Forget the boho-tribal souvenirs that are popular among hippie backpackers, why not indulge in some tasteful luxury in Vietnam — without breaking your wallet.
In a companion-post, we discussed 14 great (and cheap) souvenirs we like to pick-up when visiting Vietnam. In this post, we splurge a little more on items with timeless value: handcrafted and unusual art-pieces that are prohibitively pricey in most Western countries (or, whose craftsmanship has been lost forever), such as handmade shoes, wood-carvings, portraits, giant porcelain vases and more.
Our product recommendations are based around Hanoi and its nearby villages, but similar craftsmanship can be found in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An/Da Nang.
1) Custom Footwear – Buy Bespoke Shoes in Vietnam
After using footwear that has been custom-made for your foot and body, it feels like a veil has been lifted and you’re suddenly aware how you’ve tolerated a constant, low-grade discomfort by wearing mass-produced shoes.
Vietnamese handmade shoes are super-stylish, mimicking traditional Italian aesthetics. The bespoke men’s footwear are especially nice, whereas the women’s custom footwear are a little more eccentric (maybe that’s a good thing).
Look for Tiệm đóng giày (“shoe making shop”) in the big cities. Or, check out these famous and well-recommended stores in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
- Mangii Custom Men’s Footwear (Hanoi)
- Namidori Handmade Shoes (Hanoi)
- Veritas Bespoke Shoes (HCMC)
- Fashion4Freedom – Women’s Handmade Jewelry and Footwear (HCMC)
- CNES Shoemaker (HCMC)
TIP: you don’t need to physically visit Vietnam to buy bespoke shoes. You can contact the shoemakers from abroad and they will happily work with you remotely to size you up, design the shoe to your likely, and ship it to you. Among the more reputable ones (like Mangii), you’re unlikely to be disappointed with the results, so the risk is low.
2) Musical Instruments – Collect Handmade Instruments from Vietnam
If you’re a music aficionado, one of the coolest things you can buy in Vietnam is a traditional handmade instruments Whether its to add some novel sound to your tracks, or get inspiration from an exotic music-style, or to just display for their visual beauty and novelty, we highly recommend buying a handmade instrument like the đàn tranh (plucked zither) and/or đàn nguyệt (like a two-stringed banjo).
You can find these items in the big cities — with a large mark-up. However, you can also buy directly from the instrument-making workshops outside the cities, which is a fun adventure in and of itself. The instrument-makers are small, family-run businesses in specialty villages like Đào Xá. The villages and families go back many generations to a time of guild-towns who made luxury goods for Vietnamese aristocracy and dynastic rulers in Hue. At its peak, there were 50 families making instruments in Đào Xá, but only a few have survived the command-and-control shut-downs of Socialism during the 1970s and 1980s.
Đào Xá is 51 km outside Hanoi. If you go by taxi, you should ask the taxi-driver to inquire among locals where to find the instrument-workshops. Often, the workshops and family-homes are one-and-the-same, so they are easy to miss if you are just walking around looking for them on your own. There are also tourist-operators who arrange visits for non-Vietnamese tourists, such as xinchaolocals.com.
3) Original Vietnamese Art
The Hanoi tradition of paintings and contemporary art-scene is world-class. Likewise, the streets of Hanoi are packed with galleries and studios — from cheap “copy-artists” making beautiful replicas of Klimt and Van Gogh, to talented original artists who are little-known outside of Vietnam.
See our post of some of our favourite dark-cityscape paintings of Hanoi itself — these sell online for thousands of dollars. Likewise, internationally renown artists can fetch eye-watering prices for their however. However, within Hanoi, you can find wondrous original art (>1.5m x 1.5m) by talented, unknown artists for $300-500 USD.
If you spend sometime studying Hanoi’s original art (and copy-art), you’ll notice that, in comparison, the supposedly “original” art back in Canada is much less technically competent, much less original, and much more pretentious than the offerings in Hanoi. For example, the much-beloved galleries of Muskoka are often barely original and certainly not technically sophisticated (we hate to admit this, being ourselves great admirers of the Muskoka-inspired Group of Seven)
If you buy Vietnamese paintings, we recommend not rolling-up the painting and reframing it back-home — that will likely cost you as much as the original painting itself (if not more)! Instead, try to buy 4-5 paintings, have them framed in Vietnam (<$100 USD for a decent frame), then have them shipped back home in a a specialty package. Unless you known how to frame canvas yourself, and you have your own ornate frame, this will be much cheaper.
Embroidered-art once was a staple in wealthy North American households, but has almost disappeared completely. In Vietnam, embroidery-art remains a widely appreciated art-form, but it is also dying out, given how time-consuming and difficult it is to make. If you have the opportunity, definitely check-out the orignial embroidered art-pieces — like paintings, or near photo-realistic portraits, all done by thread.
These are truly extraordinary and rare in contemporary times. You may have to travel to a specialty village like Quất Động to find original, high-quality pieces. Take time to study both the mass-produced crap and the real masters’ works.
4) Wood-Carvings — Insanely Luxurious Furniture, Reliefs, Ornaments and More
Have you ever wanted a dragon-throne? How about a USA president’s desk?
There are villages in Vietnam which specialize in such incredibly-ornate wood carvings — from ornaments, to statues, to regal furniture whose ostentatiousness is reminiscent of Baroque nobility.
While a throne may be too difficult to transport, another beautiful and transportable option would be wood-panel relief: intricately-carved wooden scenes that hang like paintings. The content usually revolve around horses, cranes, warriors processions, peasant farming scenes, and other traditional Vietnamese scenary. These aren’t too appealing to us nor most Westerners. However, for a little extra cost, you can provide a photo of your own favourite relief-scene — like a copy of a beautiful triptych.
For such furnishings, you may need to visit one of the specialty wood-carving villages, such as Dong Ky near Hanoi.
5) Bronze-Cast Busts — A Vietnamese Gift that Transends Time
Many tourists visiting Vietnam will get a portrait-painting of themselves. And why not? — the Vietnamese are marvelously skilled painters, and the low-price makes it a no-brainer.
However, for next-level luxury that lasts for thousands years (or more), consider getting a bronze-casting of your bust, i.e. the 3D metal-cast portraiture of your head and shoulders.
One may mistakenly think getting a bronze-bust of oneself is narcissistic. However, you should think of it like a timeless gift to your descendants. For instance, I truly wish I had the bust of my grandfathers; I would’ve paid a lot to have a preserved 3D visage to look upon. Likewise, your grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will appreciate your bronze-bust from Vietnam.
6) H’Mong Clothing — Collect the Amazing Aesthetics of Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities
There are over 54 different ethnic minorities in Vietnam, among whom the Kinh (aka “Viet”) are the dominant group in the North and coastal areas. While their dress is highly Westernize, the many mountain peoples still maintain their traditional fashion, especially the women in groups like the H’Moung, Lolo, Tai, Dao, and many many others.
Each ethnic group has its own distinctive and beautiful textile pattern, all of which seam to revolve around thick-fibre weave anddark subdued earth-tones on a black background.
You can go to mountain places like Sapa or Ha Giang to buy handmade dresses, or you can visit shops near St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi . The dresses can be worn, or they also make a great display-piece, as is becoming more and more common. A women’s handmade ethnic ensemble will cost between $150-300 USD. Western-fusion versions are also available.
7) Ceramics — A Symbol of Vietnamese Luxury
Vases are common among middle-class and wealthy Vietnamese interiors. Once popular in West, ornate vases largedly disappeared from America/Canada, being pushed out of fashion versus the cozy aesthetics of baby-boomers.
Now, however, vases are making a resurgence (we especially like the trend of autumn and winter dried foliage-bouquets in large vases). There is nothing quite as intimidating as a foyer with a 3-foot ostentatious vase that hearkens back to Victorian Orientalism.
The most iconic Vietnamese vases are bone-china with scenes of lotus, cranes and peacocks — sometimes with rich three 3D texturing. A giant vase can potentially fit in an oversized hard-shell suitcase (it can even be stuffed with clothes) making these ceramic luxuries actually quite practical for transport back home.
The most luxurious vases and other ceramics can be found in dedicated pottery-villages. For example, Bat Trang village just outside of Hanoi, and popular tourist destination. You can also take pottery-lessons to make the trip doubly fun.
8) Buy a Fancy Wedding Dress in Vietnam
If you’re engaged, it would likely be cheaper (and more exciting) to fly to Hanoi, get a custom-tailored wedding dress, do a little touristing for a few days, and then fly back, rather than buy a nice wedding dress in the USA/Canada.
Plus, you can hire an affordable wedding-photographer-plus-tour to get some touched-up giant-sized wedding-portraits, as is customary in Vietnam. Overall, it’s a great deal and sort-of-like a pre-honeymoon! For instance, in Hanoi, a nice normal wedding dress would cost approximately $500 USD. A super-awesome dress would cost $1000-1500 USD.
To find wedding-dress shops and photgraphs, walk along Ô Chợ Dừa street in Hanoi.
WARNING: Don’t get offended if Vietnamese tailors and customer-service personnel matter-of-factly comment about your … big bones. Read more about Vietnamese culture and their frankness towards overweight bodytypes.
9) Antiques and Architectural Relics
Out with the old, in with the new
In the wake of Vietnam’s explosive economic growth and construction bonanza, there is a treasure-trove of discarded antiques and fragments of old buildings that are up for grabs — temples, pagodas, old churches, ancient houses, etc.
The country’s detritus can be your treasure: imagine adding centuries-old gabbles to your windows, or a once-temple door as your wine-cellar entrance; likewise old statues, ancient columns, church pews, and other antique furnishings.
Most pieces are lost forever, but there exists a small group of brokers with their ear to demolitions and construction projects. They have a keen-eye for resale value and collect pieces for eccentric buyers.
Finding such brokers can be challenging. We’ve heard that the owners of artistay.vn are connected to such brokers.
WARNING: It is illegal to export antiques from Vietnam without proper permits. You must contact the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Terrorism for permitting. The USA Governments has issued warnings about the arbitrary seizure of things that look like antiques by custom-agents.
10) Designer Handbags — Buy Unique Purses in Vietnam
Wild, unique, attention-grabbing, bizarre, unique — what can be said about the designer handbags in Vietnam?
The challenge is sorting the wheat from the chaff: the markets of big Vietnamese cities will have lots of handbags of various quality, such as cheap Chinese forgeries, and locally-designed gems.
If you’re looking for some social-proof to know where to shop handbags, consider Hanoi’s Tan My, where the Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was recently seen shopping. We can also attest to the uniquely and quality of Tan My, a fashion staple of Hanoi.
Designer handbags sell between $80USD to $200USD.
Bamboo & Sedge Handbags in Vietnam
For a slightly-more economical alternative, but no less fashionable, check out the bamboo, rattan, and sedge-weaved purses in Vietnam. Some sell for a few bucks to dozens of dollars. We love the look, and highlight them in our companion-post on our favourite (cheap) souvenirs to buy in Vietnam.
If you want a little more adventure, you can visit the production-shops in villages like Phú Vinh and Kim Sơn, to see them being made by hand. What is a better way to support hard-working Vietnamese people than buying directly from the family-run factories?
11) True Lacquerware in Vietnam
From jewelry-boxes, to soap-dispensers, to lacquer-paintings, to model-ships, this unusual shellac-coating has a long history of haute couture in Vietnam.
True lacquer comes from the sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum (lacquer tree), and is applied on wood products for a shiny, earth-tone, waterproof finish. Cheaper products use a synthetic shellac and particle-board wood. The higher-end products use real wood and inlay various shiny materials such as egg-shells, chitin, or fish scales for a unique contrast.
Lacquer paintings are unusual looking, and take many months, or even years., to make The process goes through many stages of layering the lacquer, polishing, filling cracks, grinding, pressing inlays, and repeating multiple times.
You can find cheaper products everywhere in Vietnam, from Shopee.vn to tourist souvenirs shops. For the real stuff, look for art-houses or reputable fashion stores like Tan My in Hanoi or Mỹ Nghệ Việt in Ho Chi Minh City.
A great way to tour Hanoi is via a walking tour of artisanal guild-streets — see our map of local manufacturers and artisans who make products and handicrafts on the streets of Hanoi.