The market mostly sells warm clothing better suited for a faraway icy tundra than the city’s relentless heat
Set up by a Vietnamese army veteran, Ho Chi Minh City’s Russian Market is a maze of stalls peddling high quality winter wear sprawling across the two bottom floors of 328 Vo Van Kiet Boulevard, Co Giang Ward, District 1.
According to Vu Anh Duong, a member of the market’s management team, the vast majority of the market’s 200-plus stalls export warm clothing to cold-weather markets such as Russia, Europe, America, South Korea, and Japan.
To aid these businesses, three Russia-based forwarding companies also work out of the building.
Apart from wholesale transactions, many of the market’s retailers target tourists looking for a good deal on clothing they will be able to make good use of after their trip.
The sheer volume of international brand names from Russia and the U.S. is the major draw for tourists looking to get a good deal on high-end products.
Many of the salespeople at the Russian Market attempt to draw in international clientele by switching seamlessly between greetings in English, Russian, and Vietnamese.
“Customers come here looking for the warm coats. What we offer is reasonably priced and high quality,” said Hoa, a stall owner.
She then turned to a Korean customer and explained, “We don’t overcharge around here, but I can lower the price just a bit for you.”
On the market’s second floor, a large food shop specializes in packaged and fresh goods bearing ‘Made in Russia’ labels.
The store offers a one-stop shop for Russian Vodkas, fish, feat, and spices.
Household gadgets and souvenirs highlighting Russian culture, such as stacking dolls and ceramic castles, are also displayed throughout.
Nguyen Viet Dung, a customer browsing the store, shared that he was shopping for Russian foods he remembers from his time spent as a student in the Soviet Union 40 years ago.
From veteran to entrepreneur
Nguyen Manh Tong, the owner of this Russian Market, first experienced Russian culture during a pilot training program in Russia in 1982.
“I am just a discharged soldier. My primary goal here was to create a gathering spot for Russia lovers. Most stall owners here are academics, engineers, or skilled laborers who once worked in Russia,” he said.
Tong returned to Vietnam in 1986 to serve as a captain in the Vietnamese army.
In the 1990s, he stumbled across the Tax Mall on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Streets in District 1.
The mall has since been demolished to make way for the city’s new metro system, but in its heyday it served as a hub for Russian and Eastern European goods.
Tong felt like he had been transported back to Russia from the moment he walked into the Tax Mall.
Throughout its aisles, salespeople spoke mainly in Russian, pushing their goods on customers from former Soviet republics.
Tong decided to seize the opportunity and open a stall at the Tax Mall, making headways into the clothing market with the support of his personal contacts at leading textile companies in Vietnam.
After several years, however, business began to slow and store owners in the clothing section of the Tax Mall began moving to more modern markets, such as Hoang Thanh Market, now Saigon Square, in District 1.
Years later it struck Tong that owning an entire market might be better than owning a single stall. That was when the Russian Market came into being.
In its first stages, shop owners were reluctant to join him in the new premises, and sales were low because the location was far from downtown.
Stall owners left, but Tong stood his ground, trying his best to keep the market running while seeking new clients.
After some time the business was back on track.
How did it happen? According to Tong, the market’s core principle is its driving force: “Stall owners here know well that getting customers to pay is very difficult, so they seldom overcharge.”