Vietnam: Shop til you drop

by Samantha Coomber, Jul 21, 2003 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Vietnam has always trailed far behind the Singapore and Hong Kong shopping scenes. But the times "they are a changing". With Government restrictions lifted, Western influences and tourists and ex-pats increasing demands, Vietnam is now hurtling along the slippery path of consumerism faster than you can say "American Express."

Maybe you would never think of Vietnam as a shop-a-holics' destination. But this author can prove that theory wrong, having spent far too much Vietnamese Dong and far too many hours knee-deep in brave New World stores. Cottoning on to the fact that locally produced items such as lacquerwork, pottery, baskets and embroidery (to name but a few) go down extremely well with the tourists, it's now big business in shops the length of Vietnam. And quality has vastly improved - exquisite embroidered tablecloths and shirts, lacquerwork photo-albums, intricate basketwork and beautiful ethnic clothes of high standards are all being snapped up by the barrowful.

Hanoi, Vietnam's charming capital in the north, (known deservedly as the "Pearl of the Orient") boasts perhaps the best souvenir outlets. They wisely concentrate on the North and Central Vietnamese hill-tribes' wondrous work. The shops themselves are worth a browse for their tasteful displays, lined along quaint, thousand year-old narrow streets. You can buy yourself velvet handbags with bamboo handles, maybe a gong or two, or delicate, pale green tea-sets.

Need a new suit or frock? Head down to the pretty port town of Hoi-An, epicentre of tailors and seamstresses. Not much time to spare? Not a problem. With over sixty tailor establishments in town to choose from, just give them your orders and within forty-eight hours you too can own a mohair suit or a fetching Suzy Wong number for silly money. Trying on the half-finished product and creating your own design, in stores packed to the rafters with multi-coloured bundles of silks, linens and wools is half the fun. You can always tell who's been to Hoi-An, as disproportionate numbers of supposedly scruffy backpacker's float around the country in luxurious silken garments.

The conical hat, the self-styled emblem of the Vietnamese can be purchased at any market, But for traditional quality, head (no pun intended) for the beautiful Royal City of Hue, just up from Hoi-An and sitting upon the banks of the "Perfumed River." Here the hats are almost an art form - in fact better known as non bai tho, or the "poem hat." A stencil of a traditional story is inserted amongst the layers of translucent reeds in the hat and can be seen when held up to the light.

Saigon - or Ho Chi Minh City - reflects the Mecca to mammon with the most blatant Westernisation so far found in the country. Electrical goods, cameras, and cars have settled quite happily amongst the noodle stalls and temples. More recently, a foreign invasion of designer stores has hit the high streets. Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, once forbidden as capitalistic evils now take pride of place along the shopping haunts of Dong Khoi and Le Loi Streets. Saigon sells out big-time but the nouveau-riche locals' love it and the ex-pats aren't complaining either. The only dilemma now is making sure there's enough money on the credit cards' account.

Okay, okay. So you haven't got any credit cards, or you did have, but they have been cut in half. Or you are on an extremely tight budget and never owned a credit card in your life. But you desperately want to buy a souvenir for the relatives' back home. Or better still, for yourself - that intricate wall hanging would look great dangling on the apartment wall. Or you may need some new clothes as the local laundry made a pigs ear of the last load. If you fall into these categories, the following information is for you; with the consumer appetite of Imelda Marcos but with the spending power of a cash-strapped backpacker. There is a well-known secret outlet for budget buying in Vietnam, and indeed in Asia. Need a bargain or two? Well head down to the local market. They can't be avoided; found in every town and city, they are the central focus of communities, gossip and social interaction, and selling every conceivable item inert or moveable for sale. Some visitors find it hard to go by themselves, without the safety in numbers of tour groups or security of a guide. But you'll be missing out on two things - local life as it really happens and goodies priced way below those found in standard souvenir shops.

First inside the main market, wind your way past the baskets of live ducklings, piles of frogs, and slippery fish slopping around in buckets of water. Make your way past the mounds of neatly stacked produce; vegetables, flowers, fruit and every possible variety of pungent, dried fish. Amongst all this you may find the surprisingly wonderful Vietnamese coffee. Handy, that if you can't find the appropriate stall the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans will lead you there. A bag or two of Central Highlands finest export makes a wonderful gift; trouble is, it's almost too good to give away and it's more than likely it will end up in your kitchen. Then you'll reach the real bargains - the ubiquitous blue and white china sold in most markets up and down the country make great presents, or again could embellish your own home rather nicely. Then there's the piles of dirt-cheap basket ware, straw and conical hats; this is before you find your way to the endless tee shirt and underwear stalls. You might never extricate yourself from the numerous tailor kiosks or the fabulous satin platform shoes and handbags that are churned out at a fraction of shop prices. If all this gets too much, however, you can bet your last hundred Dong that somewhere amongst the stalls you'll find a food stall selling - that's right - the cheapest bowl of pho (noodle soup) around. A great place to sit and watch the timeless and universal frenzy of shopping, Vietnamese style.

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