Many tourists enjoy souvenir shopping in Vietnam to not only commemorate their time in the country but also to give items as gifts or to purchase beautiful pieces for decoration. Vietnam is such a vast and varied country that it can be difficult to decipher what handicrafts make a region unique or where in the country is the best place to purchase certain items. In this edition of Vietnam travel tips, we breakdown exactly what is made in which part of the country and where to purchase it.
What to buy in Sapa
Vietnam is home to 53 ethnic minority groups and many of them live in Northern Vietnam near the border of China. They not only have a distinct culture and way of life, they also have unique handicrafts and ornaments that distinguish each group from the other. Many of the ethnic groups also grow their own indigo and rear sheep to loom and dye fabric. In the northern parts of Vietnam, be sure to shop for beautiful embroidered fabrics, naturally dyed fabrics, and silver jewelry. Purses and scarves with their signature patterns are often sold at the markets and stores there. But be careful – many market sellers also sell leather and fabric goods which may resemble local artisanal work but are actually imported from China. It may be difficult to tell the local crafts apart from the imported ones so we suggest asking your tour guide to help you in choosing something authentic.
What to buy in Hanoi
Although Hanoi is slowly becoming cosmopolitan, the culture is still very traditional and grounded. No matter how modern the city becomes, ancient arts and crafts are definitely not lost in Hanoi. One particular traditional handicraft made in Hanoi is Do paper (Do is roughly pronounced yaw with an upward intonation). Do paper is made from the bark of the Do tree. The raw material goes through a lengthy three month process to become a soft and durable paper fibre which is then used for books and paintings. The paper is also used to print the traditional Dong Ho paintings. These paintings originated in the Dong Ho village and depict various symbols and scenes to signify spring’s arrival. These paper products can be found on Hang Gai or Hang Bac street in Hanoi. For a more complete guide to shopping in Hanoi, please check out our Ultimate Hanoi Shopping Guide!
What to buy in Halong Bay
On your way to Halong Bay from Hanoi, many tour cars and buses will stop at tourist shops selling silk embroidered paintings, among other things. These ‘paintings’ are special in that they are not paintings at all! They are art pieces that are fully embroidered with silk thread. Many of these shops also have people working there doing the embroidery right in front of you. Although it may be hard to believe, these pieces are made by hand only. In fact, this industry is known for hiring people with disabilities because it is an art that can be done by anyone with good dexterity. The pieces made by a person with a disability will usually be indicated. These stores will also send larger pieces by sea to almost any corner of the world. The prices are usually reasonable because they send containers in bulk so they receive a discount for freight services.
What to buy in Hue
You cannot come to Vietnam and not notice the beautiful conical shaped hats that both locals and tourists wear. Each region of Vietnam has put a unique spin on how to decorate the conical hat. Some like to embroider them, some draw on the surface, but one of the most interesting variations is the conical hat from Hue. During the process of making the hat, images and verses of poetry are imbedded between the leaves such that it is only visible when light is shone on it. This concept is very fitting for Hue, as many poets, artists and romantic epics hail from this area. To learn more about the conical hats, take a look at our previous blog.
What to buy in Da Lat
Da Lat is one of the most fertile regions of Vietnam and a lot of vegetables and fruit come from this area. The highlands around Da Lat are also the coffee growing centres of Vietnam. If you visit any of the coffee plantations in this area, be sure to buy some coffee straight from the source! Another unique product they have here is Atiso Tea (Artichoke Tea). As the name suggests, it is a tea made from artichokes and has a floral aroma and earthy taste. The easiest place to find artichoke tea as well as other products such as jam, root chips, and dried fruit is a chain store called L’angfarm. Even though you can find Da Lat products at any shop in the area, the advantage of buying items at L’angfarm is that this store is a one-stop-shop for all Da Lat specialties. And, the presentation and packaging are appropriate if you are purchasing these items as a gift!
What to buy in Da Nang
Many of the giant marble structures you can buy at stores around the world are actually made in Vietnam. The advantage of buying it here is of course the huge cost savings. Most of the marble in Vietnam comes from an area just outside Da Nang called Marble Mountain. If you take the drive between Da Nang and Hoi An, you will actually see store after store selling huge carved structures of religious figures, fountains, or animals. If you purchase any of these items, all the stores will also ship them to wherever you live and for a very reasonable price.
What to buy in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is the centre point for commerce and trade in Vietnam, and merchants from all over the country come here to sell their goods. Although many of the items you can buy here are most likely not made in the city, it is easiest to purchase them here simply because it will be more within your reach. The best things to purchase here are fabric (especially silk), lacquerware and ceramics. For exact locations on where in the city to purchase fabric and lacquerware, please take a look at our Ho Chi Minh City Shopping Guide. If you have a car available at your disposal, the best place to purchase ceramics is in the Binh Duong province, about 40 minutes outside of the city. Right along the highway are several warehouses where they sell beautiful ceramic art. It is quite the sight! The cost savings are usually huge when buying an item in Binh Duong as opposed to within the city.
What to buy in Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc is an island off the cost of Vietnam, very close to the border of Cambodia. The island has many claims to fame – not only is it a premier beach destination, it is also the largest producer of Fish Sauce and peppercorns in the country. The fish sauce from Phu Quoc is world renowned. It is made from the fermentation of black mackerel and is highly purified to remove sediment. Imitation Fish Sauce uses other types of fish which changes the flavour and sometimes has sediment because of a poor filtration process.
What to buy in the Mekong Delta
The other fertile region in Vietnam is the Mekong Delta area. Because of its hot climate, most of Vietnam’s tropical fruit is grown here. Many tourists love the local experience of riding down the canals on a sampan while enjoying fresh pineapple that you bought directly from the pineapple farm. Of course, taking fresh fruit back with you to your home country as a souvenir might be difficult but there are more practical ways you can take those tropical flavours back with you. When you are in this area, make sure to keep an eye out for the coconut caramel candies and other fruit flavoured treats. Some shops will even make and package the coconut caramel right in front of you. Since production of these fruit treats are on a small scale, the ingredients are usually natural and homegrown.
Although shopping for souvenirs in Vietnam can seem difficult at first, we hope that our guide makes it easier for you. If you need help picking out the perfect commemorative items in Ho Chi Minh City, join us on our XO Tours Shopping Spree Tour. And, if you need more information on shopping in Vietnam or Vietnam travel tips in general, please do not hesitate to contact us!