I’m not a shopper, but I bring an extra bag with me to Vietnam because there are certain things I can’t do without when I’m back home: candied fruit, prayer paper, and knives. Although Vietnam produces beautiful handicrafts that foreigners love—bamboo serving dishes, hand-painted pottery, lacquer boxes, silk—it’s these inexpensive items manufactured for the Vietnamese themselves that I need most. On my most recent visit with Smithsonian Journeys to Vietnam, we took a walking tour through Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Because I lived in Hanoi myself, I had my favorite shops I wanted the travelers to visit. I say “shops,” but “stalls” might be a better word for the tiny establishments, usually just a salesperson standing behind a display case, her customers facing her from the sidewalk. On Hang Duong (Sugar Street), we stopped to sample the traditional candied fruit, known as mut, which Vietnamese consume in enormous quantities during winter months surrounding the Lunar New Year, but love all year round. At first, the Americans looked skeptically at the display of dried apricots, persimmons, apples and sliced ginger, all coated in crunchy sugar. I bought a bag of ginger, another of apricots, and a third containing o mai, a sweet-and-sour concoction of shaved ginger and tamarind that you eat in pinches. “Try it,” I urged. This was an open-minded and enthusiastic group of travelers and so, though the candies looked different, everyone wanted to try some. “Sour!” someone said, puckering her lips. Another, who had tried the ginger, said, “Spicy, too. But also sweet.” One of the men pulled out his wallet. He raised his fingers toward the vendor—“three!”—and, without a translator, bought a pile of snacks that, it turned out, he would share with the rest of the group during our next bus ride through the city.
On Hang Ma (Prayer Paper Street), the shops sell the paper goods that Vietnamese burn as offerings to their ancestors. After death, according to Vietnamese belief, souls enter a new world that, in many ways, parallels our own. If we need to eat, so do they. If we need clothing, so do they. If we need television sets, cars, credit cards, jewelry, and motorbikes, well, so do they. It wouldn’t be practical or economical, though, to burn the real thing, so for centuries craftspeople have developed an industry in these parallel goods, all made of paper. On Prayer Paper Street, then, one can find paper clothing, paper jewelry, watches, credit cards and even TVs. It’s an amazing thing to see, and photogenic, too. When I’m shopping, I drop by Hang Ma Street to purchase sheets of handmade paper, dyed in vivid shades of purple, red, yellow, pink and blue, often stamped in delicate patterns, too. I use it for wrapping paper back home. “Anyone else want some?” I asked. The saleslady was squatting on the sidewalk, rolling up my purchase and securing it with a rubber band. One of the California visitors stepped forward, “I think I could squeeze some of that into my suitcase,” she said. Then she opened the fingers on her hand to convey her purchase to the vendor, saying, “I’ll take ten sheets.”
Off to Dong Xuan Market, the cavernous building that serves as the commercial heart of this most commercial district, with vendors spilling out in all directions, selling everything from live chickens to wholesale rice to alarm clocks, bolts of fabric, children’s shoes. My goal now was to find my favorite knife seller, who sat on the floor of a secondary building, her “hardware goods” spread around her in piles and baskets. I’ve been buying her knives for years. At home, I call them “ugly knives” because they are ugly—with a rectangular blade and a rough wooden handle. The steel doesn’t shine. The wood sometimes splinters. You can’t put them in the dishwasher. They rust (a problem remedied with a swipe of the sponge.) But they are the best knives I’ve ever used. You never have to sharpen them and they cut through a tomato as if it were butter. I have given away so many of these knives over the years that I can no longer fly to Vietnam without taking orders from my friends, particularly the ones who are serious chefs. “I want another knife!” They’ll say, “But this time, bring me two.” Or, “My mother stole mine. Bring me more!” I buy them by the chuc, or parcel of ten. Ten knives cost about two dollars, so it’s not only a valued gift, but an economical one, too.
My favorite part of taking the visitors out shopping is watching their interactions with the Vietnamese. Without a shared language, buyer and seller often begin the transaction nervously. The Americans look uncertain. The Vietnamese (these are not vendors who often deal with tourists) look scared. What amazes both sides is how easily they communicate with one another, holding up fingers, nodding, shaking their heads. The American tourists are, from my experience, enthusiastic and good natured. The Vietnamese, who can drive a hard bargain, are also curious and kind. At the end of the exchange, we begin to walk away, bags in hand, while the Vietnamese count their money. I hear the Americans say, “That was fun,” and I hear the Vietnamese say the same thing: “Vui lam.”
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