Best Gift Ideas in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Lam La

Casa Nhà

Jardin Des Sens

Moriitalia

If you’re thinking about picking the best gift for that special someone, check out our list below of best gift ideas in Ho Chi Minh City. From scented candles, to relaxing armchairs, or how about an intimate dinner at a chic restaurant? We hope this list will help make your gifting experience more meaningful by focusing not only on aesthetics and wow factor but also functionality and meaning.

Casa Nhà

CasanhaImage source: Casa Nhà

What could be worse than when a friend’s housewarming is nearing and you’re still clueless about what to gift? Avoid running around the city, panic searching for ceramic sets and scented candles. Casa Nhà is where to go for the best home gifting solutions, a one-stop furniture store within a complete range of gift items.

Casa Nhà was founded in 2017 with their gorgeous warehouse store opening in Thao Dien. The three-storey building immediately impressed with its innovative European design and the capacity to host a large variety of furniture choices and decor for literally all spaces in the house. Casa Nhà is one of the best stops for buying gifts for the home.

CasanhaImage source: Casa Nhà

Walking around the Casa Nhà warehouse, you’ll instantly fall in love with their modern-looking mini poufs in different styles and shapes that can be perfectly paired with any armchair/lounge or stand decoratively on its own as a true icon of design. Poufs are the perfect solution for when you need extra comfy seating when enjoying a good chat with family and friends. They’re also perfect for when you’re snuggling in with your other half.

Saga Poufs, whose sweet, minimal design resembles colourful macarons fit seamlessly into any tasteful interior. The inspiration of a macaron is put together by two soft contoured shells sandwiching the contrasting Scandinavian wooden strip along the pouf’s centre.

CasanhaSaga Pouf – a trace of sweetness for the beautiful living room

The living room is usually the first place we set foot within the home. This is the perfect opportunity to showcase decor that strongly reflects the homeowner’s unique personality.

While the chunky sofas are usually designed to easily blend into the overall background, armchairs stand out decoratively on their own. This item can be a powerful gift that both flaunts personal taste and comfort and luxury to the home. Its portability provides your lucky loved one with the freedom to creatively arrange and organize the piece within their home. Consider an armchair as a thoughtful and unique housewarming gift.

The Pod Armchair has an ergonomically designed backrest that blends seamlessly into its downward-sloping armrests to create an organic yet sturdy look. The fully padded, scallop shaped back cushion provides visual interest and overall comfort and support.

CasanhaThe Pod Armchair provides support, comfort and outstanding Nordic design.

Jean Paul Gaultier once said, “Perfume is the most intense form of memory”. Scents and fragrances are always a popular and thoughtful gift to receive and Casa Nhà offers an endless choice of delicious scented candles for the home.

Baobab Collection is a premium brand of handcrafted scented candles from Belgium. Proudly displayed at Casa Nhà, Baobab Collection is well known for superior fragrances and materials sourced from the most famous parts of Europe (mineral wax from Germany, crystal glass from Poland, and leather from Italy). Each candle is set in a gorgeous glass jar, completely made by hand to create a product that is completely unique and never the same as another. The packaging alone is an awe-inspiring experience for the receiver. The black box oozes luxury as the bowtie is pulled loose, and the prized candle within stimulates both sight and smell. 

CasanhaThe Black Pearl Candle by Baobab Collection offers intoxicating scents of Ginger and Black Rose

Jardin Des Sens

CasanhaImage source: Jardin Des Sens

After more than a decade of sustainable business since 1998, Jardin Des Sens, the first restaurant by twin brothers, Laurent and Jaques Pourcel, was awarded three Michelin stars for excellent food quality and service. Following their new found fame, Laurent and Jaques started building their food empire. In January 2018, Jardin Des Sens opened its first store in Ho Chi Minh City, operated and in parallel with other four branches in Montpellier under Jacques’ direct supervision.

Situated inside an old, luxurious villa in District 3, whose design oozes classic ‘Frenchness’, Jardin Des Sens boasts a nostalgic look of ivory lavishness. Heavenly on the outside, timeless on the inside, the inner space is decorated semi-classically by wooden objects and chandeliers, chair and table sets. However, the real superstar here is the bar where dozens of world-renowned wines are displayed and stored inside a modern cellar rarely found elsewhere in HCMC. Jardin Des Sens never fails to delight all of our senses.

CasanhaImage source: Jardin Des Sens

But, an experience at Jardin Des Sens doesn’t just stop at wonders and aesthetics. The experience of savouring your meal is what draws people to the restaurant. The dishes are carefully prepared with the level of dedication that bears a similarity to making a work of art. Each course stirs the heart of any appreciator of French cuisine.

Moriitalia

CasanhaImage source: Moriitalia

Our next stop to shop for the perfect gift is Moriitalia – the retail store specialising in kitchenappliances from world-renowned brands. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Moriitalia showroom can be found in VinCom Dong Khoi, full of much loved home and kitchen goods brands such as CharterHouse, CS and KitchenAid.

Shopping for highly functional and yet visually inspiring home products usually is the most challenging task for new homeowners. What about a brand new kitchen appliance for your culinary inclined parents that screams modern beauty and improves their cooking experience at home?

CasanhaImage source: Moriitalia

KitchenAid has a global reputation for being the king of kitchen supplies. Each machine is designed, manufactured and assembled in America with 80% domestically sourced materials to ensure the highest quality before distribution. KitchenAid mixers are able to meet any mixing, folding, or kneading challenges, with great stability and little noise. Powerful functionality aside, KitchenAid products are absolutely stunning with their shiny, colourful, classic art deco appeal that fits easily into any kitchen space.

Banner Image source: casanha.com


The Ultimate Buying Guide for Vietnamese Coffee Lovers

By: Mervin Lee

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.

vietnamese coffeeA 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.

vietnamese coffeeSaigonese 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.

vietnamese coffeeEnjoying 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.

vietnamese coffeeImage source: sc02.alicdn.com

The three-waves of coffee culture was described by Jonathan Gold in his 2008 article “La Mill: The Latest Buzz" for LA Weekly.

“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.

vietnamese coffeeImage 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).

vietnamese coffeeImage 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.

Video source: Best Ever Food Review Show

Hương - Artificial fragrance
- Butter
Rượu - Liquor

Price List for Some Popular Coffee Shops and Brands in HCMC

The Souvenir Favourites:

Trung Nguyen
20+ Locations around Ho Chi Minh City
VND50,000 - 100,000 for 340g of the popular Sang Tao 1 - 5 ground coffee series featuring various blends

Highlands 
20+ Locations around Ho Chi Minh City
VND40,000 - 75,000 for 200g of ground coffee featuring various blends

The Enthusiast Range:

Mr Viet Coffee 
Available at Annam Gourmet Market at Hai Ba Trung Street or Saigon Center

They have 4 types of coffee beans available in the 250g size:
Đà Lạt VND89,000
Good Morning VND107,000
Arabica VND137,000
Hương chồn VND163,000

The Coffee House 
19 locations around the city
VND100,000 for 250g of The Coffee House’s signature Arabica & Robusta blend

Tractor Coffee 
98 Lê Lai, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, D1

For 250g:
VND60,000 of Robusta
VND120,000 of Specialty Arabica

The Specialty Group:

K’ho Coffee 
K’ho Coffee can be sampled and purchased at Trekker Cafe
21 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, D1 “Journey sandwich & coffee
6 Lê Văn Miến, Thảo Điền, D2 “Soma art coffee
VND125,000 for 250g or VND250,000 for 500g of K’ho Coffee’s excellent specialty beans offered in light, medium and dark roast levels.

Shin Coffee 
13 Nguyễn Thiệp, D1
18 Hồ Huấn Nghiệp, D1

They have 9 types of coffee beans available in the 200g size.
Spirit Of Eakmat - VND300,000
Ethiopia-g1 - VND240,000
VN Phin - VND100,000
Shin Espresso - VND300,000
Khe Sanh Blend - VND100,000
Sơn La Blend - VND180,000
Shin Blend - VND300,000
Đà Lạt Blend - VND150,000
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe - VND240,000

Vietnamese Coffee Republic 
8A/7B2 Thái Văn Lung, D1

Republic Blend - Arabica/Robusta
30-70 VND115,000 for 250g
50-50 VND135,000 for 250g
70-30 VND155,000 for 250g
100 percent Arabica VND185,000 for 250g

The Workshop Coffee 
27 Ngô Đức Kế, Bến Nghé W, D1 (2nd floor)

For 250g:
Vietnamese coffee beans - VND240,000
Foreign coffee beans - VND315,000

A Cafe Specialty Coffee 
15 Huỳnh Khương Ninh, D1

For 250g:
Espresso - VND188,000

Arabica - Robusta Blend:
50-50 : VND90,000
70-30 : VND82,000
30-70 : VND98,000
100 percent Arabica - VND110,000
100 percent Robusta - VND70,000

City Pass Guide highly recommends readers to visit, like and share the Facebook pages of these excellent coffee cafés and suppliers for more information!

Banner Image source: Mervin Lee


Best Shopping in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Rachel Cabakoff

Top shopping experiences in Saigon will usually include any of the typical traditional markets or shopping malls in the city. Rachel tells you more great spots to buy unique products and souvenirs.

For me, living in Ho Chi Minh City I have the luxury of scouring the local markets and the occasional shopping centers whenever I please. I find the value of shopping in this vibrant city to be ever changing. New stores and boutiques are popping up here and there in hidden alleyways, top floors of cafés and more. I am in awe of the beautiful, unique designs that catch my eye on the streets everyday.

When it comes to shopping in this energetic city, the options are endless. HCMC has something for everyone when it comes to quality, handcrafted products. With an array of skills and goods — embroidery, vases, coffee, paintings, woodwork, crafts and more — one can’t go wrong when it comes to shopping here, it is just a matter of knowing where to look.

Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market.

Now, as far as retail shopping here it is not necessarily considered the “shopping city” of Southeast Asia. Yes, there is the Diamond Plaza and Vincom Center shopping malls for the luxury brand names along with the local Vietnamese markets — Ben Thanh Market, Saigon Square and more. However, when one mentions a shopping trip to a friend, HCMC doesn’t generally come to mind.

Saigon Square Shopping HCMC
Saigon Square.

Normally Bangkok, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur are mentioned as more ‘go-to’ shopping destinations for your usual international chains like Forever 21, Gap American Eagleand so on. Although these chains cannot be found here in HCMC, the value of what can be found here is much greater than what most would expect.

As the largest city in Vietnam, HCMC houses a hub of talented artists and designers from near and far. Although it is a new and emerging market, the merchandise quality and value is much higher than what can be found in the larger retailers at the shopping malls.

Station 3A

With the growing emergence of up and coming designers, HCMC has become a much more worthwhile shopping experience. Just last April, Station 3A among other areas around town have given local artists the opportunity to showcase their work.

Station 3A Ideal Shopping Place HCMC
Photo credit: Station 3A.

Located in a hidden alley off of Ton Duc Thang Street in District 1, Station 3A exhibits galleries, studios, clothing stores, cafés and more — shoppers can find high quality products ranging from fashion accessories, pottery, artwork and more. With a fusion of local art and design, this hub of creativity has brought in high-quality products. Stores such as the famous pottery shop, Sa Dec District features Vietnamese handicrafts inspired by the Mekong Delta in addition to Cushion Art exhibiting home furnishings and accessories inspired by symbols of Vietnam like the lotus flowers, incense and more. The value and authenticity of these shopping experienceshere cannot be found in those major cities mentioned before.

Cushion Art Best Places to Shop
Photo credit: Cushion Art.

L'Usine

This new influx of hot spots has opened up throughout this city within the past few years catering not only to the morepermanent expats of HCMC but also the passer-bys. The café/restaurant/boutique — L’Usine (main location is at 151/1 Dong Khoi St. D. 1) is just one of the many examples of boutique-style cafes opening up throughout the city that have successfully incorporated contemporary global fashion and Vietnamese creativity into one. Although their products are not cheap they are of the highest quality and it is obvious in the designs and craftsmanship of each piece of merchandise. From women’s and men’s clothing to little trinkets such as notebooks, wall art and jewelry — L’Usine is a prime example of the movement that is occurring throughout HCMC in the contemporary shopping scene. A few other cafes that incorporate fashion into their settings include Au Parc (23 Han Thuyen, D.1), Merci Boutique Café (93/15 Xo Viet Nghe TinhSt., Binh Thanh) and more.

Au Parc Best Cafe Fashion Shop
Au Parc.

Custom-made clothing

On top of the designers and boutiques, we mustn’t forget about what makes Vietnam so distinct and that is thelocal tailors here. Known as one of the leading manufacturing countries — Vietnam houses a handful of skilled tailors who can make almost anything. From shoes to jewelry, dresses, suits and more — the options are endless and the value is much greater than what can be found in a retail chain.

Read our review: Finding a Good Tailor in Ho Chi Minh City.

When I was in need of a full-length gown for a last minute event, I turned to a local dress tailor for help. After doing a bit of research I found a gown style online. I then took the picture to a tailor in Phu Nhuan, located just outside of District 1. She took my measurements, I explained to her the type of fabric I wanted and a week later, I had my gown. Simple, right? The gown was an exact replica of the photograph I had shown her. The original design was priced at a retail value of $600 and I didn’t even pay half of that for my custom-made gown. The total price ended up being only $100 for a perfectly fit floor-length gown. This was when I realized how much unique this aspect was to this country in terms of fashion and shopping. Being able to create your own design, choose your fabrics and have a well-crafted final product is a one-of-a-kind experience here. This aspect of HCMC is overlooked when travelers think about the value of shopping in this city. Custom-made products that are made with the highest quality of fabrics and craftsmanship at a reasonable price, this is what defines the real shopping scene in HCMC. So why not take advantage of it during your travels? In as little as 24 hours, the tailors can have a full ensemble made!

L'Usine Best Shopping Experiences HCMC - Vietnam
Photo credit: L'Usine.

Hunting for Fabric

If you’re the type of person who wants to pick out the fabric on your own some key markets to be sure to stop by include, Fabric Street (located along Hai Ba Trung and the Tan Dinh Market), Soai Kinh Lam Market (545 Tran Hung Dao, District 5), and Craft Market which can be found on the corner of Tran Hung Dao and Chau Van Liem in District 5 as well. It may be a little extra work to go and pick out the fabrics yourself but who better to pick out the material than you since you will be the one wearing it.

Although the list of markets varies, one can find most of what they’re looking for at any of the ones listed above. In addition, keep an eye out for local tailor shops along the streets as one makestheir way through HCMC, from custom shoes, wedding dresses and suit tailor shops on Le Thanh Ton Street to all throughout the city — you may end up stumbling upon exactly what they’re looking for.

Although HCMC may not have international retail chains like Forever 21, etc., this city has something much greater than that. As a fast growing city with an influx of people, new businesses and creativity, the fashion and design realm is on the cusp of taking off. This is just the beginning for this dynamic city. Whether you’re passing through or you live here permanently and you’re searching for a different shopping experience — go on an adventure; get outside of your comfort zone. Design your own suit or gown from head to toe, go to that one market located on the edge of District 5 and find something that speaks to you. Find something that represents the true value of shopping here. Seek out the unknown and find something that makes you feel the inspiration and the culture of this amazing city. The question you must ask yourself first is, “What are you really looking for?”


Hanoia Boutique is Now Open in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Sivaraj Pragasm

Hanoia, a high-end lacquer producer, has just launched its first boutique in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday July 3 in Ao Dai House (107 Dong Khoi, District 1).

hanoiaImage source: hanoialacquer

The store features exquisite lacquerware, including luxurious and elegant home decor, fine and fashionable jewellery, which combine both contemporary inspirations and traditional Vietnamese craftsmanship. As part of their grand opening, Hanoia boutique will offer special gifts for the early buyers.

Hanoia is the first haute-lacquer house in Vietnam, and its products are recognized by many luxury fashion boutiques around the world. Established in 1997 in an old lacquer village in Binh Duong province, Hanoia specialises in fusing traditional Vietnamese lacquerware with contemporary designs.

hanoiaImage source: hanoialacquer

Hanoia started when a group of European designers teamed up with the most qualified craftsmen from Hanoi, the Vietnamese lacquer capital, to revive a Vietnamese craft that was in danger of being lost. With the love of colours, effects and patterns evoking a sense of nostalgia, they work towards crafting a unique experience in a quality and detail-oriented process using ancestral techniques.

Hanoia owns two workshops in the north and the south of Vietnam with 300 artisans from traditional lacquer-producing villages and talented designers from Europe. Pursuing a philosophy based on innovation, the use of materials, effects, colours and shapes, Hanoia has continuously launched new and unique product lines.

hanoia

Image source: hanoialacquer

Hanoia has quickly gained a following from local and foreign artists, and fine art enthusiasts living in Hanoi, along with visitors from all over the world.

Contact:

Add: Ao Dai House – 107 Dong Khoi, Q.1, Ho Chi Minh city

Tel: +84 28 3827 9383

Website: www.hanoia.com | FB: facebook.com/hanoialacquer

Banner image source: hanoialacquer

 


The Rise (or Fall) of Mall-Based Retail in Saigon

By: Mervin Lee

The history of shopping malls in Ho Chi Minh City is relatively brief. The country re-opened to foreign investment in the early 1990s, a time in history when inhabitants of numerous major cities in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok were receiving their glutton-like shares of retail therapy via the introduction of mega malls. Investors eyed every possible inch of land in these metropolitan places, effectively holding citizens hostage by nurturing a mall-based retail culture that has, so it seems, never truly hit Vietnam, even until now.

Malls Take Over Valuable Real Estate in Saigon

The first modern ‘mall’ in Ho Chi Minh City, Diamond Plaza, opened its doors in 1999, superseding the antiquated Thuong Xa Tax on Le Loi street, built by French colonialists 136 years ago, as a retail pilgrimage spot for middle class and wealthy Saigonese. The establishment was, however, not very much different from its de-facto ancestor: effectively a departmental store with limited choices of food & beverage (F&B) establishments and recreational facilities such as an arcade, bowling alley and a billiards club.

Fast forward to 2013 where Vincom Centre began operations at the junction of Le Thanh Ton and Dong Khoi street. The arrival of a mall and office tower worthy of presence in even bigger cities signified a rather revolutionary change in retail trends in Vietnam: American apparel brands and fast food chains such as DKNY and Carl’s Jr featured as neighbours beside popular Vietnamese F&B chains including Pho 24 and Highlands Coffee. Between 2013 and 2018, numerous other notable malls such as Saigon Centre, Crescent Mall, SC Vivocity and The Garden Mall began taking over the most valuable plots of land in District 7, District 1 and District 5.

Malls in SaigonImage source: aeonmall-vietnam.com

A walk in these malls, however, easily sparks a common sentiment: most retail tenants in these places seem to be focused on F&B. In fact, this phenomenon has also sparked the birth of an indie-style retail culture in downtown Saigon, where several colonial-era residential buildings such as 42 Nguyen Hue and 26 Ly Tu Trong are now filled with independent cafes and fashion boutiques, many of which cannot afford the sky-high rental costs at larger malls.

Has the convenience of e-commerce and online shopping already beaten mall-based retail to its own game in Vietnam?

An article in April 2018 by the Financial Times stated that the Vietnamese are one of the largest sources of digital consumers, commanding a solid 35 percent of the total online population, compared to 24 percent in Thailand and a measly 3.2 percent in Singapore. Mr. Tran Ngoc Thai Son, founder of Tiki.vn, began with online sales of hard-to-acquire English language books in 2010 and has now expanded to a huge variety of products including electronics and promotional flight tickets. He shared that Vietnam is a “very young country going through a golden population period”. Incidentally, the youth are the most enthusiastic users of mobile devices in Vietnam, potentially the reason e-commerce could be a success here. Amazon is also set to enter the Vietnamese market shortly, competing directing with Lazada, the most popular e-commerce operation in the country. Chinese giant Alibaba owns 83 percent of Lazada, having injected another US$2 billion worth of investment into the company earlier last year.

Malls in SaigonImage source: Shutter Stock

However, tales of smuggled and pirated goods on e-commerce sites are not unheard of. An article by tuoitre.vn showed examples of household appliances by popular brands such as Panasonic and Philips being sold at less than 30 percent of their recommended retail prices on sites such as Lazada, Sendo and Shoppe. The origins of these items are hardly traceable. Could such problems spur consumers back to traditional shopping?

The Changing Architecture of Retail Zones

On the other end of the spectrum, the freedom to operate F&B and retail business from almost any property has turned entire residential enclaves into non-mainstream, open-spaced shopping complexes. The best example is the Thao Dien ward of Saigon’s District 2, known for its high density of villas, condominiums and international schools which mainly serve the foreigner and expat population in Ho Chi Minh City. Xuan Thuy street and its immediate surroundings at the heart of Thao Dien is now a respectable foodie haven; from an American burger bar, barbecue diner, craft beer bar to Hakata-style pork ramen, Danish sorbets and even a celebrity-level duck balut joint, a VND100,000 note suddenly becomes rather powerless in a country known for its cheap eats.

Malls in SaigonImage source: static.asiawebdirect.com

Huynh Van Banh street in Phu Nhuan district is another apt example. Known to young fashionable locals as a mecca for cheap apparel deals, one would wonder why these flamboyant youths would ever bother to sacrifice commuting convenience and low prices to shop at large and intimidating malls. One easily finds similarity to Bugis Street in Singapore, effectively a fashion bazaar built on a now-defunct street between two parallel lengths of old colonial buildings. A feasible strategy would be for the local authorities to designate certain areas in suburban Saigon for similar purposes. Nonetheless, locals may still remain skeptical unless rental rates and shopping can be kept affordable; it is unavoidable that any ‘night market’ or ‘fashion bazaar’ pop-up in Vietnam would quickly be disregarded when compared with highly successful fashion and food bazaars found in downtown Bangkok—potentially leading locals into yet another self-induced bout of inferiority complex.

Perhaps it is time for local mall operators to up the game by identifying the causes of discomfort and local aversion to physical shopping. The reliance on motorbikes as the main form of transportation is a key point that should not be ignored. Parking in malls can be intimidating to some locals; extended walking distances and searching for one’s motorbike in a large parking lot is an uncomfortable experience for many. The purchase of bulky items and groceries is also a challenge: uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

Thank God for our hardworking ‘shipper’ guys who will stay relevant, regardless of whether malls are here to stay.

Banner Image source: livinglocal.triip.me


Apartment Boutiques in HCMC: Fashion that Fits Just Right

By: Emilio Piriz

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.

 

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