Revisiting Vietnam’s infamous Dan Sinh “War Surplus” Market

Deciding to collect Vietnam War militaria is fraught with danger as the marketplace is saturated with fakes and reproductions. I was fortunate that during my first trip to Vietnam in 1997, the late Peter Aitken (who was then at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra) introduced me to a Vietnamese friend of his in Saigon who was able to guide me through the minefield that Vietnam War militaria had already become. I arrived in Saigon with ideas of finding rare Vietnamese Airborne insignia and left convinced that only the brave or foolish would start collecting militaria from the ‘American War’ period… And this was before eBay and the Internet started to take off as a source for collectors!!!

One of the first places that we visited was the Dan Sinh market, also known as the ‘War Surplus’ or ‘American’ market it is the place where much of the supposed Vietnam War militaria originate. Situated at 104 Yersin next door to the Phung Son Tu pagoda, it consists of a rabbit warren of stalls offering everything from electrical parts to footwear. Part of the market consists of small stalls selling military related items. During that first visit most of the stuff was related, in appearance, if not actual age or authenticity, to the 1962 – 75 period but more recently the reproducers have started to include post Vietnam war conflicts and one can find copies of current issue US army multicam, British desert DPM and Australian DPCU camouflage uniforms and equipment amongst the usual ‘junk’.

As collectors become more aware of the Vietnam era fakes being produced at the market, the manufacturers have turned to other areas and conflicts, including these poorly copied British SAS insignia.

Faked French, Rhodesian and contemporary multicam jackets.

Australian DPCU bush-hat. This camouflage pattern wasn’t introduced until 1988, long after the war ended… and this wide brimmed style sometime in the 90’s.

During that first trip my guide, Loi and I devised a system to identify the fakes and at the same time protect him from recriminations from the sellers. If I found something that I liked I would pick it up, inspect it and then pass it on to him. He would look at it, mutter something like “very nice” then, if it was genuine, hand it back to me and if not, place it back on the table. I quickly became disappointed as everything from MACV SOG patches to ARVN Ranger helmets were placed back on the table. The thing that I didn’t fully grasp at the time was that after the war and the economic difficulties that followed the ‘surplus’ was either recycled or whenever possible, broken down to it’s component parts, brass, aluminium, acrylic etc and sold as scrap. It was only after Vietnam reopened to Western tourism and foreign interest in the war became apparent that the potential of the war legacy became apparent. A lot of the remaining bits and pieces disappeared quickly, but the demand was there and the ever-resourceful Vietnamese started to fill demand by reproducing the items that were in demand.

Make no mistake; the guys at Dan Sinh are not fools and know what the state of the marketplace is for their creations… and as collectors become more savvy they shift their focus to take advantage of new opportunities. Over the years I have returned many times and come to know some of the dealers reasonably well. Even back in the 90’s they were already aware of what was in demand and were producing items for unsuspecting collectors. Unscrupulous western dealers had been visiting Vietnam and providing the designs and reference material for their ‘orders’ since the 80’s and the Vietnamese were more than happy to oblige. During that trip in 97 I was shocked to see that one dealer had a copy of the out of print and extremely sought after “Special Forces of the United States Army 1952-2002by LTC Ian D. W. Sutherland (Ret). Back then, one could expect to pay $200+ for a copy if you could find one and these guys were using it as a standard reference (a ‘gift’ of a US based dealer/customer) for their creations. During a visit around 2007 or 2008, one of the main guys at Dan Sinh showed me an autographed copy of a Schiffer published reference book on insignia from a certain US branch of service. Nothing unusual in that, but what threw me was when he admitted that he was asked by the author, to make the insignia for the book and many of those same rare patches are still being offered for sale (as authentic) by the author via his eBay store. That’s not hearsay; I gleaned that bit of info during a recorded interview with the maker of the fakes. I shudder to think how many people use that book as a reference and placed their trust in the author as a ‘reputable’ dealer.

Current retail (not wholesale) price for these supposedly rare flags… $5 to $10 each

The lesson that I learnt during that first trip was to view all items from the Vietnam War with suspicion. I have a modest collection of Vietnam War period ARVN Airborne, Australian SAS and AATTV items, but tread very carefully. If it doesn’t have provenance, I’ll pass on it. There’s just too much shit out there. I would go as far to say that 99% of the Vietnam War militaria that you can find on eBay are faked, everything from maps and paperwork, through uniforms to aircraft gauges. Supposedly rare MACV SOG patches can be bought for as little as $1 each, wholesale, VC flags, $5 – $10, Zippos (and there will be an entire post devoted to the changes I’ve seen over the years) about $5 retail and less for bulk purchases. Recently I’ve even found reproductions such as those made by George Peterson’s NCHS in the USA being brought IN to the markets and offered by one of the sellers as original.

Reproductions (including those made and sold by NCHS in the USA) such as the ARVN Special Forces beret badge near the left corner of the picture are being brought into the Dan Sinh market where they are being resold as ‘original’. Click here for a link to the NHCS listing of the same copy.

As a collector, visiting the Dan Sinh market is a ‘must do’ on any Vietnam itinerary; just don’t fall for the bullshit. Unlike my first visit, these days many, but not all, of the dealers will admit that the items are copies and one or two will even offer to make the items that you require. It’s definitely worth a visit, but if the experience doesn’t make you want to steer well clear of collecting Vietnam War militaria… well then you need counselling.

The Dan Sinh Market is open until about 6pm but many of the militaria dealers start closing up around 5. It can be found at 104 Yersin, District 1 and is open every day.

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11 responses to “Revisiting Vietnam’s infamous Dan Sinh “War Surplus” Market

  1. Hi, thanks for your blog on the markets.
    Im currently in Saigon looking for a few pieces of interest. Would you say that the US M17 binoculars are reproductions? Aircraft gauges?

    Thanks
    David

    • Hi David,
      Not my specific area of expertise, so I could not be 100% certain, but my gut feeling would be yes to both. Vietnam struggled in the immediate aftermath of the war and anything of value was either recycled or stripped to its component parts and sold overseas for scrap. It’s possible that the binoculars may be original but based on my experiences there I’d proceed with caution and not be tempted to part with too much money for any militaria, no matter how unique you may think it is. The market in ‘war surplus’ has been established for decades now and almost all of the good stuff has long gone. What remains is really just useless junk and reproductions made to satisfy the collectors market.

      good luck,
      Jules

  2. I stocked up on flags when I visited Vietnam a few years back; to see how much they’re being sold on eBay whilst being described as “rare” makes me kick myself that I hadn’t bought even more…

  3. jules
    interesting your comments on the DAN SINH market. i know that military id tags are outside of your collecting expertise….but what impression did you gather about the US dogtags being sold there? i am sure you met Cheap Charlie Dung and his sister….or have you visited Long Mai’s shop a 1/2 block outside of the mart place? were you able to visit the antiques row (block) le cong kieu street which about 3-4 blocks down from dan-sinh? i have to agree the reproduction cottage industry has pretty saturated the mil-collectibles in terms of zippos, rings, patches, insignias, painted helmets, flags, etc. however though i encountered some fake tags….on the same token….i saw many original US tags.
    don

  4. Even during the war, they were turning this stuff out to anyone interested and it was usually items associated with elite units. SF Teams USMC Force Recon and later the Ranger Companies. I don’t ever recall seeing locallly made insignia or patches for HQ BN. 1st MARDIV, but I saw plenty for Force Recon.

  5. When on R & C in SVN the door to door engravers were producing on the spot cheap Zippo’s and US dog tags with the usual motto’s and unit insignia. Since returning to VN I have seen these same el cheapo copies, they are now being sold as genuine from the American war and in a way they were genuine copies of any thing they could sell. Buyer beware is the usual motto when shopping in Asia, and with militaria outlets here in Australia. Fakes every where.

    • Very true, Danny and unfortunately one of the biggest sellers of the Viet made fakes is an Australian operating out of Palm Beach. He has made thousands of dollars over the years deliberately misleading collectors with his vague or outright deceptive descriptions of the rubbish he sells.

  6. Hi,

    Thank you for your blog as it has been very helpful. I am an Australian Vietnamese artist interested in working with bullet shells and the hollowed out clutter bombs etc (fake or real). I went to the market and picked up a few items, but I have been advised by some that I would not be able to take them out of the country. In your experience do you know if this will be a problem? I have one piece from family that I know to be real but has been converted into a vase, I am hoping at worse I can at least take this home with me.

    Any advice would be much appreciated.

    Phuong

    • Hi Phuong,
      As a collector and fellow artist, I understand your concern and sympathise as I have also encountered similar issues. I think that you could face problems bringing some of your artifacts back to Australia. In my experience, the Australian customs officials will usually err on the side of caution and confiscate any items that are related to weapons or explosive ordnance and ammunition if you do not have the appropriate permit. There are also some restrictions on what is termed ‘cultural artifacts’ which can cross over into military souvenirs depending on age and where they originated from. Their website (https://www.border.gov.au/Busi/Impo/Proh) does not specifically address used artifacts like shells and casings so my advice would be to contact them to seek clarification before buying any more pieces. I am very interested to hear whether you are successful and am interested in seeing some of your artwork.
      good luck
      jules

      • Hi Jules,

        So, it seems Vietnam is a little sensitive about taking shells and artillery out of the country. I did a call around to some ppl I knew and I was told it was a no go but throughout I would try anyway. A trench art piece from my family made it though but the rest got confiscated.

        For now I will stick to my collecting of vernacular photography when it comes to the war. If you happen to be in Melbourne next May I will be having a big exhibition of works that utilise images from my Vietnam archive project.

        You can find all my contact details at http://www.pthngo.com.

        All the best!

        P

  7. Hi P
    I’d love to see your exhibition and will try to be in Melbourne in May. I also collect photography related to Vietnam although my collection is limited to the early French Indochina period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My collection is quite small and mainly consists of Cyanotype and Vandyke prints that I produce from the old glass negatives that I have gathered from the region. I’ll contact you via your website and hopefully be there next May to see your exhibition.

    Good luck,
    Jules

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