Prepare to spend some dong
Published/Last edited or updated: 26th August, 2017
When you think of shopping, do you think of bustling markets or fancy shopping malls? Piles of US$3 Ralph Lauren polo shirts or the hundred dollar custom tailored suit? In reality, shopping in Saigon is all this and more.
Any mention of shopping in Saigon and Ben Thanh market is always at the top of the list. One of Saigon's most famous landmarks, today the market it is mainly for tourist consumption, every souvenir you can think of and then some. Trinkets, t-shirts, hats, coffee, coffee filters, tea, shoes, purses, snacks, fresh fruit, lanterns, lacquerware, art, dodgy electronics, toys, jewellery, nodding golden cats and bags, so you can haul all your purchases home. In the day shopping is inside the building, while in the evening the area outside becomes a night market. Put your bargaining skills to work and beware, beware, beware of pickpockets here or at any shopping destination!
When it comes to cheap clothes. air-conditioned Saigon Square is the best bet. Clothes, jackets, bags, shoes and more, some that can fit a Western frame. While it is possible to find factory seconds (authentic items that are rejects because of minor flaws), the vast majority are knock offs. Fill up on Hello Kitty merchandise, Abidas runners and Ray Bands. Polo shirts can cost as little as 60,000 dong. Most stalls have fixed prices and prices clearly marked, though if buying bulk it may garner a small discount. Trying things on is usually not allowed. It gets extremely busy and crowded, hitting it up early is recommended.
As the name announces, Saigon Kitsch has the Vietnam-kitsch that will make you fondly remember the country long after you’ve let. Here’s the shop to pick up those bold propaganda posters (small 180,000 dong, large 380,000 dong), old-timey colonial prints and postcards, “Little Miss Hoi An” coasters and other souvenirs with interesting Vietnam related graphics. There’s also bamboo homewares and bags made from recycled materials. The only damper on the otherwise colourful shop is the sullen service.
Just a few metres from Saigon Kitsch is Saigon Centre, the upscale shopping mall typical of those found in large cities in Southeast Asia. The mall has familiar international brands and if in need of an authentic item, cosmetics or something to fit a larger frame, you’ve got a better chance here or at any of the other upscale malls/department stores (Vincom Center, Takashimaya Department Store, Diamond Centre, Parkson Department Store) in Ho Chi Minh City than anywhere else in the country. It’ll be Western prices or even more dear.
Made in France from cacao grown in six provinces in Vietnam, Marou chocolate has made a name for itself with its single origin dark chocolate. Having done a thorough investigation for research purposes, we can confirm the chocolate is excellent. Pick up a beautifully packaged bar or a set of six (660,000 dong) at Maison Marou Cafe.
Another cafe-cum-shop is L’Usine and its boutique of hipster gizmos and gadgets, home decor, jewellery, clothes and their own excellent coffee beans.
Beside L’Usine’s Le Loi location is Mekong Quilts, a non-profit organisation that creates employment for women in remote, rural regions in Cambodia and Vietnam. Not only just finely handcrafted quilts, there have pillow covers, bags, scarves and cards. Also find shops in Hoi An, Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
English language books are still not easy to come by in Saigon. Your best bet is BOA Bookstore, located in an old apartment building, with a decent selection of literature, popular and current titles. Nguyen Hue Bookstore is a large store directly on Nguyen Hue walking street, beside the Cafe Apartment building. It has a small number of English titles related to Vietnam/Ho Chi Minh City history, travel, food. It’s predominantly Vietnamese books in the stalls on “Book Street”, a pedestrian-only road of book sellers but it’s definitely worth a dig through the stalls or simply have a coffee, enjoy the atmosphere and the novelty of strolling without motorbikes whizzing past. It’s Nguyen Van Binh St, which runs between Hai Ba Trung and the Post Office.
Feeling inspired by Saigon’s wonderful eats? GRAIN cooking studio sells some Vietnamese cooking utensils, pretty dish ware and premium fish sauce, saving you a trip hunting around the local market.
Known as “Antique Street”, Le Cong Kieu St is lined with shops selling “antiques”. The majority of the stuff are fakes, priced as if it was unearthed in Angkor. Unless you are an absolute expert and know what’s what, proceed with extreme skepticism. See our post on art galleries for information on where to buy contemporary art.
With a two-piece woman’s suit starting at around US$50, a dress for US$35 or a button-up shirt as low as US$10, it certainly is tempting to get an item or a whole wardrobe made in Saigon. Before you go crazy, understand that tailoring is a process and even if they promise a quick turnaround time, it’s best if you have a few days. It nearly never happens that custom made clothing is perfect on a first fitting and several adjustments will be needed to achieve satisfactory results. Putting pressure on the delivery time certainly doesn’t improve the odds.
Bring the item you want copied or photos of the desired design. If you’re open to ideas, shops will have catalogues for inspiration. Definitely have some sort of visual reference or at the very least, an excellent sketch. Next comes the fabric: choose from the selection available at the shop. It is also ok to bring your own purchased elsewhere, like on fabric street in Cholon. After measurements it’s time to voice decisions about the details. A good tailor should be guiding the process. Where do you want the pocket? How long is the dress? Do you want a zipper? A deposit is required. How complicated the design is, how much fabric needs to be purchased are all factors in the final price.
As we said, the first fitting is usually never spot on. If the shop kicks up a fuss about making any adjustments, this is a bad sign. Stand your ground and don’t accept it until it fits correctly. For more tips on tailoring, see our guide to tailoring in Hoi An.
Shopping for shoes in Vietnam is a challenge for Western-size feet. Even shopping malls or department stores like Vincom Center or Parkson rarely carry anything over a size 42 men or 38 women. Instead, try Ben Thanh Market or Saigon Square, popular tourist haunts where the occasional stall has a limited selection of larger sizes. Expect less than stellar quality and for it to be an imitation. Also expect to bargain hard at Ben Thanh—try for at least 50% off the initial ask. Saigon Square vendors are less likely to budge and some have fixed prices.
Other options include one of the many Converse stores (perhaps find someone to call on your behalf to ask if they have your shoe size) or hitting up Luu Van Lang Street right next to Ben Thanh Market. Sometimes referred to as shoe street, this block has dozens of shoe shops with fairer prices. This is also the place to replace broken straps and other mend jobs. Finally, browse the boutiques on Le Van Sy Street, District 3 and try The Expat Shop at 14/19/50 Nguyen Van Nguyen St, District 1.
Having shoes tailor made may be the only way to get something resembling what you really want. These cobbler shops can cobble up a variety of styles for men and women—dress shoes, sandals, boots and heels. Either browse through the store’s samples and book of pictures, or plan ahead bringing pictures or your own sample.
There may be problems for unusually big or small feet as most shops don’t make their own soles. Check with the store attendant before spending the time agonising over which styles to choose. Higher quality shoes will have a longer turnaround time, something like a week to 10 days, but the end result will be something that lasts considerably longer.
Plenty of cobblers work around Ben Thanh market, the majority on Le Thanh Ton St. Prices tend to fall as you move further away from the market and the final tally will depend on style, material and turnaround time. For those who need faster shoes and quality is less of an issue, the shops closer to the market will do a normal pair of genuine leather dress shoes starting at around 500,000 dong, a pair of sandals 300,000 dong and up.
At a higher quality shop, dress shoes start at 1,500,000 dong, sandals 500,000 dong. We can recommend Tran Quoc Lan on Le Thanh Ton, between Pasteur and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia. It will take about 10 days, or quicker for extra, and they have a reputation for making quality shoes that won’t dissolve in a week.
BOA Bookstore Room C26, 2nd floor, 6 Cong Truong Quoc Te (Turtle Lake roundabout), District 3; T: (090) 989 2312; http://boabookstore.byethost31.com Mo–Su: 09:00–20:00.
Book Street Nguyen Van Binh St between Hai Ba Trung and the Post Office; Mo–Su: 08:00-21:00.
Grain Cooking Studio Level 3, 71-75 Hai Ba Trung, District 1; T: (028) 3827 4929; http://www.grainbyluke.com/ Mo–Su: 09:00-17:00.
L’Usine Cafe 70B Le Loi; T: (28) 3521 0703; http://lusinespace.com/ Mo–Su: 07:30–22:30.
Maison Marou: 167-169 Calmette St, District 1, 300 m south of Ben Thanh market; T: (28) 7300 5010; http://www.maisonmarou.com/; Mo–Su: 09:00–23:00.
Mekong Quilts 1st floor, 68 Le Loi St, District 1; T: (028) 2210 3110; https://mekong-plus.com Mo–Su: 09:00-19:00.
Saigon Kitsch: 43 Ton That Thiep (opposite Saigon Centre), Ben Nghe Ward, D1; T: (08) 3821 8019; Mo–Su: 08:00-21:00.
Saigon Square 1: 77-89 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; open 09:00-21:00
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
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