[Video] 6 local brands to check out when shopping in Ho Chi Minh City

Whether you’re after a kitsch heritage fashion piece or a taste of refined homegrown chocolate, Vietnam’s largest city is a retail dream.

Bags from Blue Dragon Craft

Bags from Blue Dragon Craft

Ho Chi Minh’s retail scene is brisk with small but fast-growing brands that reflect the Vietnamese sensibility. Homegrown products have never been this exciting — and if you’re in the market for something that proudly declares “Made in Vietnam”, here’s a shortlist of what to look out for.

https://youtu.be/uAtSx_NpLZY

Above video: Learn how Vietnamese label Very Ngon Homewares, which produces hand-printed textiles, draws inspiration from images of early 1900s Vietnam and Cambodia. Download the full transcript of the video here.

Very Ngon Homewares

Inspired by postcards from 1900s French Indochina, Very Ngon Homewares started out selling tea towels at an expat bazaar in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011. Now the retail brand stocks a diverse homeware collection embracing diverse, hand-printed fabrics fashioned into bed covers, cushion covers, aprons, coasters and oven mitts. The unique selling point? All their items provide a glimpse into the bygone days of Vietnam — from a cushion cover featuring a wealthy woman in a traditional rickshaw and an apron featuring Duy Tan, the young boy who became emperor at the age of seven, to a quilted bed cover decorated with modern street maps of central Saigon.

The duo behind the brand are Lise Nguyen-Owen and Nguyen Thi Minh Hieu, and Very Ngon Homewares touches on all aspects of Lise’s experience: her art-college days as a printing and textiles student, a stint setting up a reuse center, where she spent time hoarding fabric samples, and her enduring fascination with fabric, design and all things vintage. Vietnam has always been a cultural platform for the business and for Lise, who derives inspiration from the fading French architecture throughout the country, the ornate carved-wood panels at a local pagoda, the worn patterned-ceramic floor tiles, the decorative metal window screens and fishermen’s huts on Phu Quoc island — styles that are now quickly disappearing. Upcoming collections will feature locally sourced materials such as buffalo leather and North Vietnamese hill-tribe fabrics.

Lise envisions Very Ngon Homewares as “a sustainable business that continues to find its inspiration in Vietnam while providing local employment and training to Vietnamese women”. For her, a greater calling lies behind all the commercial efforts. “I would also love to find ways to tap into and support artisans from traditional craft villages who are at risk of fading away into our history books,” she says. “Ethically and environmentally, we want to continue to find ways to reduce our environmental footprint as a business, and to increase our financial assistance to worthy but little-known local causes.”

Where to find their stuff:
Duy Tan – Saigon Artisan, 76A Le Loi St, District 1; +84 8 3821 3614

Crafts from Saigon River Factory
Crafts from Saigon River Factory

Saigon River Factory

Saigon River Factory takes its name from its owners’ home, which lies on the banks of the city’s major waterway. It started in 2004 as a small Belgian-run workshop specializing in candle holders and home decor, all featuring Western designs and crafted locally. Before settling in Vietnam, owners Peter Arts and Hedwig Pira lived permanently out of their suitcase, moving from one city to another. In the early days of their careers in design and manufacturing, they launched a small workshop that specialised in floral arrangements for wedding parties and took disadvantaged youngsters under their wing in Antwerp, Belgium.

Their designs, which they sold out of their own flower shop, proved pretty popular and soon they were inundated with orders from other retailers in Europe. The demand grew so much that they needed to head out to Poland, where they started a new factory geared towards glass and forged iron. Upon coming to Vietnam, their pieces again caught the attention of the wholesale companies they used to work with and found their way to a bigger client base worldwide.

Peter and Hedwig like to experiment with odd materials: among their signature pieces are dune-sand candle holders and lava-stone tables. But for them, what truly makes for good design is subtlety. “From afar it will not scream for attention,” they say, “but scratching beneath the surface it captivates something else: either a finish, a carving, a color or a story.”

The country they now call home has given them a great deal of inspiration. “It’s a place where skills are still passed down from generation to generation, and where — on every street corner or in every small village alleyway — someone is always makes something,” enthuses Peter. A great way of making use of what Vietnam has to offer is to team up with local wood engravers, sculptors and artisans. “In every step of the design process we rely on what our people can do, and we expect them to push their limits. As a result, we always see a remarkable passion and tenacity to work it out.”

Where to find their stuff:
Snap Cafe, 34 Tran Ngoc Dien, Thao Dien, District 2; saigonrivershop.com

Bags from Blue Dragon Craft
Bags from Blue Dragon Craft

Blue Dragon Craft

Blue Dragon Craft’s signature upcycled plastic “feed sack” bag, made from sacks of animal feed, has been shipped off to the US, Australia, Japan and a number of European countries for over a decade. The company is the brainchild of American Lisa Rosenthal, who was trained in art and sculpture in New York, and her Vietnamese husband Binh Hoang, whom she met in Ho Chi Minh City nearly 20 years ago when she was sourcing handicrafts for her earlier venture business.

Lisa brings the artistic vision to the table, while her husband — who remembers a time when rural houses in Vietnam were made solely of bamboo and coconut thatch, and covered with animal-feed sacks — oversees production. The couple collected the livestock bags from the neighboring southern provinces of Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Long An and Vinh Long, all of which are known for animal farming. As a social activist, Lisa is committed to sustainable design, and the idea that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has proved a winning adage for Blue Dragon Craft.

“Design can be a force for positive change in people’s attitudes and behaviors,” says Lisa. Today Blue Dragon Craft stocks around 100 products, ranging from small wallets to handbags, satchels and backpacks reclaimed from animal-feed bags.

Where to find their stuff:
Blue Dragon Craft, 572B/5 Tran Hung Dao St, District 5; bluedragoncraft.com

Chocolate bars from Marou
Chocolate bars from Marou

Marou Chocolate

Introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 1800s, cocoa was quickly ditched in favor of more profitable crops like coffee and rubber. Whatever local chocolate was produced has never been on the world’s radar — until now.

With Marou, French chocolatiers Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou have revived the practice of cocoa growing in Vietnam and laid the foundations for the future of the industry. Marou is a combination of their family names, and the company was born out of their childhood memories of dark chocolate. The duo hopes to make chocolate in the same way as winemakers, by bringing the most out of available local ingredients. What started as a trial-and-error evening at Samuel’s kitchen table has been transformed into arguably Vietnam’s best artisanal gourmet chocolate and an award-winning range of single- source gourmet bars.

Marou is the first chocolate to have been grown and produced entirely in Vietnam. It’s now sold in 25 countries worldwide. “We source cocoa directly at the local farms and maintain a close relationship with over 15 farmers in six provinces of southern Vietnam, so our chocolate reflects the diversity and know-how of Vietnamese cocoa growers,” says Samuel.

Where to find their stuff:
Ginkgo Concept Store, 254 De Tham St, District 1; +84 8 3838 6161; ginkgo-vietnam.com
L’Usine, 70B Le Loi St, District 1; +84 8 3521 0703; lusinespace.com

Wooden heels from Saigon Socialite
Wooden heels from Saigon Socialite

Saigon Socialite

Under the umbrella of fair-trade organization Fashion4Freedom, Saigon Socialite is on a mission: to revitalize Vietnam’s once-thriving craft of imperial and pagoda wood art. Their product of choice? Shoes with intricately carved wooden heels and platforms.

In the skilful hands of both lacquer artists and local craftsmen from a carpentry village renowned for producing imperial artworks and pagoda woodcraft in palaces, Saigon Socialite’s haute footwear provides a contemporary reinterpretation of the timeless royal beauty of ancient Vietnamese wood art. “Woodcraft is challenging,” says founder Lanvy Nguyen. “The inherent nature of grain and fiber makes it easy for wood to splinter and break in the direction that fibers separate. The craftsmen must accept the temperamental character of wood, or at least accept this dimensional variation of the material.”

Making these “dragon shoes” is a daunting but highly rewarding process. Everything is made from scratch, and it takes up to 22 days for a Hue craftsman to make just one pair. Saigon Socialite dragon shoes are made from the wood of lychee and jackfruit trees, and ethically sourced leather.

And why are the dragon designs carved onto the wood? In the Vietnamese culture, the dragon is historically associated with nobility, regality and stateliness. “The overall aesthetic that we would like to achieve is a style that percolates glee, joy and desire,” says Lanvy.

Where to find their stuff:
The House of Saigon, 16 Thu Khoa Huan St, Ben Nghe; +84 8 3520 8179; thehouseofsaigon.com

Sandals from Archie Eco Shoes
Sandals from Archie Eco Shoes

Archie Eco Shoes

Archie Eco Shoes takes the upcycling trend one step further by producing stylish and environmentally friendly footwear using reusable or natural materials. At the helm is Archer Lytte, an Australian actor with a career spanning 25 years. It was not until he traveled throughout Asia back in 2013 that he caught the shoemaking bug. Drawn towards the many colors, graphic pictures and languages printed on used rice and fertilizer bags, Archer started to fashion them into affordable, sustainable shoes and sandals.

For Archie, these are no mere items of clothing but art pieces. Rather than focus on catering to the mainstream market, Archie-EcoShoes is far more about attitude and making a statement. “The rice-bag shoes have been purposely designed for a different target audience,” he says. “I was aware that I needed to create something exciting, unique and eco-friendly for those people who were more fashion-conscious and wanted to be different. People are followers of fashion, so I needed those people in the spotlight of fashion to help spread the word that everybody needed to be more environmentally aware.”

Apart from the shoes, he has also launched a new range of lazy slip-ons made from tribal hemp. The hemp is dyed using natural coloring that brings about a rich variety of colours.

His views on his products are far from a shallow boast. “By wearing eco-friendly and recycled footwear, we can reduce our carbon footprint,” he says. “By wearing my limited-edition, handmade shoes you can also be unique, knowing that very few people will be wearing those exact same shoes. By wearing the natural hemp sandals, you will be helping indigenous Vietnamese people improve their living standards. By wearing my stylish and cool lazy slip- ons, you’ll just be stylish and cool.”

Where to find their stuff:
Duy Tan – Saigon Artisan, 76A Le Loi St, District 1; +84 8 3821 3614
Studio Co, 4 Le Van Mien St, Thao Dien Ward, District 2; studiocosaigon.blogspot.com

Also read: 7 things to remember when shopping overseas

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Nga Hoang

Photographed by

Liem Tran

We use cookies for a number of reasons, such as keeping Smile website reliable and secure, personalising content and ads, providing social media features and to analyse how our Sites are used.