Souvenirs are available at every market and on every street in Ho Chi Minh City, but there is a small market about 30 minutes from the center of District 1 that will blow your mind with the history and availability of truly special items that you can buy and take home.
The antique market is a place like no other in Ho Chi Minh City, and totally hidden, so finding it will be a special experience for expats and tourists alike.
|Old clocks are seen at Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
A treasure trove of history
Inconspicuously sitting in a back lane in Binh Thanh District are a small market and café.
Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ is located at the end of alley 311/27 on No Trang Long Street in Ward 13, so small you need to walk from the main road in order to find it.
But when you do, you will find a wonderland of antiques and memorabilia of the history of Vietnam.
From the moment you enter the picturesque front door, you are stunned with history, colors, and an experience you will not find anywhere else in Saigon.
The 500m2 premises has a café where you can buy food and drinks, seating to just sit above the market and admire the beauty, and a treasure trove of sellers, all selling something old and unique.
|Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ hosts a coffee space and small booths selling old items. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
This market began its life as a café. The owner, a fan of singing, created a space for people to come and sing and have a good time.
Over time, people started bringing old items to swap and sell to each other, and the idea of the antique market was born.
Now, more than 20 sellers pay VND4 million (US$170) a month to display their old wares to foreigners and locals who come to find a special piece of history.
And history is what this market is all about. On a recent visit, I found One Dong coins from 1971, which I was able to buy for just VND20,000 ($0.85), and a very special Vietnamese coin and stamp set from 2003 for just VND150,000 ($6.36).
|Old coins are sold at Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
This market is not just Vietnamese coins. There were more items for sale than I can mention. Some of the amazing items included a bag full of ID cards of Vietnamese citizens from the war, old clocks and watches, cassette players, a range of old jewelry, sapphire and ruby pens, traditional pottery, and so much more.
As I walked around the market, I found myself in a rather emotional state. Items that were on display took me back to a time in Vietnam when life was very different. More than just looking back over the past 30 or 40 years, such items took me back to the war years and showed the people, and history, from a very personal perspective.
Further, it also took me back to well before World War II and showed the influence of French and Chinese cultures on the history and development of this great country.
There is too much to take in with only being there for a few hours. It seemed every item had a story and the challenge was to slow down and take a moment to look, learn, and feel something totally unique. No doubt, I will be returning there in the near future to continue to learn and discover more about this window into the past.
If you are looking for a very special gift for family and friends, then this is the place to visit. Since I visited Vietnam on my first holiday over a decade ago, I have been returning to my home country with dolls, t-shirts, and caps to share with family. Now that I have found this market, I will be visiting my home country with a goldmine of history in my bag to thrill family and friends with the true history and beauty of Vietnam. There is literally something for everyone at this market.
|Ray Kuschert (in blue T-shirt) is checking out old items while visiting Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City.
How to get there
Finding your way to the market is not too difficult but a little knowledge will help you immensely. Firstly, parking is available at the bird café on the left of the market. Drive past the market and through the gates at the end of the alley. Take a ticket and park your motorbike with the others. There will be a man there to assist you with parking and the cost is VND10,000 ($0.42), which you pay when leaving.
Next, you need to buy a ticket on entry into the antique café. The girl selling tickets speaks very little English. However, tickets are VND40,000 ($1.7) and include a drink of any type that you can get from the café on the right side after you enter the market. The staff at the café speak some English, which is very helpful.
|An old motorbike is displayed at Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
When to visit
It is advisable to get there between 8:00 and 9:00 am on Saturday or Sunday to make the most of your experience.
On Saturday they have a motorcycle display in the morning, showing off some rare and beautiful old motorbikes. There is also music and singing on the stage from around 9:00 am. This allows you to just sit on the upper floor and take in the vibe and experience for the morning.
On every occasion I have been to this market, I have seen a few foreigners, even one man working in a stall just inside the front door. So, for those of you with limited Vietnamese, you should find it rather easy to get around and see everything, not to mention taking in the unique experience of this market. The stall holders are rather friendly and it is a very relaxed place to visit.
|Old motorbikes are displayed at Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
The neighboring bird café
After you finish your buying and experiencing the market, there is one more place you have to take a look at before you leave. Just beyond the motorcycle parking, in the bird café, are bird singing competitions on weekend mornings.
Before you get your bike to leave, walk an extra 30 meters and take a look at this dazzling spectacle. Essentially, if a bird stops singing, it is out of the competition.
I stood in awe as I listened to the birds singing and watched over 100 people quietly watching to see if their bird would come out as the best singer of the morning. It capped off an adventurous morning that I could not have dreamed of as a foreigner in Ho Chi Minh City.
|Birds in cages at the café next to Cafe Chợ Đồ Cổ in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
This market has so many wonderful levels. It's not on the tourist map, it is a beautiful-looking place, it has good food, the coffee is good, the market is a treasure trove of history, there are motorbikes and singing, and when you leave you even get to see some birds singing in a way you would never have seen before.
I will be returning soon to see more, experience more, and buy more pieces of Vietnamese history for myself and to share with loved ones around the world. Make sure you experience this unique location whilst visiting Ho Chi Minh City, or make it a day out if you are lucky enough to live in the most progressive city in Vietnam.