playing tourist

I wandered down to the Bến Thành market, which isn’t a place I usually go since it’s flooded with tourists, but I needed a hat.  I’m going to the beach this weekend, and since I stupidly left my hat at a security checkpoint at the Seoul Incheon airport last year, it’s about time I bought another.  Markets are the places to go in this town if you want to buy something relatively inexpensive and don’t mind haggling a bit.

Bến Thành market has been around for ages, and its building is one of the oldest in Saigon.  On the back end is the food - butchers, fruit sellers, etc… , then as you scoot inwards you’ll find food stalls (phở and the like), coffee beans, more vegetables, then tons and tons of clothing and shoes.  The vendors here will not leave you alone. You can’t walk down an aisle without someone pushing a purse, or tshirt, or pack of coffee in your face. “Madame, can I help you Madame? You want nice purse Madame?”.  This is where they differ from the other markets in town, like the Bình Tây market in Saigon’s Chinatown, where vendors really do leave you the hell alone unless you ask them a question; but I didn’t feel like trekking there today.  I usually only go to Bến Thành when I need something pretty badly (usually food-related), and I know the lay of the land well enough in there to kind of dash my way in and out.

Searching for hats, I spied a pair of palazzo-style pants that I immediately coveted.  The vendor honed in on me, so of course I pretended I wasn’t THAT interested in them.
“Madame, you like these?”, he said.  “We have many color”.
“I’m not sure. Let me think about it”.
“Oh Madame, you my first sale today, I need good luck. You buy from me, I have good luck all day”.
“Ha! Fine, okay. These look kinda small. Do you have my size?”
“Madam, these stretchy”.
“Yeah but will they stretch across this?”, I said, indicating my Western-sized midsection.
“Madame! you not fat! You very skinny!”
I burst out laughing.
“Me, Madame”, he continued, “I am fat”. He lifted up his shirt and sure enough produced a well-developed beer belly, which he grabbed hold off and waggled around like a prize at a fair.
“Yeah”, I said, getting into the mood. “You’re fat”.
“Ha ha ha hahahaha Madame!”
“We’re both fat. It’s good!”
Then proceeded on to the bargaining.
“My boss, he want 1 million VND” (about 45 bucks). “But for you, I give for 650,000”.
“Dude. I live here. I’m no tourist”.
“Okay for you, 600”.
“Okay 400 but that final offer”.
I’m sure I could have haggled more, but we were new Fat Friends Forever. I shook his hand, which surprised and delighted him.

Further along the aisle, I bought a hat, a plain-ish straw confection that is popular with tourists (the sun here is very, very strong being so close to the equator).  And on the way out, I passed by a stall selling those Thai print pants that a lot of Western tourists wear, both men and women alike, pants which aren’t very flattering unless you’re a supermodel.  I myself have two similarly printed harem-type pants with wider legs that are ridiculously comfortable, but I only wear them around the house because I don’t want to be pinpointed as a tourist (though I did wear them around Angkor Wat since at the last minute I needed to buy clothing that covered my knees).  Two British girls were scoping out the selection on the rack.

Brit 1: “I like a jazzy pair. Let me know if you find a jazzy pair”.
Brit 2: “I want to wear mine home on the plane. How fab would that be?”
Brit 1: “OOOH I know! Why don’t we both get the same pair? That’ll shock them all right when they come pick us up at the airport!”
Brit 2: “That’ll be mega! Hahaha can you imagine the look on their faces? Ok I want blue ones”.
Brit 1: “But do they have any jazzy blue ones? I only want them if they’re jazzy”

I bought a few other things, then once outside ducked into a store across from the market that sells bedazzled burqas to buy a cloth shoulder bag I can use for the beach trip; glutted with purchases, I headed home.  I ended up having to wear the hat so that it wouldn’t crush in my bags, which in hindsight was not the best idea.  For the very first time since living in this country, I got accosted by xe om drivers the entire walk home. I may as well have had big flashing red arrows pointing at me.

“Xe om, Madame? I take you to hotel”.
“Madame! Madame! Where you go?”
“Madame! Xe om! Madame!”

One of them even followed me halfway home before finally getting discouraged.  Most of the time they leave me alone since I have a pretty fast stride and don’t look like an obvious tourist. But today I wanted to get home to beat the rain, and damn, they were relentless.

Speaking of harem-type pants, the first time I saw a pair were on a man at a hotel restaurant in Danang.  I remember him distinctly because he was a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”.  He both frightened and amused me.  Though not a hotel guest, I got the impression from the staff (and from various things he said as he had a loud nasally Truman Capote type voice) that he lived nearby and came to eat at the hotel every single night.  Smoking is not discouraged in a lot of public places in Vietnam, so when a couple at the table behind me lit up, ol’ Marlan kept shooting them pointed glances and whining to the staff, “Can’t you get them to stop smoking?”, which prompted the male smoker to blow smoke directly into Marlan’s direction.  And I remember the pants, because they looked rather strange on him, like a big baggy diaper.  Fast forward a few months and I purchased a couple of pair for myself. Well, if they’re good enough for Marlan…


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