Old and not so old

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Poke your head into the various nooks and crannies of Le Cong Kieu Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, and you'll be faced with a dilemma: real or fake?

The area bordered by Nguyen Thai Binh Street to the end of Le Cong Kieu Street is known as the land of antique and art object dealers.

Saigoneses often think of Le Cong Kieu as the oldest street in Ho Chi Minh City not for its history but its "antique" offerings. Today, these shops provide a steady stream of gifts and swanky ornaments for the town's growing array of fancy restaurants and coffee shops.

Even in the lean 1980's trade in antique items thrived in this special marketplace.

When the gewgaw business began booming in the 90s, the street drew throngs of curious tourists, eager to pick up mementos.

During her official visit to Vietnam in 2000, the then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made a stop off in the "antique" section and seemed visibly pleased by the profusion of goodies.

Today, the street provides something for everyone, antiquities and kitschy collectibles alike. While the quality and substance of these items varies widely, the street is a pleasure to browse.

Check out the porcelain and pottery at shop No. 19, 21 and 23. Inspect archaic Gongs and Khmer busts, at 34, 36, 38, 40.

Houses 15 and 36 offer a wide selection of traditional wooden furniture.

The rest of the street is dotted with lacquerware salesmen - that is, sellers of hoanh phi (horizontal lacquered boards engraved with the Chinese characters) and cau doi khac go (wooden panels inscribed with parallel sentences).

Ceramic replicas from kilns in Bat Trang Village (Hanoi), Giang Tay (Jiangxi, China), the central province of Binh Dinh and the former feudal capital of Hue lined the shelves inside the open shops.

According to Nhi, the owner of an antique shop, it takes an expert eye to sort the wheat from the chaff.

"Some customers just want to buy for fun," he said. "Only the antique connoisseurs hunt high and low for true treasures."

According to a local named Nhan, many shop owners are happy to tell you which products are real and which are fake.

"Nobody's trying to cheat you," Nhan said. "They'll tell you where things come from and quote you a reasonable price. It is really nice and suitable for those who are just looking for an "˜antique' trinket."

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