Souvenir-hunters will find rich pickings in Vietnam, whose eye-catching handicrafts and mementos range from colonial currency and stamps to fabrics and basketware crafted by the country’s ethnic minorities, and from limpet-like conical hats to fake US Army-issue Zippo lighters. Throughout our Rough Guide to Vietnam, we’ve highlighted places to shop, but in general you’ll find the best quality, choice and prices in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hoi An. Though you’ll find more shops now have fixed prices, particularly those catering to tourists, in markets and rural areas prices are almost always open to negotiation.
Few Western tourists leave Vietnam without the obligatory conical hat, or non la, sewn from rain- and sun-proof palm fronds; at around 25,000đ for a basic version, they’re definitely an affordable keepsake. From the city of Hué comes a more elaborate version, the poem hat, or non bai tho, in whose brim are inlays which, when held up to the light, reveal lines of poetry or scenes from Vietnamese legend. Vietnamese women traditionally wear the ao dai – baggy silk trousers under a knee-length silk tunic slit up both sides. Extraordinarily elegant, ao dai can be bought off the peg anywhere in the country for around $30; or, if you can spare a few days for fitting, you can have one tailor-made for $40 or so, depending on the material.
Local silk is sold by the metre in Vietnam’s more sizeable markets and in countless outlets in Hoi An, along Dong Khoi in Ho Chi Minh City and on Hanoi’s Hang Gai. These same shops also sell ready-made clothes and accessories, including embroidered silk handbags and shoes, and most also offer tailoring. In general, Hoi An’s tailors have the best reputation, either working from a pattern book or copying an item you take along. Just make sure you allow plenty of time for fittings.
Embroidered cotton, in the form of tablecloths, sheets and pillowcases, also makes a popular souvenir. Meanwhile, the sartorial needs of backpackers are well catered for in major tourist destinations, where T-shirt sellers do brisk business. Predictably popular designs include a portrait of Uncle Ho, and the yellow Communist star on a red background.
Of the many types of traditional handicrafts on offer in Vietnam, lacquerware (son mai) is among the most beautiful. It is also incredibly light, so won’t add significantly to your baggage weight. Made by applying multiple layers of resin onto an article and then polishing vigorously to achieve a deep, lustrous sheen, lacquer is used to decorate furniture, boxes, chopsticks and bangles and is sometimes embellished with eggshell or inlays of mother-of-pearl (which is also used in its own right, on screens and pictures) – common motifs are animals, fish and elaborate scrolling. More recently, the lacquerware tradition has been hijacked by more contemporary icons, and it’s now possible to buy colourful lacquerware paintings of Mickey Mouse, Tin Tin and Batman. Imported synthetic lacquer has also made an appearance. These brightly coloured, almost metallic, finishes may not be for the purist, but they make for eye-catching bowls, vases and all sorts of household items.
Bronze, brass and jade are also put to good use, appearing in various forms such as carvings, figurines and jewellery. In Hué, brass and copper teapots are popular. Of the porcelain and ceramics available across the country, thigh-high ceramic elephants and other animal figurines are the quirkiest buys – though decidedly tricky to carry home. Look out, too, for boxes and other knick-knacks made from wonderfully aromatic cinnamon and camphor wood. For something a little more culturally elevated, you could invest in a water-puppet or a traditional musical instrument.
Vietnam’s ethnic minorities are producing increasingly sophisticated fare for the tourist market. Fabrics – sometimes shot through with shimmering gold braid – are their main asset, sold in lengths and also made into purses, shoulder bags and other accoutrements. The minorities of the central highlands are adept at basketwork, fashioning backpacks, baskets and mats, and bamboo pipes. Hanoi probably has the greatest variety of minority handicrafts on sale, though you’ll also find plenty available in Ho Chi Minh City. In the far north, Sa Pa is a popular place to buy Hmong clothes, bags and skull-caps, and you’ll find lengths of woven fabrics or embroidery in markets throughout the northern mountains.
A healthy fine arts scene exists in Vietnam, and painting in particular is thriving. In the galleries of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An you’ll find exquisite works in oil, watercolour, lacquer, charcoal and silk weaving by the country’s leading artists. Hanoi is the best single place to look for contemporary art.
For the top names you can expect to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Buyer beware, however: many artists find it lucrative to knock out multiple copies of their own or other people’s work. You’ll need to know what you’re doing, or to buy from a reputable gallery.
A cheap alternative is to snap up a reproduction of a famous image by Dali or Van Gogh, while something essentially Vietnamese are the Communist propaganda posters, which are on sale everywhere.
You can buy photocopied editions of almost all the books ever published in Vietnam from strolling vendors in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. There are also an increasing number of locally published coffee-table books, histories and guides available from bona-fide bookshops and the more upmarket hotels. However, if all you want is some general reading matter, both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City now have secondhand bookshops where you can exchange or buy used books.
Philatelists meanwhile will enjoy browsing through the old Indochinese stamps sold in the souvenir shops of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Similarly, old notes and coins, including French-issue piastres and US Army credits, are available.
Army surplus gear is still a money-spinner, though fatigues, belts, canteens and dog tags purportedly stolen from a dead or wounded GI aren’t the most tasteful of souvenirs – and the vast majority are fakes anyway. The green pith helmets with a red star on the front, worn first by the NVA during the American War and now by the regular Vietnamese Army, find more takers. Other items that sell like hot cakes, especially in the south, are fake Zippo lighters bearing such pithy adages as “When I die bury me face down, so the whole damn army can kiss my ass” and “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doin’ the unnecessary for the ungrateful”, though again they’re very unlikely to be authentic GI issue. In Ho Chi Minh City, extravagant wooden model ships are sold in a string of shops on Hai Ba Trung, at the east side of Lam Son Square.
Finally, foodstuffs that may tempt you include coffee from the central highlands, candied strawberries and artichoke tea from Da Lat, coconut candies from the Mekong Delta, preserved miniature tangerines from Hoi An and packets of tea and dried herbs and spices from the northern highlands. As for drinks, most of the concoctions itemized in A Traditional Tipple are securely bottled. The Soc Tinh range of rice-distilled liquor makes an attractively packaged souvenir.
The Vietnamese, not unreasonably, see tourists as wildly rich – how else could they afford to stop working and travel the world – and a first quoted price is usually pitched accordingly. It makes sense, therefore, to be prepared.
First of all, do your homework. Find out the approximate going rate, either from your hotel or fellow travellers, or from one of the increasing number of fixed-price shops – remembering to take into account the difference in quality, for example, between mass-produced and hand-crafted goods.
The trick then is to remain friendly and amused, but also to be realistic: traders will quickly lose interest in a sale if they think you aren’t playing the game fairly. Any show of aggression, and you’ve lost it in more ways than one. If you feel you’re on the verge of agreement, moving away often pays dividends – it’s amazing how often you’ll be called back.
Keep a sense of perspective. If a session of bargaining is becoming very protracted, step back and remind yourself that you’re often arguing the toss over mere pennies – nothing to you, but a lot to the average Vietnamese.