All too often visitors to Vietnam find themselves saddled with cumbersome souvenirs in the form of conical hats that don’t survive the overhead bins, colorful ao dai (national dress) tunics difficult to wear back home or bottles of pungent nuoc mam (fish sauce) quarantined in the back of the kitchen cabinet. For souvenirs that are both beautiful and practical, here’s our shopping guide to products inspired by Vietnam that you’ll actually use long after your trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Illustrated books by Bridget March
After leaving her job as an English art college lecturer in 2012, Bridget March now spends her days drawing and sketching everyday scenes in Vietnam, which she has turned into books about Sapa, Hoi An and her latest, Sensational Saigon. Inspired by Vietnam’s 'family values, sense of community, frugal ways and its unsophisticated character', Bridget’s delightfully illustrated creations are part art book, part travelogue and part insight into the stories, myths and habits behind the scenes she captures.
Best of all, her books come with postcards to send home. Bridget’s books and cards are available at Kokois and Artbook (43 Đ Dong Khoi) as well as at her own gallery in Hoi An.
Effortlessly chic threads from Chula Fashion
Founded by Spanish husband-and-wife team of Laura Fontan and Diego Cortizas, Chula Fashion embodies everything the couple loves about the people, food, art and culture of their home base of Hanoi. Cortizas borrows from his background in architecture to design bold prints and patterns based on geometrics as well as more traditional Vietnam-inspired motifs, using sumptuous silks and linens to create dresses, jackets, shirts and other garments for men and women. There’s an element of whimsy in their collections, which draw inspiration from as far and wide as David Bowie, food menus and Vietnamese symbols. Handmade with a hint of European flair, the garments are hip enough to blend in anywhere in the world while subtly showcasing elements of Vietnamese design. In addition to Spain and Thailand, four Chula stores can be found in Hanoi, Hoi An and HCMC.
Bound notebooks and embossed luggage tags by Freewill Leather
In a small studio just north of downtown Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Thanh Huynh and her team create gorgeous custom leather products that range from bound field notebooks to sheaths for artist supplies, all at surprisingly reasonable prices. Using the design aesthetics and attention to detail gained from her background in interior design, Thanh creates bags inspired by Hoi An lanterns and batik from Sapa, as well as beautiful luggage tags stamped with a map of Vietnam (custom embossed for less than US$10). Products can be delivered to your hotel, or visit her workshop to choose your leather and design.
Custom-made jewellery by Saigon Armory
After trading English lessons with the daughter of a local blacksmith, special education teacher turned entrepreneurial blacksmith Greg Hitz picked up the skills to create minimalistic, unisex jewellery, some using old Indochinese currency and Vietnamese silver, hand-hammered up to 300 times. Greg says Saigon Armory’s simple designs 'encourage honesty and self-reflection, complementing the individual rather than the jewellery itself'. Saigon Armory can size customers at their hotel and deliver custom orders in two days.
Nostalgic board games at Gingko Concept Stores
Born and raised in Vietnam, Lien Pham now studies at an art school in Boston, spending summers back in HCMC working as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. One of her most memorable projects was Vietnam Memory Game, a set of 40 images of iconic Vietnamese landmarks visually referencing wartime propaganda art. After drawing the images in watercolour for a vintage, hand-painted look, Lien gave them all a contemporary twist by mixing in vector graphics. The game is available at Gingko Concept Stores (in HCMC and elsewhere in the country), which specialise in creative products made in Vietnam.
Vintage-style homeware and clothing from O&M
Norwegian commercial photographer and graphic designer Mads Monsen describes Vietnam as a 'visual candy store'. Using his photographs as inspiration, Mads and his wife Oanh create visually stunning gifts including tote bags and pillow covers featuring vintage tile designs and more. They have fused the process of traditional Vietnamese lacquer-making with modern print technology to make coasters and gift boxes, one of which was presented to former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama. All of their products are available online and there is limited stock on-hand, which can be delivered to your HCMC hotel.
Chic shoes and leather goods by Dominique Saint Paul
Born in HCMC to British parents, Dominic Price made his way up the ladder in the world of banking before abruptly changing course. Inspired by the shoes custom-made to suit his mother's disability and hand-tailored clothing from his childhood spent in India, at the age of 50 Dominic turned to his lifelong passion of designing high-quality shoes. The result is Dominique Saint Paul, named for the hospital (Clinique Saint Paul) in which Price was born in the early 1960s. The brand is now known for shoes and leather goods, crafted by skilled and passionate artisans using high-quality European leather. Some of the hand-coloured goods have subtle details inspired by Vietnam, including pearl tassels that resemble Hoi An lanterns. Completely handmade, each product can be custom-coloured to suit your tastes. While these definitely won’t be your least expensive shoes, they may very well become your favourites.
Textile-adorned bags by Ethnotek
Founded by bag designer Jake Orak, Ethnotek (a portmanteau of 'ethnology' and 'technology') utilises beautifully handwoven textiles in durable backpacks and other travel products. After a visit to the northern highlands of Vietnam in 2007, Jake found a way to integrate authentic ethnic textiles into high-quality, functional bags, while bringing stable income to artisan communities and empowering them to revive and sustain their craft. The textiles are now sourced from Indonesia, Guatemala, Ghana, India and Vietnam, some of them upcycled from Hmong tribal skirts. Each has a unique combination of motifs and colours, and textile panels on most Ethnotek bags are interchangeable. Though Ethnotek has no brick-and-mortar stores, everything on sale is inspired by Vietnam.