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What to buy and where to buy it in Hanoi

I travel a lot and I am tempted by so many stunning Asian goods and textiles. When in a country which has a famous good, e.g. Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Tea, Chinese Silks, Thai teak, etc. it is a wonderful reminder of the trip to bring something home. However, having been in Asia for a while now I believe something must be very special in order to add kilos to my luggage and make it home into my personal collection. With that said I think there are some special shops and items in Hanoi worth checking out.

No doubt you will find the usual collection of Asian silks, fans, statues, fake designer goods, etc. I don’t need to tell you where to find these, vendors for these items are abundantly littered throughout Hanoi.

But what Hanoi uniquely offers, in my opinion, are some items that are hard to find elsewhere and still represent really good value. And a particularly good area to shop for all of these is the Nha Tho area or the Church area in the Hoan Kiem (Lake) District. Here are a few of our favorite things:

Lacquerware
This high gloss style of tableware is synonymous with Vietnam. It was introduced to the world in Paris in the 1930’s by a Vietnamese artist visiting an international trade fair. Since then, the world has fallen in love with the elegance and style of lacquerware. You can certainly find this in China and Thailand, but not with the same level of quality of variety. And personally, I think there is nothing more chic to serve champagne or tapas on that a glossy black and Chinese red lacquerware tray.

To be fair there are many stores for lacquerware in Hanoi. I tend to prefer the simple, traditional styles without a lot of flourish. No painted butterflies or infinity symbols for me….I prefer a wide of expanse of uninterrupted glossy color. And while there are several stores in the Hoan Kiem District, I like MARENA Hanoi, The Art of Lacquerware and Ceramic, located at 28 Nha Chung Street, +84 (0) 4 38285542. The selection there is well edited and impressive.

Propaganda Posters
There are so many pieces of art, culture and communication left over from the war.  And unlike many other countries who might jettison these materials with a blind future focus, Vietnam has held onto and reproduced many of the stunning examples of art and culture from this period. One of my personal favourite genres is the genre of graphic propaganda posters. These posters were a form of graphic art used to educate and inspire citizen action to align with the political and cultural agenda of the time. They were effective “weapons” to raise morale, change behaviour and direct the efforts of the citizens during the war. Most of the themes during the war center around the people’s battle and production activities.

I have always loved rifling through the posters and reading the sometimes concrete and sometimes abstract slogans such as “Save the country – save the youth” or “Breed more pigs for a Vietnam with full stomachs.” Inspired by some of the more agricultural ones, we bought a series of food posters with a view to hang them in the kitchen – one about pigs, another about vegetable farming and another about coffee production. Again like with the lacquerware there are many stores in Hanoi, but we like The Hanoi Gallery, they have several locations, and we prefer the 17 Nha Chung location, +84 (0) 4 37711956.

Cotton and Linen Hand-embroidery
Sure Vietnam is famous for its silks, but did you know they also have wonderful hand embroidered cotton and linen? Since the start of the 20th century, embroidery has been passed on from generation to generation. In Vietnam this exquisite art of supremely detailed hand embroidery is top quality and surprisingly affordable. From elaborately detailed and baroque designs to simple, modern tone-on-tone linens, you can find it all here. And this work is applied on all manner of linen items from lingerie travel bags to duvet covers to dining room place-mats and napkins to pillow cases to shirts.

One of my favorite stores for this is May at 7 Nha Tho Street, +84 (0)4 38289650. I love the assortment of items…all of the best quality…and all beautifully displayed. I struggled to choose between linen napkins and must have pored over the pile for 30 minutes – they were all so beautiful. I was tempted by the duvet covers but Paul thought it would be impractical with our naughty cat who might view it as a new and attractive item to scratch. But I did also walk away with lots of lovely shoe and lingerie bags for travel that I have been giving as (much adored) presents back in Singapore.

While certainly not a complete list, this should get you started on what is special to buy and where to buy it when in Hanoi. Be sure to finish off your day with a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and drink a Bia Hoi and you have just had a lovely day in Hanoi

J

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