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Lacquer statues are among the highlights of Nguyen Frere

Nguyen Frere on Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 is more than an antique shop.

Sometimes when I'm bored with the routine of city life, I visit Nguyen Frere with a cultured friend to find a small gift for an upcoming birthday or just to look around and ease my mind.

It's a spacious establishment with a serene atmosphere and a stack of antiques.

Nguyen Frere is one of few shops in Saigon that tell the rich story of Vietnam's diverse cultures, religions, art, customs and rituals through its stock of handmade goods of silk, mother-of-pearl, stone, brick, bronze, silver, indigo, wood, lacquer and much besides.

Vietnamese villages are famous for their crafts. In olden times, most parts of the country were populated by skilled craftsmen and women who could generate extra income for their families while waiting for the next harvest.

Nguyen Frere stocks hundreds of handmade items that speak volumes of Vietnam's remotest regions and their cultural legacy.

There are altars with Buddha figurines, pairs of lacquered and gilded vermillion wood panels, a bronze phoenix standing above turtles, carved wooden screens, ceramic decorations, red lacquered boxes, water puppets, and  lacquered statues of Vietnamese women in traditional dress playing a musical instrument.

Elsewhere in the shop you can find baskets and blankets woven by the H'mong ethnic group around Sa Pa in the far northwest.


2 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, HCMC

4-D6 Thao Nguyen Villa, District 9, HCMC

387 Bach Dang Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi

There are also Champa stone and brick statues next to colorful Hoi An silk lanterns as well as silk clothes that conjure up thoughts of the peaceful towns of central Vietnam.

Nguyen Frere also has plenty of inexpensive gift ideas. Just one dollar is enough to purchase a brilliantly painted Dong Ho woodcut of a young shepherd riding a buffalo while playing the flute, or the even more famous mice's wedding.

Dong Ho woodcuts get their name from the eponymous village in Bac Ninh Province where the locals honed their artistic skills by making woodcuts to decorate their homes for the new year.

Nguyen Frere also stocks  smaller items like brocade wallets, silver earrings and necklaces, and silk scarves made by various ethnic minorities.

Last week, I was looking for an artistic birthday gift for a friend and had to decide between a water puppet with strings, and the aforementioned lady musician.

Finally I chose the latter for the characteristic gentle smile on her face. Something about the smile made me think the gift would bestow good fortune on my friend.

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