Treasure hunting in Saigon's antique market

By Thao Vi, Thanh Nien News

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Le Cong Kieu Street is very close to the popular Ben Thanh Market in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
But the hustle and bustle of the city life does not exist here.
Not many motorcycles travel on the 300-meter street, which is dotted with shops of antiquities and replicas. 
The small street exudes history. The ceramics, wood, metal and glass objects that can be found here are either really old, or have been made to look old. 
Residents along Le Cong Kieu Street started to sell items such as wooden tables and chairs or Chinese and Japanese ceramics in 1980s, when financial problems forced many people to sell things that were not food and clothes, precipitating a booming antique trade. 
The street became an antique marketplace in the 1990s and this business officially entered the flourishing time in the early 2000s.
Journalist Pham Cong Luan wrote in his 2013 book, Sai Gon – Chuyen doi cua pho (Saigon – The city’s stories), that this period saw an influx of antiques salvaged from centuries-old sunken ships off central and southern Vietnam and the increasing number of tourists. 
“Gradually, the antiquities sold out while the government tightened salvage operations from ancient sunken ships,” Luan said.
Under Vietnamese law, items from sunken ships whose owners cannot be identified belong to the state.
These days, only 20 percent of items sold along Le Cong Kieu are real antiques while the rest are reproductions, according to Luan, who said he had close relationships with antique collectors.
An old man, who has worked as a seller for a shop on Le Cong Kieu Street for decades, agrees. 
"Most of the things on the street are replicas," he said, "Some traders are very honest and will tell you which is real and which is fake. But some may try to cheat you. So be careful!"
“You know, some newly made items can be advertised as earthenware statues from the 13th century or ceramic bowls from the 18th century,” he told Thanh Nien News, on the condition of anonymity.
Le Hien Minh, who runs a shop on Le Cong Kieu Street, said antique markets in Paris, New York, and London also have a mixture of antiquities and reproductions, with real antiques accounting for only a small part. 
"Most of the dealers at those markets can be dishonest too," she said.
But Minh said that real-fake nature of antique markets is actually what makes them interesting. 
"It will be very exhilarating when you can find real antique items among all this," said Minh.

Editor's note: Descriptions of the objects in the pictures are written based on what the store owners have claimed and have not been validated by historians and experts. 

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