Prior to starting our 2016 Southeast Asia trip, I had thought to myself, “Surely we won’t be bringing a lot of kitsch home from this trip – what will there be to entice us?” I had spent time Southeast Asia in the past (though, fairly, primarily in Thailand), and thought I wouldn’t be bringing home Beer Chang tank tops and flowy backpacker pants…so what else was there? Dried Durian certainly didn’t make the list.
But as travel often does, it takes your assumptions and proceeds to whip you in the ass with them. Not only did we fill a bag with gifts before even entering Vietnam, the third nation of our trip, but we ended up having to buy another bag to porter our things from the mere 48 hours we spent in the nation’s capital of Hanoi. #consumerism
I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising if I had thought it out a bit more. I did decidedly less planning for this trip, so was unsure of what to expect from the shopping opportunities. So I was rather gobsmacked to discover that, yes, I wanted to buy every damn thing I saw there. Who knew such a thing could happen in a country without sketchy Russian flea markets? Scratch that, there was actually one of those in Phnom Penh…
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to tell you about the two best things (in this humble, hippie homosexual’s opinion) to buy in Vietnam. Spoiler alert: snake liquor doesn’t make the cut.
- Coffee: I work for a rather well known coffee company in Seattle, and have worked in the food industry since completing my graduate degree in 2011. So whenever I’m in a new country, I like to check out local coffee culture and get a feel for how local people eat. This proved especially interesting in places like the Balkans and Turkey, each with unique coffee traditions.
Vietnam, and to a degree all of the former French Indochina, all have their own unique coffee cultures thanks to a combination of ideal growing conditions and a heavy influence from the caffeine-addicted French. So while in Vietnam, I was sure to purchase a few different roasts (both Robusta and Arabica are available – I prefer a darker roast myself) to bring back to the states to sample with my co-workers.
An important note on purchasing “Weasel” or Kopi Luwak coffee in Vietnam…don’t do it. The civet cats used to “process” the beans are kept in terrible conditions and force fed coffee beans not unlike the process of creating fois gras with geese. So, yeah, don’t buy it. Many coffee vendors will convince you that their Kopi Luwak is wild harvested, but unless it costs around $200 USD per kilo, they’ve got you fooled. Best to avoid the murky moral situation altogether, I think.
For a high quality dark roast coffee, you can expect to pay about $10 a kilogram for a bean that’s been roasted that same day. We chose to buy smaller portions of a bunch of roasts, and we’re working through them as we speak.
- Propaganda: I should have known. I really, really should have known. As a still Communist nation with massive amounts of respect for a fallen leader, a great amount of Vietnamese art produced to this day (as opposed to until the fall of the Iron Curtain in the European Eastern Bloc) is in the Socialist Realist style. My favesies.
Each piece of art, typically made from woodblock prints (another swoon there), has a unique message – ranging from anti-US sentiment from the Vietnam War, to the encouragement of industrial development, to messages of friendship with ideologically similar nations from around the world.
Needless to say I was in hog heaven. Where we stayed, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, there were two competing shops on Hang Bac road selling modern prints of classic Vietnamese socialist realist propaganda prints (we recommend Thang Long Gallery – here is their Facebook page as well). Prices ranged from $3-$10 based on the size of the print (the largest being around standard 24” x 36” poster size), and all were impeccably made. We came home with…about twenty pieces. And I’m still wishing I came home with more.
There are a host of other fun, kitschy things to buy in Hanoi’s markets – including the Southeast Asian ubiquitous backpacker pants and beer brand tank tops. We came to Hanoi without planned purchases, and ended up blasting our budget (granted it was only about $150 to begin with) on things we’ll treasure both temporarily (coffee, duh) and long into the future, so long as we have wall space.