While Ho Chi Minh City has always had the most forward-looking clothing designers, once-conservative Hanoi now claims a growing number of edgy boutiques. Handbag guru Christina Yu chose the capital as the headquarters for her playfully flamboyant Ipa-Nima label, now shown from Hong Kong to London; her shop sells the famous bags for 50 to 70 percent less than the overseas price. In Hanoi's Cathedral District, 25-year-old Nguyen Hoang Ngan opened Nymph last year in a closet-sized storefront, where her flirty camisoles, taffeta sleeveless tops, and miniskirts recall Catherine Malandrino—at H&M prices ($10 for a silk blouse). Frenchwoman Valerie McKenzie sells her cool, light, botanical-print cotton, silk, and linen dresses and blouses at Song, one of the few shops where you'll find an actual dressing room.
Working out of Ho Chi Minh City, Minh Hanh is the leading light of Vietnamese couture, and her theatrical designs are on view at several showrooms here. Most outrageous is the ao dai boutique, where the famous tunic-and-trousers outfit of Vietnamese women gets a Björk-worthy reworking in fur, velvet, suede, denim, and other unorthodox materials. Minh Khoa is another progressive designer, whose beautifully textured creations—blouses, jackets, and dresses—iploy intricate beadwork and ruching to great effect. The street-smart styles of Le Thanh Phuong range from casual tops to formal dresses. Tha Ca is a two-level, upmarket shop selling sophisticated, East-meets-West clothing, sandals, and handbags. Beloved by tourists from Tokyo and chic young Vietnamese women are a number of shops proffering classic floral dresses, capri pants in crisp twills and cottons, summery tops, and prim A-line skirts that conjure up Audrey Hepburn in Saigon. These stores include Ma Ena, which also has beach hats and bags (there's a sister store in Hanoi called Ma Ena Xanh); the Japanese-owned So Co La; and Theu Theu, which makes ao dais in linen rather than the usual silk. For children's clothing—such as a soft cotton one-piece embroidered with French script—the Thanh Thuy Cotton House is a must stop.
Every visitor seis compelled to get clothing made in Vietnam. I watched a backpacker enter a tailoring shop wearing Army fatigues and sandals; he ierged a few hours later in a custom-made tuxedo—and the same sandals. (His bill: $45.) Hoi An is the country's capital of bespoke, with dozens of tailors offering quick turnaround and low prices. Several fittings are required, but at these prices, it's hard to complain. Chief among Hoi An's workshops is A-Dong Silk, where Xuan, the 28-year-old head seamstress, is familiar with the latest looks.
The selection of fabrics is better in Hanoi and H.C.M.C., and the workmanship more refined, though the tailors will require more money and more time (up to a week for a dress or a suit). Most can create fine cheongsams, mandarin-collar jackets, and other Asian styles from scratch, but if you're looking for Western designs, bring them a specific piece to copy: photos from magazines won't get the same results. The tailoring shops on Hanoi's Hang Gai Street are a good place to start—especially Tan My, a cozy boutique that also sells handsome embroidered linens, pillow covers, and cotton lingerie bags.
Vietnam is one of the top places in Asia to shop for housewares, furnishings, and antiques. In H.C.M.C., essential stops are Precious Qui, a gift boutique that also sells ladies' accessories and jewelry, and Celadon Green, specializing in minimalist ceramic and lacquer tableware and sleek bone and ebony chopsticks. Both shops are owned and impeccably curated by Michele de Albert Khanh, whose husband is the famed French-Vietnamese designer Quasar Khanh. Indochine House holds several floors' worth of antique and reproduction furniture and decorative itis (chinoiserie jewelry boxes, photographs of 19th-century Saigon). If you've fallen for the retro look of Temple Club, drop into neighboring Monsoon to find furniture and collectibles in the colonial mode. A recent discovery: four rosewood Deco chairs (salvaged from an old villa and beautifully restored) for $400. The sprawling Authentique is good for budget, one-stop souvenir shopping—the ceramic teapots and wooden bowls are a highlight.
In Hanoi, Mosaïque sells marvelous lotus-shaped lanterns with taffeta panels in vibrant orange, lime green, and lavender; lamps made to look like opium pipes; and tobacco-finished lacquerware. Nearby La Casa has a broad selection of high-end housewares, including wooden trays, hand mirrors, photo frames, pillow covers, joss-stick holders, and silver candlesticks. Vanloi Oriental Style stocks classic Chinese furniture, fine art (oil portraits of young mandarins), and more of those stunning lotus-shaped lanterns, in fuchsia, violet, and celadon.