Shoptalk: PI-CHANNEL

Wandering along Le Thanh Ton today I spotted what looked like a promising little shop sign – a modern, minimal black on white pi symbol. It immediately struck me as quite unusual and design-forward for Saigon. My curiousity piqued, I had to go inside.

Discovered – a small space displaying a gorgeous selection of writing accessories: pens, notebooks, desk accessories, funky clocks and leather agendas, passport folders and money clips. The leather used felt and smelt real, too.

Some of the finds:

Agenda cover
Flip clock
DAISY notebook

Passport cover
INFINITE notebook

The creative spirit behind the products is Do Thi Thuc Doan, a female Vietnamese designer. PI-CHANNEL is definitely worth checking out if you’re into stationery and organisers and great design. Most inspiring Saigon shopping find in a long while!

PI-CHANNEL, 31b Le Thanh Ton, D1, Saigon

Images courtesy

Homogeneous Saigon

Cafe Terrace on the newly madeover Level 1, Saigon Centre
Saigon Centre (one of the city’s few ‘malls’) has had a makeover. Gone are all the baby shops on the first floor (to the dismay of all the parents), along with the handy little supermarket and not so handy pet accessory store, and in their place, a level devoted to fashion. Joining the sole original fashion store Mango are other international chains like Nine West, Kookai, La Senza, dermalogica and French Connection, along with outlets of local fashion heroes Valenciani and SONG. It’s shiny and new and there are funky chandeliers adorning the well-designed shops. It’s very chic and very un-Saigon. But I kind of like it.
American cafe chain The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has also recently opened shop in Saigon (with the latest branch looking right across to Notre Dame Cathedral) and shoestore Aldo is on its way, currently under construction on Dong Khoi Street. Which makes me wonder – is the influx of western brands and chain stores a good thing for Saigon? Or does it erode its character? 
Vietnamese people appear to embrace such brands with a passion and surely, these are signs that Saigon is progressing and modernising. For expats, modern conveniences are a plus too, meaning trips home or at least to Bangkok or Singapore may no longer be in order to stock up on all these ‘essential’ things. But some people may yearn for old-world Asia in Saigon – a city of cyclos and crumbling colonial buildings and quaint old coffee shops and an abundance of food carts (actually, that sounds like Hanoi). There are of course still pockets of all of these things in Saigon and probably always will be.
Personally, I think a dose of modernity would tarnish the old world feel of places like Luang Prabang in Laos, but in Saigon, newness is much more fitting. Construction here is unrelenting and if it’s all about the new then I may as well embrace it – so here’s my wishlist for future Saigon openings: Kinokuniya, iberry, Oportos, H&M, Forever 21, Zara & Zara Men, Muji, MAC, Kiehl’s and Lindt. And an exact replica of Siam Paragon (best Bangkok mall) if that’s not too much to ask!

Top 5: Tips for tailor trips in Hoi An

Hoi An is Vietnam’s mecca for tailor-made clothes (in addition to its great mix of architecture and quaint – though touristy – streets). Despite all pretensions of heading to Hoi An for its history and culture, few leave without getting some clothes made at one of the many tailor shops – and it can actually be a really fun thing to do.

To ensure your sartorial creations don’t miss the mark (and trust me, they sometimes can!) here are a few tried and tested tips to keep in mind:

1. Know how it works
Most of the ‘tailor’ shops are actually fabric stores with a middle man. The person you deal with is most likely not a trained seamstress, but more like a go-between who finds out what you’re after, measures you up and briefs an outsourced tailor.

2. Who to choose
There are SO many tailor shops in Hoi An and they all look the same (bar a few higher end ones) so how do you choose? A differentiating factor is the level of English and customer service offered by the staff. It’s a no-brainer, but go with a place where you feel a rapport with the shop staff, since you don’t know who they outsource their tailoring to or how skilled they are. I go to Quyen at Hoi An Cloth Shop – friendly, fun and speaks perfect English!
3. Keep it simple
The tailors in Hoi An are accustomed to making simple, structured clothes like business shirts, pants and winter jackets, and can be particularly good at copying existing items. For dresses and skirts, the simpler the shape the better, and stick to fabrics like cotton rather than anything too obscure. I’ve seen some women getting evening dresses made that turn out looking cheap and nasty. Summery, cottony day dresses are a safer bet – sometimes the store may even have a model on display that might appeal, or bring along a magazine picture or something you want copied. On my recent trip to Hoi An there just happened to be a trench coat on display which was exactly what I had in mind, so I had one made to fit me. Because it was something they were well versed in already, it turned out perfectly.
4. Finding fabric
Hoi An’s tailor shops all stock reams of fabrics (from cottons and polyester blends to wools for jackets and suits) but if you’re really picky about quality or have a specific print in mind, it may be best to shop for fabric before heading to Hoi An. Try the markets there or in other cities (for example in Saigon, there’s a whole row of fabric shops on Hai Ba Trung, across the road from Tan Dinh Market).
5. The end result
Feel free to request adjustments be made before your clothes are finalised and purchased. The shops are happy to send clothes back to their tailors for nips and tucks (at no extra cost) until your creation fits perfectly. Oh and turnaround times are really quick – you can usually pick up your clothes the next day (or on occasion, the same day if you’re measured in the morning).

Shoptalk: Hanoi

Here are a few little things I picked up on a recent trip to Hanoi (shopping capital of Vietnam, in A Girl in Asia’s humble opinion!). The Old Quarter, particularly Nha Tho, Nha Chung, Ly Quoc Su, Hang Trong and Hang Gai Streets are jam-packed with small shops crammed with clothing, lacquerware, bags, scarves, lanterns and more. Nha Tho and Nha Chung Streets are particularly good for unique boutiques.
Favourite finds:

– 3 reproduction propaganda art posters (US$7 each, Hanoi Gallery, 17 Nha Chung Street)

– Set of 6 silver lacquer coasters, in bonus lacquer box (US$6, Thuong Gia 1, 7 Hang Trong Street)

– 3 rolls of colourful, Asian kitsch wrapping paper (US$1 each, Toi, 8 Nha Chung Street)
Shopping tip: Even some of the marked price shops in Hanoi are partial to a little bargaining. The posters retail for US$8 each so a little discount was granted there, and the coaster set was meant to be $7. Not massive discounts, but it means the wrapping paper was virtually ‘free’ (don’t you love justifying shopping?!).

Some shopping finds from Phnom Penh

A whirlwind trip back to Phnom Penh (where I used to live) was a great excuse to do some shopping in my old haunts (Russian Market, I miss you!). Here are some of my favourite finds (clockwise, from top):

1. Vespa print cushion from Bliss
2. Turquoise scarf from Kravan House
3. Organic Cambodian palm sugar from Lucky Supermarket
4. Bodia Spa soaps (turmeric and ginger & menthol) from U-Care
5. Turquoise and silver pendant and black and silver earrings from Russian Market
6. Black and silver ring from Kravan House
7. Colourful palm leaf boxes (free!) – the jewellery came in these, so much better than plastic bags
There was also lots of miscellaneous shopping in the form of groceries I either can’t find in Saigon or are outrageously priced (still can’t get over $10 arborio rice), and alcohol – love the lax tax system in the ‘bodge.

I like this building!

This is Gaya – a beautiful Saigon store featuring a mix of lacquerware, clothing by Cambodia’s Romyda Keth (of Phnom Penh’s Ambre), and stylish furniture and homewares. It used to be on Ton That Thiep but moved to this location on Le Lai (not Le Loi!) a few months ago. I love the 70s building – curved, yet adorned with sharp and striking lines. The internal renovation of the building is gorgeous too, especially the top-floor atrium. Well worth a look if you’re in Saigon!

P.S. The black and white checkered building in the background is Zen Plaza (on Nguyen Trai) – a department store with some particularly unique fashion on the ground floor by Vietnamese designers. And there’s a Charles & Keith shoe shop a few doors down plus many other clothing and shoe stores to explore. Overall – a great little fashion district!

This is what US$1 buys at my local market…

  • 5 tomatoes
  • 2 limes
  • 1 onion
  • 1 green capsicum
  • 1 large carrot
  • a handful of green beans
  • 1 bunch of coriander
  • 1 bunch of shallots
  • some birdseye chillis (thrown in for free!)
Cho Tan Dinh, D1, Saigon (near the big pink church on Hai Ba Trung)

A French spa experience in Saigon

Inside the shop at L’Apothiquaire, where they sell their range of spa products. Such a beautiful fitout.

One of the best things about living in (or travelling in) Asia is the abundance and affordability of massages and spa treatments (and really, who doesn’t love this about Asia?!) On a mission to find a favourite foot massage place in Saigon I recently tried one at L’Apothiquaire – the District 1 branch that is (their other branch in District 3 looks and sounds amazing – set in a French villa complete with a swimming pool – I aim to go there sometime as well).

Describing itself as a traditional French day spa, it is indeed tres chic and a very glamourous (note: girly) place for some pampering. It’s set in a restored colonial building in the heart of Saigon, with old patterned floor tiles that remind me of those in the French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh.

After the obligatory cup of tea (chamomile rather than green – being French-style and all) I was led to the foot massage room, complete with piped classical music and hot pink suede armchairs. The massage to follow was fantastically soothing with a medium amount of pressure applied – not too soft, not too hard. A lavender-scented oil was used, and I also wore a fragrant, herb and flower filled eye mask that was presented.
I loved the massage and the spa itself, but the experience got me thinking about spas that reflect a certain nationality or culture. In Thailand and Cambodia I particularly love spas that have a real Southeast Asian/Buddhist vibe, with the scents of jasmine and lemongrass in the air, green tea, Buddha statues, calming music, gongs, the sounds of monks chanting – that kind of thing (ok maybe I’m getting a little carried away with the monks chanting bit). If truth be told I think I prefer this slightly more than a European-style experience. I still haven’t figured out if there’s a real spa culture in Vietnam aside from the more Chinese-style acupressure massage places (plus the other kind of ill-repute!). I’ve had foot massages at the more local-style places and while some are good, they can also be quite hard and I really hate those sticks they sometimes use on your pressure points – ouch!
Hmm…looks like I’ll need to do some more, ahem, ‘research’ into spas with a more Vietnamese flavour, or failing that, seek out a beloved Thai-style place. If you have any spas in Saigon (or Hanoi) that you recommend, be sure to let me know!

An ultimate day in Phnom Penh

Psar Orussei Phnom Penh

One of my favourite kinds of articles to read in travel magazines is of the ‘my perfect day in [fabulous city]’ variety, providing inspiration on the best places to see, shop, eat and drink in a certain place, so I thought I’d share some Phnom Penh ideas before I leave for sunny Saigon.

Here’s what you could do for the ultimate Phnom Penh day (albeit a very girly one). Let’s also pretend that just for one day there’s no rubbish or beggars on the streets, lecherous sexpats lurking around or aggressive Lexus drivers careening down the wrong side of Norodom Boulevard at 100 kilometres an hour – this is make believe remember!


Rise and shine after an uninterrupted 10 hour sleep. No, make it 12.


Head to buzzing cafe The Shop on boutique lined Street 240, with the best service staff in town and the best chocolate croissants – ever. Order two chocolate croissants and a carrot beetroot ginger juice. Eye off their insanely tempting dessert counter but practice some self-restraint – there’ll be plenty of time for sweet treats later on.


While on Street 240 check out the shops. Hunt for quirky jewellery finds at Water Lily, and peruse the clothes at Bliss, Jasmine and Song in search of something inspiring.


Now duck around to Sihanouk Boulevard to shoe store VNC to find some new footwear to go with the Street 240 purchases. If in luck, there’ll be one of their ‘up to 70% off’ sales on and they magically won’t have sold out of your size in the style you like.


The retail therapy is only just beginning. Now it’s time to visit Ambre, an amazing clothing store featuring the designs of Romyda Keth, Cambodia’s most successful fashion designer. Visit each of the colour themed rooms in the spacious colonial house before trying on some of the creations. Do not leave without a purchase!


By now you’ll be in need of a caffeine hit and some air-con, so relax at the riverfront’s Cafe Fresco with a strong coffee and the day’s newspapers to catch up on what’s going on.


Time for a bit more shopping. See if there are any nice silk bags in Orange River a few doors down, then duck back around the corner to Kravan House to stock up on silk scarves. Around the corner on Sothearos, pick up some secondhand reading material at Bohr’s Books (especially the US$3 photocopied ones) and check out the silver shops for chunky rings, cuffs and earrings.


Finally, it’s lunchtime. Make your way to Metro for some Asian tapas and cool drinks in funky, glass enclosed surrounds. How about the Metro Fries, wok fried squid and chilli salt chicken wings, with a lychee and mint shake? Yum! Use the free wi-fi to catch up on emails, news, Facebook shenanigans and of course, blog subscriptions!


After all that shopping in ‘proper’ shops it’s time to get down and dirty at the Russian Market. Jostle the crowds in the narrow aisles for ts and singlets fresh from Phnom Penh’s garment factories. Some might call these items ‘fallen off the back of a truck’. Pick up some latest release pirated DVDs and CDs, and a few more pieces of silver jewellery. Take some fabric to one of the many tailors to get some clothes copied at bargain prices (my favourite is Asia Tailors, run by a friendly couple). And check out the cute bits and pieces (funky toys, bags, wallets and more) at Too-it Too-it, run by the Friends streetkid charity.


Time for more sustenance. Head back to Street 240 to Chocolate by The Shop, set in a charming French colonial building. Belgian chocolate is for sale here in various guises, from flavoured chocolates (I recently discovered their amazing Kampot pepper variety), to truffles, pralines, brownies, ice-creams and drinks. Select some different chocolates, order a coffee (or a hot chocolate – why not go crazy) and take a seat for a breather and a chocolatey feast.


Venture a few doors down to Spa Bliss for a one hour body massage (it’s called Bliss for a good reason) – an antidote to all that traipsing, bargaining and jaunting all over town.


Now go home to have a much needed shower and get ready for a night out. Wear something from the day’s shopping bounty, perhaps a colourful little Ambre number with some Water Lily accessories or silver finds from the market.


Meet some friends at Chow for happy hour cocktails. Head up to the rooftop terrace for river views and a tropical resort feel.


Now it’s onto dinner at chic La Residence, one of the city’s newer dining options with a Japanese, Michelin star restaurant trained chef at the helm. Indulge in gourmet modern French cuisine and a fine bottle of wine (or two).


One could stay out for more drinking, dancing, or even a spot of karaoke or a 6am trip to Naga Casino (don’t ask!), but for my ultimate day this would be enough. Time to go home to bed for a long, well-deserved sleep.

The end!