Shopping in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam presents a wide range of shopping opportunities for any traveller and visitor to the country. This ranges from the handmade and traditional items found in mountainous villages such as Sapa to the large commercial outlets that have been springing up all over Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Ho Chi Minh City offers numerous shopping experiences from market places where you must haggle for goods to small shops set up near the downtown area, to large department store malls where you will find more Westernized shops. Vietnamese crafts and arts are easily the most popular items that you will find almost anywhere that is a tourist hot spot.


Markets

Asia in general is renowned for its markets and we all have a picture in our minds of bustling and overcrowded markets selling everything from antiques to clothes and food while having stern faced sellers behind the stalls.

The reality is not far off however many of the markets that tend to be orientated more towards tourists such as Ben Thanh Market which is one of the most centrally located markets in Ho Chi Minh City and is the most popular amongst tourists generally tend to be quite a pleasant affair.

In general, Dong Khoi Street is where you will find the most goods, and then as you move down the street towards the Ben Thanh Market, prices will start to become cheaper and the goods will get much simpler.

Ben Thanh Market is located near the south corner of Le Lai. While Ben Thanh Market can be overcrowded many of the people who work there and run stalls, there will have a basic grasp of English, however it should be noted that prices here actually tend to be quite high compared to other parts of the city especially when it comes to clothes and watches, so be wary of this when going there. Although it offers great shopping, it is an easy place to get ripped off due to the fact that ambiguity (how many you are buying, exact prices, exchange rate, etc.) is the main reason that tourists tend to end up empty handed. Also, as a general tip all over the market areas bring your own bag because sometimes vendors will hand out colour coded bags to tip off other stall owners that you are a tough bargainer.

Closer to Chinatown is the Cho Binh Tay Market, which offers a unique variety of goods such as Chinese medications, dried seafood, silk, and some of the best velvet that money can buy in Ho Chi Minh City. You will also find a great deal of wholesale stalls here if you are shopping for a business back home.

The Dan Sinh Market, or War Surplus Market as it also known, is worth a stop for antique military gear from America, although some of the goods are fakes so shop with a discerning eye.

Essentially when it comes to markets in Ho Chi Minh City, whether it is Ben Thanh or the markets in Chinatown (Cholon) in District 5, bargaining is a must. This goes against the way most visitors (especially if they are from the West) deal with transactions; normally we see a price and pay that price but things are different in Vietnam. What you need to remember about bargaining in a market in Ho Chi Minh City is that it needs to be kept a friendly affair. For sure you are trying to get the price down and they are trying to get you to pay well over the odds for the item you want to buy however it shouldn’t be seen as a rip off or scam tactic. Keep the bargaining polite and friendly with lots of smiles and a good reference point is to counter with half of what you are quoted; you will end up paying around 60-75% of the original price usually unless the seller was asking an extortionate amount to begin with.

You can expect to find a whole range of things at the markets in Ho Chi Minh City. Also, there is a night market open from 6pm onwards just outside of Ben Thanh Market and here you can find a much more relaxed atmosphere with more emphasis on food and drink.


Shopping Centres

A shopping centre doesn’t really fit in with our ideal of an Asian shopping experience even if they are considerably more popular now in Vietnam than ever before. Why go to a shopping mall in a country such as Vietnam when you can do that at home? For many people it comes down to a sense of normality and a welcome break from many of the more hectic sections of Vietnamese life. The Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh City (District 1 near the Saigon Post Office) is a shopping mall that is more to the high end of the scale with many western and Japanese brands and stores so expect to pay the same or even more than what you would back home. Saigon Square is another popular location and is the typical department store that also has a tourist emphasis with souvenir stalls.

The one advantage that these places have is that they are one stop solutions to shopping. You will find many different stores in the one place exactly in the same way as you would at home and especially in the case of the Saigon Square it means you can shop for souvenir items as well even if you do end up paying a bit more. Saigon Square is a popular shopping location during the day as it is considered to be similar to Ben Thanh Market but unlike its twin it offers air conditioning. Therefore, it is best to head here during the heat of the day and save the other markets for later in the evening.

Another well-known department store in Ho Chi Minh City is the Tax Department Store, which is located at the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi. The area offers many stalls that sell souvenirs and as you go up level by level the goods may get better.


Souvenirs

Going on holiday wouldn’t be complete with bringing back some souvenirs for people and many places in Vietnam cater directly for this trend. For a souvenir idea that is a little different look towards the Phuong Mai Art Gallery which is located in District 1 on Le Thanh Ton. The gallery showcases and sells a variety of contemporary Vietnamese art and while bringing back a painting may seem like a pain they come in a variety of sizes. In fact, there are sections of Bui Ven Street that are dedicated to paintings and art.

Blue Dragon, a store on popular backpacker Pham Ngu La street, stocks a whole range of items that can be taken back as souvenirs including many pieces if art that have been crafted from recycled motorbike parts.

Dogma is another popular store found on Dong Khoi. It is mainly there to provide old propaganda posters especially from the war era and also has a variety of T-shirts as well – these stores are popular in the north especially in Hanoi, and while there are less of them in Ho Chi Minh City, they are still popular with tourists looking for a souvenir with a difference. Vietnamese propaganda items can also be found in a variety of other places.

Aside from these options you can try some of the markets mentioned above such as Ben Thanh. You will find countless stalls here selling souvenir items from crafts, jewellery, clothes and other assorted things although, as we have already mentioned, the price can be slightly high if you do not have good bargaining skills.


Vietnamese Handicrafts

Some of the crafts made in Vietnam are well worth taking home with you and luckily, if you are visiting Ho Chi Minh City, then there are a lot of places where you can pick them up for a reasonably price.

In the south plates, bowls, lacquer ware and coconut dinnerware are very popular and the An Dong Plaza which is located in District 5 of the city near Cholon is the best place to go on the hunt for handicrafts. Much of the plaza will remind you of some of the shopping experiences in Bangkok with long and winding alleys in the plaza filled with stalls all selling essentially many of the same items. While the plaza tries to be more like a store experience rather than a market one it still comes across this and the vendors here have been known to be more aggressive in their sales tactics than more tourist friendly places such as Ben Thanh Market.

These types of items can also be found at many of the stalls and shops around Ho Chi Minh City.


Shoes

Like the Old Quarter in Hanoi, many streets in Ho Chi Minh City specifically deal in one item and shoes are no exception. While the markets and the department stores that we have already mentioned in this article stock a wide range of shoes to get the best deals and the best quality then it is recommended that you head to the various shoe street locations throughout the city. Ly Chinh Thang Street is located in District 3 but is not far from the main area of Le Lai and Pham Ngu Lao in District 1. It is a street that is lined with shoe stores from women’s, men’s and children’s with a variety of styles and designs in both western and Vietnamese styles. However if you are looking for something that is a little closer to District 1 then the streets surrounding Ben Thanh Market have many shoe stores. While the price here is a bit higher due to its close proximity with the main tourist and backpacker area it does have the same range as Ly Chinh Thang Street.


Fabrics and Handbags

Often we get a bit carried away with our purchases and this can sometimes result in a frenzied call to our airline to add an extra bag and also having to seek out and purchase another suitcase as well. Alternatively you may just be searching for a handbag to take home with you, either way there are handbag and bag streets around Ho Chi Minh City that specifically deal in these items. The closest one for tourists is actually just off Le Lai Street; if you head towards the Ben Thanh Market there is a street between here and the New World Hotel that is just filled with handbags, suitcases and other bags such as backpacks. There are a lot of North Face rip offs however the quality of many of the products here is actually very good but be prepared to haggle for the best price.

Vietnam is regularly regarded as one of the best tailoring countries in the world and because of this there are many places in Ho Chi Minh City where you can purchase high quality fabrics. Across from Tan Dinh Market is a fabric street that is full of tailors and small shops selling a variety of fabrics including silk for reasonable prices. Additionally the Soai Kinh Lam material market which is located in the Chinatown area is great for bright and colourful fabrics. Prices here are cheap on account of the fact that they mainly sell wholesale.


Opening Hours & Money

Due to the fact that Ho Chi Minh City is trying to market itself as a tourist hotspot many of the stores, especially in the District 1 and Le Lai area, stay open later than normal. You can expect to find most local stores open from 7 or 8am to around 10pm at night with many taking a lunch break from 11.30am to 1pm or so although most will stay open over this period. Department stores can be different and they generally close earlier around 7pm.

While shopping always carry local currency with you. Ho Chi Minh City is certainly more forward thinking than Hanoi in terms of money handling and large many stores and almost all department shops will accept major credit and debit cards such as Visa and MasterCard however when you go to the markets or smaller shops expect to pay cash.

A good idea is to carry a lot of small bills around with you so that when you do haggle down to a reasonable price you can pay that price instead of having to get change – some vendors will be reluctant to give you back change if you have brought the price down a great deal. Lastly, tax is usually included in the retail price (if there is one) and works out at about 10% for most goods.

When seeking out a currency exchange it is always best to go to banks over agencies.


Available in many marketplaces and in bookstores back home, The MySherpa guide and the Luxe city guide are two great guide books that offer maps and cross referenced shopping descriptions to help you navigate through the city.

Shopping in Ho Chi Minh City is a great experience and there are many different options depending on what you actually want or need. Markets represent a good Vietnamese experience of shopping however they are often overpriced and those not used to or willing to bargain will end up paying a lot more money. The 21st century shopping malls have been springing up recently and they offer a much more western styled shopping experience even if they can seem quite disconnected. The real bargains to be had are in the local shops surrounding tourist areas where many clothes, shoes, souvenirs and other items are available and you can test your bargaining skills here without being in the overcrowded and overwhelming location of one of the markets. While Ho Chi Minh City may not be as cheap as other places in Vietnam it does represent a good opportunity to grab some inexpensive items for yourself and friends and family back home.