Heading home for the holidays? Christmas is a time for friends, family and, unfortunately, buying stuff. But in a land without Amazon.com, Christmas shopping isn’t as easy as pouring a glass of wine, clicking a few buttons and waiting for the doorbell. Here are our top five places to find that perfect, unique and oh-so-Vietnamese gift (that aren’t from Ben Thanh Market). By Simon Stanley. Photos by Vinh Dao and Simon Stanley.
Dan Sinh Market
104 Yersin, District 1
Unless you’re looking for components for a time machine, you’ll probably want to look beyond the sprawl of hardware stalls here. It’s the scattering of vendors hidden among them that have earned Dan Sinh its nickname: ‘the army surplus market’. US Air Force bomber jackets, faded NLF flags, military-grade watches and even a Russian space helmet, it’s all in here. Looking for something less ‘army’ more ‘charm-y’? Delve deeper to reveal a band of friendly antique vendors with stalls overflowing with treasures you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Sixty-year-old Larue beer bottles anyone? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure so barter hard.
43 Ton That Thiep, District 1
Set apart from the rest of the tourist shops in D1, both in its location and its merchandise, Saigon Kitsch is the cool kid of the souvenir scene. Offering hundreds of unique, high-quality products created by local designers, there’s something here for everybody. Notebooks, folders, mugs, beer can koozies, drinks coasters, cushion covers, phone cases, tea-towels – the list goes on – all printed up with retro propaganda designs, colonial-era artwork or contemporary illustrations. Their range of shopping bags, pouches and laptop cases made from recycled rice and animal feed sacks are light and easy to transport, while the Vietnamese teas and tropical fruit-shaped soaps are ideal for that auntie you last saw a decade ago.
Thanh Huyen Souvenir Shop
215 De Tham, District 1
If the previous entry uses the term ‘kitsch’ in an ironic way, Thanh Huyen Souvenir Shop offers the literal version. Fortunately, it’s the kind of stuff grandparents will go wild for. Gaudy fridge magnets, dusty masks, carved statues, replica antique smoking pipes and stacks of super-affordable conical hats; it’s a one-stop shop for those cheesy touristy bits and bobs you’re bound to need at some point. It’s a condensed version of Ben Thanh, without all the hassle of Ben Thanh. Prices are fixed and clearly displayed and low enough for you to win the ‘most generous grandchild’ award on Christmas day.
Saigon Ve Chai Antiques Fair
Cao Minh Cafe, 255/47 No Trang Long, Binh Thanh District
Set in the grounds of Cao Minh Cafe, around ornate ponds and miniature bridges, this bustling antiques market pops up every Sunday morning from 9am to the tinkle of glasses of ca phe sua da and the strumming of a classical guitar. Ever sat in ID Cafe and wondered, where does all this cool old stuff come from? Here’s your answer. 1950s French-made alarm clocks, check. Antique pottery, china and ceramics, check. Piles of 1960s sepia photographs (and probably the camera they were taken with), check. Even the vintage sunglasses on the head of the hipster at the table opposite are here. Traders are friendly, welcoming and happy to haggle. Entrance costs VND 30,000 and includes a free drink.
3A Ton Duc Thang, District 1
As the hub of Saigon’s alternative art scene, this compact yet dynamic complex of refurbished warehouses has become one of the coolest retail spots in the city. Home to independent fashion designers, artists and craftsmen, you’re guaranteed to find something totally unique, and totally Vietnamese. Offering funky ceramics and retro-styled home wares, many designed and made in the Mekong Delta, Sadec District always draws a crowd. For a take-away taste of the street art lining 3a’s walls, visit Giant Step – their framed prints start at as little as US$30. Kayal is a haven of quirky handmade gifts and curios from phone cases to antique records. You may well come away with more gifts for yourself than your family, but we won’t tell anyone.