Ho Chi Minh City markets
Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam and still fondly thought of as Saigon by its inhabitants, has been a market-place for hundreds of years. Traders would travel down the Saigon River or from the coast at Vung Tau. Modern visitors continue to enjoy the bartering tradition of this amazing city and its markets.
Binh Thanh Market (Cu Nhac Circle, District 1) is a former swamp-turned-landmark and is one of the city's best attractions. Finding the market in the busy streets is easy - just look for the clock tower. Inside, you'll find almost everything you'll ever need: clothing, including shirts, jackets and jeans, is available in the centre; pho (noodle soup) and com (rice) stalls are steaming away to one side; a wet market of fish tubs and chicken coops is on the other side; and fresh flowers, exotic fruits and vegetables are at the rear. Remember to keep an eye on your possessions as pickpockets will also be looking for great deals.
Also known as the American Market, or War Surplus Market, Dan Sinh Market (District 1, near the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao) has to be the city's most off-beat collection of stalls, run mainly by teenage boys. It is a place dedicated to selling paraphernalia from the Vietnam war (known as the American war in Vietnam). Here you will find dog tags, military fatigues, even helicopter stretchers and fighter-jet instrument dials. However, don't expect these war souvenirs to be genuine, most of the authentic items were sold a long time ago - and it takes an expert eye to spot original Zippos, shell casings and gas masks.
Cho Bin Tay (Cholon, District 5), the central market in the city's Chinese district, is a fantastic retail adventure. Although it sells the basic necessities for the local population, from toilet brushes to temple money to live geese, you can also find Chinese antiques, Buddha figurines and great food. On your way out look for the adjacent Cholon Chicken Market, where thousands of birds sit, trance-like, waiting to be tied to the back of motorbikes for their final journey to the city's kitchens and restaurants.
You can catch a bus to Bin Tay from the depot beside Binh Thanh Market or take a cyclo (below left) with a driver who speaks English - reliable drivers can be found outside the Allezboo bamboo bar at Pham Ngu Lao.
The Old Russian Market (Saigon Square, Hai Ba Trung Street, District 1) used to be near the Opera House, on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Street, and was populated by drunken Russians selling homemade vodka and fur coats. The fact Vietnam is a tropical country did not seem to deter them, but then the government cleaned the place up. The new Old Russian Market is a great place to buy snowboarding gear, propaganda souvenirs and clothing - but with no one sleeping on the floor and a lack of boisterous Russian singing, it's not quite the same.
If any street in Ho Chi Minh City tells of the French influence, it would be Le Loi Street (District 1), a charming boulevard lined with mature trees leading up to the Opera House. As you near this grand building, you will notice many tiny galleries along the main road. Here you will find young artists practising their trade and many tiny stores that specialise in lacquer, one of Vietnam's top exports. Beautiful jewellery boxes, trays and rice bowls make for great gifts - if you can get them home intact.