to travel and I love to browse the shops in
foreign destinations. Unlike most visitors I
don’t generally acquire much but rather
use looking through markets as a means of learning
more about the culture. Flitting from store
to store and chatting with merchants yields
wonderful cultural insights and perhaps a few
small gifts for friends back home.
a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) I departed
drastically from my usual pattern of ‘look
but don’t buy.’ The bargains available
in this city are fabulous and the locals are
wonderfully adept at charming you out of your
last U.S. dollar or Vietnamese dong. Yet in
Vietnam an explicit shopping report would make
no sense without an equally explicit traffic
report. So let me explain about the insane Vietnamese
traffic and emphasize what effect that traffic
had on my nervous system and therefore my shopping
gazillion motor scooters...
any major city there are plenty of cars,
trucks, bikes and buses on the road in
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Now add to that
‘a gazillion’ motor scooters
with one, two or three passengers (some
carrying parcels or babies) zipping in
and out of the normal car, truck, bike
and bus traffic. I know that there must
be a code about crossing these streets
safely but unless you grow up in Vietnam
you will never decipher that code. Rules
seem to be random, stoplights seem to
be random and whether you will get splattered
on the pavement is random as well.
from my hotel...
my hotel concierge told me is that, 'when
it feels right you step out into the traffic
and you keep walking'. Then he added,
'try not to step out in front of a bus
that can't stop easily but don't worry,
the scooter drivers will try at all costs
not to hit you. The most important thing
to remember is that once you get on to
the road you can't stop half way; you
must keep moving because that's what the
drivers expect and they guide themselves
I heard this advice my first impulse was
to skip going into the city center completely.
Maybe I could just stay in my hotel and
read. I wasn't interested in being tourist
road kill except I couldn't bear to miss
their spectacular shopping opportunities.
Normally Vietnamese water buffalos could
not drag me across those busy streets
but the t-shirts, DVDs, lacquer bowls,
shoes, jewelry, scarves, purses, backpacks,
and 'fake-everything' beckoned. I was
almost ready to suffer in order to get
to the other side.
a local to shield you...
I hate intense pain I took the least dangerous
path. I looked for a local man that seemed
conservative, a person that wouldn't put
his life in danger and stepped out into
the melee in tandem with him. I made sure
that he was on the side closest to the
oncoming traffic and prayed as I walked
beside him. Lo and behold, my first attempt
was successful. I got to the other side
without direct contact with a scooter.
Now I could shop a complete block without
anxiety. I scoured every inch of commercial
space putting off the need to cross the
next street. Finally, it was inevitable.
time I chose a female vendor carrying
a lot of sweet potatoes in her baskets.
I thought she would make a great shield.
No one wants to purposely hit a local
woman sending her veggies flying here,
there, and everywhere. I chose well again
and I was on block two.
block three I met up with some American
students who agreed to walk me across
the street. Except this time when I saw
cars coming straight for me I stopped
and held my arm up (like a traffic police)
demanding that the traffic halt. I was
frozen in place, a deer caught in their
Vietnamese headlights. The only thing
that saved me from being flattened was
the student who yelled, ‘don't stop,
keep walking.' I met those students again
later in the day and they teased me relentlessly,
imitating my traffic cop stance.
and police in green uniforms...
time comes experience; it was on the next
corner that I struck 'beat the traffic'
gold. I found out that there are lovely
policemen in bright green uniforms that
are completely at your service. It is
their job to walk ‘scaredy-cat’
tourists across streets in order that
these foreigners feel relaxed enough to
keep spending their U.S. dollars. All
you need to do is smile and wave to them.
Faster than you can say, 'I'm a shopper'
they are at your side and getting you
wherever you want to be.
I discovered Vietnamese cabs. For one
or two dollars they will drop you off
anywhere you want to go within the city
center. By day three I had a stash of
$1.00 bills in my pocket, spent them gladly
and moved with ease from one shopping
area to the other.
bargains to be had...
visited the local covered market with
its warren of mini stalls and absolutely
no moving air to speak of. I bargained
and learned to offer 30% of what I actually
was willing to spend on any one item.
I thought I was so clever when I bought
three t-shirts for $10.00. Back at the
hotel I learned that $2.00 per shirt was
the going price.
sharpened my skills and went to another
shopping area: blouses were $8.00, scarves
were $2.00 and I had two linen shirts
tailored from scratch for $16.00. I was
on a roll now. Into my shopping bag went
smocked dresses for little girls, dragon
t-shirts for little boys, pajamas, Christmas
decorations, DVDs, novelty pens, and a
partridge in a pear tree. Oh my goodness
it was fun. And the best part of all,
I never had to cross one scary street
all by myself.