The plan was simple: three girls find three outfits in Hanoi’s second-hand clothes market. There was Kate, who, in her baggy brown t-shirt and plaid pleated pants, was in need of a serious makeover; Le, polished and office-ready but in search of something more casual; and me, who had no idea what I was looking for, but was certain I’d know it when I saw it. But as we began our descent into the second-hand underworld, I realised it wasn’t going to be so easy.
Located on Dong Tac Street, the entrance is marked by clothes racks that flank a long hall, creating a dim passageway that leads into a labyrinth of old dusty gems. Rows and rows of jackets, sweaters and fur coats hung all around us, neglected in the warmth of a Hanoi winter that barely came. I started to sweat just looking at them. Kate was instantly taken by the idea of a bad-ass leather jacket, and it didn’t take long until I found one for her — soft, black and real leather, too. The shopkeepers wanted VND700,000, but we wavered until they dropped the price to VND500,000. Our first successful purchase made, we ventured deeper into the maze.
This type of shopping is not for the faint of heart. If you don’t like the idea of sifting through piles of musty old clothes, trying on those old clothes in the corner of an open-air stall with just a friend or half a curtain to hide behind, and bartering aggressively, maybe stick to the shiny new malls that you’re used to. But, if you can endure these less-than-pleasant aspects of the experience, you will be rewarded. There are treasures hidden in those dusty racks.
I wandered away from the group and saw a stall that was drowning in flowery fabrics and breezy dresses. When I stepped over the piles of clothes to look at them, the lady of the house picked up a red plastic stool and hollowed out a place for me sit. I began to dig excitedly through the mountains of fabric around me, several young Vietnamese girls nearby also fervently excavating. I’d been having trouble finding things to fit my tall curvy frame, so when I fished a long red polka-dotted dress out of the pile and it fit perfectly, I bought it for VND125,000, even though it was not particularly my style.
When I found the girls again, they were playing dress-up in another little stall nearby. Le had found a suede, olive-coloured dress reminiscent of an ao dai (VND150,000), and Kate had classed up her leather jacket with a grey pencil skirt (VND70,000) and a white blouse (VND70,000).
The shopkeeper, a 27-year-old named Mai, watched us in mild amusement. We asked her how long she’d been working in her stall. “Twenty years. It was my mother’s before,” she replied in broken English.
Mai explained that the winter clothes come from China, Japan and South Korea, but for summer wear, she goes to Phnom Penh to buy clothes wholesale, picking and choosing what she likes from giant plastic bags. Many of these clothes were sent to Cambodia as aid by the Swedish International Development Agency, and became known as ‘hang SIDA’. As this acronym is also the French word for AIDS, second-hand clothes in Vietnam have suffered a morbid reputation. Judging by the amount of traffic at the market, though, it seems that these negative connotations are subsiding.
“All kinds of people shop here,” Mai told us, and pointed at a woman who was collecting dresses from the rack. “She is choosing for her own shop.”
Many of Hanoi’s boutique owners come to the market to find unique pieces, then turn round and resell them in the city for double the price. But we have no need for the middleman anymore — we’ve found the source. And as 45 minutes had become three hours, we began to weave through the dark corridors again, this time on a hunt for the exit.