YOUR INSIDER'S SOUVENIRS SHOPPING GUIDE
IN HO CHI MINH CITY 🇻🇳 SINCE 2008
SAIGON INSPIRATION SHOPPING SOUVENIRS TOP 7 SOUVENIRS TO BUY IN VIETNAM
The top 7 souvenirs to buy in Vietnam, whether you are on holiday or on a business trip.
Apart from the joy of discovering a new culture, taking photos, and tasting the exotic flavors of Vietnam, shopping might bring you more opportunities to get in touch with local habits.
A shopping tour is usually the last step of a trip and it is always a bit tricky. The second “HCMC 100 exciting things”, a campaign promoting activities in the city, announced some time ago the top 7 souvenirs to gift to friends, family members, and loved ones. The results came from a poll voted on by travelers and ex-pats.
1. Conical hat
Non la (leaf hat) is a circular cone made of bamboo cataphylls, notable for its romantic adornments. The non la is more than an indispensable tool for people in Vietnam: it has become a cultural symbol. The style differs by region, so, for example, the Tay people have a distinct color, while in Thanh Hoa they use only a 20-hem frame. Hue’s is thin and elegant, while Binh Dinh’s is thick.
Vietnamese wear the non la all year. The shape protects the wearer from the downpours of the rainy season like an umbrella and provides shade and protection from the heat during April and May when temperatures climb to unbearable levels.
Local Insight: At a workshop, you can get a hat for only VND 3,500 – VND 10,000. Depending on the quality, prices at souvenir shops range between VND 30,000 and VND 100,000.
Silk is woven from the cocoons of the silkworm. Thus, it has always been considered extremely luxurious and only available to the nobility. The days when silk had only been manufactured for Vietnamese royalty is long gone, and the fabric has become widely used throughout the country. Silk and its beautiful products are affordable nowadays, so tourists have a chance to choose their favorites and gift them to friends and family.
Local Insight: The price for regular Vietnamese silk is at least VND 70,000/m and over VND 100,000/m for premium kinds. Silk below that price is originating from China and of questionable quality.
4. Hand Embroidery
The art of hand-embroidered pieces of clothing and framed silk pictures is an old handicraft tradition in Vietnam. You will mostly encounter picturesque natural scenes like flowers, trees, animals, and birds, patiently stitched one colorful thread at a time. But also daily life scenes, even portraits can be created with this ancient technique. Tourists are frequently baffled by the vast variety of designs, offered in hand embroidery shops, the vibrant colors, and the intriguing depth of the artwork.
In some shops, tourists can explain or sketch their individual idea to the artist, who creates a personalized present for friends and family. If you visit Da Lat, there is a workshop & gallery for marvelous and artful hand embroidery images upstairs in the central market.
Local Insight: You can buy a small hand embroidered product for around VND 500,000. For bigger pictures, the price can be VND 2,000,000 and above.
5. Sand Pictures
Sand painting is the art of pouring colorful sand and powdered pigments on a sticky surface and fixating it later with spray, so it doesn’t come off again. However, there is a second art form called sand painting, which is practiced in Saigon: The artist pours the colorful sand between two glass panes or in a specially designed mug or vase. The layers of sand form an enthralling piece of art, that looks stunning on every shelf and makes an excellent souvenir. Vietnamese sand picture art comprises 4 categories: landscape, portrait, labor scenes, and the traditional art of calligraphy.
Local Insight: The price for artful sand pictures ranges from VND 300,000 to VND 700,000.
6. Wooden clogs – Guoc moc
Wooden clogs (guoc moc) were a sort of traditional footwear for men and women alike in the past. After the feudal period, they mostly remained in a trio of Non la, Ao dai, and Guoc moc to increase the gracefulness of Vietnamese ladies when attending important festivals or any special events in town. Guoc moc is rarely used nowadays, but tourists can catch a glimpse of them at traditional activities like the Cai Luong and Ca Tru performances.
Local Insight: Being considered quite old-fashioned footwear, the real Vietnamese wooden clogs are hard to find. If you can find some around VND 150,000 then go for it.
7. Musical Instruments
A handmade musical instrument can also make a nice keepsake. Bamboo flutes and mini t’rungs are very popular among visitors. Since the flute is just a small bamboo pipe and the t’rung can be easily disassembled for transport, they are convenient to carry home and don’t use up too much space in your already stuffed luggage. The sweet tone of these instruments will thrill your ears and remind you of the most memorable moments from your trip to Vietnam.
If you are in Saigon, there is a nice old man, playing and selling simple flutes on Le Loi street on the sidewalk. If you are interested in hearing more traditional flute play, there is a student club of young flutists, who meet in the evening hours at 23/9 Park near Ben Thanh Market to play and practice. Nguyễn Thiện Thuật street in District 1 is also known as “guitar street”. There are many shops and workshops for instruments, mainly guitars and their relatives – like the ukulele.
Local Insight: Prices for a t’rung range from VND 300,000 to VND 1,000,000. Simple bamboo flutes come at around VND 10,000.
You should expect to bargain for the items you want to take home as souvenirs. One “trick”, that can be applied in Ben Thanh Market is to browse the fixed-price shops outside and negotiate with the inside shops for the items you want to buy. We also have a blog post on bargaining at the market which shows you some tips to bargain and suggests some of the best places for shopping apart of the Top 5 Places to Go Shopping in Saigon.
SAIGON INSPIRATION SHOPPING SOUVENIRS BEST SOUVENIRS TO BUY IN SAIGON
Successful souvenir buying is a lost art to many. The knack of picking an item that embodies something unique about a place, that feels authentic and emblematic yet not too twee or stale, is a subtle skill. Vietnam is so blessed with a marvelous array of handicrafts and unique, delightful items that it can be hard to decide what to buy. So how best to go about it? What should you buy for your friends, kids, or parents? Let us guide you through the best souvenirs that Saigon has to offer.
Souvenirs for friends
Traditional, beautiful, flowing ao dais are central to Vietnamese ceremonial life. Worn for weddings, festivals, and formal functions, the ao dai lends majesty and grace to any wearer. They make a breathtaking gift for anyone with exotic dress sense. However, be careful: ao dais are usually made to fit, so make sure you have a rough idea of the recipient’s size, and if in doubt, over-estimate: you can always get it brought in back home. A good option for tourists is to check out the Ao Dai Museum’s Si Hoang Show on Saigon’s walking street Nguyen Hue. They also sell magnificent ao dais!
Wartime Zippo Lighters
Since the end of the American war, US Zippo lighters have been big business for souvenir vendors. Marked with the insignia and heraldry of the various units that served in Vietnam, they present a somewhat macabre reminder of the individuals who were sent to fight here. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, markets teemed with genuine Zippos, discarded by fleeing or slain troops. Today the lighters are likely to be faked, but the effect remains the same. Pop down to Dan Sinh Market (also known as Yersin Market) in District 1.
Non La (Straw Hat)
There is little more iconic and unmistakably Vietnamese than the non la straw hat. The supporting star of every Vietnamese film of the last 50 years, it is instantly recognizable and, still today, ubiquitous throughout the nation. Our advice is to seek out a market stall selling only non la, and haggle down to no more than VND 100,000 (maybe less if you’re patient). Plain non la are preferable to the gaudily painted variety in tourist traps, so head out to smaller, heartland markets and rummage around with the locals for authentic hats and the best prices.
Undeniably kitsch, stylish, and relatively unattainable outside Vietnam, cold-war era propaganda art makes for an excellent souvenir. These are perfect gifts for that friend who wants a quirky addition to his Che Guevara poster. Check shops abound throughout the city, mainly in touristy areas like Pham Ngu Lao and Ben Thanh.
Souvenirs for Kids
With their ubiquity throughout Vietnam, it’s easy to forget that these delicate, simple novelties are unique to the country. Hand-painted and infuriatingly easy to break, they demand extreme care in transit but get them back in one piece and they will mystify kids with their graceful balance and gentle movement.
Simple yet effective, the hand-woven bracelets sold throughout HCMC by street vendors make for fantastic, easy presents. Many of them are parents from the North of the country who sell their wares in the South to fund their children’s education, so get to know your vendor before making a bulk purchase. The story of where the money went will keep you smiling long after your gift.
Vietnamese embroidery is world-famous for its delicate intricacy and vibrant color. The attention to detail and level of craftsmanship is such that you might not think of it as a suitable adornment for children’s clothing; however, with relatively low prices it is possible to obtain magnificent children’s wear at bargain prices. Check the items at Ninh Khuong’s website to see what’s available – well worth it for that niece or daughter you’ve been itching to spoil. Mekong Quilts is another great place to shop for hand-embroidered clothes and a non-profit organization!
Souvenirs for Parents
Vietnamese coffee with its unique chocolatey smell is the ultimate gift for anyone who likes a morning brew. Quintessentially local in flavor but with a universal richness that any coffee lover will enjoy, it can be ground to suit any coffee maker in most shops. However, for an authentic experience, why not buy a Vietnamese coffee filter to go with it, that simple three-part aluminum ensemble that sits on your morning cup of ca phe sua? Slightly more expensive stainless-steel gift sets are widely available and provide a functional gift for even the most discerning coffee snob. Phuc Long and Shin Coffee are classics for coffee souvenirs. Check out our Ultimate Buying Guide for Vietnamese Coffee Lovers.
Ceramics and Lacquerware
The ceramics of Vietnam are internationally sought after for their durable quality and craftsmanship. Similarly, the vibrant colors of the lacquerware make wondrously bright centerpieces for any living room or kitchen. Available throughout the country, be prepared to haggle furiously if you buy in the central markets, as prices are staggeringly high compared to the markets of the outskirts and smaller towns. Be sure to check out Authentique Home to find some of Saigon’s most beautiful ceramics and lacquerware. For something a little different from the usual bright colors, try Amai in District 2 for something more minimalistic cool, and chic.
Vietnamese silk is under-appreciated around the world, yet represents some of the finest the region has to offer. Thai Tuan Silk are the experts in town. The Chinese market in District 5 has some excellent varieties on offer, for surprisingly low prices. Raw, un-stitched silk makes an excellent gift for the handy parent who likes to work with fine materials. Alternatively, take your silk to one of the many seamstresses around the city with a pattern or just a picture of the table cloth, dress, or whatever you like, to create a unique and beautiful present.
Beautifully ornate and painstakingly tricky to create, Vietnamese traditional sand pictures create breathtaking dioramas with the careful layering of colored sand. Available in various sizes and levels of detail, they can fit any budget. Be careful when traveling, though: the pictures are best transported in your hand luggage as sudden knocks can shake the sand out of place, leaving you with less of a masterpiece and more a blurred mess.
SAIGON INSPIRATION SHOPPING SOUVENIRS TRAVELLERS: VN LACKS AN ESSENTIAL SOUVENIR
Asked if he would be purchasing any souvenirs apart from the non la he was already wearing, the only Vietnamese memento seemingly de rigueur for tourists, he shrugged noncommittally.
“I don’t know,” Egoshin said, laughing. “Everywhere I just buy a bottle,” he said, signaling the beer he was swilling streetside, “and just, you know, have a look.” As tourism grows, travelers’ spending has failed to follow suit.
In 2017, Ho Chi Minh City hosted 6.4 million tourists 2017, according to the municipal tourism department. The 23 percent increase in tourism that year delivered a mere 12.6 percent increase in tourist spending in the same time period.
When Tuoi Tre reported on the phenomenon in March, the city’s tourism officials rued the lack of major shopping destinations but also cited the 2.6 day-long stay that the average tourist spends in Ho Chi Minh City.
That’s about how many days Joost van den Elsakker was staying in Ho Chi Minh City when he spoke to #iAMHCMC. Outside of the “Tintin” comic painting he wanted to buy for his dad in the Netherlands, he said most of his purchases had just been food and drink.
A traveler who’s come to Vietnam after visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand—a country that he noted aligns itself strongly with elephant imagery as a sort of de facto brand on its souvenirs—he said nothing in Saigon had yet enticed him as something he needed to remember his short visit.
SAIGON INSPIRATION SHOPPING SOUVENIRS SAIGON’S FAMOUS BEN THANH MARKET
There’s a purplish tinge to the morning air. A fog surrounds Saigon’s famous Ben Thanh Market. Near its entrance, fitness buffs are engaged in a rousing choreography of gymnastics before the fierce afternoon heat strikes. Nearby, a speaker broadcasts a song praising Ho Chi Minh. I enter. A young salesman, cell phone glued to his ear, calls me: ‘Sir! Bun Bo Hue – cheap! And very good!’ (Bun Bo Hue is a renowned beef soup that originated in the central Vietnamese city of Hue.)
The atmosphere at Ben Thanh is one of the fused voices, of goods quickly shifting from hand to hand. Food and drink – both familiar and otherworldly – are everywhere: skewered prawns, steamed corn, beef jerky, chili, semi-incubated eggs called hot vit lon, yogurt, rice wine, fruit smoothies, coffee, tea . . . The list is seemingly endless.
Ben Thanh Market is the largest tourist market in Ho Chi Minh City. Inside, you’ll cross paths with veiled Malaysian women, Chinese tour groups and Western travelers in ball caps and tank tops, likely amazed by all the stuff for sale.
You’ll discover mountains of cheap t-shirts, wood souvenirs, pottery and ceramics, wristwatches, plus all manner of digital gadget covers and protectors. Goods are neatly divided among sections that include food, textiles, cosmetics, and sundries. Except at the restaurants and snack bars prices are not fixed (good luck bargaining!).
From out of nowhere a woman grabs my arm, and tries to drag me into her shop! I resist her hard sell and dash over to a nearby shoe stall. Unoccupied. Nobody’s manning the ‘shop’. I’m about to leave when the owner’s head pops up from behind the counter. He was napping! With all respect, I don’t blame him, for working as he does between 8-10 hours a day. After a lengthy negotiation, I leave Ben Thanh with a new pair of shoes, paying just VND200,000 – 100,000 less than what the drowsy shop owner was asking.
I head out in the full sun towards my motorbike, carefully guarded by an attendant at an ad hoc parking lot across the street. A twist of the throttle and I’m back among the legions of motorcycles that incessantly revolve through and around this miraculous city.
Approximate prices at Ben Thanh Market:
Souvenir t-shirt: VND60,000
Lacquered wooden box: VND150,000 (depending on size)
Snake liquor (comes bottled with a real snake!): VND200,000
Covered market: 6am – 5pm daily
Outdoor night market: 6pm – 10pm daily.