Planning a trip to Vietnam invariably summons visions of the purchases that await: flawless custom clothing, one-of-a-kind colonial curios, high-gloss lacquerware. But high expectations often fizzle upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, to almost everyone). On the well-trammeled corridor of Dong Khoi Street, in the shadow of Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent, desultory shops crammed with tchotchkes fail to impress even the most enthusiastic shopper. But singular, affordable discoveries await at lesser-known addresses. Here, 12 of the city’s top shops. Added bonus: all but one are within walking distance of one another.
Saigon’s streets are lined with 24-hour tailors hawking cheap silk ao dai tunics and promising to copy your Margiela trousers and Prada sheaths overnight. Instead, follow the lead of in-the-know expats to Kin Boutique, on Le Thanh Ton Street, where couturier Nguyen Cong Tri fashions runway-worthy satin and silk frocks at ready-to-wear prices (a floaty, turquoise chiffon dress for under $300). But don’t expect a quick turnaround: it will take up to 10 days and a couple of fittings (shipping is available). For dapper menswear—think Seize Sur Vingt—look for the unfortunately named Massimo Ferrari, a narrow boutique in treelined District 3. Custom-made cotton shirts with a dozen collar options start at $110; chic patchwork pants ($165), deconstructed seersucker jackets ($400), and Hermès-style purple suede loafers ($145) offer the urban dandy plenty of choice.
For more immediate sartorial gratification, Valenciani is the Saigon fashion set’s destination of choice. Racks of candy-colored Indo-chic dresses (from $120) fill the sleek pink-and-black space. Traditional Asian silhouettes are modernized and delivered in unusual fabrics such as houndstooth or nubby wool. Westerners take note: clothes in Vietnam are often displayed only in small sizes, but can be made to your specifications in just a few days. The same holds true at Thuy Nga Design, a minimalist shop tucked under the Beaux-Arts Municipal Theater. Graphic primary-color classics are reminiscent of Michael Kors; a crimson satin party dress with an exposed zipper is a steal for less than $100. If your taste sways more toward breezy linens and silks, head to Sông. Paris-born designer Valerie McKenzie’s eminently packable clothes in saturated hues are a cross between Donna Karan and Calypso.
Locating Villa Anupa, hidden down a slender lane off Le Thanh Ton Street, is a challenge; even harder is deciding which of Anupa Horvil’s butter-soft leather bags should come home with you. Will it be the white hobo with tourmaline beading ($250)? Or the metallic-gray clutch ($160)? Resort caftans in saturated orange, sapphire, and ikat patterns are ideal for the beach-bound.
The white-on-white Modernist building that houses Gaya makes a dramatic first impression (yes, those are giant fountain-pen nibs on the façade). Inside, you’ll find the best haute souvenirs in all of Saigon. Highlights include Michele de Albert’s lacquer bowls (from $18) and trays (from $36) in psychedelic colors; with 12 coats of varnish, they practically glow from within. Stepping into L’Usine is a whole other sensory experience: the light-filled industrial space (polished concrete floors; exposed beams) holds a café, a gallery, and a bevy of casual-cool clothing labels—even a selection of vintage bikes.
Saigon is a bastion of reinvention, and Catherine Denoual, a former Parisian fashion editor, has found her second calling as the doyenne of the perfectly kitted boudoir. Her latest boutique, Catherine Denoual Maison, in the towering Saigon Centre mall, features delicately embroidered sateen bed linens in rich chocolates, golds, and caramels, as well as perhaps the world’s most decadent silk charmeuse robe ($185), for your inner Marlene Dietrich. For more-affordable table linens, head to tiny MG Decoration, on Le Thanh Ton Street, where the selection includes hemstitched cotton and linen pillow covers, table runners, and napkins (from $3), as well as painstakingly crafted needlepoint and cutwork linen place mats.
Parents of little girls thank heaven for Than Thuy, an unassuming shop packed to the rafters with adorable gingham dresses with Peter Pan collars, plaid jumpers, and eyelet nightgowns—all meticulously embroidered, stitched, and smocked by hand. An ideal gift for any new baby: crisp white Mao-collared cotton pj’s with frog closures ($9).
Interiors and Furnishings
Around the corner from Nhu Lan Bakery, one of Saigon’s best banh mi joints, you’ll find Verlim Interiors, whose two rooms abound with perfectly curated antiques and Art Deco reproductions such as a sexy, low-slung mahogany club chair for just $400. If you fall for any of the tasteful settees, or can’t live without an oversize glazed-ceramic lamp, the shop arranges shipping. That striking 19th-century Chinese glass painting in the front room? $2,300. For a more accessible (and luggage-friendly) alternative, Verlim’s lacquer tea caddies come in oxblood or robin’s-egg blue (from $35).