Hacker Abroad: Vietnam’s Electronics And Hardware Markets

Ho Chi Mihn City is the hub for sourcing the materials and tools driving the growing Vietnamese economy. Whether you’re building new, or keeping existing equipment running, the supply chains and service companies aren’t yet in place and the markets of HCMC are the go-to for parts and equipment. Let’s get a little taste of what I saw in my tour of the markets.

Forget Radio Shack: HCMC Electronics Markets

I’d love to have a market like this in my city. The electronics markets are far better stocked than any local store I’ve encountered. One of the first booths we walked past included these waist-high stacks of crates containing reels of SMD passives, boxes of axial resistors, and those are sheets of copper clad sitting on top.

You’ll also find well-organized glass counters full of components like the trimpots shown here. There was another with all sorts of segment displays (7-segment, bar graphs, double arrows, and 8×8 dot matrix varieties are all visible). Elsewhere you can get LED strips of all kinds, and RGB LED panels. Sean Boyce was my guide on this tour and mentioned that once in a while stock will run low at some pinch point and whatever that is will become unobtainable for weeks or months. Even so, what I saw here gave me candy-store-like glee.

There’s some more colorful booths as well. We encountered a couple places that will sell you the name plates for whatever brand you like — Peavey, Panasonic, JBL, Toshiba, Bose, Sony, etc. The second floor of this market has a large laptop repair booth. Those shelves are full of laptop case parts, with logic boards and other add-ons below.

Everyone needs a hacker, and this is the electronics market’s resident hacker. He signals his talent with the blinky examples in the display case (and the LED cube hanging over his shoulder). The gentleman to the right brought in a module for some unknown equipment. That iron is kept hot and the repair began on the spot.

There is a drive-up nature to the street-side stalls. Throughout Ho Chi Minh City the sidewalks are as much for scooter parking and chairs for dining as they are for walking. Here you can see a booth that sells remote controls for air conditioners and shortly after snapping the photo I saw a man drive up and make a purchase without ever leaving his scooter.

If you look around this neighborhood it’s not hard to find piles of discarded CRTs. The copper windings have been removed and we saw more than one booth where people were winding transformers, likely with salvaged wire. Next to the discards there were carts full of salvaged speakers and logic boards which appeared to come from home audio systems.

For a complete guide on these electronics markets, Sean Boyce put together a article a couple of years back.

HCMC Hardware Markets

The hardware markets are in a different part of town and cater to a more industrial audience. I found the closet packed full of springs to be particularly interesting. Under the same roof you can find a booth selling graphite slugs. The small ones with wire leads are obviously brushes for motors but what about the huge cylinders? They could be for industrial-sized motors, there was a booth of shink-wrapped industrial controllers so I imagine the maintenance staff for local factories and utilities frequent this market.

For the hardware hacker, these markets are just as interesting. Sean and I pined over the fun you could have with the salvaged dials found in one booth. You can also grab a wide range of multimeters in another street side shop.

The Food of HCMC

Ho Chi Minh City gives every appearance of having a deep addiction to delicious coffee. In fact, cold drinks in general are really big here.

Monday morning got off to a great start with a coffee from a cart on the street. The coffee is brewed in advance and delivered as a shot of thick syrup from a used soda bottle. The concoction this gentleman served up clings to the ice in the glass and doesn’t slosh around. But it certainly wakes you up! For a liquid dose of refreshment, I also recommend trying a fresh coconut which is split open as you watch and consumed with nothing more than a straw.

For breakfast Minh took us to her favorite spot for Pho. It was delicious and slightly different from what I’ve had before, with a slightly sweet broth and thicker noodles. I love fresh spring rolls and we made time to stop for those. Dessert at lunch time was a tapioca in thin cream sauce — not overly sweet and the chilled treat really takes the edge off the mid-afternoon heat (about 94 °F / 34 °C and 90% humidity). This is the second of three coffees that day. It’s common to get your cold drinks with the cup inside plastic bags or a plastic sling like this one. It keeps your hands from freezing.

This was my final day in Asia. I had an incredible time, and shared as much as I could in this Hacker Abroad series. I recorded a lot of audio for the Hackaday Podcast which needs a lot of editing time. I will do one more article to round up all those audio segments once published, so keep your eye out for one final post in this series.

22 thoughts on “Hacker Abroad: Vietnam’s Electronics And Hardware Markets

      1. Samsung has factories dotted across VietNam, sites chosen for political purposes (Ha Noi and SaiGon). These are plants / factories whose footprints are measured in acres & hectares. They are usually situated outside the cities in industrial zones.

        Key to their location is transportation be it air, road or sea.

        These plants can also disappear as quickly as they appear. I have resided in VietNam for 27 and remember several very large plant openings and, years later, their subsequent closing and demolition. All land in VietNam is owned by the nation and is leased through provinces to the ultimate land users through long term transactions that are very similar in terms to ownership.

    1. As I recall Intel has a big chip fab on the outskirts of HCMC, Microsoft’s Nokia phones were made here, there are a few smaller solar panel manufacturers. Also one of the bigger brands of those trendy fitness tracking watches started here somehow, but I forget which one. The semiconductor industry was growing pretty fast here for a while. As mentioned by Tristan, Samsung is really big here, I think they make more than just phones.

      In terms of stuff manufactured for the local market, I see a lot of high power servomotor controllers, H-bridges (there’s a really good and inexpensive 15A one), RF controlled switches, microcontroller programmers, and test equipment. That represents a pretty big bias though because those are things I’m personally likely to find.

      By no means an exhaustive list. Vietnam is a big producer of agriculture (coffee, black pepper, cashews) and certainly clothing as well. Tech sector is booming but only starting to get any attention. It’s an OK spot for a hardware startup too, has a lot of engineering talent, and so that’s started to happen. Hopefully some of them will do well and you’ll hear about more cool stuff made here.

      1. The Intel factory is located in the SaiGon Hi-tech Park, District 9, Ho Chi Minh City, a new development area. It is being used for chip assembly and testing.

        SaiGon / Ho Chi Minh City has a population of 13 million in the metropolitan area which presently occupies
        2,061 square kilometres (796 square miles).

        It is scheduled to absorb two adjoining provinces in a couple of years time.

      2. VietNam is neck and neck with Brazil in coffee exports (first and second places).

        Japanese companies have been hiring graduates by the class and setting up work centres around SaiGon / Ho Chi Minh City. There are three or four Foreign owned PCB plants, too.

        Don’t forget VN is big in tea, as well.

  1. I did mourn seeing the counterfeit labels,
    counterfeit medicines such as for malaria, are hurting a lot of people in developing countries, by not curing them, and wasting their money.

    1. Totally with you no this, the other problem is that it gets all anti malaria drugs a reputation of doing nothing, word travels quickly and people face a choice of feeding their kids or buying a drug that doesn’t work.

    2. There are few ‘counterfeit’ drugs in this country. VietNam has a government formulary in which ‘named’ Western medicines are broken down into their chemical contents. This means whereas a Westerner would buy a single dose with a schedule of consumption, in VietNam you get a handful of drugs for each dose, in individual plastic mini-bags.

      The national government is the sole official purchaser of medicines in this country.

      There is a ‘black market’ whereby travelers from Australia, Canada, Europe and the USA bring medicines in their baggage and they are sold on to to the market.

      There are considerable fake drugs in Cambodia, China, Laos and China – usually produced in China and Thailand.

      1. Yes, the electronics is Nhat Tao (down to the CRT’s)
        * Please note there is also a vegetable market called Nat Tao, but it’s just not the same!

        From the Carbon Brushes to multimeters, it’s Dan Sinh Market (also known as Yersin market (it’s on Yersin St)). And sometimes known as the American Market because of the fake war surplus (the real stuff ran out years ago).

        1. The Dan Sinh Market is way over priced, a small version of ChoLon. It serves tourists and no-nothing Foreign residents.

          Nhat Tao, in Quan 5, runs the gamut from recycled electronics (West end), a smattering of electronic stores (up to Nguyen Kim) then shoes, trousers and TV / AIr-Con remotes through to the excellent fresh food market at the East end of Nhat Tao.

          There are many electronics recycling markets throughout the city. One I visit specialises in scrapped microwave ovens and my company help them make heavy duty spot welders.

        2. There are ‘electronics’ markets (and recycled electronics) in Go Vap, Binh Thanh, Q7 and Q9. There have been massive road changes in Go Vap and Binh Thanh.

          Looking in Yellow Pages for electronics suppliers will give you a start as most trades (and competitors) hang together.

          I, and a couple of employees, drive around with SJCams and we locate supplier addresses this way. In recent years, with the HCM slum clearance projects, markets tend to shift to newer buildings.

    1. This country gained from the US sanctions imposed by the USA after their defeat in the American War in VietNam which forced the country to become self-sufficient. The result is a mass of small vendors.

      We don’t have a Home Depot, IKEA, or Canadian Tire Stores instead we have vendors who generally build to order.

      I run several businesses: Laser, CNC and InterNet services. I use home workers for assembly in three cities where parts are shipped and the group assembles the product. It is tested in the same city and payment made on passing. My home groups will assemble almost any mechanical or electronic product.

      The laser unit cuts hundreds of thousands of bra sets from rolls of cloth; we laser weld, we cut shop signs and we proudly produce ‘custom coffin sets’ (top, sides) that are milled on our two 2.4 metre long machines – all custom made right here in VietNam. We also produce products for large organisations such as the national electrical authority.

      None of this would be possible had it not being for the vindictive acts of revenge that followed the defeat.

      As I travel around the country I am continually stunned by the amount of commercial and infrastructure which makes many Western countries look like ‘has been’ nations.

      It was Bill Clinton who accepted the futility of sanctions, 25 years after the American War ended.

  2. Awesome write up. I have not been to Vietnam but I have been around Shenzhen a few times, its a real eye opener to people from the west as to what is available at these markets. I encourage anyone to take a trip out to south east Asia, not just for the markets though for the food and culture too! If you are without kids go now if you are planning on having kids as it starts to get expensive with them in tow!.

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