Easily one of the most … unique things to do in Saigon is to pop into the small maze of alleyways behind the entrance of Hem 15b Le Than Thon. Once you cross under the entrance arch, you’ll find yourself in what is known as Little Japan, Little Tokyo, or, to some, that massage street in Saigon! Here’s what it’s all about and, most importantly, where to eat.
I remember meeting a guy once who kept talking about how he really wanted to try the ramen in the Japanese area in District 1 and being completely confused as to what he was talking about. As far as I knew, there was only the little Japanese area in Bình Thạnh, which is where one of the Sushi Nhí spots is located. What was he on about a Little Japan in District 1?
But he insisted it existed, and after some Google searching and referencing all the random images I had saved in my “Saigon” folder on Instagram, we realized he wasn’t crazy and a Little Japan did exist in District 1!
It goes by a lot of different names, but the actual address is Hẻm 15B Lê Thánh Tôn. “Hẻm” means alley in Vietnamese, so you turn through this entrance and suddenly feel like you’re in a whole different world — really like you’re somewhere in Japan, just, you know, with a lot of motorbikes still zooming around.
Funny enough, after that meeting, a friend messaged me not even a week later to ask me if I wanted to get ramen near where she was getting a pedicure. When I looked up her spa, I realized this was the same Little Japan I had just learned existed!
Since then I’ve been back a handful of times either on my own or with friends to take in the scenery and try as many restaurants as I can! I’m probably not an expert, but I’ve been enough to give you an idea of what to expect when you go and where to go!
More about Little Japan
Japan has had a foothold in Vietnam for a few hundred years at least. Most major cities around Southeast Asia had nihonmachi, or Japanese communities and Vietnam was no exception. Of course, things kicked off even more when Japan decided it wanted to be an imperial empire. It invaded Vietnam specifically in 1940, interrupting French occupation of the country, and stayed there until the end of World War II in 1945.
That’s all to say there’s been some level of Japanese influence and immigration in Vietnam well before Little Japan in Saigon existed.
This unique alleyway itself wasn’t established until around 2000 as more and more restaurants began popping up. It grew to offer cheap housing and hotel rooms for local Japanese people and expand to more restaurants, massage parlors, bars, and more.
Little Japan is a very odd mix of things, which I guess you could kind of say Japan itself is too (um hello to the culture that brought us the beauty of ryokans while also scarring us with the idea of octopus erotica).
On the one hand, it’s home to some of the most authentic Japanese eats you can find in Vietnam. On the other hand, it’s also filled with sketchy massage parlors and bars, which are essentially hostess clubs. Photographers will have a field day capturing this hidden world with in the most modern and bustling of Saigon’s districts. They will also feel a bit unnerved no matter who they’re with whether it’s during the day for lunch or in the evening for dinner.
It’s definitely an interesting vibe, and you’ll feel it the minute you cross through the entrance.
A Guide to Little Japan
And now for the good stuff. Where to go exactly in Little Japan!
Getting to Little Japan
I mean, it’s pretty self explanatory! Little Japan is right in District 1 in the Ben Nghe neighborhood; pretty much just plug it into your grab ride. Make sure you enter at the 15B entrance, not the 15A. Above is what the entrance to the alleyway looks like. You can plug in one of the restaurants or even just 15b Le Than Thon, and the grab driver will know.
Where to Eat & Drink in Little Japan Saigon
Of course, the main reason to come to Little Japan is to eat all the delicious, authentic food here. Why do you think I keep coming back?!
Keep in mind, Little Japan like the rest of Saigon is constantly changing. Restuarants will open and close pretty frequently, so always double check that a place exists before you go!
Another thing to note is opening times. Most of these spots are only open for lunch (like 12 PM – 2PM) and then won’t open again til as late as 6 PM. I went one time for a late lunch, early dinner and realized quickly that nothing was open lol.
Popped over to Danbo Ramen when I saw they had tonkotsu ramen on their menu! Ever since I tried this creamy ramen back in Fukuoka, I’m always on the lookout to try it if I’m in the search of good ramen. I won’t say this is the best tonkotsu ramen I’ve ever had (I mean I DID first try it at its source), but it’ll satiate your craving nonetheless.
Gyoza no Chikara
Alyshia, Le, and I popped into Gyoza no Chikara on my most recent trip for some dumplings. Highly recommend the dumpling soup in the photo above — so good!
Nhà Hàng Tori Soba Mutahiro
I’ve heard from two different people that the ramen at Mutahiro is the best, and that it’s on par with the ramen you’d find in Japan. Since I’ve only properly tried ramen in Fukuoka and am not much of a food critic anyway, I couldn’t tell you either way. BUT this is the kind of spot that’s almost tucked away and serves only two versions of the same dish, a sort of chicken noodle ramen.
You choose between a soy-sauce or salt-based broth and then choose different options. There was another special one with crab that’s a bit creamier too! I got the soy sauced-based option both times I went. The broth was so rich and even though we were totally sweating while eating, it was worth it.
Tokyo Moon Cafe Noir
The number one reason you need to go to Torisho is for this egg dish that’s an omlette filled with noodles (pictured above).
Yakitori Izakaya Marunishi Hokkaido
Marunishi Hokkaido is a nice spot if you want to fill up on delicious meat and veggie skewers. They do have some ramen options, but I was more interested in the skewers and edamame. Get with a nice, cold oolong tea and enjoy!
Beauty Treatments in Little Japan
Not directly in Little Japan but right outside of the entrance — I’ve heard loads of good things about Merci Spa! I haven’t had a chance to go yet, but I want to.
Where NOT to Go
One of the, uh, downsides to Little Japan are the many “massage parlors” sprinkled around the alley. They are of the happy ending variety if you catch my drift. Which fine, no judgement, as long as you’re not being forced. But apparently if you want an actual massage, it’s not good. My friend accidentally went to one, and she said the massage was pretty bad. Think random rubbing and pinching lol.
You can usually tell which is a legit spa and which is not because the women will be hanging out outside in very fitted outfits. If you’ve ever gotten a real massage, you know the masseuses are always wearing loose fitting shirts and pants so they can move around!
Nightlife in Little Japan
Little Japan really does come to life more at night. If you go at lunch, it’s pretty quiet in an almost eery way. But at night it’s full of people coming for dinner and bars! Plus it’s pretty cool to see the alley all lit up with the lanterns and lights. I definitely recommend coming at least twice, once during the day and once at night to enjoy the different vibes.
What to Know About Bars in Little Japan
The bar experience in Little Japan is… it’s something. If you just want somewhere to grab a drink, this is not the place to visit. All the drinks are crazy overpriced and there are a bunch of hidden costs they don’t tell you about when you sit down.
Anyway, we had dinner here and decided to visit one of the bars just for the experience and because we were already in the alley. We went to the least sketchy looking one, called Rosie’s, and it was fine. They girls were really nice and we played random board games and I got to pick the music lol. Anyway, after one guy indignantly complained about his bill and then we got ours, we realized… these bars are essentially hostess clubs.
Hostess clubs from what I’ve seen can be a range of reallllly sketchy to lightly sketchy lol. Essentially, man or woman, you’re paired with one of the hostesses and they’re meant to keep you entertained. In our case, it was just playing board games and changing the music lol.
At the end you technically wind up paying for your drinks (which are wildly overpriced as is even by Western standards), your hostess’s drinks (100k for the free tea you get at most street food stalls), a service fee (which is something like 300-500k?), and something else I can’t remember. All in all with two beers and a lime soda, we wound up paying over 1 million VND looool.
Little Japan Photo Diary
And because I obviously have too many photos to try and fit into this post, here’s a little photo dumb of even more of my favorite pics. Enjoy:
Have you popped into Little Japan in Saigon? What was it like for you?Any restaurants I’m missing and ought to add?
for more on vietnam
I’ve really loved being in Vietnam and getting to know the country more! On my first trip, I bopped around District 1 of Saigon, did a day trip to the Mekong Delta, experienced all the best things to do in Hoi An, checked out the Marble Mountains in Đà Nẵng, experienced the stunning Halong Bay, and finished off finding all the cool things to do in Hanoi.
Now that I’ve been back, I’ve gotten to know Saigon even more, like exploring all the temples and dim sum of Cho Lon in District 5 and, of course, Little Japan. I’ve even explored parts of Vietnam I’d barely heard of before like Mui Ne and Phan Thiet, Sapa where we learned about the Red Dzao tribe, Phong Nha, Mu Cang Chai, Hue where I stayed at the iconic Azerai La Residence Hue, Vinh Long and Can Tho in the Mekong.