Shopping Tips


  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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 walking.
  4. Plan to use English when shopping in most major shops.
  5. Expect to pay for everything in cash. Few shops take credit cards or traveler's checks, but they readily accept U.S. dollars.
  6. 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 expectations.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 purchase.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 from them.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. However illegal, pirated CDs and software, as well as knock-off designer-label leather goods, are a good buy in Hanoi. While you may occasionally get a bad CD or defective software, in general these items are great buys.
  14. 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 hours.
  15. 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!
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Look for a few interesting shops near the museums and major historical sites.
  20. 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.
  21. Beware of 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.


  1. Do comparative shopping before deciding on what you are willing to pay for an item.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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 discount.
  7. Slowly leave the shop if you're not getting the discount you want. This may induce the shopkeeper to yield.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 country.

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 embroidered purses.

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 Hanoi.
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 souvenirs!

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.

Copy Paintings
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.

Embroidered Pictures
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 embroidery.

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 Vietnam.

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.

Jewelry 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 cleansing agents.

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 stones.

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 an aquamarine.

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 corundum.

Karats and Carats
Don't confuse these two! Karat is a measure of the purity of gold, whereas carat indicates the weight of a gemstone.

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 Simulated Gems
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 synthetic.

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 value.

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 value.
  • 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 pearls.

Simulated pearls look like the real thing but have a different composition; many of them are plastic!

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