Ho Chi Minh City can be a fun place to shop. You can buy things here from all over Vietnam. The main shopping district is Dong Khoi street, which runs from the Cathedral to the waterfront (see map). The side streets off Dong Khoi, as well as Nguyen Hue Boulevard which runs parallel to Dong Khoi are also full of shops. One of the nice things about shopping here is that the street is also full of many restaurants and coffee shops, so you can easily take a break from shopping and enjoy some of the local coffee.
Ben Thanh Market
A somewhat less touristy shopping experience can be found at one of the city's many markets. The best, although most touristy, of these is probably Ben Thanh on the traffic circle at one end of Le Loi Boulevard. This covered market was built by the French in 1914. Inside, stalls sell everything from clothes to housewares to fresh produce.
A fruit stall inside Ben Thanh market
When shopping, note that most of the shops along Dong Khoi have prices marked in US Dollars, and that is the currency you are expected to pay in. In the markets, prices will usually be in Vietnamese Dong. Even when prices are marked, you can usually bargain if buying more than one item.
One very curious thing we noticed is that marked prices on many items were much lower at the international airport than any shop we visited along Dong Khoi. While waiting until you're about to leave the country to buy those "must have" souvenirs may not be a good idea, you may want to make sure you have some time to do some additional shopping at the airport.
What To Buy in Ho Chi Minh City
While you can get just about anything in Vietnam, here's a list of local specialties that will definitely want to look out for.
Some of our own treasures from Vietnam: carved marble and lacquer-ware
The red and cream colored marble from central Vietnam is carved like fine wood into many fantastic shapes. The most common items are boxes, incense burners and candle lanterns. Motifs are usually Chinese in appearance. You'll commonly find dragons, birds and flowers. Some places will also sell Chinese style marble stamps. They can translate and carve your name into the stamp while you wait.
While common all over Southeast Asia, lacquerware has definitely reached high art in Vietnam. In addition to the traditional basic black and red colors you'll find a whole rainbow of metallic finishes. You can find everything from tableware to vases and boxes. Colorful lacquerware items make great accents in the home.
Silk / Clothing
Vietnam produces brilliant iridescent silks as well as other fabrics. You can buy ready made items of casual wear at markets such as Ben Thanh, or you can have clothes tailor made at one of many tailor shops along Dong Khoi Street. A popular item with women is the traditional Ao Dai.
You'll find everything from everyday china to celadon created in many styles and motifs in several shops.
Vietnam seems to have a surfeit of talented painters, even if they're mostly employed reproducing well known works by western masters. Still, if you look you will find many beautiful local scenes. Even though many of these are mass produced as well, they're still quite nice.
You may not know it, but Vietnam is now the second largest coffee producer in the world. Unfortunately, much of it is a very low quality but you can find some very good high quality coffees. Visit one of the many shops where you can taste the coffees before buying. Among the big local producers is Phúc Long, whose products are sold in most supermarkets as well as their own shop next to Ben Thanh market. Their specialty is flavored coffees as well as teas. The other big local producer is Trung Nguyên, which makes the distinctive Vietnamese coffee roasted with cherry wood.
Saigon Shops & Shopping Centers
There are a few shops and shopping areas that we thought were worth mentioning:
- Saigon Centre
- On the corner of Pasteur and Le Loi streets.
This modern office building also has three floors of shops in its base. The ground floor has three cafes and a golf shop. The second floor is largely devoted to children's items and a supermarket, while the third floor is mostly home furnishings. Most of the shops sell goods imported from Thailand (the Thai government trade mission is housed in the offices upstairs). If you're going to Thailand after your stay in Vietnam, these goods will be cheaper there.
- Computer Alley
- All along Huynh Thuc Khang Street, from Nguyen Hue to Pasteur Streets, are many small shops selling computer wares and related items, including CDs, games, software and peripherals. The software and games are mostly copies.
- The Malaysian department store chain has recently opened a branch on Dong Khoi street about a block from the Opera House. You'll find a wide range of cosmetics as well as international clothing brands.
- Saigon Kitsch & Gallery Dogma
- 29A Dong Khoi Street
The name alone was enough to entice us into this small shop on Dong Khoi Street near the Majestic Hotel. It's really two shops in one, with Saigon Kitsch on one side and Gallery Dogma on the other side of the small one-room store. Saigon Kitsch is everything the name implies, with lots of colorful little nick-knacks. Gallery Dogma sells party posters and other communist memorabilia. If you've ever wanted a Cuban track suit, this is the place to get it. There's a second branch of Gallery Dogma on Ton That Thiep Street.
- Gallery Thanh Mai
- 52 Dong Khoi Street
Although there are several shops where you can buy some mass produced art works, Thanh Mai displays the best that Vietnam has to offer. They have some truly striking works, and the prices are not all that expensive for top-line modern art.