Story and Photos by Lee Daley.
Upscale shoppers will want to travel to Vietnam’s capital city with very little in their suitcases, leaving lots of room for the distinctive range of designer clothes, handicrafts, and local fashions they’ll find there.
Hanoi has long been considered the artistic center of the country and, as a bonus, it serves as a gateway to the many ethnic minorities to the north who find a much-needed market for their unique wares through some of the city’s specialty boutiques.
From dawn to dusk, share Hanoi’s busy pavements with locals, so be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes. Food is everywhere in this “gourmet ghetto” of a city. Cafes, hotels, bistros, and street vendors all offer pho, this first mainstay of Vietnamese life. The second mainstay, of course, being the admiration and acquisition of Vietnam’s artistic wares, such as traditional lacquer ware, sumptuous silks, handmade embroidery, world-class paintings by undiscovered artists and ethnic handicrafts. What’s especially enticing is that most products are extremely well priced so you can indulge yourself in shopping therapy to your heart’s content.
Hanoi shoppers will want to concentrate their quest in two main areas. In the city’s French Quarter, wide embassy-lined boulevards shaded by tamarind trees evoke a timelessness that seems untouched by the tide of vehicles zipping by. This atmosphere creates the perfect setting for some of the city’s relatively pricier boutiques. Still, prices are a bargain, and quality is high.
The best shopping area is near Hoan Kiem Lake in the city’s Old Quarter. Here, the quarter’s 36 byways bear monikers reflecting the artisan trades that flourished there centuries ago. One alleyway is still called Conical Hats, and another is titled Rattan Rafts. Look for the aptly named Hang Gai or “Silk Street,” where wall-to-wall shops display silk goods, tailoring services, and souvenirs. The choices are infinite.
In the same general area, visit tree-lined Nha Tho, namely Cathedral Street, near St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. On this petite passageway, designers and artists have set up clothing shops and galleries in tiny, traditional houses. The French-owned Song boutique located here blends classic cuts with decorative details for a couture clothing look. You’ll also find pillows, cushions, duvets, and quilts in natural fibers, such as velvet, taffeta, and silk, all for a fraction of what you’d pay back home if you could find them.
Be sure to enter the striking twin-towered Cathedral Nha Tho, known as Saint Joseph’s. Often likened to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, its interior is far more magnificent than expected.
One of my favorite stops in Hanoi is Craft Link, a not-for-profit enterprise that helps ethnic minorities find an outlet for their crafts. The beautiful silk Hmong jacket I bought there five years ago still looks elegant, and I get great pleasure from knowing it was hand-made by a mountain tribeswoman from the North. The Craft Link shop at 43 Van Mieu features carved wooden wall hangings, hand-loomed fabrics- some with beading, smoked bamboo woven back baskets, and a myriad of one-of-a-kind crafts. Prices vary from a mere $9 on up to maybe $50 at most. Not just memorable mementos, these items are identical to those actually worn or used by village people. Your purchase dollar goes back to the village to help preserve their art and craft work. Shopping here is truly a blessing.
In both Saigon and Hanoi, art galleries and cultural activities abound. Browsing bookstores and visiting art galleries and museums are rewarding activities in both cities. Pictured below is a young artist displaying his craft in a Saigon sidewalk gallery.
Shoppers seeking bargains on high-end Western-style clothing may want to visit the Burberry and Ralph Lauren outlets outside central Hanoi. Most hotels can arrange reasonable taxi service to the outlets. However, those with a sharp eye may spot sample sizes of these and other brand names in some of the smaller boutiques near the lake. No one shop consistently carries the same line, but many carry a few items from Burberry, Lauren, and Prada, always at bargain prices. In Hanoi, it’s all part of the treasure hunt.
Related Information: For more travel information on Hanoi and farther afield, click ” Immersed in the Diverse Cultures of Vietnam.”