Vietnam Shopping – Shopper’s Guide

This etching of a Vietnamese Junk dates from 1884
This etching of a Vietnamese Junk dates from 1884

To put it briefly, shopping for original or reproduction art in Vietnam can be a fun-filled activity, while searching for genuine antiques is a frustrating process and best left to the dealers who know their stuff.

Though visitors to both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are likely to wander past stores selling what look like antique furniture and decorative items, in most cases these items are ‘modern antiques’, meaning newly fashioned pieces, executed in a traditional style and then artificially aged before being put on sale.

If you do find a genuine antique that you’d like to buy, you’ll need an official export certificate from the dealer. Without it, you’re likely to be stopped at customs as you leave and have to pay a hefty ‘fine’ (read bribe) for not having this certificate. For various reasons, unless you are an antiques dealer yourself, it’s wise to steer clear of such temptation.

Buying art, however, is a whole different ball game. You only need to visit the Fine Arts Museum in either Saigon or Hanoi to see that this country is brimming with artistic talent, and much of it is for sale. In fact, there are small galleries selling the work of up-and-coming artists at both museums.

If you’d like to buy a work of art as an investment, look into the galleries around Dong Khoi in Saigon or on Trang Tien in Hanoi and ask the owner about the artists whose work is on display. If you’re lucky, the value of the painting may increase tenfold in the future.

Most visitors, however, are looking for something a bit more basic and spend their time sifting through reproductions of classic paintings that are on sale in tourist areas. So if you’ve always fancied having a Van Gogh, a Picasso or a Rembrandt hanging on your wall at home, here’s the chance to pick one up at a bargain basement price.

And the Soviet-influenced ‘power art’ of the early communist years in Vietnam is iconic in its own right, and stands worthy to adorn any bohemian student’s bedroom wall along with Che Guevara and Mao. These are easy to find in Saigon’s De Tham district or any of the country’s backpacker hubs.