In the most robust mega-city of Vietnam, there should not be a moment when you cannot figure out where to go and what to do. And now I will provide you with another place to put on your bucket list for when you visit Saigon – Little Japan or the Japanese Town in District 1.
Many people will direct you to the entrance at 15B Le Thanh Ton street, but the true vibes and beauty of Little Japan begin upon arrival at the alley of 8A Thai Van Lung, which is home to one of the most attractive nightlife corners of Saigon.
The First and Most Authentic Japanese Town in Saigon
In an area of less than one square kilometer, starting from the junction of Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung streets of District 1, just head northeast and you will stumble upon endless doors with Japanese signs and wooden fronts. Yôkoso! You have arrived at the original Little Japan of Saigon, dating back to the early 1990’s.
The Japanese community is the biggest and longest-lasting group of expatriates in Saigon, along with the Koreans and the Australians since the Economic Reform (Doi Moi). Arriving in the early 1990’s, consisting of mostly baby boomers, the first Japanese in Saigon were much more conservative in their culture and strived to bring every bit of Japan to their new home. Little Japan was born, an entire Japanese-speaking neighborhood of ramen vendors, izakayas, whisky bars, cuddle bars, and “happy” massage parlors for exhausted and sex-starved Japanese salarymen.
Nowadays, the Japanese expats have scattered around the city, and many other so-called Japanese corners have appeared in District 2 and Binh Thanh. Yet, Little Japan still remains as the most popular lunch-break and nightlife spot for them. Apart from more than 70 privately-owned businesses catering to every need of a Japanese businessman, this neighborhood is home to 300 local Japanese, conserving the authenticity of traditional Japanese culture in the area.
Takuma-san, one of my Japanese friends, told me that Little Japan here in Saigon has the vibes of Kabukichô red light district and Shinjuku Golden Gai area in Tokyo of the 1990’s. This feeling is made manifest in the calmness of the alleys, the politeness of the people, the wooden doors and windows, the chôchin paper lanterns and everything else you can see in this area. A very authentic Japanese feeling.
Best Time to Visit Little Japan in Saigon
Little Japan reflects characteristics of an urban Japanese person, from day to night. The town is filled with quietude and solitude during the day, perfect for a midday walk observing the subtle cultural references, the beautiful graffiti on the wall, and the Japanese exteriors. When night falls, it turns into a polite ghetto, catering to your needs on a personal level, rather than filling up with fun-loving crowds. Any time of the day is good for a visit.
Even though the town transforms from day to night, there are certain time frames that you should note, because I don’t want you to be left hungry and thirsty during your walk. Most of the food venues inside the town are open at lunchtime from 11:30 AM to 2 PM, and then close, and reopen again at 6 PM, together with the bars and other fun-loving places. Fear not, other street-front Japanese restaurants are there for you throughout the day, just in case, but it is still best to enjoy a steaming hot bowl of Ramen from a local vendor, right?
How to Get to Little Japan Town in Saigon
Once you are in Saigon, you should know a handful of tips and tricks about getting around in the harmonized chaos flows of vehicles. Check out this article about Getting Around Saigon for in-depth information on how to order or rent a means of transportation. Up next, I will impart some advice about the best location to begin your experience in Little Japan.
By Taxi or Grab
It should be fairly easy to get here with taxi or Grab. The best stop would be at the junction of Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton street, then you can walk just a little bit along the streets, enjoying a bit of the scenery. In case you would like to get off right at the entrance of the town, give this address to the driver: either 15B Le Thanh Ton or 8A Thai Van Lung, both in District 1.
While the main entrance is at 8A Thai Van Lung, many people will give you the 15B Le Thanh Ton entrance once you ask for the address of Little Japan. Getting to 15B Le Thanh Ton is pretty straight-forward and the other way is a bit tricky due to one-way passages. So, if you want to get to the main entrance right away, you may need to help guide the driver with an online map.
By Your Own Two-Wheels
If you possess a motorbike or a bicycle, I would recommend you maneuver a bit around the one-way streets and head straight to the main entrance at 8A Thai Van Lung. Once there, it should be easier to find a parking place and continue on foot. From the entrance, either go straight ahead and park behind the Tomidaya ramen shop; or turn right at the first intersection and park behind the Circle K convenience store. These are my two favorite trouble-free places. Still, remember to lock your bike carefully. If you want to rent a motorbike and don’t know where to stop or who to rent from, check out this article here.
Experiencing Saigon by foot is always one of the best ways to get to know this city when your tourist shoes aren’t worn out yet. If you start from Ben Thanh Market, Little Japan is just one kilometer away to the northeast, on the Le Thanh Ton Street. If you haven’t booked your accommodation in Saigon, check out these perfectly central-located Christina’s Saigon properties.
The walk is straightforward and should take you less than 15 minutes if you do not get distracted by the sights, such as the People’s Committee Hall and the eye-catching shops along the way. You are almost there when the Japanese outlets start to appear more and more.
Once you arrive at the Le Thanh Ton – Thai Van Lung junction, you can work your way to either one of the entrances at 15B Le Thanh Ton or 8A Thai Van Lung as I mentioned before. Yet, the best one I recommend is at 8A Thai Van Lung, from there it is much easier to navigate Little Japan.
Getting Around in Little Japan Town – Where to Find What
Being one of the most culturally preserved corners of Saigon, apart from just the food and the fun, Little Japan has more to offer. For those who fancy street art, you should check out the graffiti walls at the corner of Thai Van Lung-Cao Ba Quat, and the 8A/A1 Thai Van Lung alley (the alley of cuddle bars) – just go straight down from the 15B Le Thanh Ton Alley. And the whole area serves as a charming complex of Japanese culture as well, every restaurant and the main 8A alley definitely deserve a shot from your camera. Spoiling no more, I will just leave the Little Japan’s beauty for you to explore.
To the food and the fun part, in Little Japan these places are right next to each other. After getting a relaxing massage, you will have no trouble spotting a delicious ramen shop or refreshing yourself with a cold Japanese draft beer. The sheer number of options will overwhelm you at first sight, therefore I will give you some recommendations coming up next, which are the places that I have experienced and been satisfied with. Apart from these, every other restaurant, bar, or massage parlor is similar in terms of quality. In Japanese business mentality, businesses are expected to be exceptionally good, or there would be no business at all.
What to Enjoy in Little Japan
Experiencing the town during the day time will only offer you a decent amount of food choices and a good, bright look at Little Japan’s beauty. But once the sun has faded, you will be busy all night having fun.
Savoring the Japanese Gastronomy
Head straight to Tomidaya. It is rumored to serve the best ramen in Saigon. It is obvious that there is no best dish, since everyone has their preference. But for sure, ramen at Tomidaya is loved by many, including me! My friend in New York, who has actually been to Tokyo, confirmed that Tomidaya’s ramen is the closest to what you will get at a pristine ramen place in Japan. P.S.: You may need to wait in a queue for a while, because this restaurant has limited seats, and everyone loves their ramen.
Address: 8A/1C1 Thai Van Lung, District 1. Just go straight from the 8A Thai Van Lung entrance, it is on the right-hand side.
Opening Hours: 11:30 AM – 2 PM, 6 PM – 12 AM every day (10 PM on Sunday)
Price: from 80,000 VND, but I advise you to go all-out and get the wealthiest bowl of ramen, it’s worth it.
Sometimes, you can get carried away with all the fun in town and the clock has already ticked 12 AM, Tomidaya might be closed while your stomach is in need of a steaming bowl of ramen. Last time I was carried away by conversations in a whisky bar with a friend from Japan, and by the time we got out, every other restaurant was closed. Except for a small humble ramen vendor in the very corner. Meet Mr. Mutahiro. This place is less known, but the quality rivals Tomidaya’s, and it is open until 2 AM. A god-forsaken late night treat.
Address: 8A/G6B Thai Van Lung, District 1. From Tomidaya, turn right and go down the alley, it’s right at the corner.
Opening Hours: 6 PM – 2 AM
Price: 120,000 VND – 160,000 VND
Takoyaki & Okonomiyaki
For those who don’t know, Takoyaki is a Japanese grilled ball-shaped snack with octopus filling, and Okonomiyaki is a kind of savory pancake with your choice of toppings. Almost every Japanese restaurant in the city has either one of these. But the best homemade, simple, basic yet hearty and ultra delicious of this duo is available at Sakura Takoyaki. And only from there, you can enjoy these treats takeaway style instead of sitting down and waiting to be served.
Sakura no Takoyaki
Address: 15B/12A Le Thanh Ton, District 1
Opening Hours: 10 AM – 10 PM
Price: 50,000 VND – 100,000 VND
They also offer other Japanese savory treats as well, in the restaurant space upstairs.
Japanese Dining – Premium Sushi, Sashimi, Hot Pot & More!
First, let me tell you something. You probably know that Sumo is the national and most respected sport of Japan, and you may also know what an oyakata, a sumo wrestler, looks like. They eat a lot, and not a boat load of greasy foods, but they follow a highly strict diet with premium ingredients, scripted by the Japan Sumo Association.
The place I will introduce to you is Tokitsu Nada, a restaurant owned by a former professional sumo wrestler. This is where you can experience dishes made from the freshest and most nutritious ingredients, handpicked by a sumo wrestler, based on sumo quality. The sushi and sashimi speak for themselves, the fresher, the better, the more delicious (actually how something is sliced matters, but I will leave that for you to judge).
However, the star of the kitchen is the Chankonabe – sumo’s hotpot. The hotpot is sumo-sized – so be sure to have someone with you when ordering this, just in case it is too much. It is comprised of a bulk load of nutrients: hyper-rich chicken stock, premium chicken, and pork slices with a lot of nutritious vegetables.
Address: 8A/A9 Thai Van Lung, District 1
Opening Hours: 11 AM – 2 PM, 5 PM – 11 PM
Price: 250,000 VND – 500,000 VND
Izakaya – Yakitori, Gyoza, Biiru & Nihonshu
Irasshaimase! This roughly translates to “Welcome to my tavern, you thirsty folk!”
Even though you hear this welcoming sentence all over Little Japan, even from the streets, you can only feel the fullest of Irasshaimase upon arrival to the Japanese tavern – known widely as Izakaya. This is the place where you are truly welcomed and catered to in a way that will not just fill your stomach and quench your thirst, but also heal your soul and make you feel happier. This is the place where friends gather, eat and drink, and where hard-working salarymen are comforted and listened to, in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.
When looking at the menu outside the tavern, it may seem like this restaurant shares a lot of similarities with other dining venues, like sushi, sashimi, rice, hot pot and so on, but the prices are much cheaper. The main purpose in coming to a tavern or a pub, an Izakaya, is to drink more and eat enough, so you should expect the dishes to be bite-size only, but the combination of food and drinks is limitless and satisfying.
Nothing beats a Japanese flavorful grilled skewer – Yakitori or pan-seared dumplings with soy sauce – Gyoza together with a jug of cold beer (Biiru). Or shoot some cups of warm Nihonshu (Japanese rice spirits, Sake and Shochu in particular) with sushi or a hot Oden hot pot in a bowl. Don’t forget to impress the vendor by saying “Toriaezu Nama!” – beer first! – and bottoms-up this cold golden refreshing elixir in one shot like a Japanese local.
Have some Otoshi – beer side dishes, such as salted boiled soybeans. People may seem to eat like barbarians to you, slurping, chomping, chewing, but that is the way of cherishing and appreciating the food in Japan.
Address: 8A/11B1 Thai Van Lung, District 1.
Opening Hours: 5 PM – 11:30 PM, closed on Sunday
Price: Average lower than 300,000 VND per pax
Bars & Lounges
There are not many things to say about the bars and lounges in Little Japan, no crazy innovative cocktails, mostly classics and whiskeys – Japanese preferences. They are all truly well-decorated and impeccably organized, and the staff is professional, polite, and sleek-looking. Basically these are places for an after-work gathering and drinking.
But if you are looking for something extraordinary, Qui Cuisine & Mixology is located opposite the Little Japan’s entrance on Le Thanh Ton street. So if you are looking for a place to enjoy truly delicious and unique drinks of Saigon, check out my articles below:
If you are looking for a real good massage place just for relaxing and stretching your tired joints, some of the best and most well-known massage venues such as the Golden Lotus Korean and Miu Miu Spa are very close. This article has all the details you could want.
Now you know everything there is to know about Little Japan in Saigon. Until the next article, you can check out some of these articles to fill in your bucket list of See and Do in Saigon, as well as some tips and tricks!
If you enjoyed reading this article and would like some more fun info about what to see, do and eat (and a bunch of interesting cafes!) in Vietnam, follow us at the Christina’s blog!