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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is not necessarily a well-known fact, but shoes are the most important articles of clothing that you will ever buy.
Most people don’t realise that the health of your feet sets the tone for the health of the entire skeletal system and therefore your entire body. Wearing shoes that fit properly and support your feet is vitally important in order to avoid or alleviate many common foot problems; however, it goes further than that.
Great Looks Bad Back
Many are tempted to simply wear shoes that they find aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, great looking footwear is more often than not the worst choice for either proper foot function or overall health. In addition, about 70% of us have one foot that is bigger than the other by half a size. From that we can assume that literally billions of people are walking around with one shoe that is the wrong size.
Vietnam is one of the largest exporters of shoes in the world. This is a multi-billion dollar industry that sees Vietnamese shoes being worn in more than 40 countries. Standards are high, and Mangii has taken them even higher. Using high-class leather, cork for comfort and metal shanks for strength, the shop handcrafts footwear of incredible style and quality.
“The shoes are assembled completely by hand and crafted into exquisite designs.”
All Mangii custom-made shoes are manufactured in Vietnam, close to the Cu Chi area of Ho Chi Minh City. Andy Nguyen, the owner, bought an existing factory with an already highly skilled workforce. It took him three years to train staff to the standards that he demanded. Five years ago he achieved his goal and opened up his first shop. Now firmly established, he has opened a second shop in Hanoi.
Bespoke Every Step of the Way
Mangii has an incredibly high percentage of repeat customers, and most of the clients come by word of mouth. The great beauty of the way they work here is that all patterns and measurements are kept, so even after people return to their homes, wherever they may be, they can and do still order online and receive their shoes by post. A string of 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor has also helped business growth immensely.
Customers can, of course, buy ready-made shoes and walk away with beautiful footwear in one day. It is, though, the custom-made collection that attracts most. The process is unique. Feet are measured and a drawing is made, then individual lasts are made from which the shoes are modelled. In fact, Mangii first makes a fitting shoe that customers can try on. The customer then says which part of the shoe, if any, is too tight or pinching and the shop adjusts the lasts and builds the real shoes. The customer then chooses the design and the leather that they want to use, and from this the process is completed.
This normally takes about two weeks. Clients end up with shoes that are unique and fit perfectly. This has resulted in the large number of re-orders from people who stay exclusively with Mangii. Most of the clients are business people, though increasingly, young people are demanding high class products.
“Half of Mangii’s customers are expats who, of course, often struggle to find shoes that even fit.”
Mangii custom-made shoes are an excellent investment for anyone who cares about their health while at the same time, wishes to look stylish. They are not as expensive as one would expect, and certainly not as expensive as buying similar shoes in the West. Unique, stylish, affordable, made to measure, and right here in Ho Chi Minh City. What more could you want?
In the tourist areas of Ho Chi Minh City, there are tons of tailors and they even have their own small fabric shops adjacent to their workshops or emporiums. Tailor shops like these are available in abundance in District 1, especially in the backpacker quarter at Pham Ngu Lao.
Since they speak English up to a certain degree, tourists like to drop in and have something tailored fast before they have to leave Saigon again. But I would like to guide you through the process of obtaining custom-made clothing from the tailor the Vietnamese way.
Before we begin to hunt for the best tailors in Ho Chi Minh City, we need to start with the very first question:
What type of clothing do I want?
Well, it might be self-explanatory, but before we go to the fabric market in Saigon, let alone the tailor, we need to decide what we want. If you long for a traditional Vietnamese Áo dài, you can find a broad variety of specialized fabric shops.
One of the most famous Áo dài fabric shops where we bought the material for my fiancé’s long dress:
The same is true if your goal is to obtain a custom-tailored suit. There are several good fabric shops where you can find the cloth you need near chợ Tân Định (Tan Dinh Market, one of the famous old markets of Saigon).
However, this is Vietnam, and going to a big market is what we love to do here.
Step one: The fabric market
When shopping for the right fabric in Ho Chi Minh City, there is one address you cannot miss:
A part of An Dong Market is some sort of urban flea market where you can buy the usual crap, but upstairs is the paradise of textiles. The focus lies on cloth for shirts, trousers and women’s fashion. Of course, the booths for the dresses are much more colorful than the men’s department, but since I primarily wear black, a very unpopular color in Vietnam for cultural reasons, I don’t pay much attention to pink, yellow and toxic green anyway. Not that they only have ugly colors at the market, no way! The pallette at chợ An Đông is almost as versatile as nature itself.
As I said, I want black fabric and natural fibres as well, so we start our shopping spree and head from one booth to the next. Some cloth looks nice, but contains too much artificial fibre for my taste. At some other booth, the lady shows me some jeans fabric which appears nice and black in the shadow where she keeps it. Upon further inspection I realize, it’s dark blue and not black at all.
In the end I got what I wanted. Black, fine cotton fabric for my shirts at 130,000 VND/m and nice cotton canvas for the trousers at 160,000 and 180,000 VND/m. The price is good, because chợ An Đông is far away from the tourist areas and foreigners are a rare sight. But we bargain a little, just for the heck of it.
By the way, if you don’t know it already, the ladies at the fabric booths know how many meters of cloth you will approximately need for the shirt/dress/trousers you desire.
Step two: Finding the right tailor
A good tailor in Ho Chi Minh City specializes in a certain field. My favorite tailor actually was not happy when I ordered a pair of tai chi trousers. Nervously he flicked through his reference material for trousers and suits, muttering “Never in my 40 years as a tailor, somebody has ordered something like this.” He was afraid that I would not be satisfied with the result and his high reputation would suffer. I decided not to strain the good man with my weird demands and ordered two pairs of normal trousers and three shirts, withdrawing my order for the martial arts pants until I can find a template on the internet or something.
I think the best way to find a good tailor in Saigon is to ask the locals. Many Vietnamese businessmen don’t use overpriced shops at the tourist areas, but order their clothes at the tailor where their father already had his shirts made. That way you can make sure to get the quality work of a proper craftsman at a reasonable price.
As we bring in the fabric we bought at the market, our tailor examines it carefully. He even takes a lighter, setting a corner afire. The fabric burns slowly, doesn’t melt, smoke or stink. After putting out the small flame, he declares it to be pure cotton of high quality.
After a series of questions about pockets, cuts, folds and the likes, the tailor takes his measuring ribbon and measures my arms, legs, wrists and so on. He writes down everything and I get a foldable business card with the items written on it, the price, day to pick up the finished product and a small sample of the fabric.
This specialized tailor comes from the center of Vietnam, from the ancient city of Hue. The shop is quite busy, apparently they are famous for quality tailoring as well. Basically the process is the same as for my trousers and shirts. But since the Áo dài is a rather clinging dress, I am excluded from the measuring process and wait outside. During that time I marvel at the array of hand-painted fabrics exhibited in the shop.
We tuck away the foldable business card with the scrap of cloth inside, and head for dinner.
A custom-tailored Áo dài from Saigon will cost from around 700,000 VND upwards. It always depends on the fabric. Student Áo dàis are available for a little less, while you can reach really high prices with silk and hand embroidered hems at luxury tailors in Ho Chi Minh City.
One of the most famous luxury Áo dài tailors of Ho Chi Minh City is in Lý Tự Trọng street, close to Ben Thanh market:
Well, this one is pretty self-explanatory again. In the card you received from your favorite tailor in Saigon, you find the day when your order is finished. You go there, try if it fits as you imagined it and pay. The tailor will make minor adjustments if necessary.
Not necessary if you buy just a shirt and trousers, but a vital step if you ordered a whole suit, is the intermediary measurement. You just drop by a couple days before your suit is finished, put on the half-finished clothing and the tailor will measure again for small adjustments. JUst to make sure, everything fits perfect.
Now go and have fun with your custom-tailored clothing made in Ho Chi Minh City!
Both of us were very happy with the fashion items we purchased that day. The only downside to mention would be, that both our tailors don’t speak a word of English. Not an obstacle for us, but maybe if you don’t have the time to partner up with somebody who speaks Vietnamese, you might want to stick to the tailors in District 1.
For long-limbed foreigners like me, it is kinda hard to find shirts or trousers that fit. I remember spending around two hours trying different jeans at Metro in Da Nang, until I ended up with one that fit me well. It was blue though. Yuck!
Ordering custom-made clothes at the tailor in Ho Chi Minh City is much easier. You get exactly what you need, and usually at a reasonable price. Trousers come at VND 170,000 plus the cost of the fabric for example. A whole suit might cost as much as VND 2,500,000 , but custom-tailored and of high quality.
Depending on area, specialization and versatility of your tailor, it might even be double the mentioned price sometimes. A bespoke tailor might charge even more, for good reasons.
The Ultimate Buying Guide for Vietnamese Coffee Lovers
Vietnamese Coffee is known for being some of the best available. The country is the top producer of Robusta in the world. Therefore, it is unsurprising that for travellers and expats in Vietnam, coffee is the top sought after souvenir and most often consumed beverage product.
However, with Ben Thanh Market and other familiar tourist destinations filled with hundreds of potentially dubious brands and nameless packets of coffee grinds roasted and left to stand for months and possibly even years, consumers are rightly apprehensive about the quality of what is on display.
A dazzling display of coffee beans and powder at Ben Thanh Market - by Mervin Lee
We’ve put together a concise and simple to understand guide to help you understand java-science so that you can choose Vietnamese coffee of good quality which, hopefully, agrees with your palate!
Definition of ‘Vietnamese Coffee’ and Relieving the Confusion
Vietnamese Coffee refers to both a style of traditional Vietnamese roast and a style of brew. It is possible to brew Italian-style roasted beans with the ubiquitous Vietnamese phin drip filter, and likewise, also possible to brew traditional Vietnamese-style dark roasts with a foreign device such as a French press.
Saigonese street coffee being mass-brewed using Vietnamese phin drip filters - by Mervin Lee
Traditional Vietnamese techniques involve roasting Robusta coffee beans very dark with additives such as butter, salt, whisky, rice liquor or even sugar and fish-sauce. These additives help to elevate the savouriness and palatability of the notoriously harsh and bitter tasting Robusta beans.
Chemical flavourings and fragrances are often added, with the most common being vanilla and hazelnut, the former an age-old cliché aroma sought after in Vietnamese coffee powder.
Fillers such as roasted corn, soybeans and red beans are common and some recipes call for filler content of up to 50%. Fillers are used to thicken, darken and somewhat sweeten the coffee and they also increase profits. Connoisseurs who are seeking pure coffee should note that it is practically impossible to gauge the purity of coffee in Vietnam based on looking at grinded coffee powder. Diligent people should opt to purchase whole beans at shops before requesting them to be grounded on the spot.
When extracted using the iconic Vietnamese phin drip filter, the espresso-like liquid is then served with or without ice, and preferably with condensed milk to offset it’s bitterness. This popular beverage is known as ca phe sua da, the renowned mascot of Vietnamese coffee.
Enjoying a cup of ca phe sua da on a hot Saigonese day - by Mervin Lee
Advancements in coffee farming has allowed the development of higher quality Robusta and Arabica coffee beans. Globalisation and changing preferences has resulted in a trend of roasting pure, additive-free coffee and subsequently brewing them with a wide range of foreign methods such as Italian-style espresso and paper filter. When these coffees are brewed using a phin, the technique remains Vietnamese.
Thus, the first item that you should procur is a high quality Vietnamese phin drip filter if you desire a strong and traditional Vietnamese brew. The phin works by filtering coffee through 2 layers of tiny holes and allowing the coffee to fall with the help of gravity.
City Pass Guide recommends the Trung Nguyen phins made of quality aluminium and available at all Trung Nguyen coffee shops. For connoisseurs who prefer a non-metal solution, Minh Long offers a series of beautiful porcelain Phins handcrafted in Binh Duong Province.
Roast Levels and Blends
Taste preference differs between individuals. Not everyone enjoys bitter coffee without sugar, and although many people do not appreciate light roasted and acidic coffee, third-wave coffee snobs may insist that such qualities are preferred.
“The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet's and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”
Robusta coffees are generally bitter and harsh in taste, while Arabica coffees are often more acidic, higher in natural sugar content and superior in fragrance. As a general guideline, a medium roasted coffee is a good balance between intensity, acidity, sweetness and fragrance, since ample time has been given for bitter compounds to degrade. Light roasted Arabicas are acidic but preserve the original aroma and flavour compounds, known as ‘origin character’ in third-wave coffee-speak. Dark roasted Arabica coffees are savoury and intense in flavour, having lost most of its acidity through the roasting process and may be bitter if coffee caramels have begun to burn in the roasting process if beans are not roasted with skill and care. French-style roast is an example of very dark roasted coffee.
As such, the skill of the coffee roaster and the art of blending different types of beans at different roast levels becomes extremely crucial for Italian-style espresso and Vietnamese phin coffee since these styles involve extracting coffee with very little water, resulting in highly concentrated and intense brews. Arabicas may be added to a predominantly Robusta blend to introduce pleasant acidity, aroma and to relieve the blend of dullness. Likewise, Robusta may be added to a predominantly Arabica blend to introduce body and crema for Italian-style espresso.
Image source: i.ytimg.com
Common ratios and names of these ratios at specialty coffee shops in Saigon include 20-80, 50-50 and 80-20, describing the percentage ratio of Arabica to Robusta coffee.
Here is a breakdown of the various types of coffee beans and species that may be found by examining the printed contents information on packaged commercial coffee.
Arabica - The most popular and widely consumed coffee species in the world with countless cultivated varieties. It is known for its nuanced, alluring floral and fruity notes, which vary wildly depending on region and varietal. Arabica is disliked by some due to its acidity, which can be mildly sweet and berry or citrus-like in specialty varieties.
Culi (Peaberry) Arabica - In normal circumstance, a coffee cherry contains two coffee beans. Peaberries, known as culi in Vietnamese coffee-lingo, are coffee beans that have developed into a single spherical bean due to the lack of fertilisation of the other bean. Culi Arabicas are very rare and known for a higher intensity of Arabica’s attributes.
Robusta - The underrated Robusta is known for being bitter and harsh but is the choice for daily indulgence in Southeast Asia due to its natural lack of acidity. Advancements in cultivation and coffee processing has improved it’s flavour drastically.
Culi (Peaberry) Robusta - Culi Robustas are known to be more bitter, but also sweeter, and are said to contain considerably more caffeine.
Liberica and Excelsa - Rare and related species of hardy, tropical coffee plants. Liberica is popular in Malaysia and the Philippines and is liked for its attractive and earthy aroma that is often accompanied by a smokey taste resembling dark chocolate, berries and tropical fruits. Excelsa coffee is similar and is known to be tart and fruity with a lingering finish.
When buying ground coffee, It is critical for a buyer to check for the coffee roast date. Dark roasted coffees oxidize faster and light roasted coffees last longer if kept in airtight mason jars. As a rule of thumb, buy coffee that is as fresh as possible! When buying from shops that are able to grind fresh coffee beans, one should choose the grind size based on the intended brew method (e.g.: coarse for French press, medium-fine for paper filter and fine for espresso).
Image source: caphenguyenchat.vn
If you’re intending on becoming a coffee snob, investing in a coffee grinder and relying on coffee beans may be your best bet if you’re a sucker for freshness.
Common Vietnamese Coffee Terms
Bột - Powder Nguyên hạt - Unground coffee beans Hạt Rang - Roasted coffee beans
Cà Phê Nguyên Chất - Pure coffee without additives Cà Phê Rang Xay - Roasted and ground coffee Cà Phê Hòa Tan - Instant/dissolvable ground
Cà Phê Mít - Mít means jackfruit in Vietnamese and Cà Phê Mít has nothing to do with the yellow-fleshed tropical fruit and refers to Liberica and Excelsa coffee. Cà Phê Chồn - Civet coffee. Often known in the western world as weasel coffee. A coffee processed from faeces of civets which consumed coffee cherries. Natural wild civet coffee is very expensive while farmed varieties are more affordable. Most civet coffee in Vietnam is a made with chemical flavouring and/or artificial enzymes.
Within the past year, it seems that consumers throughout Vietnam are becoming increasingly interested in spending a little extra on eco-friendly products, in Saigon and elsewhere. A number of restaurants throughout Ho Chi Minh City are now providing metal or bamboo straws, stores are hawking reusable goods. People are collectively beginning to care more and more about the environment, and skincare is no exception to this movement.
As the demand for sustainable consumption continues to rise, so does the public’s desire for environmentally friendly cosmetics. Several Korean outlets throughout town such as Innisfree and Skin Food offer them and, more interestingly, plenty of local companies are making their way into the market, too.
Typically, all kinds of sustainable beauty products are clustered together under the umbrella of being “green,” or “organic,” but the products on this list go above and beyond. Each of these companies based in Vietnam source their formulas sustainably, use all-natural ingredients and offer eco-friendly packaging.
For those of you interested in buying some environmentally friendly cosmetics and skincare products in Saigon and beyond in Vietnam, look no further: here’s a list of some of my favourite brands, as well as a couple that I’m keen on trying.
The Coconut Religion brand instantly made a name for itself in both the expat and local communities in Saigon and Vietnam in record time. It has been in operation for just a few months, but this travel-friendly, certified organic, raw cold-pressed coconut oil has become a staple in every recent market and event and also maintains a killer social media presence.
The Coconut Religion founder, Maggie Shen, is an Australian genius who not only sources the products from the fertile Mekong Delta region, but has made sure that the product stays thick and creamy despite the tropical heat. How cool is that? The ‘jungle to jar’ products have gained a cult following for a reason. The products come carefully packaged in all-natural fabric and I recently purchased her lavender coconut oil as well as the lip balm. Take my money, Coconut Religion.
I attended a workshop at The Hive, in District 2 of Ho Chi Minh City, that promoted eco-friendly products last year. At that workshop, I and several other attendees created our own organic lipsticks using beeswax, organic argan oil, Vitamin E, coconut oil and natural pigments. I’ve been a fan of lipstick for most of my life, but I’ve become turned off at the thought of animal testing.
I wear my lipstick from The Queen daily; it’s not as thick as standard brands, but I enjoy that. While I’m not sure this brand has taken off quite yet throughout town, I stand behind the quality and thought that goes into the process to create such environmentally friendly cosmetics.
Another local brand in Vietnam making a name for itself is Stone Hill, an innovative business that produces natural products from Vietnamese cocoa plants. The company sources all of its cocoa from its own farm in Dong Nai Province, all of which is grown to quality standards and helps make the Stone Hill soaps and skincare products stand head and shoulders above less sustainable options.
I have a jar of Stone Hill’s cocoa butter, and I swear by it as it’s one of the only products that makes my chronically dry skin feel silky smooth. In addition to my favourite product, Stone Hill also offers cocoa-based scrubs, scented body butter, hand cream and a handful of scented soaps. Definitely check this one out if your skin needs some nourishment!
I haven’t tried any of these products yet, but The Herbal Cup, based in Ho Chi Minh City, has certainly been on my radar. One of the more interesting things about this company is that it provides a free consultation to decide which of its products are most suitable for your skin.
Each of the environmentally friendly skincare confections include organic ingredients such as gac fruit oil, centella, tomato, sesame and the ever-popular tea tree leaves. Consumers have the option from a number of creations such as scrubs, masks, lipsticks, cleansing gels and body lotions. Everything is locally sourced, so there will be no regrets after purchase.
The plant-based products created by Herpas’ owner Ha Truc Le were originally intended to encourage Vietnamese consumers to purchase locally-made products. Truc’s concoctions are formulated through her extensive knowledge of natural healing properties, which is what makes Herpas such an interesting, environmentally friendly cosmetics and skincare line. Her lotions, scrubs and oils are intended to lock in moisture and reduce the effects of ageing, ideal for the amount of toxic chemicals our skin is exposed to here.
Have you ever read stories about people who were living traditional lifestyles, working in high-income positions who ended up quitting their job to follow their passion? That’s precisely what Quynh, the founder of A Banker’s Secret did. Before catalysing the concept of A Banker’s Secret, Quynh was working as, well, you guessed it: a banker. She spent her free time creating handmade scented soaps for her loved ones, and soon realised that’s what she would rather be doing full-time.
Quynh quit her job in 2012, and has embarked on an exciting journey since, turning her labour of love into a thriving environmentally friendly cosmetics and skincare company in Vietnam. Although she simply sold just scented soaps at the start, Quynh now offers masks, scrubs, essential oils, cream oils and pomade as well.
Located in the heart of Saigon’s District 2, on the busy Thao Dien Street, sits this store, which is known for carrying some of the highest quality, environmentally friendly cosmetics and skincare in Vietnam. Not only that, but it’s a one-stop-shop for those of you who are also keen on revamping your entire lifestyle into a more sustainable, eco-friendly, non-toxic one; there are plenty of food, household and skincare items available for your ethical shopping needs.
I think it’s safe to say that many people across the globe would agree that grandmothers encompass some sort of mystical wisdom. More interestingly, Skinna was derived from that notion. Over a decade ago, Christine Ho was talking to her grandmother when she realised the matriarch of her family had some pretty interesting beauty secrets up her sleeve. Ho’s grandmother provided some ancient Vietnamese beauty tips that were passed down from the Hue royal lineage; some of the holistic recommendations include household ingredients such as eggs and turmeric as natural exfoliants.
Image source: Skinna
Each of Skinna’s products cater to varying skin types and conditions. Items sold include lipstick, serums, creams, cleansing products, sheet masks and body wash, making Skinna one of the most prosperous environmentally friendly cosmetics and skincare providers in Saigon and Vietnam!
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 marvellous 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 fakes, 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 recognisable 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 gaudy painted variety in tourist traps, so head out to smaller, heartland markets and rummage around with the locals for authentic hats and 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.
A perfect gift for any family you don't have to spend too much time with, a Vietnamese flute, rattle or drum will keep kids entertained forever while slowly driving their parents insane. Target wisely. Try out Saigon’s Music Street on Nguyen Thien Thuat in District 3.
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 colour. 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 organisation!
Souvenirs for Parents
Vietnamese coffee with its unique chocolatey smell is the ultimate gift for anyone who likes a morning brew. Quintessentially local in flavour 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 aluminium 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 the 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 colours of the lacquerware make wondrously bright centrepieces 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 colours, try Amai in District 2 for something with a 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 breath-taking dioramas with the careful layering of coloured sand. Available in various sizes and levels of detail, they can fit any budget. Be careful when travelling, 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.