Five years since the first Saigon Flea Market took place, Simon Stanley looks at how Saigon’s weekend markets are changing the way Vietnam does business. Photo by Vinh Dao.

“No one believed that you could sell high quality products outdoors,” says Moon Doan, a 28-year-old Saigon resident originally from Hanoi. “In the beginning, I still remember the moment when I said the words ‘flea market’ and no one understood what I was talking about.” The economic law graduate and former freelance journalist established Saigon Flea Market in 2011, the first of its kind in the city, after visiting a similar event in Sydney, Australia.

Around the time of her trip ‘down under’, Moon’s friend had just opened Boomarang Bistro in District 7, and was struggling to attract business from the then sparsely populated neighbourhood. “It was brand new and the whole area was empty,” she recalls, “but I saw that next to the market in Sydney was a tiny coffee shop with a long queue of people waiting to buy drinks before they entered the market.”

It was the lightbulb moment she needed.

Earmarking the empty space on Boomarang’s first-floor, Moon began rallying local craftspeople in the hope of creating a vibrant community market aimed at selling fashion, jewellery, home decor and art, while simultaneously attracting customers to her friend’s new restaurant.

“The most difficult part was talking with the Vietnamese vendors because they didn’t understand the concept. I had 21 vendors [at the first market] and 19 of them were foreigners. It took a long time to explain to what it was.”

A Rural Tradition
Moon’s love of markets began when she was a child, when her mother would take her out of Hanoi to visit relatives. “In the countryside we have monthly markets,” she explains, “held according to the lunar calendar. It was a very exciting event and I always wanted to arrive close to that day so I could visit the market. People brought whatever they produced, and exchanged it with each other. It was really fun to see the whole neighbourhood there.”

After starting her career in PR and marketing, Moon took this very traditional Vietnamese concept, one not well-known in the cities, and re-branded it, keeping a tight control over the appearance and identity of the event, as well as on the goods being sold.

From 21 vendors on day one, and with photographs in-hand to prove its success, the second Saigon Flea Market boasted 35 stalls a month later, filling the space to capacity. By 2013, demand was high enough to warrant two markets per month, and since the start of 2016 has been a weekly event, shifting between its original D7 home and venues in District 1 and District 2, with up to 130 vendors taking part depending on the location.

Moon’s success, of course, did not go unnoticed, and numerous similar markets have since sprung up all over the city.

“It’s okay,” she says. “If you do something well, people will copy you. You have to accept that. I just focus on being good at what I do.”

As the number of markets grew, so too did the chance for artists, designers, craft-makers, and prospective entrepreneurs to begin making a living from their skills. Now able to access affordable retail space, with high footfall and low risk (the rent for a stall at Saigon Flea Market begins at just VND800,000), many have turned their hobbies into careers.

“Most of the people who sell at the market now have their own businesses,” says Moon. “That’s one thing we are most proud of.”

Going Digital
With this boom in local, independent boutiques, and the skilled craftspeople behind them, Vanessa Santamaria and her business partner Raphael Wilhelm spotted an opportunity, and, in 2014, established Memeapp, a local startup and the city’s first and only 24-7 virtual flea market. Available for Apple and Android devices, their mobile shopping app connects buyers and sellers in Saigon who share a passion for design and quality, creating a community of small businesses while helping them find success online. It’s a market opportunity that has, they feel, only scratched the surface of Vietnam’s potential.

“We focus on a niche group of sellers,” says Raphael. “We are a marketplace for unique, beautiful and high-quality products. Once you have placed your order, the vendors will bring the product to your house. You check it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t pay for it. Our makers understand this.

“Before, if you wanted to buy something special, you had to go to a mall, but the malls here are not good. They’re just like showrooms for expensive, imported goods. Yet, locally produced items, they’re great quality. We want to empower local entrepreneurs that are very skilled in creating something, to make money with what they are doing.”

Changing the Face of Saigon
Some of the most popular flea market vendors, both online and off, are those producing contemporary furniture and homewares – those selling the sort of products that cannot be found in Parkson or Diamond Plaza, for instance.

“Saigon is very open,” says Raphael. “People are looking for something new, something that they didn’t have before. They’re looking at the many Western people here, getting inspired by what they’re wearing or carrying, or even where they’re travelling to… and they want to live the same lifestyle.

“If you look at the city’s coffee shops, for example, four years ago there was no L’Usine, there was no Workshop… I always look at the cafes because that’s where you can really see the sort of environments people want to hang out in. You can also see what they’re wearing and what they carry with them.”

For Moon, looking beyond what’s in front of you, whether you’re talking about the design of a product or the way it is marketed, is essential. “Nowadays, people travel a lot,” she says. “Young Vietnamese people, they learn very fast. So when they travel, even just to Thailand, and they see something they’ve never seen in Vietnam, that inspires them. It’s the most important thing in business, to go and see what other people are doing. To improve yourself, you cannot stay in one place.”

Like the city’s trendy coffee shops, the flea markets have become more than just locations for commerce. “We’re not just selling products,” adds Moon, “we’re creating an urban pop culture, somewhere for people to come and meet each other. A lot of customers come to our markets every weekend just to see what is going on, or to make friends. The vendors all help each other too. I’m really proud of that.”

Also riding the tide of Saigon’s flea markets are the restaurateurs of tomorrow, with rows of food and drinks carts now appearing beside the t-shirt designers and jewellery makers. After all, shoppers need to eat. “For me,” says Moon, “a market like this allows anyone to see if they can do business or not. If you need to invest a lot of money, but you don’t know how well your products will be received, the market is a good start.”

The proof of the movement’s success lies in its numbers alone. “When we started in 2014,” says Vanessa, “there were only five flea markets in Saigon. Now there are around 22, so many I can’t keep track.”

Saigon Flea Market takes place every Sunday. Visit saigonfleamarket.com for details. To find out more about Memeapp and to download its free mobile application, visit memeapp.co.