I know a lot of people who went to a lot of trouble to not visit Vietnam—but that was 50 years ago and times, as well as politics, change. I’m not going to talk politics, or even emotions here—instead I will report as objectively as I can. This much is true: Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world where you can buy wonderful, sophisticated merchandise for very, very low prices. If the thrill of the chase has gone out of a lot of your travels, you will have a meltdown when you see how much there is to buy and for how little money. You will see totally different merchandise and you get a new vision of the world.
As big cities go, I personally like Hanoi a lot better than Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it’s still sometimes called.) There’s plenty of shopping in both, but Hanoi stole my heart. The ceramics village of Bat Trang is a great half day side trip from Hanoi if you love the stunning ceramics made in the area.
On this trip, we also spent four days on the beach at the Furama Resort (www.furamavietnam.com) in Danang, a short drive from the charming village of Hoi An. More to come on the fab shopping there….
Vietnam’s best buys, in alphabetical order:
Ceramics: I went nuts buying ceramics—vases, place settings, everything. I bought in stores, I bought in the country, I bought in market. I bought big time. The problem is that shipping brings up the cost and packing adds to weight and worries. Ceramics from northern Vietnam are superior to others because of the qualities of the local clay. Various villages specialize in different styles.
Chopsticks: I am not talking "with six you get egg roll" chopsticks—I am talking about an art form. Fancier stores sell chopsticks by the set ($2–$5 per set), but you can buy them in sets for 10 people for $6 at the market. Do not put them in the dishwasher once you get home, wipe with an oiled cloth, please.
Commie Art: In a somewhat recent artistic phenom, posters created to rally the workers in soviet and socialist states have become collectible. In fact, the real thing is hard to find—the Chinese have a fair trade in fake Communist worker posters, many of which are stunning. One of the newest art trends in Vietnam is this same poster, which has its own distinct style—some similarities and some unique qualities.
Contemporary Art: I rarely report on art because taste is so personal. I was shocked and amazed by the number of art galleries, however, and the quality of the wares and diversity of styles. Many of the artists are highly collectible and have regular shows in Hong Kong and Europe; some galleries have a branch in Hanoi and another in Paris. Hanoi has more galleries than HCMC. Art by living artists ranges from $300-$6,000 unless you are talking about fun stuff.
Embroidery: What appears to be European-style embroidery, as if the handwork of French nuns, is actually a local craft. The range is from incredibly elegant and obviously hand-stitched, to somewhat tacky, machine made pieces, such as laundry bags that say linge (laundry in French) etc. There are also total works of art, such as Renoir masterpieces or local scenes, stitched in embroidery. I’ve never seen a really good one of these and they are made by machine, but they can be lots of fun. Look for the Mona Lisa.
Ethnic Fashion: These items are fashionably ethnic and funky without being costumey. You can buy the traditional dress style, called ao dais; there are crinkle skirts, embroidered shoes, and all sorts of items that could turn up on the pages of Vogue.
Foodstuff: I always go to the grocery stores and food markets, although much foodstuff can be bought in the U.S. from Asian markets and specialty stores, either in person or online. And no, fish sauce is not made from fish. We bought thai spices at the outdoor market in Hoi An.
Horn: It’s not tortoise shell, it’s buffalo horn. Among the best buys: a set of salad servers in horn, $12.
Lacquer: In most cases, this will be the most sophisticated, drop-dead-chic lacquer you have ever seen. Major home-style stores in Europe and the U.S. are already overcharging for it. Pack with care; the lacquer does chip, crack and/or break in luggage.
Lanterns: Assorted lantern styles are available, but the most popular—and chic—is the style called Indochine, a sort of tulip-bulb shape in various sizes made of silk and usually finished off with a tassel. Prices begin at around $3 in Hoi An, more in the large cities. You can get the plug in lamp type (you may have to change the electric current if you schlep the lamp back to U.S.) or the hangs over a light bulb kind.
Place mats: Don’t thing of me as if I am some sort of moron. Would I really be wasting your time if I was talking about plain old bamboo or woven or average place mats? The kind of place mats that I went nuts over were only in a handful of home décor stores where some craftsperson had taken the cheapie and easy to find local place mats and added on fringe or beads that was so extraordinary that you felt touched by genius. Also table-runners. Prices are high—about $25-35 for a table runner. The style is endless. Try the stores near The Church in Hanoi.
Silk: Aside from the usual, you’ll see silk duvet covers and hand-stitched silk quilts. I bought several shirts in silk and in linen; I liked the style so much that I then had the shirt made in English cotton (complete with monogram on the cuff) in Hong Kong. Vietnamese silk is thinner than that of other Asian countries and may not wear as well. Scarves make great gifts but you may find that you want to keep everything you buy. From simple jewel tone plaids to shimmering beaded evening pieces, you’ll go nuts.
Tailoring: I used to have clothing made in the big cities; that was until I went to Hoi An. Home to about 500 tailors, I now considering this a mandatory stop on any Vietnam itinerary.