Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s prime destinations for the adventurous and the bold. The country’s bustling streets are brimming with more than just motorbikes and food stalls—they’re also home to some of the best shopping that Asia has to offer. Almost every other shop window in major cities in Vietnam showcases beautiful handicrafts and handmade souvenirs touted by friendly shopkeepers. Among the wares are some hidden gems that would be just the thing to bring a smile to your loved ones’ faces back home.
Choosing just one kind of item to give as generic gifts would be a shame, as there are so many possibilities as to what souvenirs you can get. I’ve always thought of gift giving as an art, and there’s no excuse to get everyone you know the same generic key chain. There’s a gift that will appeal to each person that you know. And you might even be surprised as to what items your family and friends will appreciate!
Here are a few suggestions on what to bring home the next time you go souvenir shopping in Vietnam:
1. Propaganda Art
Best for: your socially- and culturally- aware friends; anyone who was a teenager between the early 60’s and 70’s
There is no shortage of propaganda art in Vietnam. Testaments to this type of art can be found on t-shirts. canvas totes, and calendars. Propaganda art has an important part in the history of Vietnam. A lot of the famous images were created between 1960 and 1974 during the country’s turbulent years, and were used as a means to promote solidarity and strength among the Vietnamese people. The artworks mostly depict vividly hued images of people and places, but also phrases calling for national unity, improved infrastructure, and peace. Tourists can easily find prints on delicate rice paper or in calendars and postcards. A lot of these items have accompanying English translations of the slogans.
2. Snake Wine
Will be appreciated by: your very “metal” friend or brother, or anyone who’s into weird stuff
Not for the faint of heart. Snake wine is bottles of medicinal rice wine with dead cobras preserved inside (I shudder a little while I’m writing this). If you think that’s a little too hardcore for you, sometimes you’ll see a pickled gecko or sea horse instead of the standard coiled reptile. Believed to increase virility by the ancient Chinese, a lot of Vietnamese swear by this stuff for erhm… recreational purposes. Yeah, I don’t know about drinking the stuff. Sure, it’s fascinating to look at, but having this at your bedside table is guaranteed to kill the mood rather than reinvigorate it. But to each his own.
Anyway, it’s available nearly anywhere in Vietnam. Snake wine is often made by villagers filling up leftover brandy or Perrier bottles. Each bottle costs about $20.00.
Ok, you’re probably wondering why in the world you’d want to give it as a gift? Well, for starters, it’s a great conversation piece. Imagine your brother saying, “Yo dude, check out this pickled snake my sister gave me. I bet you wouldn’t wanna run into this little guy huh?” See what I mean? You score a lot of cool points, some for you, and some for your brother. Just make sure that the stuff doesn’t leak out all over your suitcase, and you’ll be fine.
3. Conical hat
Best for: those with an ironic sense of style
Owning a conical hat and heading towards the local Starbucks is always going to raise a few eyebrows, but if you’ve a relative or a friend who can pull off this hat and not care about what others are going to think, who are you to stop them from wearing it? Buy several of these bad boys, as they cost about a dollar each. If you get one from markets in Hue, you can even get a poem or a limerick inscribed in the hat.
What if your friend is on the sporty side? Fear not, there’s a hat for him too! Did you know that you can buy a bamboo baseball cap in Vietnam? It’s shaped like a regular cap, but breezier. Air flows through the strung-together strips of bamboo, ensuring a cool head in even the hottest days. It’s sure to keep anyone cool, and if your friend is so over the cap, he can use it as a steamer in a pinch. Hey, might as well get multiple uses out of the thing, right?
4. Ao Dai
Best for: die-hard fashionistas
What Western girl wouldn’t want a close-fitting little silk number to take home and wow the boys? The Ao Dai is Vietnam’s traditional national dress. Think Kim in Ms. Saigon. It’s sexy, refined, and designed to enhance a lady’s graceful figure. A word to the wise though, you might want to rethink that second bowl of pho before slipping into one of these things. The cut of the Ao Dai is somewhat on the form-fitting side, so it can show every lump and bump on the body.
There are three main styles of Ao Dai: the trendy Ao Dai, which is floor-length and fits the curves of the body and has a nipped-in waist; the hippy Ao Dai, which is brightly colored and very popular among Vietnamese teenagers; and the mini Ao Dai, with panels that stop at the knee and have slits extending past the waist.
The Ao Dai costs about $32.00 for a plain finished product. If you want a more detailed or custom made Ao Dai, you can buy some fabric and have a tailor make it for about $70.00. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t wear the Ao Dai with a conical hat. It’s much too costumey. Unless that’s what you’re going for, then work it girl!
5. Hand-embroidered items
Ideal for: family and friends who like pretty things
I chanced upon some young girls in Vietnam doing honest-to-goodness hand embroidery, and it just amazed me at how skillful they were. Their work put my cross-stitched picture of a cat to shame. And I thought that I could sew!
These ladies make entire embroidered landscapes on pillow cases and handkerchiefs, and the stitching is incredibly fine and detailed. You can even ask them to make something based on your original design, and they will gladly do it for you. A small hand embroidery product will cost about $24.00, and a larger piece will be priced at $95.00.
6. Musical instruments
Best for: music lovers; aspiring musicians, or those who just like to make a lot of noise
A handmade musical instrument can make a nice memento. The bamboo flute and miniature bamboo xylophone are very popular in Vietnam. Many people buy them because they are inexpensive, classy, and are easy to carry. They cost from $13.00 to $45.00 Hey, here’s an idea: why not organize a get together for a night of making music? Imagine what that xylophone is going to sound like when you attempt to play a bit of Coldplay on that. You can even start a band and name it The Wrath of Pho. Or Ao Dai and The Conical Hats. You’re welcome.
See? There really is something for everybody in Vietnam. Whether your aim is to please, amuse, or horrify, there’s something that works for all the people you want to give gifts to back home. It’s just a matter of being open-minded and having a sense of humor whenever you buy souvenirs.
Oh, and let me know how the band works out, will you?