Curious for Curios

A truly unique vintage shopping experience…

Ask most residents in Saigon where to buy antiques and they’ll likely direct you to Le Cong Kieu Street, popularly known as “Antique Street,” in District 1. However, that would be leading you in the wrong direction as the majority of objects for sale in this short patch of road near Ben Thanh Market are not real antiques. Even the sellers who make their living on Le Cong Kieu openly admit that more than 70 percent of their merchandise are factory-produced duplicates and that the once honest antique street is now more a tourist trap than a place to buy a piece of history.

“How long have you been collecting items?” “A lifetime.” (Tran Khac Dung, the founder of the fair)
“How long have you been collecting items?” “A lifetime.” (Tran Khac Dung, the founder of the fair) 

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“These right beside me used to belong to Vietnamese soldiers 60, 70 years ago. You want to hear a war story, come to me.” 

For bargains, design classics and retro kitsch, the best hunting grounds are actually at Cao Minh Café at 311/27 No Trang Long, Binh Thanh. Every Sunday morning an antique fair called Saigon Ve Chai (Saigon Junk) is held there and, according to founder Tran Khac Dung, it is the only place in Saigon that guarantees the sale and exhibition of authentic vintage items.

“Antique really is a weighty word,” says Dung. “I feel it has become something of a gimmick, a sure-fire way to wow and grab attention. I do not like to use it, rather I would call what we have here ‘collector’s items.’” He points to a 200-year-old handcrafted French clock, a pre-World War 1 Bauser nautical compass, a Royal brand American oil lamp and a 1961 Mercedes once owned by infamous Vietnamese double agent Pham Ngoc Thao.

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“My specialty is anything Chinese and old.” 

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“I don’t look like your typical antique dealer do I?” 

“Most people, if they are not consummate collectors, would find it difficult to understand how we place a value on an item,” he continues. “How do you place value on something that to other people may be junk? There are many elements that decide the value of an item but the most important are: age, quantity (how many still exist) and history (its story and previous owners). If the owner does not understand the story, the historical worth of an item, he or she will see it as just junk. Knowledge is the key. To collect is to understand the worth of an item, not to show off.”

Saigon Ve Chai (www.saigonvechai.com) first started in 2008 as an online website and forum but the group’s popularity and increasing offline community prompted the creation of the weekend market held at Cao Minh Cafe owned by Vietnamese artist and singer Tran Cao Minh. There is no entry fee other than a mandatory purchase of a drink for VND30,000. The fair essentially acts as a consignment center for sellers who don’t have a place to showcase their items.

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“This did not come from my grandmother’s attic. I do sometimes brew tea with it though. Tastes great!” 

“During the week, this is a quiet, empty place. But on Sunday morning, it’s packed with about 200 people,” says Dung. “We thought about getting a bigger place, but that means more people, more sellers, and more factors to control and check the quality of. So there is no rush since we cannot make sure that we can control the increased volume.” In a market where frauds, fakes, and overcharging are the norms, this principle is the reason Saigon Ve Chai has been successful.

Knowledge and information is shared freely at the fair and newcomers are encouraged to ask questions or seek advice from experts. “Our one cardinal rule is trust. This is not a shop. We do not make money from all these sales. This is a community and to break the trust of one person means breaking the trust of an entire community.”

Images by Ngoc Tran

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