The second was always more emphatic, a bit harder to ignore.
We were in Vietnam ambling through the markets looking at souvenirs: T-shirts, bracelets, bags, and non-la (the iconic conical hats of Vietnam).
The vendors, mostly women, would single me out and shout in English, “You. Look here. What you want?” They’d follow and implore me to go back to their stalls, to buy their wares. If I showed an interest in one shirt, four more were offered to look at, to try on, to buy. “This. You like this.” Not as a question, but a firm statement. And once they’ve got you, they won’t let you go. “No. No, thank you. No. Really, no. NO.”
“You like? You buy this too.”
We’d been in Vietnam for a few days on a bus tour and our last afternoon we found ourselves back in Central Vietnam, in Hue the old imperial capital (1802-1945). Everywhere we stopped along the tour we were provided with an opportunity to shop, hours of opportunities really. Every attraction had a small market or a souvenir shop attached and this last afternoon we couldn’t leave without visiting the city’s biggest market. This wasn’t even the last market we’d see, we still had the duty-free shops at the Vietnamese and Laos borders on our way back to Thailand. The bus we were traveling on was already filled with bags and packages, my legroom rapidly diminishing.
The market in Hue was claustrophobic and cramped and hot. The aisles between stalls were often times an obstacle course and only wide enough for one person to walk sideways through. There was a section for housewares. “You. You like coffee? You buy pot.” There was a section for food, for quick meals or fresh produce. “You. You buy water.” There was a section for perfume and jewelry. “You. You buy for wife. Where your wife?” But the largest section was for clothing: used clothing, new clothing, knock-off label clothing, T-shirts, silk shirts, dresses, socks and underwear. It was all here.
“You. You!.” I tried to ignore it. I was winding my way through the market, turning left here, right there, down narrow alleyways past hardware and stationery, trying to avoid the constant shouts to stop at this or that shop. I was looking for a particular T-shirt but didn’t want to convey any emotion or facial tic to appear as if I was interested in anything. The voice persisted, “You. Come to my shop. What you want?”
“I’m just looking.”
“Come to my shop. Follow me.”
“I’m just looking,” I told her again.
I continued on, she continued to follow me. She watched to see what I was looking at. I passed the perfume without slowing down or turning my head. My peripheral vision caught sight of the stone and sandalwood bracelets. I ignored the North Face bags to the right of me and bowed my head and looked straight past the Buddhas and amulets on the left. “Come to my shop.” She was still with me. She told me she was upstairs, I needed to follow her. I told her I’d look for her later.
“I have T-shirts” she said. I spun to look at her, to tell her “no” one more time. She patted my stomach and said, “Have Buddha size for you.”
“You’re not winning me over.” She didn’t understand my sarcasm but I ignored her and she finally went away. Five minutes later I found the stairs to the second floor and there she was, ready for me.
Her little stall had a prime location at the top of the stairs, on the corner of two aisles. Two high walls on the interior displayed all the shirts she had for sale, all neatly arranged on hangers, dozens and dozens of them lined up. The rest of the stall was nothing but piles and piles of boxes and bundled packages of her stock. She showed me shirts with collars, with no collars, with elephant designs, with tigers and dragons, with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese flag and asked, “What shirt you like? What color?”
“How much?” I asked.
“You pick color, size, then we see price. More you buy, better price.”
I admired her doggedness and pluck. Her husband was there and came over to do the bidding, his English was better than hers. Another shopgirl was on hand to climb over the piles, to dig out and pull apart the packages of plastic wrapped shirts to get to the right style, the right size, the right color. She had the T-shirt I had been looking for so I was hooked.
As I was paying she asked the inevitable, “Where your wife? You seem like nice guy, you need wife.” I’m sure she had another booth of those somewhere, but I all I wanted was one lousy Buddha-sized T-shirt. I was done shopping.