Last updated on December 27th, 2020
Of all the many places in the world that I’ve travelled to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam offers the best-value shopping opportunities for made-to-measure clothing, lacquerware, woodwork, fine cotton goods, machine embroidered and hand-embroidered goods, scarves, t-shirts, faux jewelry, and shawls. The last time I was there I stocked up on everything. Now my gift drawer is filled to overflowing with presents that would cost three and four times the amount if they were purchased at home. So when birthdays, anniversaries and holidays come along all I need to do is gift wrap one of these fabulous items. And guess what? I bought the gift wrap in Vietnam, too.
A note about tailors in HCMC…
These Vietnamese tailors work so fast and so well. They sometimes sew things to order in two to three days. Here are a few of my tried and true tips for ordering made to measure items.
Pack a shirt or jacket from home that you love. Pick your fabric in one of these tailoring shops, leave your garment with them and they will copy it exactly. Be sure to arrange for an early fitting so that any problems can be fixed before you have to leave the city.
Always ask the tailors to make the back of the garment an inch wider than the original. Our JW experience has been that some shopkeepers tend to skimp on material that ‘you’ve’ paid for and make the garment just a bit smaller. By adding width I’ve ended up with the size I really want. Remember the old JourneyWoman rule — an inch too big is far better than an inch too small.
Every tailor is going to ask for at least a 50% deposit. I try to leave as small a deposit as possible. Though this has never happened to me I don’t want to be in a position of losing a lot of money if the tailor does a terrible job and I have to leave the garment behind. If less than 50% is unacceptable then make your deposit using a credit card so you have a better chance of retrieving your money if necessary.
I always tell the tailor that I am leaving town one day earlier than I actually am. This way in case extra time is needed for changes to the garment you’ll have it without extra stress.
Lovely linen shirts tailored to measure…
I had a five-day stay in Vietnam. On my first day there I brought one of my linen shirts to Nam Silk to have it copied. They completed the job in two days and charged me $US16.00 per shirt for the linen, creating and sewing the pattern. The finished product was perfect and it cost me a fraction of what the original shirt had cost. This tailoring shop is located at 191-193 De Tham Street, District One. Tel: (84-8) 4042429. Do yourself a favour. If you’re staying in the center of town, take a cab from your hotel. It shouldn’t be more than $US2.00 and the cab driver will find the shop a lot faster than you will. P.S. I left my old, worn shirt with them so that they would have the pattern and I could then order more by mail when I wanted to.
Have an ao-dai made just for you…
The ao-dai (pronounced ow-yai) is a long gown with slits on either side which is the traditional woman’s dress of Vietnam. These are worn with matching wide silk pants. Some women choose patterned material for the ao-dai and solids for the pants. Depending on the material you choose you can make a set for about $US30 but of course better silks will cost much more. These outfits are so lovely and can be worn to dressy events once you get them home.
One shop that specializes in more expensive ao-dai is Thuan Viet. 213B dong Khoi St., District 1, HCMC. They charge $US150 and up for exquisite, colorful, hand-embroidered silk ao dai sewn to order.
Less expensive ao-dai can be purchased ready to wear at stalls in Ben Thanh Market. Other shops like Nam Silk (191-193 De Tham Street, District One) will tailor far less expensive ones in gorgeous vibrant silks.
Sweet smocked dress for girls…
In Ho Chi Minh City there is a wonderful shop called, Ninh Khuong Embroidery. I came across it by accident because it’s across the street from my tailor, Nam Silk on De Tham Street. I later found other branches at 83 Dong Khoi and 34 Le Loi Street. They sell the most attractive smocked and embroidered cotton party dresses for little girls (about $US20). They also have outfits for babies and boys plus a lovely selection of the softest cotton nightgowns, sleep shirts and linens. Be prepared to empty your pocketbook but you’ll get great value for the money. Address: 220 De Tham Street, District 1.
Ben Thanh Market is huge…
Make Ben Thanh Market your first stop. It’s the biggest and oldest market in HCMC (with many of the products coming from China). It is located on Le Loi Street in one of the liveliest shopping areas in the city. This market is huge (about 3000 tiny stalls); it is also hot and humid inside. Be prepared to sweat for your bargains (I carried my paper fan and used it — a lot). My sweetest find was a collection of shoe bags hand-embroidered with patterns of fancy very high-heeled shoes. They are great for packing (thin and flat) and a perfect sample of the lovely hand-crafted items so readily available in this country. Remember to bargain hard. Offer 75% of the asking price and then you’ll probably both agree to meet somewhere in the middle.
Here’s another tip.
Check whatever you buy very carefully. Unfold each t-shirt or scarf. Before you pay for it make sure it’s the size it should be and that there are no imperfections in the material.
P.S. I found this warning on a Virtualtourist Blog. ‘Be very careful of the pickpockets in the market. I spotted one hurrying away after trying to get at my wallet from my handbag. Strangely, she didn’t even look Vietnamese. She looked like a regular tourist in a big hat and capri pants’.
An Dong Market in District 5 (both a wholesale and retail market) attracts tourists from Asian countries (many of the merchants speak only Chinese). It has three floors — lower ones feature foods but the third floor has good quality lacquerware, woodwork, and handicrafts. All cab drivers know where this market is. Be sure to negotiate a price before you get into the cab.
It’s a good idea to leave this stop for last. It’s farther away and you might be able to find comparable products in the main areas of town. Use your valuable time for sightseeing instead.
There are small shops everywhere…
Walking from the Rex Hotel towards the Ben Thanh Market the streets are lined with shops, stalls, and shopping arcades. There are shoes, silk scarves, baseball caps, and t-shirts as far as the eye can see. There are salad servers, lacquer bowls and boxes, embroidered linens, handbags and costume jewelry most at ridiculously low prices. When I was there scarves were as low as $2.00, ditto for the t-shirts (Tiger Beer logos were popular), colorful shawls were $8.00 and nightgowns under $10. Every merchant is ready to bargain and they do it with a smile.
Looking for a supermarket?
If you are looking for a small, western-style supermarket you can find one in the Saigon Center, corner of Pasteur and Le Loi; (2) on the top floor of the Parkson department store one block northeast of the Opera House, and (3) in Diamond Plaza, behind the Cathedral, on the top floor of the department store.
P.S. Having trouble finding your way? Most hotels in District 1 should provide basic tourist maps for those travellers who request them. We hear that the Sheraton Saigon (88 Dong Khoi Street) has a really good one though JW has never seen it. Of course, the new Tourist Information Center (4G 4H Le Loi Street and Nguyen Hue) right in the center of town definitely provides maps and any information you might need. Still having trouble getting around? Grab a cab. They are very, very reasonable. Happy shopping, everybody.
(With thanks to Sidsel Millerstrom of Berkley, California for her input to this article)