Ao Dai

Before buying an Ao Dai, the traditional clothing of Vietnamese women, you should know  a certain number of things. 

One doesn't have to travel far in HCMC to see woman dressed in long, snug fitting shiny dresses. The form fitting but flowing ao dai (say 'ao yai'), worn over silk trousers, is said to flatter every figure. Ao dai translates to 'long dress'. According to one famous saying, the ao dai covers everything but hides nothing. As the Vietnamese national dress for women, the ao dai is heartily promoted by the national government. It is often called the ao dai Vietnam for patriotic reasons.

- See our photo gallery of Beautiful Vietnamese Women in Ao Dai 

Getting the perfect fit requires each ao dai to be custom tailored according to an individual's measurements. Fittings are precise; one's undergarments and shoes are worked into the calculations. In Saigon ao dai can be created for both men and women though traditionally men wore the outfit less frequently, mostly at ceremonial events. The ao dai is comfortable to wear daily given its synthetic fiber construction and the cut of the design. Even the colour of the garment is symbolic. Young girls wear white; single older girls, pastels; and married women, deep rich colours.

There are several shops where you can buy an Ao Dai in Ho Chi Minh City. We recommend you the following:

Miss Ao Dai in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. This is also one of the best places to buy a souvenir from Vietnam.

Nagu in Continental Saigon Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City.

Gaya in District 2, the first International designer showroom in Vietnam.

Are you interesting in trying to wear an Ao Dai yourself? If you stay in Hoi An, you could register in the Ao Dai Photography Tour in which you are given the opportunity to try one and get professional pictures with them.


Diminishing Space for Vietnamese Designers

Why are all of HCMC’s boutique shops disappearing?

In the past, HCMC was a boutique shoppers paradise, hosting hundreds of artisan shops all over what is now the corporate-dominated walking street. But where have all these gone and what is their future amidst the globalisation of this hot spot? In order to find answers I sat down with Christina Yu, founder of the prestigious multinational accessory line Ipa Nima, and Quentin Axlerod, founder of Bliss Magazine. This discussion brought about many thought-provoking topics within Ho Chi Minh City’s rapidly evolving retail market. Since 1997, Christina’s Brand Ipa Nima has been handcrafting some of the best accessories,handbags and wallets for thousands of mid-high end consumers alike.

Although there are a handful of established designers like Christina still finding success in Vietnam’s fashion scene, the numbers are certainly lacking.

“Less emphasis has been put on quality and personalisation by many designers as many just follow European trends.”

Perhaps there is not enough trust from consumers in Vietnamese produced goods, but why is this? From Christina Yu’s point of view this boils down to a shortcoming of education regarding local support, a shortage of affordable and centralised space for local designers’ to promote their work, and an almost non-existent platform for local designers to evolve.

Although the thought that there is not much hope for local designers to compete with the big names leaves us feeling a bit bleak, there is certainly some light at the end of the tunnel.

“There are plenty of young intellectual designers out there taking risks, and consciously crafting new items with first rate materials.”

As a result of iconic designers like Christina Yu, and Ipa Nima’s groundbreaking approach to production, some have come to value and appreciate the importance of using quality materials to meticulously hand make each item. Taking the time to passionately create your own merchandise can be rigorous, time consuming and intimidating in light of major international names.

With little government support towards a proper platform for talented locals to display their work, it seems that we may need to rethink how the boutique shops will manage to be profitable without having a prime establishment that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. In lieu of this insight, there are a handful of innovative artists working to circumvent big brand takeover by utilising retail space in a new way. Considering the price of rent for ground floor space, most shop owners have been forced to move up to the second or third floors. This results in less traffic, as many shoppers will often just stick to the ground floor shops for convenience. Some shop owners, like Floralpunk have been successful in finding alternative locations. Floral Punk strategically placed her small boutique at 40E Ngo Duc Ke, between the famous walking streets of Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue, making it quite easy for people to stumble upon by foot.

Photo by Lam Minh Khang, Model: Phi Phuong Anh, Fashion designer: Lam Gia Khanh, Stylist: Mi Goi, Makeup: Quan Hoa Nguyen

Ly Tu Trong is one area that is quickly becoming home to various well known fashion names opening shops above ground floors. L’Usine offers a whole different kind of experience as it’s both a boutique shop and restaurant. This duality is the perfect model of how to utilise space in a more effective manner. As people enter for the bistro-style French cuisine, customers are unexpectedly pulled into the boutique shop as well. This kind of arrangement is ideal, and a creative way around the high prices of the centralised shopping locations.

“HCMC is booming with international brands which leaves many boutique artisans at a loss.”

As the industry develops, local designers are going to have to do what they do best - be creative, in order to keep up during this transitional period. Considering the amount of passion, dedication and resourcefulness of Vietnam’s top designers, we hope that they will successfully manage to find their place to compete with some of the world’s most powerful brands. And for you shoppers - don’t be shy. Take a trip up those rugged looking staircases, and open the doors to Saigon’s true fashion scene.

Photos by Lam Minh Khang


Passion for Fashion in HCMC Part 2: Uyen Ly

If you cut fashion designer Thi To Uyen Ly in half like fabric, you’d end up with two parts: one is a trained artist with an eye for concept fashion made with daring, expressive design; the other is a commercial fashion designer working for garment creative collective Asmara International Vietnam. Asmara offers design and production services to clothing brands around the globe.

fashion designerPhotographer: Mimik Photography  -  Designer: Uyen Ly

On a rainy evening in her kitchen, Ly shows off a drawing of project she’s been working on: a bomber jacket for Zara’s menswear collection.

Artistic Differences

Ly is a trained artist with a master’s in fashion design and a taste for the abstract, but there’s not much on the jacket that belies her practised talents and wilder habits – and there’s no place for it in a mall-friendly outfit like Zara. Her more occult sensibilities are in check on what looks like a standard jacket except one feature: a large rectangle – a “badge”, as designers call it – and a small pocket over the left abdomen.

fashion designerPhotographer: Mimik Photography  -  Designer: Uyen Ly

It’s size as well as the visual rhyme, parallel to the pocket, makes the eye immediately drawn to it. Even when working with the most conventional product like a simple jacket, “I always think, how can I top it? How can I make people care about it?” Ly said. And that’s her mark.

The typical jacket is seemingly designed to accord with a simple wish: not to cause too much of a stir while keeping warm. But the itch to innovate and improvise is what drives Ly to exercise her talents outside of her day job. By day, she’s a menswear designer. By night, she is Exuvie Gallery, the fashion brand that she created as a bachelor student of fashion design at Reutlingen University in southern Germany.


Image source: instagram

The pieces she makes while in this mode are a strong contrast to her commercial work. While her output for retailers hems closely with classic designs, Exuvie Gallery features designs that don’t immediately connect with existing ideas of what clothing is or should be. Ly shows a picture of what looks like a woman wearing a forcefield. She describes the appearance as “like an astronaut”. The outfit is made of a sheer fabric called organza, an ultralightweight material with a synthetic recipe that has an almost a creamy appearance under certain light.

For Exuvie Gallery, “I only want to do pieces that … you look at them and you don’t know what is it about,” she said. “I would like to make people think about it.”

Pulling the Thread from Both Ends

From a closet she pulls out a the piece that won her an award in an Asmara International Competition. At first glance, it looks like a collar missing the rest of the jacket. She joins the two ends of the collar with the velcro around her neck and the world seems to tilt slightly when she opens a previously unseen slit and out falls a big, black, light polyester jacket. “Exuvie is very free and weird,” Ly says. “Let’s say, art.”

It might come from her unique upbringing as a Vietnamese woman who spent her teenage and early adult years with relatives in Germany. She returned in April 2016. Ly is a European-trained designer, but her initial inspiration is located much closer to home.

“Since I was a kid, I wanted to be like my mom. Mom was a tailor,” Ly said. “I thought it was very interesting that she made a beautiful dress out of anything. I liked to draw all the time, paint, sewing. It has been following me since I was a kid,” she said.

Fashion, being duplicitous, reflects the metaphor of dualism: it’s both beautiful and useful. The beauty of clothing is in part its use, and seeing or imagining how it would enhance the otherwise naked human form.

fashion designerPhotographer: Mimik Photography  -  Designer: Uyen Ly

Similarly, Ly asserts that Exuvie Gallery and the work she does as a commercial designer are related practices. “I don’t think that Zara is completely away from Exuvie,” she says. In both the conceptual as well as the commercial fashion, “it’s [all] coming from me.”

Speaking about her earliest inspirations as a fashion designer, Ly recounted a bizarre-sounding experience she had while eating prawns. She suddenly took notice of the shells the creatures leave behind when you take the food out.

“They’re kind of like clothes, right?” Ly says in an uncanny observation that seems to register the porous wall between categories: Eastern and Western, fast fashion or high concept, it is beautiful and can you use it.

Banner image source: instagram




HCMC's L'usine is a haven for everything the rest of the world forgot. A loft cafe, vintage racing bike and Lomo heaven, L'usine also sells clothes to go along with your espresso. Don't know what Lomo is? Visit L'usine. The Champs-Elysees meets Bleeker Street in classic Saigon style. While away the hours or buy some hip gear. Whatever makes your day go easier is sure to be found at L'usine. Brands found at L'usine include AIAIAI, Baxter of California, BoAime, Clae, Moleskine and Yumaki among many others.

More than just a fashion boutique, café and art gallery, L'usine is a contemporary Vietnamese experience in the heart of Saigon. L'usine's founders have designed a space that not only showcases global fashion but celebrates modern Vietnamese creativity, inspired by the timeless elegance and enterprising industry of the Indochina era. The boutique's bricks and mortar physical space suggests a 1930s French garment factory. Enjoy freshly cut sandwiches and home-style cakes made with quality ingredients.


Ipa Nima HCMC

A colourful arrangement of fashion and function, Ipa Nima Boutique shop is the brainchild of Christina Yu and has been creating accessories full of invention and flair since 1997. Focusing on purses, the design-first mentality leads to pieces that reflect style and symmetry, all steeped in a heavy dose of soul. Their support of Saigon non profits brings social responsibility to the table. In Vietnam they have four locations, two in Ho Chi Minh City and two in Hanoi.

Looking for funky, original handbags with flair? Head to Ipa-Nima in Ho Chi Minh City. There are two locations in the city. Although the Saigon stores are not as big as their flagship shop in Hanoi, you'll still marvel at the selection on offer. Shop amidst a violet, boudoir-esque interior and pick out an edgy handbag designed with vintage flair. Ipa-Nima is open daily from 9am to 9pm.


Apartment Boutiques in HCMC: Fashion that Fits Just Right

Many colonial buildings are being renovated and turned into hip-looking coffee shops, workshops, co-working spaces and fashion boutiques. They mix the old and the new to cater for the new generation of Vietnamese who love the fresh ambience in these places.

We met up with three fashion designers who own their boutiques and design every item that’s sold there. They all share a young spirit, a deep love for fashion and an entrepreneurial drive.

Young Spirit

Nguyen Anh Thi (24) is the youngest. She has been running her “BeUnique” boutique on the 2nd floor of 42 Ton That Thiep for two months and, despite her brief experience, feels confident about her decision. “I have always loved fashion and truly felt the need to design clothes for young Vietnamese like me,” explained Thi, who taught herself everything she knows in design. Most young designers who embark in a small business consider their family’s and friends’ approval a must for their journey, and so does Thi.

boutiques in saigon

“Every time I am about to release a new design, I ask my friends for feedback. My parents supported me from the very beginning because they thought I was capable of succeeding,” she says.

While talking to her, the shop gets a bit crowded. “People coming to my shop range from the age of 18 to 26. This apartment is well-known in Saigon among youngsters, that’s the main reason why I chose this place.”

Rent tends to be the deciding factor for these young entrepreneurs. “I pay between VND 10 and 15 million every month. Even if my sales grew considerably, I wouldn’t consider moving the shop to a street-level location because then I would have to spend more money on rent and cut costs on materials.”

Facebook Power

Originally from Korea, Lee Seohyun arrived in HCMC when her husband relocated for work. She opened the Elephant’s Closet (2nd floor at 26 Ly Tu Trong) a year later. Getting settled in a new place plus having two babies probably felt like a full-time job. However, shortly after, she started designing women’s clothes and hired a tailor. Now she caters for Vietnamese moms who look for unique designs for her kids’ closet as well as for theirs. Seohyun’s matching outfits for moms and kids give her a unique edge.

boutiques in saigon

Generally speaking, customers in these boutiques tend to be awed by the affordable clothing but also by the cosy atmosphere. The visually striking setup represents one side of the business; the other part plays on social media. “I make great use of Facebook to showcase my newest creations, and then the word-of-mouth does the rest,” Seohyun says.

Entrepreneurial Drive

The first apartment boutiques in HCMC appeared about five years ago. Tu Anh opened hers, Thank God I’m Fabulous (1st floor at 26 Ly Tu Trong), four-and-a-half years ago, a pioneer in the business. “The concept sprung off of L’Usine, so, based on that idea, we tried to convey a similar shop experience while dealing with the constraints of being an entrepreneur.” Although most of these shops are in the heart of the city, the owners prefer apartments where rents are cheaper than a street-level shop.

Tu Anh studied fashion design in Australia 10 years ago and then enrolled in a business course in Singapore, which probably provided the vision she exhibits these days. “I spent nearly a year in planning out the business. Branding took up most of the time, since I really want to serve my clients’ needs while matching my desires for designing. I would say that’s my vision,” she recalls when asked about her first steps with the shop.

boutiques in saigon

Nowadays, Tu Anh has eight people, including tailors and pattern makers, working at her workshop, which allows her to release a new collection every three months. Her clothes are mainly office outfits for women who have a stable income. “I target ladies who prefer to pay a bit extra for high-quality clothes.” Tu Anh is currently searching for a location in D1 to open her second shop at a regular store space instead of an apartment.