Is it a good idea to take gifts?
Giving small gifts to those who have performed a special service or with whom you have a working relationship is greatly appreciated. Anything from your local area, such as cakes, sweets, chinaware or photo books or calendars, is a good idea. Otherwise, inexpensive make-up, perfume, jewellery and pretty toiletries go down well with women, while men will prefer pens, cigarette lighters, imported cigarettes, whisky or other spirits and car / biking magazines. For children, obviously small toys such as inflatable playground balls and skipping ropes are popular and easy to transport. Or how about drawing books / pads of paper and pencils or crayons, erasers, model cars, small-size T-shirts and other clothes.
When presenting gifts, don’t expect effusive thanks as this isn’t Vietnamese style. Whatever their reaction, you can be sure that the gift was appreciated.
Should I bargain for everything?
Almost everything is negotiable in Vietnam (with the notable exception of meals) and bargaining is very much part of the Vietnamese way of life. All tourists are regarded as wealthy – which we are compared to most locals – but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be quoted an outrageous price; small shopkeepers and restaurateurs will often charge you the local rate.
When bargaining it helps if you know some Vietnamese numbers and have a general idea of the going rate for the item. Otherwise, the trick is to remain friendly, be realistic and make the process fun. If you manage to reduce the price by 40%, you’re doing well. In most cases it’ll be more like 10-20%.
A common ploy is to start moving away if you’re on the verge of agreement. But don’t bargain just for the sake of it. If your price is agreed, then you are honour bound to purchase. And always keep a sense of perspective: don’t waste time and energy haggling over what only amounts to a few cents.
What sort of souvenirs are available to bring home?
Vietnam has a good variety of lightweight, transportable souvenirs. You’ll find them on sale in all the main tourist areas, though Hanoi and HCMC probably offer the greatest variety.
Silk is probably high on most people’s list, either tailored or as uncut cloth. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, has become the place to get clothes made, but you’ll also find good tailors in Hanoi along Hang Gai and in HCMC. Beautifully embroidered cottons are another popular choice, as are printed T-shirts in a whole range of designs.
Traditional craft items include lacquerware, items decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, conical hats, carvings made of cinnamon and camphor wood, bronze Buddhist bells and musical instruments. A water puppet also makes a nice memento. Fabrics from the various ethnic minorities are either sold in lengths or made into bags, purses or skull-caps. Minority groups in the south produce wonderful basketry and bamboo pipes.
Vietnam has a thriving fine arts scene, with some artists commanding substantial sums, though you need to be wary of fakes. Galleries in Hanoi, HCMC, Hue and Hoi An also show works by lesser-known artists at more affordable prices. Look out also for lovely, hand-painted greetings cards.
Note that export restrictions apply to all items deemed to be of “cultural or historical significance”, including works of art and anything over 50 years old. To take any such item out of the country you’ll need an export license. Even if it’s a modern reproduction it might be worth getting clearance anyway, since customs officials aren’t necessarily very discriminating.