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 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.