Hoi An, or, No, Actually, I Don’t Need Custom Loafers

There are times when I must come off as a kind of travelling contrarian. While I occasionally allow myself Big Dumb Tourism trips, I generally prefer to act aloof and uninterested whenever I am confronted with the usual traveller path. Roads, after all, are for suckers: gravel is better, topped only by beaten earth, and surpassed only then by wild jungle, completely untouched by man. If the road has already been hoed, it probably already sucks.

Hoi An Hip

Quaint, adorable Hoi An. Now with complimentary insoles.

This tendency was particularly pronounced in Hoi An, a city in central Vietnam famed for its shopping. Fine suits, handmade dresses, and uncountable varieties of custom shoes are available for perusal and crafting. There are bins stuffed with thousands of black market DVDs, including up-to-date boxsets of Breaking Bad. Other shops swell with piles of coppery jewellery, or thousands of books turned in by previous travellers (meaning numerous copies of 50 Shades of Grey, and most of Dean Koontz’ catalogue in German). Storefronts sag with the weight of shoe displays, tiny columns stretching to the sky, each piece of footwear displayed on glass and metal and wooden pedestals. There are shops bursting with fabrics, lined with dapper and elegant mannequins, and operated by hungry, nimble-fingered seamstresses ready to shred and sew a custom three-piece suit for you in under twenty minutes or your pizza is free, including hand-made, cruelty free pocket square, sewn from real yak’s brain.

Given that I hate suits, and also being measured, and also shopping, the finer consumerist points of the city were lost upon me. I walk down a busy central street past dozens of quaint , Chinese-styled buildings, and dozens of shop owners call out to me. Some wave, some gesture to their wares. A few times, people run across easygoing pedestrian roads full of bicycles and rickshaws to talk to me. They tell me their names, and ask me for mine. They want to know what brings me here. They want to lull me into a sense of trust and convivial spirit. Maybe I would be interested in going to their shop afterwards, just for a peek, maybe a cup of tea, perhaps a free, no-pressure taking of all of your measurements and silk preferences?

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Tourist Shop Shuffle: The Intricate, Elegant Dance of Not Buying This Chintzy Garbage

Jade market

Fresh made tchotchkes, here!

There is a tourist mall approximately halfway between Hanoi and Halong Bay, directly opposite a nearly identical Korean tourist mall. It is large and sports a wide array of hilariously overpriced silks, coconut candies, and enormous marble statues. Every single bus that follows the trail to the Bay parks at the mall for 45 minutes to encourage their flock of tourists to buy as much junk as humanly possible. On our way from Hanoi, I breezed through the mall in seconds, marching directly from the entrance to the exit, and sat in the hot parking lot waiting for the bus to set off again, because I am nothing if not petulant.

On our return drive from Halong, the bus began to slow along the highway. “Our bus driver didn’t get a chance to eat any lunch!” our guide bemoaned, despite it being 3 p.m., and also the fact that we were just recently at lunch. He shrugged his shoulders, imitated human empathy. “So we are going to stop for a while so he can eat something.”

I raised my hand. “Are we stopping for his lunch at the same mall as last time?”

I begrudged the pitiful lie, though I did not begrudge the second go-around to the mall. These shops and economical shanties would not exist if people were not buying from them, and this well-plied tourist route was carefully crafted by money-siphoning artisans, skilled tradesmen and women who had finely honed their abilities to squeeze dumb foreigners of their dollars. This was all a part of the dance.

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Customer Service, or, The Mandatory Bonus Dumplings

Xiaolongbao

Enjoy! I will be here, right next to your face, in case you need anything.

I try to sneak by them, thinking that the rush of other customers will distract from my presence. But being the only honky around tends to attract attention, and anyways the staff of this grocery store exist only to watch every person passing by them like hawks. I hover over the dumpling selection for just a second too long, and suddenly one of them is upon me, existing all up in my face, chattering at a constant pace about this and that sale and about how my dumpling intake could be so much greater if I would just give in and go for the quadruple pack. I reach for one package and the woman, old and possibly kindly and in another life maybe someone who would enjoy needlepoint, refers back to her training and very nearly smacks the package out of my hand. Her face is awash in disgust as she gestures virulently back to the quadruple pack.

It is her duty. I am not being served properly unless I am being thoroughly accosted.

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