Peter Cornish investigates Ho Chi Minh City’s antiques scene. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
It’s not unreasonable to expect the antique trade in Vietnam to be more vibrant than it is, with its long and varied historical past. We might imagine there to be collectables from its neighbours, especially China, or from the French who occupied the country during a time France was creating magnificent furniture and works of art. But the reality is somewhat different, and while there are certainly antiques to be found, many of them are imitations or replicas of originals long since lost.
When searching for places to buy antiques in Ho Chi Minh City many will think of Le Cong Kieu Street, nestled in the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and Ham Nghi, a few minutes walk from Ben Thanh market and the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. The short, quiet street draws memories of days gone by, lined with shop after shop selling antique furniture, decorative creations, memorabilia and artisanal period pieces, some of which might be the real deal, others most certainly not.
The antique-selling origins of Le Cong Kieu Street can be traced back to the 1980s when times of hardship forced many locals to sell off possessions that were not essential to life. Residents could be seen outside their homes with an array of family items, ceramics, objects de art and simple knickknacks spread across the pavement, hoping that passers by might stop and buy.
By the 1990s and in to the early 2000s the street had become well known for its trade in antiques, fuelled by an increase in tourists eager to snap up collectables from Vietnam’s past with stories to tell once they returned home. The discoveries of ships sunk off the coast of Vietnam provided a steady stream of collectable antiques for a while until the government clamped down on salvage rights, ruling that items recovered from ships whose owners could not be identified belonged to the state.
Although the street still attracts many tourists, its heyday has past and most visitors come just to browse or window shop, taking photos rather than buying items. Original antiques are now few and far between and many shop owners have earned themselves a reputation for dishonesty, happy to pass off a 20th century reproduction as a 17th century original. The same can be said for antique markets the world over, and part of the fun in exploring the treasures is finding the genuine among the fake.
Ask others where to find antiques in HCMC and those in the know might mention a small café, tucked down a hem on a quiet road in Binh Thanh District. Named after its owner, singer Cao Minh, the café started life back in 2009 as a place for friends to meet, drink coffee and share their interest in collectables, perhaps exchanging sought after knowledge and trading prized pieces.
Dealers and traders of all ages set up stalls in the newly renovated café, crowding into a courtyard that might welcome up to a thousand visitors on a Sunday morning. Young and old come to the market, some searching for memories of the past, others trading in collectables sought eagerly by hobby enthusiasts scouring the stalls for items of age and rarity. One such trader is Englishman Jon Allsop who’s passion for antiques stretches back over 30 years.
Jon fell into the antique trade by chance after spending summers working in France as a young man. Tired of grape picking and working camp grounds, Jon and his twin brother started trawling weekend markets, looking for bits and bobs, knickknacks and general antiques they could take back to England to sell on and make a few bob. “It was rustic stuff mainly, bottom range, clocks and general antiques. We’d go to trade fairs, pick stuff up from bigger dealers and then ship it over to the UK or the States.” Jon explained.
He spent many years based in France, traveling back and forth to England and learning the trade as he went along, buying cheap, selling high and with an eye for what would become the next sought-after collectables. Clocks, porcelain, lamps and general curious were always popular, easy to move, quick to sell and often profitable. Life was great for a couple of decades, but eventually he tired of life in France and the endless bureaucracy of running a business there.
“I realised I wasn’t getting any younger,” Jon explained, “and I wanted to try another country. I met my wife Linh and came to Saigon in March 2005.” Once settled, he started to explore the antique trade in Vietnam, planning to buy here and resell in Europe, but soon discovered there was little of worth to buy in Vietnam.
“I got the impression that people were not really interested in doing business and a lot of the items being offered were imitations. Everything has its price, and it was often similar or higher than what I would pay back home.” Jon told me. It wasn’t long before he came across Cao Minh Café on Facebook, went to have a look around and soon became a regular at the Sunday market.
Jon continues to buy collectibles from France, where he has a team of friends regularly scouring markets for items he can resell in Vietnam. Like much of what’s on sale in the market, he describes his wares as bric-a-brac or knickknacks rather than high-end antiques. Priced between a couple of hundred thousand to a couple of million dong he does a roaring trade with regular collectors visiting his stall each week, eager to see what he has just got in.
Wandering round the stalls and tables spread throughout the crowded courtyard there’s a real buzz to the place. Groups of teens search enthusiastically through the watch displays carefully laid out on table tops, looking for that special item that will persuade them to part with their cash.
Elderly men peer through glasses at carved pipes and silver cigarette cases looking for something that catches their eye. Families sit on the balcony encircling the courtyard, sipping coffee and soda chanh, watching the busy throng below. If you’re looking for something to do on a Sunday morning, head on down, you might eve find something to take home with you.
255/47 No Trang Long, Binh Thanh District.