Right: Saigon is a Mecca of old cameras and Le Cong Kieu Street has some big ones.
Left: the street has items of all values and prices.

Photos: Ba Han

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 — Were the great economist Adam Smith alive today he might be tempted to ascribe his famous line ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ to the Vietnamese. There is no shortage of shops in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, not to mention street vendors offering mementos of the nation’s heritage to the passing crowds. Choose a souvenir: an ivory opium pipe perhaps or a poster from the independence struggle, how about a Zippo lighter? Would sir like to select from a display of classic blue-and-white faience from the ancient capital Hue? Madam look at my old notes and coins or buy your instant stamp collection here. Most will question if these relics are truly of the era or are just imitations for the tourist market. However, if the price is right we walk away happy with our Vietnamese memorabilia.
Few visitors will be aware of where much of this material is sourced or where they need to go if they are looking for more genuine antiques. You will not find the answer to this question from the information pamphlets available at the Tourist Information Company. Indeed, when I asked a class of born and bred Saigonese university students I was met with puzzled faces. One of the smartest in the group advised me to, ‘Go to the travel agent and purchase an airline ticket to Hue.’
Yet the answer to the question is simple and just a stone’s throw away from the tourist thoroughfares. Just across the street from the renowned Ben Thanh Market, which anyone who has been in the city for more than a day will at least have passed by, there exists a small street called Lê Công Kiều. It stretches for two hundred metres or so and every single house is or purports to be an antique shop. This street is, in every sense of the word, a lane. It is as quiet, unhurried and narrow a street as you will find in bustling District 1. It lies like a village huddled beneath a castle. The castle in this case is that great temple of Minerva, the Ho Chi Minh City Art Museum.
The action begins at the mouth of Le Cong Kieu with three or four shops on either side of the intersection with Pho Duc Chinh, the street where the museum is. What does the lane have to offer? Most of the shops specialise although the larger ones will have a range of wares on display. You can find old watches and locks, brassware, gramophones with brass horns that could grace the lobbies of one of the city’s Grand Old Dame hotels, radios and some of the early film projectors, bronze figurines and ancient toys. There are paintings, the inevitable chinaware, incense-burners and other religious paraphernalia, both Buddhist and Christian, opium and water pipes, coins and banknotes of French Indochine, beads and jewellery and jars and containers of all description. Then there are stone carvings and engraved tablets of Champa and also huge laterite busts of characters you last saw at Angkor Wat. A couple of shops even deal in nothing more than lamp stands and shades. In among the treasures you will of course find  things that are out of place. For instance, I spotted that most commonplace of souvenirs, a Chinese Tang Dynasty horse, that looked as if it had been manufactured yesterday. I lived in China for three years and I cannot tell you how many of these I had given to me as gifts. On my first visit at the far end of the lane a number of pavement vendors were selling what was obviously modern ceramic ware, much of it bright yellow in colour. I subsequently noticed they had been ejected either by the authorities or by the more legitimate tradesmen. What attracts you is of course in the ‘eye of the beholder’. One man’s bric-a-brac is another man’s object d’art.
The shop owners and salesfolk themselves are an interesting breed. Not many of them speak beyond a smattering of English. One lady had to call her child over to do the interpreting. Judging by the many Mastercard and Visa signs, they clearly want to attract overseas customers. It is interesting to note that only one of the shops sells by fixed price and it has prices which are labelled in American dollars. Not many of them, I suspect, have degrees in art history. One suspects that the thing of greatest beauty to most would be the ability to buy low and sell high in a market famous for its widespread imperfect knowledge. I did however have one long conversation with a gentleman who spoke impeccable English, and I read ‘MBA’ after his name on his business card. He tried to sell me a metal Khmer bust he claimed was a hundred years old for 110 USD plus stand that, as he put it, would have fitted nicely in my suitcase. ‘Discount for cash,’ he added as an enticement, explaining that way avoided bank charges and an unfavourable exchange rate vis-a-vis the free market one.
On the days of my saunterings I did not notice many fellow browsers. Most of those I did see were white Caucasians like myself. Conspicuously absent were Asian folk such as the that nation of shoppers so noticeable in the more conventional emporia of Saigon, the Japanese. Perhaps these kinds of articles are not exotic enough for them. No doubt professional dealers from abroad are well aware of this place but one would have thought the more casual visitor might be easier to exact a healthy profit from. Perhaps, these merchants could form an association and benefit from group advertising in order to put the street more firmly on the map.
One question we would all probably want to ask is how would one get the more weightier objects back through customs to one’s home country? ‘No problem’ was the general response. ‘We ship for you.’ I have heard this nonchalance before. Once when I was young and green someone sent me off with some ivory knick-knacks with this line, only to have them impounded by Malawian customs at the airport. I feigned interest in a huge Khmer bust. ‘Twenty-five kilos heavy and cost 800 dollars,’ I was informed. ‘Yes, but how do I get it back home?’ I asked the young salesgirl. ‘We ship for you.’ I posed as an American and enquired about getting it through US customs. Would she help with all the documentation? ‘No problem,’ she said. ‘This only three hundred years old, only problem if one thousand years.’ I wondered if she had the piece’s birth certificate. There is no doubt that these folk are well connected enough to sail through Vietnam customs but getting an object into one’s own country would require very careful research of one’s own, I would imagine. She enquired where I was from in the States. New Mexico, I lied, and she produced a book with shipping rates to just about everywhere on the planet. She also presented a sample dossier of all the documentation needed to send a similar piece to the States. Very impressive. In among the bill of lading, certificate of authentication, and other papers was a gem of a document: a Certificate of Fumigation. Now, that on its own and framed would make a great collector’s item.

By Pip de Rouvray