanese, typically conversing with the owner, clearly having formed a relationship beyond that of a simple business transaction. In typical Japanese style, the area comes alive as the sun begins to set. Professionals flow into the neighbourhood as ice-cold Sapporo begins to flow into glasses. The enclave, which started to pop up only in the past few years, will inevitably continue to gain notoriety as word spreads. For now, let’s enjoy the peaceful charm of Vietnam’s hidden Japan – not least in some of our favourite spots, listed below.
Hive Life’s Top Spots in Japan Town
One of the most authentic Japanese spots in Saigon, Ateya’s typical izakaya style offers a peaceful escape from the constant energy in this bustling city. The udon noodle soup tastes like you could be in Japan. Wash it down with an ice cold Sapporo.
Address: 50 Mê Linh, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
For drinks, it’s doesn’t surprise us Birdy has a long list of regulars; the quality of drinks is rivalled only by the kindness of the owners and the always-on-point music. Add this spot to your new weekly gathering with friends. You’re welcome.
Address: 80 Phạm Viết Chánh, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
KAKI no KI
This Japanese, Italian fusion restaurant introduces a perfect blend of flavors to Saigon, set in an invitingly cozy building with exposed beams, a window-clad facade and fully-stocked bar. Delight your taste buds with the squid ink risotto.
Address: 12E Phạm Viết Chánh, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Sushi Nhi serves some of the tastiest sushi in Saigon. You can spot it easily with twinkle lights strewn along the balcony and a crowd of people queued in front of the three-story building. Don’t miss the nigiri and the sashimi, which pair perfectly with a cup of hot sake.
Address: 21 Nguyễn Công Trứ, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam