I’m the captain of a cruising vessel that plies the waters of Halong Bay, one of the most beautiful bays in the world. I can’t share with you all of the various questions I get from passengers. But there is one that I get repeatedly, and that does suprise me: What should I shop for in Vietnam?
I don’t look much like a shopper, and I’m not sure what it is about me that prompts the question. But, I have lived in Vietnam for many years. I’ve been around, and I’ve learned a few things about shopping... by osmosis. Here is what I know:
Shopping in and around Hanoi can be a cultural adventure and fairly rewarding if you’re smart about the work. Silks, ceramics, woodcraft and laquerware are high on the list of most peoples’ priorities, I’ve found. Rather than name specific shops, let me point you in a few choice directions. If you’ve come to Halong Bay to cruise Emeraude Classic Cruises, it’s likely that you’ll be in a few of these areas, as well.
The story of shopping in Hanoi starts here. Once upon a time, the renowned 36 streets of the Old Quarter were each dedicated to a single product, whether silk or ceramic or hemp and so on. Many sellers - many competitors - vied for business, each selling variations on the same design. Though the names of the streets remain the same, and many of the original products are still sold on these eponymous streets, the uniformity of the old days is over. Still, this warren of commercial activity buzzes with industry and is a must-stop on any visit to Hanoi.
About ten kilometers from downtown Hanoi, Bat Trang is Vietnam’s most famous pottery village. For hundreds of years, they’ve been turning out some of Asia’s finest ceramics. Indeed, some of Bat Trang’s pieces are in the Louvre today. Visiting Bat Trang today is as much about accessing a profound part of Vietnam’s culture as it is a great buy on some of the world’s finest ceramics.
Ever since Jim Thompson introduced Thailand’s silks to the world in the 1950s, Bangkok has cultivated a reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s finest silk producers. But don’t miss Van Phuc. They’ve been harvesting silk cocoons in this village for 1,000 years. And today, the looms are as busy as ever, turning out roll after roll of Vietnam’s finest silk.
Much further afield than the local villages, Sa Pa is a one-time French colonial hill station that’s come into the 2010s as the epicenter of Vietnam’s hilltribe scene. The scenery and the culture of Vietnam’s hilltribes are the main draw here, but the products produced by the tribes - the heavily brocaded blankets, embroideries, waist coasts, blankets and jewelry - are proof-positive that you’re an adventurous traveler.
And now for my self-serving pitch. We built a shop here a few years ago, the Emeraude Cafe. You can buy wine here, and other sundries. Do check out the souvenirs. We want to make your visit worth our while, and they’e always changing the merchandise. Just don’t tell my wife.