Strangely Vietnam (Part 2 of 3): The Accidental Shopper

Written from Brandon’s perspective


I had just wrapped up an exquisite tour of Ho Chi Minh’s house and was feeling warm and delicious inside–like the Pilsbury Doughboy on a bright summer day. “Tee-hee.”

My tour guide excused himself to use the restroom and asked me to wait for him, but my veins were ablaze with adrenaline after learning about Uncle Ho’s magnificent koi and love of reading–an affinity we share. I was restless.

For the first time in a long time, I felt truly alive and wanted to experience ever more thrilling adventures in this foreign land. Eat dog meat, drink snake wine, or cross the street and live to tell the tale. The world was my oyster.

A nearby gift shop called out to me as if it was divinely created for my specific shopping pleasures. “Just a quick peek,” I thought and wandered on in. It was like walking into paradise itself. The gift shop appeared serene and peaceful, nothing like the stories of hawkish merchants peddling their trinkets in your face. It was almost too good to be true. And it was.

A beautiful crane figurine caught my eye, but with no visible price tag I picked it up to see if it was hidden underneath. This action must have triggered some sort of silent alarm system within the shop because out of nowhere five Vietnamese girls immediately surrounded me, hollering and screaming. It was like they popped out from under the infamous Viet Cong tunnels.

“Hello mister, can I help you?” said the first. “$35. It’s good price. Best price,” followed another. “For you make special. No problem. Buy now. Ok? You buy.”

I felt dizzied by the overstimulation and hesitated on the crane. At the same time, I was growing worried that I didn’t tell my tour guide where I had gone. We had now been separated for a full 3 minutes and he had no idea where I was. What if he thought I had been abducted, gotten lost, or eloped with a stunningly beautiful woman?

“Just a moment,” I answered to the chorus of merchants as I stepped outside to look for my guide. All but one retreated to their secret tunnel except for one, who followed me out like a hungry panther stalking its prey.

I scanned the area but didn’t see my guide. However, a black hand-carved mask hanging on the door caught my eye. It was of a jolly old man with an absurdly huge forehead and lengthy beard–sort of like an Asian Santa Claus happily suffering from cerebral encephalitis.

“How much?” I asked.

“$25, you buy?”

The price seemed reasonable but I was still feeling nervous at the thought losing my tour guide. We were now approaching 4 whole minutes apart. At 5 minutes of separation people start to forget names, at 8 minutes faces, and at 10 minutes even best friends can become frienemies. I continued to silently scan the area for him, forgetting about the seller.

“Ok $20, you buy?” she continued hoping to get my attention again. But before I had a chance to reply she lowered the price again. “Ok $18, you buy?” she said with a distinctly lower and more direct tone. The price of the mask was dropping faster than the value of U.S. homes.

“Ok you good. Break my arm. $15, you buy?” By now she was glaring and her posture signaled to me that she was done playing games.

Believing the price of the mask had hit rock bottom (and given the historically low interest rates on wooden masks and additional tax credit), I agreed.

By the time it took me to blink twice the seller dropped the price by 40%. “Finally,” I thought, “my very own mask.” Quick, someone poke me. Tee-hee.

And for a limited time only you too can own a piece of the Dream for five easy payments of just $2.99. *Purchase of wooden mask subject to credit approval rating. Buyers with a credit score below 700 may not qualify. Call for details.

Continued in Part 3: The Accidental Taxi Ride


Ed. note: Let the record show that our narrator was inclined to be particularly unreliable here and his views do not necessarily represent those of the management. It should also be mentioned that our man Brandon immediately knew the face of the mask to be that of a stock character in the region’s folk theater. He’s known for a bit of debauchery (at least in other related cultures), making him something of a hero to Brandon.


Strangely Vietnam (Part 1 of 3): The Accidental Tour Guide

“Two people,” I said to the cashier at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It was our last day in Vietnam and Brandon wanted to visit some cultural and historical sites.


“Is he in your group?” she asked while eyeing Brandon.

“Yeah, that’s my friend.”

The cashier slid a single ticket through the glass window. “That will be 25,000 dong” ($1.25 usd).

Confused, I examined the ticket and stared. Unless I needed LASIK eye surgery (which I’m told on good authority is affordable and safe in Vietnam) there were not two tickets on the counter. “Hai nguoi,” I mentally recited. I was fairly confident that I mastered how to count in Vietnamese, but was suddenly overcome with anxiety–like a lost child looking for his mommy.

“Um…two people,” I nervously repeated, this time using my fingers to reinforce the point.

The cashier smiled. “Tour guides don’t need a ticket.”

“Hurry Brandon, let’s go in before she changes her mind,” I said gleefully.

When I was a volunteer in Cambodia, I often tried to get into tourist attractions using my Khmer language skills and charm. Neither worked and I always had to pay. Imagine my delight when I was admitted free of charge to the museum. It certainly wasn’t because of my Vietnamese ability; so for once my disarmingly good looks must have paid off. I felt elated and assumed my new role as Brandon’s guide and interpreter very seriously.

All good tour guides are trained to be knowledgeable and confident. As we walked through Ho Chi Minh’s former house, located adjacent to the museum, I diligently explained to Brandon the historical significance of the sights and artifacts. Where my knowledge lacked, I made up for it by displaying even more confidence using a blend of fact and hyperbole.

“We’re now approaching Uncle Ho’s famous house on stilts,” I said while framing the house with my hands–a well known technique which conveys grandiosity. “Here is the office where he worked. Notice the books. Uncle Ho loved to read. He could read in Vietnamese and French. See the desk lamp? Uncle Ho turned it on at night to read. Here is the bed where he slept. It also has a lamp by the bedside. ‘But where are all the books?’, you might be asking yourself. They are in the office of course, where he did his reading.”

I was quickly hitting my groove and feeling increasingly bold as the tour went on. We visited the trees in his yard, the fish in his pond, and the gift shop he built for the future tourists he knew would come–the latter exemplifying the vision and prescience Ho Chi Minh was renowned for among his party.

“Uncle Ho often took walks around his fish pond. He loved his fish very much. There are 353 fish, each with a unique name. The oldest is Stewey. He’s Uncle Ho’s favorite.”

By the end of the tour Brandon was full of laughs and giggles, kind of like the Pilsbury Doughboy when you poke his belly. Incidentally, this actually happened to Brandon (which possibly awoke his inner child).

Feeling satisfied with my performance, I left Brandon and hurried to the bathroom. 32 oz of water in a tropical environment is very taxing on one’s bladder. When I came back, Brandon had disappeared…

Continued in Part 2: The Accidental Shopper


Ed. note: it remains a regret of Brandon that he did not make the appropriate “tee hee” sound when his midsection was randomly patted (Polynesian-Buddha-style), despite the implicit commentary on his personal fitness level.

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