How Much for the Plas­tic Rat?

For Weird Sou­venirs, Viet­nam Is a Bar­gain Wait­ing to Hap­pen

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Peter Man­del

An egg with a coat of shel­lac that says “Ecuador.” Acrylic pa­per­weights full of Burmese jun­gle ants. A cari­bou that sings “O Canada” when you press its nose.

Go­ing some­where far away means new sights, new eats. New stuff.

If you’re like me, one of the best sides of travel is hunt­ing sou­venirs — ob­jects that are lo­cally made and that your friends can’t buy at Trader Joe’s or Pier 1 Im­ports back home.

You can keep your fine art, your lac­quer­ware, your hand-wo­ven silk. When it comes to sou­venirs, I want weird. Plas­tic junk that makes noises and smashes into things. Stuff that my wife says is ugly and that I should leave alone.

Cheap, pack­able knick­knacks rarely weigh me down. Cus­toms in­spec­tion? Not a worry. I rarely re­gret spend­ing a few euros or yen. And when I get my junk col­lec­tion home, it helps bring back tiny tastes of the strange­ness and hu­mor of my des­ti­na­tion.

Here are my sou­venir rules: K What I buy must be the size of a shoe box or smaller (so I can squeeze a lot in).

K Five bucks per ob­ject is the tar­get price; 20 bucks per item is tops. K It has to be made lo­cally — at the very least, in the coun­try I’m visit­ing. K It should make me think of the place I went to or of some­thing that hap­pened on the trip. K Above all, it’s got to make me laugh.

You and I can ar­gue about which coun­tries are best for “nice” sou­venirs and which are best for por­ta­ble, in­ex­pen­sive junk. Al­most ev­ery­one has his or her own se­cret sup­ply lines when it comes to quirky ob­jects from the road.

I’ve had good luck in Is­tan­bul, thanks to its bazaars, pick­ing up a minia­ture hookah pipe in the shape of a squir­rel. It even works. In In­dia, I found a wooden pan flute that has the word “Delhi” el­e­gantly in­scribed on it, and un­der­neath, “Sexy Legs.”

You don’t have to go ex­otic for in­ter­est­ing finds. For some rea­son, Florida has a lot. (I once bought a snow globe with a bliz­zard com­ing down over a beach with palm trees.) And there’s al­ways Canada. In­ter­ested in some­thing with a North Woods mo­tif? What about a toi­let-pa­per holder with a beaver pop­ping out to in­spect the roll?

Th­ese are all good. But I found the mother lode of weird sou­venirs on a re­cent vacation in Viet­nam. Like Ja­pan in the 1960s, Viet­nam is up to its ears in dirt-cheap, funky, unique junk. Mo­tor­ized rats, bam­boo hats, snake wine. I bought. I bar­gained. I couldn’t stop. Here’s my Top 5 list from scour­ing stores in Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An.


As at this kiosk in Hue, Viet­nam is full of lo­cally pro­duced items that are ugly only to those who can’t see their charm.

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