Interestingly, the subject that seems to most inspire Saigon’s contemporary designers is the past – the tumultuous historic events of the 1960s and 1970s, along with Vietnam’s traditional culture, heritage, arts, and crafts.

The story of Vietnamese-Australian designer, artist and entrepreneur Mai Lam is similar to others we met in Saigon: after losing a brother and sister to the Vietnam War, Mai and her family fled to Australia in 1976 by boat on vessels that were far from sea-worthy. The bravery and resilience that journey and the war inspired is probably what helped Mai achieve business success. And Mai’s creative output, her postmodern fashion, could be seen as a way for her to come to terms with the past.

For souvenir-hunting visitors to Saigon – or more appropriately in this case, Ho Chi Minh City – all of this means you’ll find plenty of communist kitsch and, thanks to the likes of Mai Lam, pockets of post-modern fashion that are imbued with Vietnam’s history and culture. Here’s where to look for it and what to look for:

Mai Lam
In Saigon’s most striking boutique – it looks like a cross between an art gallery and fashion store – you’ll find plenty of what I’m going to call Saigon’s ‘postmodern fashion’ – everything from exquisitely detailed appliqué and hand-sewn embroidery stitched onto vintage US army jackets to funky khaki caps and bags made from recycled parachutes. Many of the clothes feature the signature motifs of designer/owner Mai Lam, such as the embroidered dragonfly or the lotus flower bronze buttons, that draw on traditional Vietnamese cultural symbolism.
132-4 Dong Khoi Street, District 1 (D1), Saigon.

Saigon Kitsch
Less than a year old, Saigon Kitsch was started by 26 year-old, French-Vietnamese Audrey Tran, who left her home in Paris to return to Saigon, where she now lives with her grandmother. “I came here for a holiday two years ago and I never left!” she tells us when we meet her at her vibrant shop where we admire the retro-cool, communist-kitsch gifts she has designed herself: notebooks, coffee cups, purses, mouse pads, and even scented candles featuring vintage designs from the French colonial period and familiar propaganda images.
43 Ton That Thiep, District 1 (D1), Saigon.

Dogma ***
It’s tempting, but try not to spend all your money at Audrey’s shop so you can pop upstairs to Dogma. This hip boutique is owned by Saigon-local Tran Thi Kim Loan and her British partner Dominic Scriven, a Saigon resident since the early 1990s, who are passionate collectors of communist propaganda posters and art. All of the funky clothes –dresses, t-shirts, jackets, and bags – boast striking propaganda designs. They also have some striking posters, postcards and art.
43 Ton That Thiep, District 1 (D1), Saigon.

***Update October 2017: Dogma has closed and Saigon Kitsch has taken over the upstairs floors as well. We’ll be updating this post very soon.

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