A hidden gem only open on weekends, the Hanoi antique market is teeming with nostalgic Vietnamese goods from a bygone era… 

The fog was exceptionally dense and the air unreasonably chilly by Hanoi “standards” when I arrived at Alley 456 on Hoang Hoa Tham early one Saturday. A steaming hot beverage from the Lu Tra Quan tea shop situated besides the alleyway would have done wonders to warm and soothe my frigid bones, but tea was not the reason I had ventured this far into the Ba Dinh District. Instead, my destination was what lay in the dark void adjacent to the tea shop.

For several months, I had heard rumblings about an antique market located at the base of the aging steps that led down to a laneway behind the shop. Even now, while descending what could most accurately be described as a hybrid between a stairwell and a motorbike ramp, I was unsure whether the market actually existed or was just a figment of someone’s vivid imagination. Other than through word of mouth, I could not find any evidence of its existence. So you can imagine my surprise when the grey mist lifted to reveal a hundred or so patrons perusing merchandise on tables that overflowed into the cramped space of that unmarked alley.

As I strolled through the archway leading into the marketplace, the cacophony of motorbikes faded away among the high walls of the surrounding buildings. Standing amid the ancient wares and sheltered from the familiar noises of the city, I felt the sensation of having been transported to a much simpler time from the distant past. Hanoi’s weekend antique market does exist and — despite its hidden location and lack of promotion — it appears to be thriving.

Since its launch in June 2013, Hanoi’s antique market has remained largely unadvertised. Open only on Saturday mornings until 2pm, this place is an embarrassment of riches for history buffs, collectors of Asian artifacts and for elders looking to reclaim a piece of their long-forgotten childhood. The stalls are littered with merchandise, including a mixed collection of vintage watches, clocks (both broken and in working order), Zippo lighters, oil lamps, old coins, stamps and banknotes in various currencies, silver and porcelain bowls and vases, rusted musical instruments and a massive assortment of wartime memorabilia.

Shoppers will find no rhyme or reason to the random wares strewn across the market’s 20-or-so booths. Some of the goods seem oddly suspect to even be called antiques. I guess Blackberry smartphones do qualify now? Some might argue yes, but if you don’t mind toting around an ‘antique’ smartphone, you might be interested to know that they can be found here on display besides other dusty relics. Those looking for a prestige purchase should be warned that some of the designer watches sold here — as in most of Vietnam — are fakes. Use discretion before purchasing a Rolex or an Omega. If the deal is too good to be true, then chances are it is.

While rummaging through the clutter, my eyes did, however, notice a vintage Seiko 6105-8119 timepiece. This instrument — a sturdy Japanese automatic diver’s watch — was used by many American drop troops during the war. Due to its nearly indestructible casing, a number of these pieces managed to survive the harsh conditions of the war era.

Seiko leveraged this bit of free publicity to help turn their company into a household name. The watch was also popularized by Martin Sheen’s character Captain Benjamin Willard, who wore one in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Despite showing obvious signs of wear, this particular watch was still in working condition and, upon inspection, I determined it to be in impressive shape for its age, which was roughly 30 or 40 years. I got to talking about timepieces with the booth’s owner Tuan.

“My father used to collect watches,” he says proudly. “Many of these watches were gifts given to upper-class families, but have now been sold.” Pointing to a large selection of Russian Cold War-era Poljot and Slava watches, he adds: “Russian watches were very popular as gifts in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Although I was tempted to make a purchase, I wanted to see what the other vendors were offering before I committed. I was certain there were many hidden gems still to be found. I just needed to do some digging.

Among many gorgeous relics from bygone eras of Vietnamese culture, shoppers will also find a fair amount of junk. Some booths truly do have an “i’ll just put in on the table and see what happens” mentality. Beautiful hand-painted vases and elegantly-carved wood-workings are prominently displayed with the same gusto as shoddy transistor radios, a Keep on Truckin’ belt buckle and a pile of old mobile phone batteries. But as the saying goes, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

Shuffling through the crowd, I stumbled upon a table selling a myriad of Vietnam wartime weaponry. Seeing my interest, one of the vendors was quick to speak. “Many of these objects have seen action,” he said matter-of-factly.

The table was strewn with bullets, canteens, compasses, knives, land mines and grenades (which I hoped were defused) — ammunition that was too big to fit on the table had been propped up on the floor below. Most of his rusted stockpile had seen better days, but the seller assured me that what the items lacked in condition, they made up for in history.

“So how does one acquire such goods?” I asked. “We go digging for them in Quang Tri Province,” he said with a chuckle and a look of amusement on his face. The fact that over 50 people a year still die in Quang Tri due to UXO explosions seemed to have passed him by.

I returned to Tuan’s booth to procure the Seiko watch. When he told me the steep price, I knew I would have to negotiate. I started the bargaining, but that process ended rather abruptly. Tuan would not budge. As with many of the booths at the antique market, the prices were fixed. Perhaps sellers are hesitant to part with their beloved family heirlooms, or perhaps they are just headstrong enough to expect the best possible prices for their commodities. Either way, after we failed to agree on a price for the Seiko, I left the market with a moderately-priced Soviet-era Poljot Deluxe wristwatch instead.

A unique souvenir, this 40-year-old timepiece has history, having lived through the Cold War. I was happy to know that every time I see it, I will have memories of where and when it was purchased. Whether or not you choose to buy anything here, the antique market is a welcome addition from the usual list of things-to-do Hanoi has to offer.

As they say about the Vietnam, pleasure is derived from the unveiling of its “hidden charms”. Hanoi’s antique market plays perfectly into that notion. It lies nestled in the confines of an unassuming alleyway, awaiting discovery. And the shopkeepers here don’t seem to want it any other way.

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