Visitors: load up on dong, as there are plenty of things that will catch your eyes when it comes to shopping in Hoi An. How can you resist a conical hat or a tailored shiny zoot suit? Hoi An has everything you never knew you wanted.
Hoi An is known for tailoring but there is enticing ready-made wear as well. Nothing declares that you’ve been to Vietnam more than pun-tastic, inside-joke T-shirts sporting “Pho-king”, “iPho” or “Pho Metal Jacket”. For something a little more stylish, find stretchy cotton T-shirts with graphic prints at Ginkgo. Women can head to Metiseko, which specialises in silk clothing and accessories in soft colours and patterns. In other shops, be wary of claims that scarves, clothes and sleeping bag liners are 100 percent silk and handcrafted. If it’s cheap, it probably isn’t.
Like ethnic crafts, hilltribe motifs and natural materials? Check out Villagecraft Planet, east of the market at 37 Phan Boi Chau Street. Here you can find clothes, bags, cushion covers and other decorative items made from Hmong textiles, batik indigo, hemp and natural dyes.
It’ll be hard to resist purchasing one of Hoi An’s signature silk lanterns. Stroll the town at night or browse the night market across the river on An Hoi Islet and the colourful glow will tug at your heart strings. You can buy a few, or try making your own at a workshop offered by Lifestart Foundation, a not-for-profit charity that offers vocational training and assistance to the disadvantaged. The one and a half hour workshop, held at either 10:30-12:00 or 15:30-17:00, costs 330,000 dong per person, with a minimum of two people required to run it. It’s the same price for their Vietnamese painting class (09:00-1:30/14:00-15:30). Register in advance. At their shop you can also buy handmade jewellery, fantastic natural body products, loveable stuffed animals made from socks, cards, tea, Co Tu ethnic handicraft, prints, scarves and crafts.
There are several other worthy stores to spend for a good cause. Reaching Out is a beautifully laid out, expansive shop selling gifts handcrafted by artisans with different abilities, including those with physical impairments. Find silver jewellery, tableware, copperware and children’s clothing. Visit during working hours to observe the artisans at work.
Mekong Quilts is a non-profit organisation with shops in Vietnam and Cambodia. Women are trained before being given full-time employment at one of their workshops sewing the lovely quilts. Please note, while you’re expected to bargain at the night market and local shops, these social enterprise retail outlets have fixed (and fair) prices.
Dried fruit, fancy salts, jams, coffee and teas are some of the prettily packaged made-in-Vietnam products found at Cocobox Cafe. Foodies should also head to the market to buy a Vietnamese coffee filter, jars of Hoi An’s specialty sweet hot chilli sauce, cooking utensils and clay pots so you can put all you learned at the cooking class to practice.
If it’s cute and kitschy, it’s for sale in Hoi An. Look out for miniature soup bowl key-chains and pop-up cards – open the card and anything from a flower to a sail boat unfolds. Hand-painted ceramics are also popular, drawing from Hoi An’s history as a ceramics trading hub. Other things you’ll find every where you turn: incense, green teas, bowls made from coconut shells, selfie sticks, factory-made bags with Hmong inspired fabric and oddly, lots and lots of Tigerbalm. It seems you can’t walk past a corner without someone trying to sell you a pot of this miracle cure-all.
Visitors will notice the town’s penchant for vintage-style movie paraphernalia. Go to Artbook at 166 Tran Phu Street for an assortment of books, pop culture merchandise and propaganda posters. Trawl for used books or load up your mobile reader with e-books at Randy’s Book Xchange across the river on Cam Nam Island, on the same street as Sleepy Gecko.
Custom-made leather goods and shoes is another Hoi An fad, and the quality of craftsmanship and materials are more miss than hit – prices are high compared to what you can get off the rack back home. The shops are typically just fronts and the actual work is outsourced to makers who don’t care if that bag or pair of shoes makes it to the one-mile mark. If you can't resist, look at other customers' finished orders to check quality and ask them for their feedback before placing an order.
Bear in mind that very few places work with fixed prices and it’s a common grumbling among tourists about feeling had. Keep in mind that Vietnamese tourists and locals also have to be savvy shoppers -- not just you! Prices fluctuate daily on certain items based on demand – it’s Economics 101.
Step outside the tourist zones of the old town where shop overheads are cheaper and you will find the exact items for a third of the price. For example, go to the other side of the Japanese Bridge and you’ll find prices so low you barely need to haggle. Pick up a hand-painted silk lantern for a fifth of the price offered in the town centre. The same applies for essentials like shampoo, water and snacks. A-Mart on Hai Ba Trung is the nearest thing you’ll find to a fixed-price supermarket. If you need a significant amount of supplies, groceries or anything gadgety like a camera, computer and phone, and you’re better off heading for the big city of Da Nang.
The night market across the bridge on An Hoi Islet is hands down the cheapest place to pick up a souvenir, although you’ll need a bit of good humoured haggling. Learning to count to 10 in Vietnamese is relatively easy and the Vietnamese are always hugely impressed that you have made the effort and will normally reward you with a better price.
The best advice is to work out how much that scarf is worth before negotiations commence. First ask around a little to get a sense of the pricing structure but only begin bargaining if you are serious about buying it. Someone bargaining and not purchasing is considered unlucky for the seller (not to mention, a waste of time for them). When you do go in for the haggle, do it with a smile and don’t be one of those people that push the price down so far as to upset shop owners. If a local has to chase you down the street after you have refused to pay the US$1 more, she is losing face in front of her peers and is so desperately in need of making a sale that she is trading at a loss. Sometimes it’s not just the foreigner who gets a bad deal.
Artbook: 166 Tran Phu St; T: (0510) 3910 225; artbook.com.vn
Cocobox: 94 Le Loi St; T: (0510) 3862 000; email@example.com; cocoboxvietnam.com; open daily 09:00-22:00.
Ginkgo: 59 Le Loi St, 133 Tran Phu St, 3 Nguyen Thai Hoc St; T: (0510) 3910 796; ginkgo-vietnam.com
Mekong Quilts: 136 Tran Phu St; T: (0510) 386 1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; mekong-plus.com; open daily 09:30-21:00.
Metiseko: 142 Tran Phu St; T: (0510) 3929 278; metiseko.com; open daily 09:00-21:30.
Randy’s Book Xchange: Cam Nam Island; T: (0936) 089 483; bookshoian.com
Reaching Out Arts & Crafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc (next to Tan Ky House), Hoi An. T: (0510) 391 0168, 386 2460; www.reachingoutvietnam.com; open Mon-Fri 08:30-21:30, Sat-Sun 09:30-20:30.
Villagecraft Planet: 37 Phan Boi Chau St; T: (0510) 3916 578; www.facebook.com
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 12th August, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.