Some Observations on Shopping

Our condo is littered with souvenirs from the travels we have done. That’s half the fun of going. We love to find distinctive items that remind us of our trips to these fascinating places. During our recent cruise to SE Asia, we pillaged more than a few gift shops, many in conjunction with organized excursions. Here are some observations and recommendations. They are not exhaustive or comprehensive, but they may be helpful.

Travel SE Asia

Aside from being beautiful, lacquerware is distinctly Vietnamese

Lacquer artwork: We were introduced to this particular artform at a “factory” in Ho Chi Minh City during our tour. The street appeal of the operation was modest, and the artisans working the front demonstrations were quite casual. My expectations were low. Then, I walked into the showroom. Wow! The workmanship and artistry was very impressive. The serious showpieces had wonderful colors and oriental motifs, with prices up to $3,000. There were large, intricate designs with mother-of-pearl inlays that were iridescent and imaginative. They had similar versions of specific motifs to suit a range of pocketbooks. There were trays, dishes, and table ornaments in addition to artwork.

We saw lots of lacquerware in other shops and the dock side stands. However, the quality of the work at the Minh Phuong Art Co. in Ho Chi Minh City was considerably better than anything else we saw along the way. On the cheap stuff, you can see the seams through the panels and plates. If you are looking for something of higher quality to hang on your wall or to dress your table, consider a side trip to Minh Phuong. Our three sages proudly guard our hearth.

Cruise SE Asia

Marble dragons are good luck

Marble: Whether you are looking for that six foot Buddha or a fearsome mystical beast for your foyer, the source will be Marble Mountain, a short taxi ride outside Da Nang. There are a number of stores with a wide selection of items. An interior designer on our cruise filled an ocean going container full of marble sculptures that she estimated at 20% of US retail. Our find was considerable more modest, but it did sate my craving for a dragon on the mantle.

Silk Embroidery: This is another artform with a wide variability in quality. Make sure you know whether or not you are looking at cotton or silk, and that the prices reflect the difference. There are wonderful whimsical pieces available at every price range and at many shops in the several ports. However, if you are looking for a stunning piece of workmanship, I would place one particular shop in Hoi An, near Da Nang, above the rest. If you are ready to spend between $500 and $900, you can get a silk embroidery that is so fine it looks like photography. We did not encounter this craftsmanship anywhere else. The gallery is Quoc Thinh, a small storefront on Tran Phu Street in Hoi An. I spent about a half an hour in the shop admiring the works. Though I did not buy anything, I am on the verge of regretting it. I’ll have to go back.

Travel Vietnam

You can see a sample of the artist’s work

Artwork: There are galleries in every port. Art is definitely a matter of personal taste. However, I am always impressed by designs and motifs that I find particularly original, yet evocative of the destination. On this trip, I was very taken with the oils of Ngan Cuong, also in Hoi An on Tran Minh Khai Street. Vivid colors, wonderful abstract images, distinctly Vietnamese patterns. Prices for these original paintings are a steal in a range from $90 to $250. It will cost you more to frame it. Ours hangs over the sofa.

Much of the fun of traveling to strange places is wandering through marketplaces and shops looking for that perfect souvenir. Casual purchases of scarves, runners, elephant pants, handbags and other essentials are very cheap throughout Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, especially with a little obligatory negotiating. Look for the distinctive things that impress you. One of my favorite treasures from this trip was a three dollar greeting card purchased from a sidewalk vendor in Ho Chi Minh City. The card opens to reveal a three-dimensional ferris wheel which is delicate and ingenious. Keep your eye out and you may find that original something to remind you of your travel and exploration.