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City Pass Guide




IN Ho Chi Minh City 🇻🇳 Since 2008


Get on a plane, go to a bank or even just walk outside and you’re likely to see a Vietnamese woman beautifully adorned in this head-to-toe, tight-fitting look. But what is an ao dai, really?

Technically speaking, a long shirt (“ao” means shirt and “dai” means long). But it’s much more than this simple definition, or the sum of its parts. This is an outfit that has morphed with Vietnam’s history for hundreds of years.

It communicates more about a woman than a conversation ever could. Designer Si Hoang helps sift through this complicated history.

Ao Dai: An Uncertain History

It’s impossible to say exactly when the ao dai entered Vietnamese culture. The first recorded evidence appeared in the 17th century when records show ao dai worn in the courts of the Nguyen Dynasty in Hue. In the beginning, it was a royal dress worn by the Vietnamese aristocracy and was made in a traditional “five-panel” style.

Heavily embroidered and worn with jewelry and headdresses, it’s safe to say that the ao dai looked considerably different from how we see it today. As French writers began to describe the garment in increasing detail, this long dress adapted to Vietnam’s changing cultural climate.

Things really started to pick up in 1934 when designer Nguyen Cat Tuong got hold of the design. Si Hoang speaks with reverence about Tuong, saying, “Before, the color was very dark and boring, but he designed the ao dai with fabric from Europe and Bombay. He made the design with two pieces, and always used white pants.”

The bold colors and tight fit we associate with ao dai were developed further in the 1950s. Since then, it’s just been a matter of changing design features like the neckline, length of the shirt, and designs on the fabric.

Ao Dai Translation Lesson

While the basic silhouette of an ao dai is relatively fixed, that doesn’t mean that all ao dai is the same. In fact, Si Hoang is adamant that every ao dai he makes for a client should reflect her individual personality: “When I make an ao dai for someone, I need to understand. I need to understand what they need it for, where they will go, who they will meet.”

This unspoken language conveyed with shapes, colors, and designs is the sixth sense to designers by Si Hoang and sartorially adept Vietnamese in general. Need an example? Western women are often warned against wearing white ao dai to weddings and social events, as “they’ll look like a schoolgirl” – many schools, even today, dress young girls in pure white ao dai. Older, unmarried women will typically choose soft pastel shades, while stately, married women will adopt dark, rich colors along with white or black pants.

And then there’s the ornamentation. Traditionally, ao dai was heavily embroidered, a laborious process that took days to weeks and therefore connoted wealth and power. Today, designs can either be embroidered or painted on (a technique Si Hoang, an artist, is famous for). Popular images include peacocks, dragons, lotuses, apricot blooms, and peonies.

So, when you get your ao dai fitted, the first question is clear: Who are you?


Do you like sweaters? Does leather make your heart flutter? Do handbags just light up your life?

For the clothing enthusiast Ho Chi Minh City’s “Fashion Street” is famous among locals and ex-pats alike, and if you’re a bit of a sweater-loving, leather-craving, handbag enthusiast you’ll probably love it too. I did. And I don’t even like handbags.

But making a purchase in Ho Chi Minh City can be overwhelming even if you love to shop. With all the dimensions of parking, browsing, variety, price, and bargaining, buying clothes in this famously bustling city is like searching for an earring in a box of persistent and colorful parrots. Noisy, confusing, and a bit strange.

And shopping on Fashion Street is no exception! Boasting a plethora of international brands, boutique goodies, and cheap but exciting sequins, Nguyen Trai can fix you an outfit for any occasion. But the confusion of finding said outfit stops many before they even get off their motorbike.

How do I focus on skirts when the shop next door is pumping club beats into the street? ‘la la la… I am titanium…’ Wait, what’s a skirt?

I’ve been to Fashion Street about six times now and each time I’ve taken about six hours longer than I’d intended looking at skimpy tops and baggy pants, and every single time without fail I have walked away in need of a good cold beer. With ice. Do you do that? I know it’s a bit strange but since living here I’ve realized that beer is so much better with ice.

Ice-sullied beer aside, the fact is, shopping on Nguyen Trai can be stressful! Shopping anywhere can be stressful if you’re not 100% sure where you’re going or what you’re buying. Call me melodramatic, but sometimes I just wish there was a guide to these things…

Where do I shop?

Let me answer that with a question of my own – what do you want to buy? Depending on your taste, shopping list, budget, and time frame there are a number of options on ‘Fashion Street’.


At the bargaining, the bottom is the street racks covered in colorful pieces of material and manned by several middle-aged ladies in pajamas. As suggested, bargaining is the key here, and quality is not assured. Other clothing options included cute boutique shops, international chains such as Block and Nino Max, strange trashy outlets nestled between designer handbag stores, glasses shops, helmet shops, and even a bicycle repair business.


As an indie soul and very much a female, my favorites have always been Su <3 Su at number 85 and J&P which reminds me a lot of Forever 21. Adidas, Giordano, Adachi, and Hello Kitty all lay claim to space along this street. There is also an ABC Bakery for those who like to add food to fashion and fancy a pit stop mid-shopping spree.


Sizes, prices, and quality

Are you a foreigner? If so, you would be familiar with the endless trials and tribulations of buying something that fits in Vietnam. Right? Well, the trials continue, unfortunately.


I am a very tall Australian size 8, and I can fit most jeans, tops, sweaters, and jackets on Nguyen Trai, but shoes will always be impossible given my size 40 feet. It’s always a bit of a hit or miss for foreign bodies, but you stand a better chance of finding something that fits in brand stores such as Block and Hollis. Internationally renowned outlets like Giordano and Adidas, though tougher on your wallet, will also guarantee both size and quality.


As per any other shopping mecca in Saigon, both cost and quality range on Fashion Street, but if you’re shopping in an actual store you can usually expect fixed prices. Buying from one of the many street stalls however is another story. In general, expect to pay between VND 150,000 in a miscellaneous store and VND 300,000 in Su <3 Su for a pair of jeans. Quality tends to match the price.


Must know

Money: The street sports ATMs, banks, and even a Western Union. Banks that are represented are: Sacombank, VCombank, Southernbank, ACB bank

Safety: Keep a careful eye on your phones and bags when walking the strip. I like to walk with my bag on the side of my body closest to the pavement, and I keep my hand on it at all times. If you want to take photos be aware of who is around you, or driving past.

Road safety: The usual traffic-tackling policies apply here. Cross the road in groups if you can, walk slowly and don’t do anything sudden! If there is a bus do not challenge it and as tempting as it is confront that taxi driver with his honking horn and bad attitude…safety first.

Parking: At number 8, Nguyen Trai, there is a long driveway that eventually opens into a car and bike park. In typical Saigon style there is no indication at the font of this alleyway that it might house anything other than a few apartments, but believe me, it does. Leave your motorbike here for VND 4,000 or your bicycle for VND 2,000. Other options included walking (about 20 minutes from backpacker haven Bui Vien), and browsing the street on your motorbike. Most shops have an area to leave bikes while you look inside. Below is an image of the entrance to the parking area:




On the occasion of Mother’s Day on 13 May, designer Li Lam launches the campaign that she has nurtured for a long time, “Always A Woman To Me”, as a message to breast cancer patients in Vietnam and all over the world. The positive message that she wishes to spread is: “Women under any circumstances need to embrace their beauty and shine in their own way.”


Designer Li Lam really inspired breast cancer patients to love themselves and take good care of their looks without being restrained by any barriers or insecurities. Under the sunset, as their body movements harmonized with the gentle waves of the ocean, these women could open their hearts to find the inspiration and confidence to explore their beauty in Lam’s clothes.


The designer’s passion to spread the aesthetic lifestyle to every women has never dried up. This time, designer Li Lam brought this positive energy to special women who are fighting breast cancer from the Breast Cancer Network Vietnam (BCNV) in a humane campaign called “Always A Woman To Me”.


No matter the circumstances, women can believe in themselves and love their bodies, so that self-love and the love for life become as natural as breathing. With this message in mind, designer Li Lam and Lam team directly gave advice on style and applied makeup to 10 women of BCNV, bringing them a beautiful memory in the tranquil atmosphere of The Grand Ho Tram Strip.


Apart from having a beautiful appearance, feeling free in our soul is also a way to shine. The strength of spirit can help these women maintain their love for life and regain their confidence. To designer Li Lam, when a woman truly opens her heart, she brings a positive spirit to herself more than anyone else. Women who are fighting breast cancer need to love and take care of themselves more than ever.


Surrounded by the ocean at The Grand Ho Tram Strip, Lam team captured the lively moments of these beautiful women harmonizing with nature. Coming to this campaign, every woman has the chance to get in touch with, understand and love their own body more.


As one of the patients confided to us, “I was diagnosed with breast cancer 7 years ago. And during that 7 years, whenever I walked down the street, at first I couldn’t get familiar with the fact that I lost a part of my body. I felt so insecure, and always looked down to figure out the differences between me and other women. And eventually, I found nothing. I still have a friendly face, a body shape, just without my breasts, everything else still makes me a perfect woman.”


Lam’s clothes always aim at the liberation of the soul to seek complete freedom. The women in Lam’s clothes seem to get rid of their self-doubt, free themselves from beauty standards, and go back to their nature of themselves. Dressed in Lam, they can feel their skin gently touched by the delicate material, and the sensuality of their own bodies.


In the yoga session, they took a step back to enjoy the slow pace of life and listen to their bodies. They could understand what the body was saying, under the sunlight at daybreak. They no longer wanted to be restrained by the norms of the outside world. Each woman carried a story, and they had the chance to share their thoughts and hidden feelings with nature, the sea and everyone around. Lam’s aesthetic style naturally awakened the instinct and the desire to rise up as a genuine woman in each of them.


The Breast Cancer Network Vietnam, founded by Thuong Sobey (1982-2015), is a broadly connected community of cancer patients across the country, developing support for patients in their time fighting with cancer. The organization’s mission is to provide the right educational information about breast cancer to the public to raise awareness, strengthen the prevention and early detection of breast cancer, and improve the quality of life for people who have the disease as well as those who are indirectly affected by breast cancer.


Lam Boutique and the Breast Cancer Network Vietnam are deeply thankful for The Grand Ho Tram Strip for carefully preparing a relaxing space and accommodation near the beach for breast cancer patients. In addition, The Grand Ho Tram was very thorough in choosing healthy and nutritious meals for these patients.


Designer Li Lam believes that, with this meaningful campaign, together we can spread a positive message to Vietnamese breast cancer patients in particular and to everyone battling breast cancer all over the world in general. “Be confident in your beauty, because you’re always a woman to me.”



Everywhere you look in HCMC’s District 1, there’s a new store opening. Remember when Zara, the Spanish fashion retailer, set up shop in Vincom Shopping Mall last September? If you dared to visit the store during its opening week, you probably spent more time in a queue than trying on clothes. Inside Retail Asia wrote that Zara “unofficially” made more than $246,000 on its first day, much more than anticipated.

It’s no wonder that many more mid-priced and mass-market retailers are following in Zara’s wake. It’s been reported that Mango, GAP, Topshop, H&M and Uniqlo are all getting ready to make their own marks on HCMC in 2017. While this is welcome news for Saigon’s legions of fashionistas, it also spells big changes for clothing retail.

The Land of Silk and Money

There are several reasons for this sudden popularity.

First of all, the middle class is growing, and it’s growing fast. Consulting firm PwC’s 2015-16 Outlook for the Retail and Consumer Products Sector in Asia found that the proportion of households earning more than $10,000 per year will rise from 2 percent in 2014 to around 20 percent in 2018. That’s a pretty big jump, and a significant one when you think about the demographics at play.

Vietnam has a young population, and it’s the young professionals who are the major target for these fast fashion brands. Deloitte Singapore’s Retail in Vietnam report stated that in 2014, 70 percent of consumers were between 15 and 64 years old. Meanwhile, almost 60 percent of Vietnam’s population is under 35 years old.

The sheer number of millennials is catching the eye of foreign retailers. And when you factor in where most of the millennials are making money – namely Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi – it’s no surprise that the vast majority of foreign retailers are playing it safe and catering exclusively to these urban areas.

Given these factors, a pyramid of consumers has emerged, as outlined in the Understanding Market Trends and Consumers in Vietnam report published by Singapore-based brand growth and communication company Louken Group. At the top, you have the premium, niche market: people who buy products for social status and have a generous disposable income. Many of them do their shopping abroad, making it a difficult clientele to curate domestically.


The second tier is the mid-market: middle-income consumers who want quality products with a pleasing design sold at an affordable price. This is the market Zara has tapped into with such success. At the bottom are the mass market customers. They want fast fashion that is cheap and can be bought often. This is most of the Vietnamese population because come on, who can resist a good deal?


And what company can resist demographics with so much potential? It doesn’t hurt that recent international agreements have made it easier for foreign companies to do business here, especially the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement Vietnam signed in 2007.


Before 2008, international companies were only allowed 49 percent of capital in joint ventures. But as of 2009, fully foreign-owned companies could operate in the Vietnamese market independently. And since January 2015, foreign retailers can set up businesses with 100 percent foreign capital. No more need to franchise or partner with a domestic company. Hence, the fashion flood.


Domestic Concerns

With the growing middle class and prime market conditions, it would seem to be a perfect time for Vietnamese retailers to get in on some of the action as well. Even better is the fact that most Vietnamese consumers want domestic products.


In the Louken Group’s report, 71 percent of Vietnamese consumers surveyed believe that local products are of high quality, and 80 percent prefer domestically produced garments. Jackpot, right?


Not necessarily. As Carey Zesiger, manager of business development for the international fashion distribution company Havang told us, “Increasingly in recent years, we’ve had cases where our brands are producing in factories in Vietnam, and since the label says ‘Made in Vietnam’, you would think it would be easy [to acquire them], and it should be low-tax or no tax. That’s not always the case.


“Depending on the situation, depending on the paperwork, depending on the licensing of the factory and their tax status, there have been cases where we’ve had to export products that are made in Vietnam to Singapore, re-import them, and pay full duty for a product that’s made in Vietnam.”


This complicated system seems to be a by-product of the country’s focus on developing its export economy, sometimes at the expense of its own businesses and consumers. And while there is a movement for the Vietnamese textile and garment sector to develop business in the domestic market, in particular for textile brands like Nha Be, Viet Tien, Hanosimex, and Duc Giang, the export-heavy regulations and international free trade agreements are leaving the door wide open for foreign retailers.


The Future

Will we see Ho Chi Minh City reach the retail dimensions of powerhouse cities like Singapore or Hong Kong? Zesiger has his doubts: “Singapore and Hong Kong are dependent to a large extent on tourism. They are hubs for tourists, travelers, people in transit, business, and so a lot of retail activity there is driven by inbound tourism.” Vietnam, and particularly Ho Chi Minh City, is quite different.


“Let’s face it,” Zesiger continues, “Vietnam is not going to be a destination for people to come and do their duty-free shopping because the duties are high and the selection is not so broad.” Instead, Zesinger sees retail growth to be long-term and based on developing the domestic market. That means supporting and helping the middle class to grow. Right now, with a GDP per capita of just $1,325, there’s a lot of room for growth.


Company to Watch: AEON Company Limited

With so many different companies emerging onto the market, it’s difficult to keep them all straight. Here’s one company that’s been working particularly hard to crack the Vietnamese demographic. Keep an eye on AEON; you might be seeing the name even more in the future.



AEON Company Limited is a retailing group from Japan. Reportedly founded in 1758, AEON has one of the longest histories in retail development in Asia. An international operation with 16,498 companies spread across Asia, AEON has turned an eye toward Vietnam.


As the largest retail company in Japan, AEON deals in the retail of all forms, with a special focus on mall supermarkets. So far, AEON has opened four shopping malls in Vietnam (two in Hanoi and two in the Ho Chi Minh City area) and 54 supermarkets throughout the country. AEON’s shoppers are middle class, and the company thrives on offering consumers solid brands at carefully controlled prices.


AEON Vietnam first began in 2009 as a representative office and acquired a business license from the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City in 2011, when it began constructing the AEON Shopping Center in Tan Phu Celadon. By 2020, AEON hopes to own 20 outlets in Vietnam (10 near HCMC and 10 near Hanoi).


Vietnam’s rising middle class and younger population are attractive to foreign investors. This is especially true for Japanese companies, which have been struggling domestically due to increased international competition, a cost-conscious and aging population, and a declining birth rate.


While most retailers have traditionally built in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, AEON is one of the first to build a major foreign-invested shopping mall in an outlying province – Binh Duong, about two hours north of Saigon. Though it has had offers to build in medium-sized cities like Danang, Nagahisa Oyama, the head of AEON’s Vietnam unit, has stated that it’s too soon for provincial developments.


“Heatwave … The sand is lightly smoldering under our steps. Heavy palms are quivering and gently rustling in a breeze. The sun is at its highest and the carved, dark wooden doors have been shut. Naptime. It is summer in Hoi An.”

At Metiseko, poetry is crafted out of organic Indian cotton and silk that is locally produced in Vietnam. The hand-painted prints recall the scent that lifts off of flowers in the aftermath of a monsoon. Tropical fruit meets art-deco elements, hibiscus and peonies float across misty blues and greens, lotus leaves, and koi fish swim through a painterly aquatic garden. The fact that Metiseko is also one of the most well-known sustainable clothing brands in Vietnam lends weight to the beauty of sustainable textiles.

Each of Metiseko’s clothing, accessories, and soft furnishings collections is presented like a travel journal that introduces a reimagined view of Vietnam. CỘI-Origins, Metiseko’s 8th collection to date, launched on September 14, 2018. This collection takes us on a voyage to revisit the company’s roots in the ancient city of Hoi An.

Sustainable Clothing Inspired by Hoi An, Vietnam

During the collection’s launch party, a film by French filmmakers Robin and Cako, plays as models weave between the crowd. The film, a dreamy day between four friends as they experience moments with family and the intimacy of friendship, evokes the concept behind the collection.

“It’s about spending time together”, Metiseko co-owner and Artistic Director Florence Mussou said. “Taking a break, enjoying the tranquillity and reconnecting, coming back to where Metiseko started . . . to Hoi An, which is still a source of inspiration.”

Eight years ago the brand was created by Mussou and co-owner/General Director Erwan Perzo in Hoi An. Mussou brought her experience in textile design to the company, while Perzo’s passion for sustainability inspired Metiseko’s commitment to ethical work conditions and the use of organic cotton and mulberry silk. The brand is both stunning to look at and also stands out as one of the few truly sustainable clothing brands in Vietnam.

Metiseko Fashion: Tropical Gardens and Vietnamese Sunsets

The CỘI-Origins collection includes organic cotton pieces with colors and shapes that were conceived to work for both masculine and feminine styles. The color palette of the collection was created to reflect one day in Hoi An from sunrise to sunset. The shades, like denim blue, terracotta, custard, and aqua, were inspired by different times of day in the ancient Vietnamese coastal city.


Linda Mai Phung, a French-Vietnamese designer, collaborated on the collection. Phung has become known in Vietnam and Europe for her clothing designs as well as her company ethos: respect for humanity and the environment while creating great fashion. She has won numerous international awards for ethical fashion.


Phung’s designs seem simple but there is complexity in the details—a thin band collar and hidden buttons on a man’s button-down shirt and the narrow pleats made to highlight the waist on a women’s skirt are a few examples. Phung’s clothing designs combined with Metiseko’s organic fabrics manage to be contemporary and classic, French and Vietnamese at the same time.


Part of what creates client fidelity at Metiseko is the strong narrative that the company conveys. When you walk into one of the Metiseko stores it is as if you are entering another world. From the lyrical text that scrawls across the lookbooks to the hanging lanterns wrapped in Metiseko’s signature organic fabrics, each detail works together to create a sense of nostalgia for a place you may never have been to but emphatically want to experience.


Each collection invites us to take a trip with Metiseko, to see the country in a different light. The care that is put into each piece, from the brand’s commitment to sustainability to their exquisite designs, stands as a testament to Metiseko’s ongoing love affair with Vietnam.



Sidestep Dong Khoi and put down that Burberry bag—whether it’s the real deal or a knock-off. There’s a new trend in Vietnamese leather accessories and it doesn’t involve paying an outrageous mark-up for a designer name or settling on a copy that will fall apart before you even get it home. These savvy brands based in HCMC are seeking to change the image of Vietnam-made leather accessories by focusing on attention to detail and one-of-a-kind customization that was previously only seen in European luxury houses.

JR Rostaing: The French Savoir Faire in Vietnam

The Brand Story

Maison Rostaing, a family-run leather manufacturer, set up shop in France back in 1789, but the company’s story in Vietnam began more recently when the heir to the business Jacques Rostaing decided to bring his family’s knowledge, what the French call savoir-faire, to HCMC by founding a tannery in 1994. Since then the tannery has treated and crafted top-of-the-line leather products for many elite French fashion brands.

In September 2017, the company decided to launch its own product line called JR Rostaing.


Walk into the JR Rostaing boutique and you’ll be met with rows of perfectly crafted handbags and accessories. The leather ranges from the opulent—ostrich, stingray, snake, and crocodile skins—to the eco-conscious, leather that is tanned using only tree bark and no chemicals.


Karine Rostaing, customer liaison, has been in Vietnam for 24 years. She interviewed in French about how the market for luxury products has changed. Some people buy a bag just for the brand—they’ll buy a plastic bag if it’s made by a prestigious brand, Rostaing explained. Other brands use leather that is not of good quality and then they spray paint it so that the leather looks perfect. But now more and more people are looking for a high-end bag that looks beautiful and lasts.


The Leather

The animal skins used to make the products primarily come from Europe and are then transported to Vietnam where they are treated in the tannery. Then the leathers are designed, crafted, and stitched by skilled artisans. Every haute couture bag the leather artisan makes is lined with a one-of-a-kind French silk scarf and all crocodile skin handbags have an embossed serial number inside the bag, which is the international governmental customs method for proving the origin of the leather. These exclusive touches lift the bag to a status symbol level.



Everything in the store can be customized and tailor-made. A sunglasses case might set you back VND1 million, while a custom bag depends entirely on the type of leather and the details. The only limit is your imagination and of course your budget.


Address: 100 Vo Thi Sau, D1, HCMC, Vietnam


Cincinati / Ne-Yuh: Vietnamese Brands for International Tastes

The Brand Story

The doorway that leads into the Cincinati and Ne-Yuh boutique in D1 feels like a secret passage into a vintage leather working studio. Walk inside and the narrow storefront opens up into a bright shop where customers are met with an array of handbags and accessories meticulously arranged by color and style. From the M.O.O.N. bag, which is crafted into a zen circle to a mini bag called the Saigon Chic clutch, which could have been inspired by the iconic woven bags from Italian luxury house Bottega Veneta, each piece showcases the beauty of the leather with tones ranging from deep jewel tints, brushed metallic finishes, or soft beige leathers.


As a child, Huyen Nguyen, the brand’s founder, and designer had a prized possession: a backpack. At this time, backpacks were still scarce in Vietnam and Nguyen knew how special it was. With her line of meticulously-designed leather goods, Nguyen has brought to life that feeling of owning something rare. Nguyen began her family-run business in 2008 when she opened her first factory manufacturing leather bags. Every piece that comes out of the factory is entirely handmade by artisans. Nguyen has since launched two distinct leather brands.


Cincinati was the first brand to be created and initially focused on a more masculine aesthetic. Ne-Yuh launched in 2014 and embraces femininity and innovative shapes. Nguyen’s companies have risen to the top of Vietnam-made leather goods because of their ability to engage both domestic and international markets—50 percent of their business is for export—as well as being an ambassador for the fashion and lifestyle of a new generation of Vietnamese businesses.


The Leather

Some brands use leather composite, which involves taking leather fibers and gluing them together then coating the resulting sheet of leather with varnish. In contrast, Nguyen’s factory uses only whole leather from India or Italy, which has a softer texture and also ages beautifully.



“We are proud to say that all products are made in Vietnam”, Ngon Huynh, export sales director said. “There are very talented artisans here. That’s why all the foreign customers come in.” “However, the Vietnamese market is different. The Vietnamese people like things that are from abroad. You have to market things differently to them if you’re a Vietnamese brand.”


One of the ways that Cincinati and Ne-Yuh do that is through customization. In their D1 boutique, there is a “Build a Bag” workshop. Clients can make an appointment with the store and come in to choose their leather, accessories, and style. Initials can be added anywhere on the bag. One new concept is his & her wallets or satchel bags. A couple can select matching styles and then personalize the pieces with each other’s initials.


Address: 60-62 Mac Thi Buoi, D1, HCMC, Vietnam


Desino: Youthful Elegance

The Brand Story

Ten years ago Huy Nguyen, general manager of Desino, had an idea. A technical engineer with a flair for fashion Nguyen had a taste for quality, yet he had a hard time finding what he wanted. “Either the product was right but the price was too high or the price was right but the quality was low”, Nguyen said. Instead of waiting around for the market to change, Nguyen found a leather producer that was willing to create products to serve his vision, and Desino was thus born.


The Leather

Using the overstock of the leather created for top luxury brands, Desino is able to make bags out of the highest quality leather but at a reasonable price. The products range from candy-colored tote bags to buttery beige leather satchels. “We are not aiming to be the artisanal brand. We are aiming for excellent quality with a more commercial purpose”, Nguyen said. “People who want to buy something for daily use can come to us. People who want identity come to us. We can add on all the personal touches.”



People can use a classic bag as a base and then build on top of that with whatever details they desire. An in-house artist can custom paint any product to the client’s specifications. According to Nguyen, Desino’s clients go wild for a cross-body bag that can be customized with painted graffiti-like slogans, beaded skulls, birds, or anything they can dream up.


“Right now luxury is all about identity”, Nguyen said. “Everyone can have the same quality. Everyone can choose to say ‘the more expensive the better. But we give them something that they can create.”


Address: 10 Nguyen Thiep, D1. HCMC, Vietnam




Fashion has exploded in the last decade. Reality shows like Project Runway and Next Top Model have intrigued young designers, and a design revolution has been brewing for some years now.


Vietnam Fashion Week is in its third year and is incredibly successful. There is a higher demand for quality products. And with the advent of the new Takashimaya mall, international brands have suddenly poured into Vietnam in droves. But is it all sustainable? One of the country’s most recognized young designers, and founder of Vietnam Fashion Academy, Huy Vo, believes not so much; at least, not yet.


From 2007-2010, the boutique fashion scene was thriving. Shops sprang up like wildfire, and the rich Vietnamese found wonderful new clothes to buy. But after the stock market plummeted, sales slowed, and the short burst of success gave way to a more revealing truth: the trendy young designers who started strong now realized they had little foundation to support themselves. Shops began to close, giving way to big-name retail spaces.


Big Brand Dilemma

The fashion scene is still growing, but the question still remains: how can domestic designers and brands compete with the wave of big brands jumping on the bandwagon? Huy Vo mentions three crucial factors for any designer’s success in the marketplace: brand identity, customer service, and quality.


The first two – brand identity and customer service – are easy. Many young designers are inherent digital marketers and naturally use Facebook and Instagram to promote their products in ingenious ways. Serving their customers doesn’t seem to be an issue either. But when quality comes into question, there’s a noticeable gap. What good is a trendy blouse if it doesn’t look great after two washes? Or a nice pair of jeans if they fall apart after six months?


Vendors in Saigon Square kept producing faker fakes for profit, killing themselves in the process. On the other side, many young designers started out curious and ambitious, but without the foundation of knowledge required to build a sustainable clothing business.


With malls, you get the surface – the presentation, the brand, the space – but not what people actually want to buy. Where do people actually shop these days? Social media is a powerful tool for young designers, and chat apps and social networking sites like Zalo and Facebook have everyone from teens to middle-aged adults selling their wares. Then there are the corner shops near home and online Amazon-like sites like Lazada and Leflair.


True domestic quality comes in the form of passionate designers with sustainable brands – thinkers who think forward. Notable names include Antonio De Torres, Lam Gia Khang, Huy Tran, Do Manh Cuong, Adrian Anh Tuan, Li Lam, and Cong Tri, among others. Some examples of good fashion boutiques are Nosbyn, Cashew, Wephobia, Ren, The Blue T-Shirt, Thuy Design House, and Annacoco.


Huy Vo says the problem with any industry in Vietnam is that many upcoming players think about trends, not sustainability. When the question is posed, will it last in the next 5-10 years? There are blank stares. When asked whether the brand will ever make it overseas, the question is likely dismissed.

To see what happens next just look at coffee shops: there seems to be a new cafe popping up every day, and another closing the next. Investors pump money into the cafes, the owners sell, the staff is secondary, and eventually, the project goes bust. There’s a common thread here.


Huy Vo stresses the need for education, and how knowledge creates a solid foundation. What if you know how to draw a beautiful piece of clothing, but don’t understand how it’s constructed? And then there is the question of history. Some young designers figure they don’t need to know the history of fashion in order to design – but you ask them what were the styles of the 20s and 40s and they come up with surface-level answers, says Huy Vo. They don’t understand the background of the time, the trends, the political situation, or the movements of the era that influenced the style.


World Class

This doesn’t mean the shopping scene in Vietnam, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, is lacking in world-class products. Almost anything handmade in Vietnam is beautiful. Lacquerware, embroidery, and textiles are of first-rate quality. Items like these have much potential, with enough culture and craftsmanship behind them to create an excellent story. In this case, the brand identity is missing, but the quality (and sometimes even the service) is there.

Marou chocolate and Vietnamese rice – both quality products that come from Vietnam – have reached international attention because of their quality and outreach. Vietnamese clothing can reach this potential, but there is a lot of work ahead for designers and business owners – mainly in the form of education and planning.

Huy Vo heads the Vietnam Fashion Academy at 14 Ton That Dam, 2nd Floor, Hotline: 09 2303 1188.