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Shop Til You Drop - Hanoi, Vietnam

 

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  • Image © 2003 Samantha Coomber

When friends visit my apartment back home, they've admired the exquisite lacquerware bowls, ceramic tea sets and hand-embroidered wall hangings, or my beautiful flowing silks. Enquiring "Where did you get that from?" I smile and say one word: "Vietnam."

Vietnam has got its very own distinctive and unique range of traditional handicrafts and goods to buy, especially silks, lacquerware, embroidery, ethnic minority products, plus buffalo horn, wood, bamboo and rice paper and ceramic items. In short, Vietnam is a shopper's paradise. Furthermore, what's doubly enticing is that most goods are ridiculously cheap, so no one can blame you for frenzied retail therapy. Its so tempting, shopping here should carry a government health warning.

Consumer-thirsty, freewheeling Saigon in the south has the Western-style shops, malls and international products. But Hanoi offers the far superior traditional, hand-made quality goods. It reflects the bohemian ambience and glut of artists and craftsmen still practicing traditional craft methods: Hanoi is considered the artistic center of the country. It is also the gateway to the numerous ethnic minority mountain groups of the north.

The increase in Vietnam's tourism has in fact helped many struggling Vietnamese artists and craftsmen find a much-needed market.

The city itself- especially the ancient narrow streets of the Old Quarter and wide boulevards of the French Quarter - is the perfect setting for atmospheric-charged boutiques. As if you needed any more encouragement, shop owners have tapped into Hanoi's traditional artistic heritage, as well as Buddhist influences. Hence many shops are as beautiful as the products they sell. Many create a sensuous atmosphere, with silken lanterns, swirling incense, artworks adorning the walls and huge vases filled with exotic blooms, such as birds of paradise and lotus flowers.

There are three main tourist locations for shopping in Hanoi, all in the touristy Old Quarter. One is Hang Gai, known appropriately as "Silk Street," for obvious reasons. Its wall-to-wall shops aimed at mass tourism sell silk goods (along with tailoring services) and souvenirs, the choice practically blowing your mind. There is the European-influenced Nha Tho, translating as "Cathedral Street," with St. Joseph's Cathedral and its square dominating this tree-lined street and surrounding area. Inside the tiny, traditional houses are the perhaps the most stunning shops in Hanoi, aimed at the rich and well heeled. They are a delight to just window shop, let alone for their gorgeous items on sale. Certain streets in the Old Quarter aim more for backpacker trade, such as Hang Bac and Hang Be, with dozens of shops selling lacquerware, ethnic and natural product goods.

After all these shopping temptations, one word of advice. Make sure you have an empty bag ready, or excess baggage allowance for your departure, because after all that shopping in Hanoi, you'll need it for your acquired mound of extra luggage!

Silk

Probably the best known shopping item in Vietnam and particularly Hanoi, is silk. Compared with Thailand, Vietnamese silk is slightly inferior quality (many shops don't actually sell 100% silk), but prices are lower and tailoring services are great value. From ceiling-high rolls of taffeta, Vietnamese silk and organza, you can order up exquisite suits, dresses, ball gowns, shirts and trousers in traditional or modern designs. Or opt for the traditional ao dai, a national dress unique to Vietnam, which comprises baggy trousers under a tight fitting, long tunic-style dress. An offshoot of silk garments are accessories; the ever-useful silk sleeping bags and truly gorgeous silk scarves and handcrafted silk bags and shoes, which Hanoi seems to excel in. In a seductive kaleidoscope of colors - some hand embroidered and beaded - the silk shoes are guaranteed to turn you into an Imelda Marcos.

Hanoi is overloaded with silk shops, particularly on Hang Bong and Hang Gai Streets; some have better reputations than others, such as Kenly Silk (108 Hang Gai). Established in 1994, past patrons include a Brunei princess and Bill Clinton's mother in law! This family establishment prides itself on excellent service and high-quality materials: only the finest Vietnamese silks (taffeta, raw silk and satin) are used and prices reflect the high quality. The three-story showcase shop has a fabulous range of silk garments and exquisite embroidered goods, many handmade. Their ladies ready to wear include striking ao dais, featuring a modern take on traditional designs ($39); plus there's luxurious patterned and beaded throw scarves ($17-42), glorious hand-made bags (from silk mobile phone holders to beaded evening bags) and distinctive hand-made silk shoes ($15).

The sumptuous interiors of the Song boutiques, (5 & 7 Nha Tho) combine exclusive designs, the best available materials and traditional craft work, that result in unique items standing apart from commercial, mainstream products. Song is a small design house (French owned) and its approach to products from high-end fashion through to exquisite home-wares is unequivocally different. Their mostly silk collections are a mixture of classic pieces combined with decorative clothes with a thrown-together appeal: these include silk pants ($28) or satin traditional padded jackets ($105). The home range blends sophistication with a shabby chic aesthetic. The tactile fabrics with textural variation used are mostly natural fibres, some punctuated by characteristic embroidery: sumptuous pillows and cushions in velvet, taffeta and silk brocade ($17-26), taffeta silk blankets ($198), or cotton bed quilts with silk embroidery ($90). Gorgeous accessories include silk embroidered pouch bags ($18) and handcrafted flat silk bags ($29). They combine antique attitude with a contemporary style, uniting handicraft with art and fashion.

The narrow Le Vent boutiques in the Old Quarter (7b & 31c, Ly Quoc Su) combine ancient and modern Vietnam; not just in the gorgeous décor, but in the clothes the young Vietnamese designer/ owner creates. She takes traditional designs with modern, fashionable slants, the styles are simple, high quality and all hand-made. Designs are influenced by her numerous trips to China. Le Vent's specialty is two-fold: sheer organza items that include hand embroidered curtains, wall hangings, large shawls ($20) and unusual clothes. Particularly her modern take on the traditional, tight-fitting ao dai. With intricate embroidery on sheer organza in white, reds or blacks, the high-cut sleeveless or long sleeved ao dais are airy and loose, split and tied at the side ($30-40): a contemporary variation with traditional Chinese fixings. Secondly, stunning silk hand-stitched motifs of Chinese poems, butterflies and large lotus blooms, proliferate.

Lacquerware

Of the many types of traditional handicrafts, lacquerware -son mai - is most typical of Vietnam. Practiced for thousands of years, lacquerware is made by applying multiple layers of special paints mixed with resin onto shaped bases such as bamboo, wood and coconut and then vigorously polished to achieve a deep, lustrous sheen. Amongst the layers, inlays of mother of pearl, bone, eggshells or painting designs are added and are polished off for a smooth finish. The process usually takes about 4 weeks, sometimes longer.

On streets in the Old Quarter, you'll see countless shops selling piles of shiny, bright colored lacquerware products, such as boxes, bowls, photograph albums, vases and trays. Not all of them however are made in the traditional way (which takes longer to produce and requires far more effort and skill). Mass-produced goods -which use industrial color and lacquer imported from Japan - have swamped the market. They can't compare to traditional lacquerware in both durability and charm: the latter are double the weight due to more layers, colors are more authentic, made from natural materials and you can't smell any trace of paint!

Two quality lacquerware shops located in the Old Quarter both offer more unusual variations on the common mass-produced stores. Anh Duy (25 Hang Trong) have skilled craftspeople making high quality lacquerware products, using superior bases and paints (with up 16 layers). They sell the traditional, highly polished lacquerware so prevalent in other shops, such as the smooth, lustrous plates, or wooden boxes with bronze catches and handles ($7.50-16). This high sheen, deep colored, traditional lacquerware is cheaper, but it's not so strong, can easily be scratched and broken and is lighter than modern lacquerware, which Anh Duy specializes in. Modern lacquerware is more expensive, but higher quality products are used, so wares are heavier, superior quality and more durable. It has a more contemporary style: Japanese influenced-shapes, with a matt finish and lighter, brighter hues. There are three ways of production. First, high-quality bamboo covered with a special cloth and paints; thus bamboo -unlike traditional products - is visible in designs. Secondly, MDF is used as a base (compressed natural wood powder) and thirdly, MDF plus split bamboo on the interior surface, making for more interesting designs. Check out wonderful bowl sets complete with chopsticks threaded through, angular bowls ($10), large fruit bowls ($7.50), eggshell biscuit tins ($17), or trays ($12-17).

Minh Tam (2 Hang Bong) has hand-made, traditional lacquerware of the highest quality, combined with a modern look. Their specialty is eggshells incorporated in about 20 layers and polished off, resulting in a very smooth, unusual finish. A family business established 10 years ago, Minh Tam's stylish black and white products include huge plates ($55) and vases, masks ($25), plus unusual turtle paperweights ($13). Their superior quality ensures they last for years.

Bamboo

Bamboo (Tre Viet) - a traditional Vietnamese medium - has always been used for basic necessities of Vietnamese life: building houses, furniture, pipes, water carriers and cooking utensils: it's as durable as the hardiest wood. But with the development of the tourist traditional handicraft market, bamboo now comes as attractive interiors and craft products: tables, chairs, chopsticks, wind chimes, picture frames, bamboo bases, bird cages and fans. Bamboo products are mostly made by hand; the bamboo soaked in water for a couple of years and dried naturally.

Bamboo Shop (4b Hanh Hanh) takes bamboo to new styles, sprung from Vietnamese traditional crafts. Under their parent company Tre Viet, they specialize in designing and manufacturing bamboo interior furniture and handicrafts. In smoked or natural bamboo varnished designs - either split or whole trunks - there are a multitude of tempting products: trays ($4-5), picture frames ($6), single bottle wine racks, candle holders, wind chimes, hanging lamps and magazine racks ($7). If you want to furnish your home, tropical style low chairs and tables ($25-27), shelves ($26) and long standing light-shades with rice paper ($29) can be exported back home.

Ethnic Minority Products

Vietnam has more ethnic minority groups than any other Asian country (about 54). Most of them live in remote mountain villages in the north. Each has their own individual style and colors of clothing, with distinctive embroidery and weaving patterns. With the onslaught of tourism, many of their handicrafts and clothes are now found in craft shops, especially in Hanoi. Some of the embroidered and weaving in the goods is exceptional and makes great souvenirs, decorations or articles of clothing. Craft link (43 Van Mieu) is a Vietnamese non-profit organization (financially self-sustainable) that helps small-scale producers of traditional crafts and ethnic minorities to generate income, develop businesses and find market opportunities. Craftlink does not work with state-owned factories or joint venture organizations; it gives priority to the marginalised or disadvantaged, such as ethnic minority people in remote areas. Traditional handicraft goods created by various ethnic minority groups (mostly of North Vietnam) are on sale. Each ethnic group (Thai, Hmong and Dao are particularly featured here) have their own distinctive style of embroidered, stitched handicrafts, with a different range of colors used. Goods include heavily stitched ethnic cushion covers, skull caps, square wall hangings with embroidered, quilt or batik patches ($9), stitched and embroidered traditional shoulder cloths -usually on thick, dyed cotton or hemp. Or hand-loomed woven tablecloths with beading and hand embroidery ($40 upwards) and intricately woven long thick wall hangings ($29) or scarves. Prices usually go by the intricacy of embroidery and amount of beading. Plus sticky rice baskets ($2.50) and traditional smoked bamboo woven back baskets used for work in the fields (around $15) are on sale.

Not just a great gift, ornament or item of clothing; these are actually worn and used by the minority people themselves and money spent goes back to helping them.

In contrast, Craftlink offers some of the loveliest silk accessories from ethnic groups in the Central Provinces: gorgeous silk pouches and roll bags, wallets and a stunning collection of silk bags (from $7) and silk batik scarves ($11).

Tribal Pan Flute (42a Hang Bac) also sells ethnic minority goods, but with a difference. In a tiny Aladdin's cave of a shop, the owners scour remote minority villages of the north, looking for and buying unusual and traditional second-hand ethnic goods; items of everyday life, which have been used by the villagers themselves. Some border on antique status, most at the very least, distressed looking. The shop is piled high with original, second-hand embroidered jackets and shoulder cloths, Hmong tie-round skirts, Dao neck drapes, skullcaps and cloth baby carriers. In addition, there's shaman's wooden stamps, old wooden carved printing blocks, rice paper prayer rolls, old jewelry, sticky rice baskets, even tools for weaving!

Embroidery

Embroidery -a timeless Vietnamese craft tradition - is another specialty of Hanoi and there is now a dearth of embroidery shops catering to the huge tourist demands. Many shops on Hang Gai sell embroidery and drawn threadwork, which make great souvenirs, gifts or household items. Amongst them, Tan My (66 Hang Gai) is one of the best, with a glowing reputation for high quality and design. A family business established back in 1970, Tan My sells beautiful 100% hand-made embroidered goods on either top-notch imported or Vietnamese cotton. The astonishing detailed designs include majestic dragons, lotus flowers, or typical Vietnamese scenes; either with vibrant colored threads or white on white for a more classic style. They particularly excel in stunningly embroidered tablecloths ($20), bed sheets and pillows, cushion covers and framed hand-stitched pictures. Also their gorgeous embroidered children's range: baby quilts ($27), girl's smocked dresses ($9-15) and alphabet pictures ($6).

Chi Vang (17 Trang Tien) sells exquisite embroidered work with traditional designs created entirely by hand on 100% Vietnamese natural materials, such as cotton and linen. This is not your run-of-the-mill, mass produced stuff. The founder spent two years training workers in a village outside Hanoi and this shows in the products high standards. Prices are high, but reflect the hours or weeks of handiwork, top quality and lifetime longevity. Tablecloths start from $60, heavily embroidered framed pictures ($50) and bed linens, around $150.

Wooden products

The natural abundance of a variety of natural woods (mahogany, rosewood, cinnamon, camphor wood, pomu and Jackfruit, etc) offers a broad range of handicraft products.

Depending on their strength and softness, these are transformed into carvings, statuettes, chopsticks and boxes. Look out too for water puppet figurines, a delightful ancient folk art typical to North Vietnam and hand-carved for centuries in traditional artisan villages. All these are available en-mass in countless souvenir shops in and around the Old Quarter.

Recently, contemporary-style furniture and home products have helped launch a handful of luxury interior and homeware shops. With an Italian designer on board, LaCasa (12 Nha Tho), takes traditional Vietnamese artisan techniques and traditional Vietnamese use of their own and western products, adapting them to modern designs. LaCasa is Italian for "home," which is what this homeware and interior design company specializes in. Inspiration comes from the abundance of local quality materials available, including fine woods such as mahogany, rosewood and pomu. The refined and contemporary design collection gracefully blends east and west. In their beautiful shop, items sold include wooden boxes with three drawers and mirror, plus brass handles ($90); mahogany letter holders ($20), stone capped bottles with traditional word character ($22), small rosewood ring boxes with bone ($3), mahogany picture frame with Vietnamese traditional word characters ($15), and stone paperweights in the shape of a traditional Vietnamese word character ($15). The furniture collection includes beautifully crafted chests of drawers, beds, wardrobes, tables and chairs, adapting old traditional themes with contemporary, clean styles. Craftlink also sells Lim wood traditional handicrafts of intricately carved woodcarvings and ornaments, also Jackfruit wood bowls.

Buffalo Horn

Vietnamese craftsmen transform hoary buffalo horns into practical and beautiful items, such as combs, hairpins, chopsticks, jewelry and handbags, depicting the culture and art of Vietnam. Again, there's a whole new market to cater for with the influx of tourists. They come in a range of translucent hues, some with delicate carved patterns. The long-drawn out process of this ancient craft requires the burning and flattening of horns, all done by hand. Many shops sell a selection of horn products. Craftlink do a good range of buffalo horn cutlery, such as teaspoons and salad servers ($9), pickle forks ($2) and bone ended chopsticks (around $1). Song sells exquisite horn hair adornments with silver ($14) and LaCasa produces interesting horn products: hair pins ($3), glasses ($4.50-9), candle holders ($6), incense holders ($8) and small dishes ($3).

Rice paper

The ethnic greetings cards, watercolor and folk paintings, bamboo-bound notebooks and vogue table lamps you see in the shops are all made with Do paper (rice paper). It's an entirely natural product from the bark of the Do Tree, created by hand. Craftlink purchases hand-made paper from a traditional papermaking village, north of Hanoi and develops them as stationary sets, notebooks, ethnic cards and gift boxes. Rice paper cards with ethnic minority embroidered squares cost around $2, rice paper bamboo bound notebooks cost $1.50 and hemp covered notebooks, from $2. Shops along Hang Gai and Hang Bac Street also sell rice-paper products.

Ceramics

Ceramics are another traditional craft product. If you want the best choice, head out for Bat Trang Village, (about 10km south), which has specialized for centuries in the production of ceramics. The village has now become quite a tourist trap with wall-to-wall shops selling ancient and modern lines in ceramics: vases, tea sets, mugs, plates, etc; many at wholesale prices. The most popular wares are the glazed light green, blue and white, or delicate black pottery. If you can't get out to Bat Trang, many craft and souvenir shops in central Hanoi sell ceramics. Bamboo Shop and Craftlink both have a good line in ceramics, with Japanese and modern influences superimposed on traditional styles. In particular, glazed, black ceramic tea sets, with small square cups and pots with bamboo handles ($8).

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Published on 10/20/03

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