Ho Chi Minh City - Shopping
Written by Adam Bray Photography by Peter Stuckings
Called ‘The Pearl of the Far East’ and ‘Paris in the Orient’ by the French, the city of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975) has been an exotic shopping paradise for well over a century.
Ho Chi Minh City’s bustling marketplace is a feast for the senses. At every turn shopkeepers present exquisite lacquered boxes, silk ao dai (Vietnam’s graceful national costume for females), buffalo horn ornaments, elaborate embroidery, stone-carved Buddhas, and intricate wicker basketry. The smells of cinnamon, anise, black pepper, cloves, and coffee (Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of the latter) waft through the markets, mixed with less pleasant odours of nuoc mam (fish sauce). Heaps of sweet mangos, purple dragonfruit, enormous jackfruit, and pungent durian spill out onto the street. Sight, smell, and taste are all an integral part of the shopping experience.
The Heart of The CITY
The most sensible place to begin a shopping adventure is the atmospheric heart of District 1: the intersection of Dong Khoi and Le Loi streets. Facing northwest on Dong Khoi and rotating clockwise, one first sees the historic Continental Hotel, immortalised in Graham Green’s The Quiet American (1955). Next is the recently restored Opera House, retaining the original fa?ade bestowed upon it in 1899. Across the street is the luxurious Caravelle Hotel. The Washington Post, Associated Press, and New York Times all maintained bureaus here during the infamous ‘American War’ (as it is referred to locally), along with several embassies. Next is the prominently placed Louis Vuitton Opera View, an air-conditioned respite with all the latest handbags, shoes, and sunglasses. Hidden upstairs are boutique outlets of Burberry, Furla, and Lacoste.
Looking southwest across Lam Son Park is the Tax Department Store, once known as the Russian Market. Across Le Loi is the historic Rex Hotel, host to daily press briefings during the war, known as the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’. At the northwest terminus of Nguyen Hue Street sits the People’s Committee Building, the grande dame of Saigon’s colonial architecture. The Eden Mall is a convenient through-way from Nguyen Hue, back to Dong Khoi. This air-conditioned shopping centre has a number of great souvenir, jewellery, and art shops, as well as the ubiquitous outlets for pirated DVD and Blu-ray products. The Streets of Dong Khoi, Le Loi, and Le Thanh Ton are the most prominent shopping thoroughfares in HCMC, and therefore the focus of our shopping expedition.
Dong Khoi Street
Dong Khoi runs from the Saigon riverfront, northwest to the red-brick Notre Dame cathedral – an icon of the city. Southeast of the Opera House, Dong Khoi is a buffet of brand names such as Calvin Klein, Gucci, Rolex, and Versace. Other shops specialise in local silk, lacquer, pearls, amber, antiques, embroidery, and hill tribe handicrafts. Three shops are particularly unique:
The Bookazine (tel: +84 838 297 455) at 28 Dong Khoi specialises in rare first-editions, out-of-print books, and original maps from around Indochina. Most titles are in French, but there are also editions in English and Vietnamese.
Khai Silk (tel: +84 838 291 146) at 107 Dong Koi is Vietnam’s premier men’s and women’s silk fashion brand. Emerging in the 1980s, Khai Silk is Vietnam’s most successful boutique chain. As a celebrity designer and mogul of a large empire of shopping centres, resorts, and restaurants, Mr. Khai is one of the country’s wealthiest trend-setters.
Mystere (tel: +84 838 239 615) on 141 Dong Khoi is no ordinary handicraft shop. Owner Dirk Salewski personally travels to remote villages, procuring fine garments, bags, and textiles with hand-woven designs, unique to each tribe. Rare items include Burmese lacquer, embroidered Laotian quilts, and baskets from Central Highland hill tribes.
Northwest of the Opera House are several art galleries of oil, acrylic, and lacquer paintings. Vietnamese painters are masters of cheap reproductions, but Phuong Mai (tel: +84 838 223 166) on 213C Dong Khoi showcases some exceptional artists. Artist Le Nhung’s bright acrylic motifs of geckos, dragonflies, and fish show hill tribe influences; while Minh Nam’s lacquer scenes with children, water buffaloes, and fishmongers fancifully recall daily life along the central coast.
The pre-eminent Parkson Shopping Centre towers above the galleries. Parkson, like Diamond Plaza on the other side of Notre Dame, are the two most long-standing luxury shopping centres in the country. A lengthy browse at both venues is essential for any brand-hunter.
Le Thanh Ton Street
Le Thanh Ton Street runs perpendicular to Dong Khoi, all the way from the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, through a gauntlet of sushi bars and fine Japanese cuisine, past Dong Khoi and on to Cach Mang Thang Tam Street. The boutique shops west of Dong Khoi are decidedly unpretentious. This is the street for bargains. Here there are shops for women’s clothing, shoes, jewellery, sunglasses, and watches galore.
Across the Cach Mang Thang Tam roundabout, Le Thanh Ton becomes Nguyen Trai, home to the stylish, six-floor Zen Plaza shopping centre. Turn left at Bim Donuts – the first and only gourmet donut shop in Saigon and well worth a visit – and arrive at Gaya (tel: +84 839 251 495) on the corner of Nguyen Van Trang and Le Lai. Gaya is the amalgamation of five foreign designers/owners and the hottest destination for home furnishings and decor in Saigon.
Le Loi Street
Le Loi is an artery of Saigon, running parallel to Le Thanh Ton and stretching from the Opera House to the Ben Thanh Market, where it becomes Tran Hung Dao Boulevard and runs through Cho Lon (China Town). All of the souvenir shops of interest sit on the west side of the road, specialising in lacquerware, ruou ran (snake wine), communist propaganda memorabilia, ceramics, stone carvings, and hoards of tacky tourist souvenirs.
The XQ Hand Embroidery Showroom (tel: +84 838 299 866) is located on 26A Le Loi, next to the popular Bach Dang Ice Cream corner. XQ is Vietnam’s premier designer of traditional embroidered images. These ‘paintings’ of flowers, portraits, and scenes from Vietnam’s countryside have a near-photographic likeness.
Across the street, Saigon Centre provides chic drinking and dining options on the ground floor, Banana Republic, La Senza, and French Connection on the first floor, and enough interior decorating choices to furnish a palace on the upper levels. The alleys southwest of Saigon Centre host a bonanza of electronics, camera equipment, and pirated DVDs that will make any technophile happy.
Finally, the exotic sights, smells, and tastes waiting in the historic Ben Thanh Market are the perfect grand finale to any HCMC shopping expedition.
SOME THINGS SHOULD BE SEEN AND NOT PURCHASED
Many wares for sale in the city cannot be brought into other countries. Common souvenirs to avoid include sea turtle shells, butterfly and insect collections, snake wine, bear’s and panther’s claw necklaces, and ivory. Items made with crocodile leather, buffalo horn, bone, and boar’s teeth may be legal in some countries but not others. Sapphire, rubies, and lesser gems are mined in Vietnam, but their quality is generally poor. Even so, fake gems are common – don’t make big investments without extensive knowledge and experience.
BEYOND DISTRICT 1
A new high-rise shopping plaza seems to open up every few months in Saigon. They have all set their sights high, aiming for the luxury market with well-known brands from Italy, France, and the USA. While they cater almost exclusively to women, thankfully for men, upper floors tend to have a food court, an outlet of Vietnam’s ubiquitous, home-grown Highlands Caf? chain, bowling alley, and a Megastar or Lotte cinema. Worthwhile shopping centres outside District 1 include Saigon Paragon (3 Nguyen Luong Bang Street, District 7), Hung Vuong Plaza (125 Hung Vuong, District 5), and CT Plaza (60A Truong Son, Tan Binh District) near the airport.
BEN THANH MARKET
Ben Thanh Market has entrances on both Le Loi and Le Thanh Ton. This iconic market was built in 1914 by the French, who named it Les Halles Centrales.
The central clock tower is almost a national symbol. While undeniably touristy, the market still draws more Vietnamese visitors than foreign, and locals do still shop here. Ben Thanh hawks nearly every product that Vietnam has to offer, including candied Dalat fruit, Hmong handicrafts from Sapa, marble chess sets from Da Nang, Cham ceramics, Hoi An lanterns, and inexpensive knock-offs of brand-name clothing, handbags, and backpacks.