Hanoi flea market: war relics and curious insights

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In a small Hanoi alley, a flea market mainly sells war artifacts, offered with the bonus of interesting rationales.

It began almost ten years ago as a rendezvous where collectors gathered to trade and exchange vintage and historic items.

Today, down a slope from 456 Hoang Hoa Tham Street, which runs on the Buoi Dyke in Hanoi, hundreds of collectors, prospective collectors and the merely curious gather on a 200 sq.m patch of land every weekend.

The slope at 456 Hoang Hoa Tham Street leading to the flea market which takes place every Saturday morning. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

The slope at 456 Hoang Hoa Tham Street leading to the flea market which takes place every Saturday morning. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

There are about 30 booths where people who want to sell and/or buy display their wares on belly-up tables. A particular focus on wartime artifacts has been the main contributing factor to the flea market’s increasing popularity.

Nguyen Minh Quang, 38, refuses to sell a faded canvas bag at lower than VND500,000 ($21), telling a bargaining buyer: “It is an authentic gas mask bag used by American troops in World War II. No one else will give you such a good price.”

The buyer’s interest is obvious from his appearance. Head to toe, he is wearing the uniform of an American soldier. In his sixties, he covets the bag. He goes back and forth to Quang’s booth three times. The seller does not budge from his price.

Quang says: “If it is not today. it will be next Saturday,” he tells me, knowing that I am a journalist.

Very close to Quang, another seller, Hung, is hawking another range of items, including a rare one dong aluminum coin, medals issued by the Vietnamese state in the old times, and an iron cap of the World War II. He sells items for anywhere between VND100,000 ($4.3) and VND6 million ($260) each.

The iron cap used in the World War II (middle) is offered at VND6 million ($260) at the market. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

The iron cap (middle) of the World War II is offered at VND6 million ($260) at the flea market. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

Hung declines to explain the items he’s selling. “Collectors of war items have their own choices and it is unnecessary to explain to others.”

Quang, though, is more than willing to talk. “Keeping things from the war does not mean we hate or love the war or its participants. We just simply preserve history with real items.”

The customer who wants to buy the gas mask bag from Quang chimes in with his own declaration: “Wearing a uniform of the American troops does not mean I like the war against Vietnam. It instead means I love peace and I can wear whatever I want in a peaceful city like Hanoi.

“See, how the uniform is so beautiful,” he says, quickly moving to other booths, ignoring my request for his name.

A buyer in the uniform of an American soldier xwaits for his bargain accepted in a booth in the flea market in 456 Hoang Hoa Tham Street, Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

A buyer in a uniform of the American troops waits for his bargain to be accepted at a booth in the flea market. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

Collectors and sellers in the market say that while items related to the Vietnam War were from within the country mainly, items from other wars were collected from international aid given to Vietnam in the past or traded overseas among collectors.

The owner of a booth selling many weapons with a table full of knives, bullets, canteens, compasses, defused landmines and grenades in front of him comes up with another interesting explanation: “People buy such items to remember the hard times of the war. But more important, it is the way they confirm that it is over.”

Leaving the market without buying anything, Korean tourist Mi Yung Park, 26, says: “My friend bought a nice vase last year here so I came to this market. I don’t see anything I like today but I don’t regret coming. It is interesting to see them buying memories.”

Outside the war

While wartime artifacts are the main draw at this Hanoi flea market, it also has a wide range of other items including vintage watches, clocks (both broken and in working condition), Zippo lighters, oil lamps, old coins, stamps and banknotes in various currencies, silver and porcelain bowls and vases, rusted musical instruments, and so on.

Watch seller Le Manh Phi, 51, sells Russian vintage watches which he said were gifts given to local upper-class families in the past. Phi prices his round shape vintage watches between VND1-2 million ($43-86) each.

He clarifies that the watches are Cold War-era Poljot and Slava watches that were produced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

“Russian watches were very popular as gifts in Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s,” he says.

Also considered “vintage” items are stockpile Russian plugs, which were said to be produced between 60s and 70s. Their high quality makes them bestselling items in the market, Quang said. In two hours, he has sold almost 200 plugs for VND2 million ($86).

A customer selects stockpile Russian plugs, produced between 60s and 70s. Still in good use, the plug is one of the best selling in Minh Quang’s booth. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

A customer selects stockpile Russian plugs (middle), produced between 60s and 70s. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

Quang and 30 other vendors have kept diversifying their offerings to make the market attractive to both new and old customers. The items and the stories and explanations they come with make this flea market carry an extra dose of the charm Hanoi is famed for, and a really fun place to discover.

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