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In Saigon, spending is great frenzied fun

Though the goods aren't high-end, bargains can be found on silk scarves and blouses, custom-tailored suits and lacquerware.

December 17, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — GOOD morning, Saigon: Another shopping day is breaking on the wide, tree-lined boulevards of the city's central business district. Proprietors are sweeping sidewalks, saleswomen are rearranging displays, tourists are drifting out of their hotels in search of bargains.

They won't have much trouble finding them. Hong Kong and Tokyo may be the hot spots in Asia for high-end shopping, but Ho Chi Minh City -- which most people here still call Saigon -- is a low-end shopper's fantasy.

With tourism flourishing, shops and boutiques are springing up and offering designer wear and artwork at a fraction of what they cost in the West. The best buys: clothing, especially custom-tailored suits ($100 to $200) and silk fashions (a woman's raw-silk jacket and skirt, $55); also ceramics, ethnic fabrics and lacquerware.

More than 30 years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, the nation is on the rise. In the last decade, the economy has mushroomed, growing an average of 7.4% annually, second to China.

And leading the race is Ho Chi Minh City, bulging with more than 7 million residents in its metropolitan area and 4 million motorbikes. The commercial capital of the nation is also Vietnam's most populous city, packed with young adults who came from the countryside looking for work. They can expect to earn an average annual income of $1,800; elsewhere in the nation, it's less than $700.

Ho Chi Minh City, once called the Paris of the East, has evolved since the war, which residents call the American War. The city is noisy, crowded and lively. Shady boulevards still grace the downtown, but there's a kind of chaotic energy that's at its most frenzied level during rush hour, when the crush of motorbikes and the honking of horns is nearly overwhelming.

The city draws most of the tourists who visit Vietnam, which has meant continuing improvement in facilities. In the '90s, clean, efficient hotels were difficult to find. Now international brands are staking out prime real estate.

The Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel, which opened in July 2005, added high-end luxury downtown and joined several other mid- and upper-range hotels. Restaurants continue to develop, featuring Vietnamese or Western cuisine. Most have English-language menus.

And then there's the shopping. Low labor costs have made prices attractive to Westerners; Vietnam's burgeoning fashion industry has made the merchandise interesting.

"In the past, local designers focused on traditional styles, such as the ao dai, or long dress, and relied heavily on locally made textiles like silk and taffeta," said Luong The Phuc, editor of Heritage Fashion, the in-flight magazine for Vietnam Airlines. "Today's young designers are mixing Western and Asian styles and playing with unusual fabrics."

Many of the designer shops are on Dong Khoi, the street that originally inspired the city's nickname as the Paris of the East. Trees and colonial-era buildings flank it, along with busy boutiques and galleries.

And for bargain-basement shoppers, there's hyperactive Cholon "Big Market," in the Chinese district, where you can get almost anything at a discount. Cholon's wholesale Binh Tay Market is a colorful maze of walkways and stalls where you can find heaps of cooking utensils, produce, spices and clothing, even ducks bound for the dinner table.

At the center of the market is a small shrine where sticks of incense burn. "Sellers come here when the day isn't going well," a guide said. "They pray for better luck."


The markets

Ben Thanh: Most tourists visit this crowded, lively indoor market in downtown Saigon, where you can find cheap T-shirts, silk scarves, postcards, sunglasses and other items. But the experience isn't always a good one. The vendors shout constantly to attract buyers' attention; meanwhile, pickpockets are working the crowd. And if you aren't a sharp bargainer, you'll probably pay too much. Clothing and knock-off items can be found in the front, near the entrance. At the rear are small food stands.

When you're through, take a walk up Le Loi street toward Dong Khoi; you'll find shops offering items similar to those in the market with much less fanfare. (Le Loi at Ham Nghi, District 1.)

Binh Tay: Binh Tay is at the heart of the Cholon Chinese district. Architecturally, it is a Chinese tour de force, with a wonderful clock tower in the center. Bargains are more likely to be found at this indoor wholesale market than at the touristy Ben Thanh market, and the atmosphere, gritty but real, is enjoyable. (Hua Giang Boulevard, District 6.)


Department stores

Tax Department Store: Check the prices here for lacquerware, souvenirs, T-shirts and silk scarves before you buy elsewhere. This multistory building is filled with touristy stalls that often have fair prices. (Corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue.)

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