SHOPPING TIPS IN VIETNAM
The best quality
shops are found in and around the major hotels. In Hanoi
this means the Sofitel Metropole and Hilton Opera hotels. If
you stay at one of these hotels, you'll be in the heart of
Hanoi's best shopping districts.
- Expect to do some bargaining but don't expect to
receive major discounts. Many shops will discount 5 to 10
percent if you ask. Some art galleries may discount up to 30
percent if you ask and if they can get the artist to agree to
a price change.
- Don't be intimidated by the street urchins who try to
sell you things you neither need nor want. The kids may be
cute, but they can be a real pest and are very persistent in
their attempts to get you to buy. Avoid eye contact and keep
- Plan to use English when shopping in most major shops.
- Expect to pay for everything in cash. Few shops
take credit cards or traveler's checks, but they readily
accept U.S. dollars.
- Be a very picky and pesky packer. Few shops know
how to pack well. Don't be afraid to supervise the packing
process by telling the packer how to pack according to your
- Shipping is problematic for most shops and many
galleries. Unless an item is very awkward to hand-carry,
you may be better off taking your purchases with you.
- Ask to have items delivered to your hotel room. If
you purchase something that is inconvenient to carry around,
ask the shop to pack and deliver it to your hotel room. Be
sure to get a copy of the receipt so you have proof of
- Be sure to get official receipts for all of your
purchases - store name, address, phone number, description of
item, and price paid. You may be asked to show this
receipt when you leave Vietnam, and it may come in handy when
going through Customs in your own country.
- Pick up business cards with a mailing address, phone
and fax numbers, and email address. If you're interested
in what a shop has to offer but don't want to buy yet, be sure
to ask for a card and jot down exactly what the shop has to
offer. You can thus contact them later if you want to purchase
- Take pictures of everything you purchase as well as any
items you may be interested in purchasing later. We
strongly recommend making a visual record of all purchases.
- Do comparative shopping before deciding on where to buy
and what to pay. There's a great deal of redundancy in
Hanoi's shopping scene.
- However illegal, pirated CDs and software, as well as
knock-off designer-label leather goods, are a good buy in
While you may occasionally get a bad CD or defective
software, in general these items are great buys.
- Ask shops to hold things for you if you are uncertain
about purchasing an item or need to do some comparative
shopping. Most shops will hold items for at least 24
- Be very careful when crossing the major shopping
streets. Remember, you have no rights as a pedestrian. You
must engage in defensive walking - or running!
- Buying at the production source, such as at the factory
shops in the prosperous ceramic village of Bat Trang, does not
make good economic sense. The prices here are invariably
higher than in Hanoi.
- Art is an exceptional buy in Hanoi. While prices
can vary considerably from one gallery to another and from one
artist to another, the paintings in oil, watercolor, lacquer,
and other mediums are often stunning. If you buy art, purchase
only the canvas. While framing is very cheap in Hanoi, it also
looks very cheap, and air freighting the painting with frame
will be expensive as well.
- If you plan to shop outside the Old Quarter and the
French Quarter, consider hiring a car and driver to accompany
you on your shopping adventure.
- Look for a few interesting shops near the museums and
major historical sites.
- Expect a very fluid shopping scene in Hanoi in the next
few years. The city is undergoing numerous changes
attendant with increased foreign investment and tourism.
possible misrepresentation, scams, and misleading information. Anyone who tries to sell you furniture or
antiques and tells you it's okay to ship them abroad is
engaged in deceptive practices. Since 1997, wood furniture
has been prohibited from leaving the country. Antiques are
illegal to export, except in rare cases where special
permits must be acquired.
- Do comparative shopping before deciding on what you
are willing to pay for an item.
- Don't get emotional about items in front of
salespeople. Try to look disinterested. You want the
salesperson to think you need a discount in order to decide to
buy an item.
- When asking "How much is this item?," don't show any
emotion when you hear the answer. The stated price should
be considered the first asking price. Maintain an air of
uncertainty about whether you want to purchase the item.
- Take your time. Once you learn the price, count to
20, then respond with "Oh, it's that much?" Start looking
around at other items in the shop.
- Ask your first bargaining question about the
"possibility of a discount." When the vendor responds with
a lower price, take your time and reply with "Is it possible
to do any better on the price?" Anything is possible in
Vietnam and Cambodia!
- Make a counter offer that is 40 percent of the initial
asking price and then keep moving toward an acceptable
20-percent discount. This offer will most likely be
rejected, with a 5-percent discount being offered instead. But
keep going back and forth until you achieve that 20-percent
- Slowly leave the shop if you're not getting the
discount you want. This may induce the shopkeeper to
- Return to the shop either at the very end of the day or
the first of the next day. Timing is important in the
final negotiation. The last customer of the day, or the first
customer of the day, often has a price advantage.
- Buy the item regardless of the final outcome of your
negotiations. If it's something you really want, but
you're not making progress in bargaining, go ahead and buy it
anyway. If you don't, you may regret having passed it up.
- Bargain for needs, not greed. Make sure you really
want the item before you start bargaining for it. Avoid
bargaining just for the sake of getting a bargain.
What to shop in Hanoi
Vietnamese art is some of the most exciting and compelling art
being produced anywhere in the world today. Visitors who have
stereotyped this country is poor and "underdeveloped" will find
that when it comes to art, Vietnam is very rich. Vietnamese art
communicates across cultures more so than any other art we have
encountered in Asia. If there is only one thing you buy in
Hanoi, make sure it's a fine painting by one of its top artists.
But never pay retail price for art here or anywhere else in this
Silks and Embroidery
Hanoi is well noted for its silk and embroidered materials.
Silks in Vietnam tend to be very supple and thus excellent for
making blouses and other light-weight garments. Much of the fine
embroidery work found here is in tablecloths, handbags, clothes,
and bedding. Hanoi's silk and embroidery shops are concentrated
in a short section of Hang Gai Street.
Lacquerware in the form of black, gold, silver, and red plates,
boxes, cups, placemats, screens, furniture, and chopsticks is
one of the favorite purchases for many visitors. It's also one
of the best buys - if you avoid the lacquerware factories and
showrooms that seem intent on ripping off unsuspecting tourists
and kicking back commissions to tour guides. Lacquerware can be
found in shops in the Old Quarter.
Handicrafts and Gift Items
Many items are produced by ethnic minorities, handicapped
individuals, and professional artisans. In addition to the
ubiquitous lacquerware and ceramics, look for boxes, bags,
baskets, sandalwood statuettes, silver, rattan and bamboo
products, wood hangers, jewelry, stone carvings, and beaded and
Antiques, Furniture, and Home Décor
Antiques and furniture are touchy shopping subjects because they
are illegal to export without special permission. Also, many
so-called antiques are reproductions; a shop that refers to
itself as having antiques actually offers handicrafts,
furniture, and home décor items. There are very few antiques
available for sale and export in Vietnam.
Don't expect much quality in this shopping category nor many
attractive designs that appeal to Western tastes. Indeed, this
stuff is not ready for prime export time. In the form of plates,
cups, bowls, vases, trays, most ceramics found in Hanoi are
produced in very traditional ethnic designs and drab colors,
which may or may not work with your home decor. The largest
selection of ceramics is found in the ceramic and porcelain town
of Bat Trang, located about 13 kilometers southeast of downtown
Clothes, Tailoring, and Accessories
Numerous shops in Hanoi offer a wide range of ready-made and
tailored clothes and accessories. Ready-made sizes tend to be on
the small size, although top silk shops offer a good range of
sizes for shirts and blouses. The best silk shops, such as
Khaisilk and Tan My, offer tailoring services in addition to
their ready-made choices.
If you want to go native in Vietnam - look like a war veteran,
farmer, or market lady - you're in luck. Head for the main
market area in the Old Quarter where you can purchase lots of
Vietnamese-theme T-shirts, pea green pith helmets, and woven
conical hats worn by women. If you look like a tourist, many of
these items, along with postcards and other souvenirs, will
quickly find you as you are frequently approached by young
street urchins trying to sell you an armful of truly forgettable
What to Shop for in Saigon
If you're looking for quality art, antiques and collectibles,
home decorative items, jewelry, and stylish silk garments, many
of Saigon's more discriminating shops will be well worth
exploring. Look for the following products:
Saigon is an excellent place to purchase serious, fun, and
trashy art. Numerous galleries here represent the works of both
Hanoi and Saigon artists. While most galleries appear to have
fixed prices, everything is negotiable, with some paintings
being discounted 30 percent or more but only if you bargain
hard. You should shop at different galleries for works by the
same artist since prices vary.
Numerous "art galleries," better termed "copy paint shops,"
specialize in producing inexpensive copies of famous paintings,
from masters to contemporary artists, as well as portraits and
commissioned paintings. Just tell them what you want and they
can usually complete it in a few hours or days. You might want
to bring a photo from home to be copied as a painting.
The fine art of embroidering pictures is well represented in a
few Saigon galleries. The work tends to be exceptionally fine
and represents an old art tradition in Vietnam called picture
Antiques and Collectibles
Most of these shops are located along one narrow street in
District 1 - Le Cong Kieu. Most shops are small, cramped, and
dark - the perfect place to go sleuthing for unexpected
treasures! But keep in mind that there are actually few real
antiques found in these shops. Many ostensibly antique items are
copies, or "new antiques." Even if you did purchase a real
antique, you would have difficulty taking it out of Vietnam
because of government restrictions on the export of antiques.
Nonetheless you may find some attractive items in these shops.
Lacquerware is widely available in Saigon's many handicraft,
art, and home decorative shops, and make nice gift items. Avoid
visiting the local lacquer factory that is primarily frequented
by tour groups; you'll pay about five times the going rate for
similar items found elsewhere in Saigon.
Handicrafts and Gifts
Saigon abounds with shops offering a wide range of handicrafts.
You'll find lacquerware, tablecloths, silver, porcelain, and
wood boxes. Some shops sell handicrafts (clothes, handbags,
bags, and dolls) produced by several ethnic and tribal groups in
While there are not many jewelry stores in Hanoi, you'll find
several in Saigon. For the largest concentration of jewelry
stores offering a wide range of similar designs and products, be
sure to visit the many jewelry shops and stalls across the
street from the central market (Ben Thanh) in District 1. Across
the street from this market is the largest concentration of
jewelry shops, housed in a government jewelry center with a sign
on the front, "Phong Kiem Dinh Da Quy."
Model Boats, Ships, and Planes
Normally these would be classified as handicrafts, but here in
Saigon they are so special and unique that we've given them
their own heading. These are not toys or child's play. Many
people collect them. Ranging in size from one to five feet in
length, these models are beautiful display and collector items.
Clothes, Fashion, and Accessories
While you'll find numerous shops in Saigon offering a wide
selection of apparel, much of what you see are styles, colors,
and sizes more appropriate for local residents. Many of the best
shops are located along Dong Khoi Street and Mac Thi Buoi Street
in District 1. Saigon's premier silk, garment, and accessory
shop is the upscale Khaisilk. If you only visit one shop here as
well as in Hanoi, make sure it's Khaisilk.
Inexpensive tailoring is available in Saigon. But make sure
you're dealing with a tailor who understands exactly what you
want and who can communicate clearly with you. Successfully
done, tailoring can be one of the highlights of shopping in
Vietnam. If you are looking for a good tailor, check with the
concierge at one of the top hotels in Saigon; they get feedback
from their well-heeled clients on who does excellent work.
Pirated Music, Videos, Watches, and Handbags
Saigon is a large market for Chinese-produced CDs, DVDs, and
videos. The largest concentration of such items can be found on
the ground floor of the Russian Market. Wherever you shop for
these, be sure to bargain for everything, since the shops are
very competitive and initial asking prices are at least 20
percent above what you should be paying. But don't get carried
away; many of the CDs and DVDs have flaws causing them to skip
or pause at unexpected times. At least 50 percent of our
purchases here had some type of flaw.
and Gemstones: What You Should Know Before Shopping for Them
Qualities of Gemstones
A gemstone should have visual beauty, durability, and rarity.
Beauty is somewhat subjective, with various cultures
preferring certain gemstones over others, and different kinds of
gemstones rising and ebbing in popularity over time within a
culture. Beauty may be judged by the depth or absence of color.
Durability refers to the hardness, toughness, and
stability of a gemstone.
- The hardness is defined by a value on the Mohs
hardness scale. A diamond, for example, is at the very top of
the scale--a ten--the hardest gemstone. Gemstones with a
hardness of less than seven are easily scratched.
- Toughness refers to a stone's resistance to
cracking, chipping, or breaking. While diamonds are the
hardest stone, they lack toughness.
- Stability refers to a stone's resistance to
chemical or structural change. Pearls can be damaged by acid,
alcohol, or perfume. Porous stones, such as turquoise and
coral, can pick up oils from the skin or be damaged by harsh
Confusing Gemstone Names
While most people know the names of the four precious
gemstones--diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald--few are
familiar with the mineral names of precious and semi-precious
Sapphire and ruby are the gem names given to the mineral
corundum. Gem quality corundum which is red is a ruby. Gem
quality corundum in any other color is a sapphire; thus,
sapphires can be yellow, pink, purple, green, white, even black.
Beryl is the mineral name for emeralds and aquamarines. A
deep green beryl is an emerald, whereas a watery blue beryl is
Rubies are not mined in Brazil. If a jeweler in Brazil tries to
sell you a "Brazilian ruby" or rubellite, ask for the mineral
name of that stone; you should be told it is a tourmaline.
You need to know that a tourmaline is a different stone than a
Karats and Carats
Don't confuse these two! Karat is a measure of the purity
of gold, whereas carat indicates the weight of a
Most gold jewelry sold in the U.S. is either 14 or 18 karat;
most gold sold in Brazil is 18K. In much of the world, 14K gold
is marked as .585, and 18K as .750. These numbers indicate the
percentage of gold the item contains; 18K gold is 75% gold and
25% base metal. Pure gold is soft and needs to be alloyed with
other more durable metals. The base metals used as alloys and
their amount create the different colors of gold.
Natural Stones, Synthetic Stones, and
Natural stones are formed by nature and are more scarce
and have more value than synthetic stones. Synthetic stones
are composed of the exact same substance as the natural stone,
but are produced in the laboratory.
Natural stones, because of being formed by an accident of nature
rather than intentionally by man, usually contain inclusions. If
a stone is flawless, you should be suspicious that it may be
Simulated stones are the cheapest of all. In these, the
optical properties closely resemble the real gem, but the
chemical properties are different. A jeweler would easily know
the difference. An example is a spinal or zircon versus a
diamond. Both are real stones, but the diamond has much more
Imitation stones may be made of glass or plastic, or may
be composite stones consisting of a thin slice of the gem
material beneath (doublet) or between (triplet)
other material of no value.
"Enhancement of gemstones" has become common in recent years.
Irradiation, chemical treatment, or heat may be applied to
enhance the appearance of the stone. While these practices are
legal, they should be disclosed on request, but often are not.
The Four C's
Referring to natural gemstones, these are color, clarity, cut,
and carat, and determine the value of the stones.
- Color varies with the stone, but generally a stone
with a uniform and deep saturation of color will have greater
- Clarity refers to the absence of inclusions.
- Cut varies with the stone and personal preference.
- Carat refers to the weight of the stone; one stone
weighing three carats is more valuable than three stones
totaling three carats.
Natural, Cultured, and Simulated Pearls
Natural pearls, formed as an accident of nature,
are rare. Cultured pearls are formed in exactly the same
way as natural pearls, with the difference being that man has
deliberately inserted an "irritant" (small bead) into oysters
raised for this purpose. Few pearls in stores are natural
Simulated pearls look like the real
thing but have a different composition; many of them are