What fabrics to buy in Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City), where to find them, and what to expect from the locals.
Middle June 2019, I had the pleasure of visiting Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. The textile industry is extremely prominent in Vietnam, from textile milling to garment manufacturing and exports (Sources: Mordor Intelligence, Study.com). Vietnam is also one of the top silk producing countries in the world (Source: Business Finance Articles). In fact, the Vietnam silk or ao dai (the Vietnamese traditional costume for women) made of Vietnam silk is a very popular souvenir among tourists, and are also worn by the locals during special occasions.
The colourful window displays of garment boutiques in Saigon.
Vietnam hosts two international textile and garment expos annually at the Saigon Exhibition and Convention Centre (SECC), namely:
VTG (Vietnam Textile & Garment Exhibition), held around November every year.
SaigonTex (Saigon Textile & Garment Industry Expo), held around April every year.
Although these expos are targeted at industry players, instead of casual hobbyists and small-scale tailors, I actually don’t mind having a quick stroll in the expo, if they let me in (but I won’t bet my air fare to Saigon on it, since my recent trip obviously did not coincide with either of these expos).
So, what does the vibrant textile industry in Vietnam offer us small-time fabric hobbyists?
In general, Saigon’s fabric stores sell mainly garment fabrics like silk, rayon, embroidered fabrics and lace. The merchants – even the retail ones – are used to people buying in high yardage because when people buy fabrics to make fancy garments, they rarely just buy one meter. And many are wholesale only, which means they have minimum order quantities (the lowest I encountered was 5 meters). So, don’t expect to find quaint little fabric shops that sell fat quarters. Be happy to find merchants that sell by the meter. Be very happy if they do so with a smile on their face.
A local woman gazing at the mountainous fabrics for sale in Tan Dinh Market.
The main places to buy fabrics are (in the order I visited them):
Shops opposite Tan Binh Market
Soai Kinh Lam Fabric Market
An Dong Market
Tan Dinh Market
Binh Tay Market (a.k.a. Cholon Market)
OPPOSITE TAN BINH MARKET @ TAN BINH DISTRICT
Note: I did not take any photos here because I left behind my DSLR camera on my first day exploring, so that I could focus on fabric hunting.
Tan Binh Market itself does not house any fabric stores. It is the shops surrounding the market that sell fabrics – lots and lots of them. Most of them are wholesale only. I do not have the statistics, and I did not enter each and every shop, but in my two-hour stroll and randomly picking shops to enter, I found just two shops selling retail.
In terms of variety, this place easily beats all the other fabric markets in this list. You can find almost any (dressmaking) fabrics here - suit and shirt fabrics, knits, rayons, silks, velvets, and burlaps. They come plain, and they come in all kinds of prints – stripes, polka dots, small flowers, large flowers, monograms, and novelty prints. Each shop usually sells only one type of fabric in a variety of colours and prints, so it was easy to skim through the shops.
In terms of language, you’d best go with a friend who can translate between Vietnamese and your preferred language (that friend can also be found in the form of Google Translator app), because almost all those I encountered did not speak English at all, and those who did knew only extremely basic words. This severe language barrier also meant I could not ask for the exact type and composition of the fabrics I was buying.
As much as I am inclined to write this place off as a place for bulk-buyers only, ironically this was also the place where I (a small-quantity buyer) bought most fabrics throughout my stay in Saigon. So, my advice would be to equip yourself with a reliable translator app on your mobile and save phrases like “Is this wholesale or retail?”, or “What is your minimum order quantity?”. Ask these questions first when you enter a shop so you don’t waste time browsing. Also, I didn’t bother comparing prices or haggling much because:
The prices they quoted sounded reasonable to me. I didn’t feel they were trying to over-charge me. They seemed like no-nonsense merchants that dealt mostly with local bulk-buyers and were not out to cheat tourists.
I was only buying a meter or two of fabrics. What difference a dollar discount per meter would make? My time was better off spent exploring other places.
SOAI KINH LAM FABRIC MARKET @ DISTRICT 5
The shopfronts of Soai Kinh Lam Fabric Market.
Soai Kinh Lam Fabric Market consists of a few long rows of shop lots and some larger lots that housed what seemed like labyrinths that connect many small stores. While the “labyrinths” are interesting to explore, any fabrics available there can be found in the outer shop-lots along the road.
Although also a wholesale market, Soai Kinh Lam Fabric Market was much more retail-friendly compared to those around Tan Binh Market. In fact, every shop I approached was very welcoming and offered retail. However, almost every shop sold the same types (and prints) of fabrics – either this thin and grainy stretchy fabric in mainly floral prints, men's shirt and suit fabrics, or really fancy silk/velvet/lace/embroidered fabrics meant for formal or wedding dresses.
The colourful fabrics of Soai Kinh Lam Fabric Market.
There was one shop that stood out. Not only did it sell a different kind of fabric, it also had an oriental interior decor that differs from the other shops. They sold these stretchy fabrics that felt like satin in medium thickness. The prints were sharp and vibrant.
Unique fabric shop in Soai Kinh Lam Fabric Market.
In terms of language, I had a slightly easier time communicating with the merchants at Soai Kinh Lam. They seemed more accustomed to the presence of tourists and having their photos taken. There was no hard-selling and they generally let you browse on your own until you called for assistance.
This place is a must-go for anyone interested in buying fabrics to make garments. The same tips I described for Tan Binh Market are applicable here.
AN DONG MARKET @ DISTRICT 5
The facade of An Dong Market.
Unlike the first two destinations above, the An Dong Market is a general market that sells many other types of merchandise besides fabrics. The market is an old multi-level building (fitted with escalators and air-conditioners on the upper floors). The fabric section can be found on the second lowest floor (the lowest floor is a sub-ground level selling food products).
The fabrics available here were mainly silk for ao dai, lace, wedding gown fabrics, shirt and suit fabrics, and a selection of winter wear fabrics. There were embroidered silk, printed silk and hand-painted silk. Most of them were designed, pre-cut, and displayed specifically for ao dai.
The colourful fabrics of An Dong Market.
An Dong Market is obviously a popular tourist attraction. I have heard the merchants call out to me in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. There were also many tourist buses parked outside the market.
We also spotted some tailor shops around An Dong Market. Quite apparently, their main sewing orders were ao dais.
One of the tailor shops outside An Dong Market.
TAN DINH MARKET @ DISTRICT 5
The facade of Tan Dinh Market.
Tan Dinh Market is also a general market that sold many other things besides fabrics, although the Tan Dinh Market was much more congested and claustrophobic. It had more variety of fabrics, although they were not as nicely displayed as compared to those in An Dong Market. Tan Dinh Market seemed to me like more of a market for the locals than tourists. I did not communicate much with the sellers, as they generally ignored us – another sign that their regular customers were the locals, not tourists.
The colourful fabrics in the claustrophobic maze of Tan Dinh Market.
BINH TAY MARKET A.K.A. CHOLON MARKET @ DISTRICT 5
The facade of Binh Tay Market.
This is a newer building compared to the previous markets. It is again, a general market that sells all kinds of items, and has a smaller section for fabrics. The variety here is similar to that of An Dong Market. During our short visit there, we saw a bus-load of tourists entering the market, so this was obviously also a tourist spot.
The colourful fabrics of Binh Tay Market.
Different people visiting Saigon may have significantly different experiences at different time. I know this because I have read someone wrote that she found the merchants around Tan Binh Market friendlier than those at Soai Kinh Lam, and my experience was the opposite. Yours could be something else.
Some Saigon souvenirs.
To summarise, Saigon has a lot to offer for dressmakers, especially those buying in bulk. Small time dressmakers would do well visiting Tan Binh and Soai Kinh Lam first for general garment fabrics, and then An Dong Market to see if you might be interested in fancier fabrics like silk, embroidery and lace. The rest of the markets sell roughly the same kind of fabrics as those found in An Dong Market, so visiting them would be for the purpose of experiencing the different environments of the markets.
All the fabrics I purchased during my stay in Saigon.
It seems like the first to be disappointed could be quilters and small fabric crafters. I said “could be”, because if you go with an open mind, if not, just to explore the world of fabrics (the garment fabrics selections were really amazing), you will see how some of these components of the fabric industry work, and you might return home with inspiration for your next project. Saigon is a very artistic city, after all!