Shopping for Saigon handicrafts

So you’ve seen the sights and it’s time to pack your bags for the journey home. But wait a minute – you haven’t bought any souvenirs yet either to decorate your walls at home or give to friends and family. No need to worry, there are hundreds of outlets in Saigon selling souvenirs, from baseball caps made of Coke cans to dazzling diamond brooches. The only important decision is where to shop, and that’s quite an easy one.

If you’re looking for exclusive handicrafts or designer fashions, browse the eye-catching boutiques on Dong Khoi. On the other hand, if you’re looking for cheap and cheerful knick-knacks, you’ll find all you need in the shops around De Tham – the budget district. Whatever funds are available, no serious shopper can leave Saigon without paying a visit to Ben Thanh market and hunting for something unusual.

Most visitors like to take home something typically Vietnamese, be it a conical hat, an ao dai (the national costume of tunic and pants) or a small statue of a cyclo rider. Silk shirts and skirts are also popular, but it can be difficult to find ready-made garments to fit Westerners, so you may need to visit a tailor and get clothes made-to-measure.

Another typical souvenir is a water puppet. Though water puppet performances originated in the north, they are popular throughout the country, and several souvenirs shops in Saigon sell puppets. They may be either wonderfully carved or shoddily made, and this will be reflected in the price.

Similar to water puppets, lacquerware bowls and plates make colourful souvenirs and are also compact and light to stash away. Other small items that are easy to squeeze into a full bag are elegant packs of chopsticks or coasters that could grace any table.

The hilltribes from the north of the country are famous for the embroidered fabrics that they wear as part of their dress, but much of their work finds its way down to Saigon. Look out for purses, handbags and even backpacks decorated with these distinctive embroidered patterns on sale in the budget district and in downtown boutiques. For more on North Vietnam.

Because of Saigon’s war-torn history, many visitors hope to come across some war-related trophy to take home. While you may find dog tags and Zippo lighters on sale in places like Dan Sinh market, they are bound to be fakes. Instead of wasting your money on such junk, look for war-era propaganda posters or T-shirts bearing the Vietnamese flag (which features the hammer and sickle – the symbol of Soviet communism) or the friendly face of Ho Chi Minh.

Finally, if you or your friends are coffee lovers, consider taking home a sample of the local product. Vietnam is currently the world’s second biggest exporter of coffee, and there are a great variety of types on sale. There are specialist coffee vendors all over the city, including at the back (north) end of Ben Thanh market, so there’s no excuse for not treating your friends to a real taste of Vietnam.