Three Secret HCMC Shops

By: Aleksandr Smechov

There are plenty of shops in Ho Chi Minh City full of amazing items - the only problem is finding them.

Rosemary Cook organises shopping tours in Ho Chi Minh City - taking her clients to little-known shops to discover a world of quality fashion, furniture and homeware unbeknownst to the general expat (and even local) population. We sat down with her to get three superb recommendations every shopping fan should visit.

Sadec District (3A Station, 3A Ton Duc Thang, D1 | +84 9 0384 6281)

Sadec is everything homeware and pottery. Most of their pottery comes from Asia, and it’s really stunning. Amai is one of their major brands - all the pieces were designed by two Dutch ladies who lived in Vietnam for many years, before selling everything to Sedec. Buying things here is quite addictive - you buy one and you keep wanting to buy more and more. The items have natural colours and “organic” shapes, so it never looks mass produced - there are also homeware made of thin but very durable porcelain. You can put items here in the dishwasher and bake things like souffles in their pots - they’ll withstand heat and pressure well. They also do things like hand and bath towels created from natural cottons, which are done in a very eco way - they’re quite thin but dry really well. These are also from Amai.

Photo via Sadec website

Sedec also makes table napkins with maps of old Saigon on them, as well as pillowcases. The shop also has these great cheese knives in the shape of a mouse. It’s a great little gift for someone and it comes beautifully boxed. Additional items at the shop include baskets, interesting bottles, and food covers for outside dining.

Thuy Design House (132 Dong Khoi, D1 | +84 28 3824 8343)

Thuy Design House is on Dong Khoi. Thuy herself is more of an artist - she never studied fashion formally. She studied art in Eastern Europe. Most of her clothes are like artworks. They’re stunning, with very interesting patterns and prints. Thuy has been a big player in Vietnam’s Fashion Week. Her clothes are made to fit anyone - and if they won’t fit she’ll make to order. A lot of her clothes are one-off pieces since they’re painted on, but she also has a standard line as well. She runs a place in District 2 called The Factory, which showcases and teaches about contemporary art. The Factory also runs workshops, has a gallery space, a library and a little cafe.

Kujean by Chuong Dang (47 Pham Ngoc Thach, D3 | +84 9 0886 6161)

Kujean is another unique shop. The owner, Chuong Dang, mostly focuses on making ao dai, but also buys jeans from flea markets in various chic cities, brings them back to Saigon and gives the pairs new life. He adds things like flowers and dragons onto the jeans, as well as various patterns. It’s a really cool shop that’s affordable for what it does. It’s in this little alley in District 3. The reason I found him is I saw a lady wearing his jeans and asked her where she got them. She let me get on her motorbike and led me to the shop. The owner has jeans for both men and women. If you have an old pair of jeans that are falling apart or that you want to customise, you can take them there and “tattoo” something onto them. They always serve you fresh fruit and tea. They really look after you.

Rosemary visits the above shops and many more on her shopping tour. She meets clients, gets a brief on what they’re looking for, takes a look at some of their staple pieces in their wardrobe and then spends all day going to secret shops that match her clients’ needs.


Mangii Custom Made Shoes

By: City Pass Guide

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.

Handcrafted Footwear

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?

Contact information:

Website: www.mangiishoes.com
Email: info@mangiishoes.com
Phone: +84 9 6275 0066
Address:  228 Le Thanh Ton, D1


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.

 


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


Leather de Luxe

By: Molly Headley

Sidestep Dong Khoi and put down that Burberry bag—whether it’s the real deal or a knock-off.

There’s a new trend in Vietnamese leather accessories and it doesn’t involve paying an outrageous mark-up for a designer name or settling on a copy that will fall apart before you even get it home.

These savvy brands based in HCMC are seeking to change the image of Vietnam-made leather accessories by focusing on the attention to detail and one of a kind customisation that was previously only seen in European luxury houses.

JR Rostaing: The French Savoir Faire in Vietnam

The Brand Story

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

LeatherImage source: JR Rostaing

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

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

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

The Leather

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

LeatherImage source: JR Rostaing

Bespoke

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

Address: 100 Vo Thi Sau, D1

Cincinati / Ne-Yuh: Vietnamese Brands for International Tastes

The Brand Story

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

LeatherImage source: Ne-Yuh

As a child Huyen Nguyen, the brand’s founder and designer, had a prized possession: a backpack. At this time, backpacks were still scarce in Vietnam and Nguyen knew how special it was. With her line of meticulously-designed leather goods, Nguyen has brought to life that feeling of owning something rare.

Nguyen began her family-run business in 2008, when she opened her first factory manufacturing leather bags. Every piece that comes out of the factory is entirely handmade by artisans. Nguyen has since launched two distinct leather brands.

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

The Leather

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

Bespoke

“We are proud to say that all products are made in Vietnam”, Ngon Huynh, export sales director said. “There are very talented artisans here. That’s why all the foreign customers come in.”

“However, the Vietnamese market is different. The Vietnamese people like things that are from abroad. You have to market things differently to them if you’re a Vietnamese brand.”

LeatherImage source: Ne-Yuh

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

Address: 60-62 Mac Thi Buoi, D1

Desino: Youthful Elegance

The Brand Story

Ten years ago Huy Nguyen, general manager of Desino, had an idea.

A technical engineer with a flair for fashion Nguyen had a taste for quality, yet he had a hard time finding what he wanted. “Either the product was right but the price was too high or the price was right but the quality was low”, Nguyen said.

LeatherImage source: Desino

Instead of waiting around for the market to change, Nguyen found a leather producer that was willing to create products to serve his vision, and Desino was thus born.

The Leather

Using the overstock of the leather created for top luxury brands, Desino is able to make bags out of the highest quality leather but at a reasonable price. The products range from candy-coloured tote bags to buttery beige leather satchels.

“We are not aiming to be the artisanal brand. We are aiming for excellent quality with a more commercial purpose”, Nguyen said. “People who want to buy something for daily use can come to us. People who want identity come to us. We can add on all the personal touches.”

Bespoke

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

LeatherImage source: Desino

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

Address: 10 Nguyen Thiep, D1

Banner Image source: Ne-Yuh


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

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