A Short Story
Spending a few days in Vietnam on two occasions recently, we spent time shopping on Dong Khoi Street in Saigon. (Officially, it’s Ho Chi Minh City, but even the residents still call it Saigon.) Vietnam is bargain hunter heaven, featuring a great exchange rate with the U.S. Dollar which are accepted virtually everywhere. Most countries have a famous, upscale shopping street like Fifth Avenue, Bond Street, Champs-Elysées and Via Veneto, and Dong Khoi Street is Vietnam’s. About a mile long, it is lined with high fashion boutiques, posh shops, international hotels and restaurants and more than a few souvenir outlets.
While walking Dong Khoi Street, we stopped in front of a collectibles shop where the entire window was full of military Zippo lighters. Our first reaction was one of shock. As an American, you cannot visit Vietnam without being conscious of the ghosts of the War and, if you served, your memories are still incredibly stark. We have spoken with a number of Vietnamese and, generally, their attitude seems to be focused on the future rather than the past. For most of our time in Vietnam, we rarely felt any resentment from the people we met and, the official policy is, America is an ally and a valuable trading partner.
In the sixties and seventies, the Zippo lighter was ubiquitous in our military. Almost everyone smoked and the Zippo was THE lighter. Most military units bought Zippo lighters with their emblem attached or engraved. Standing on Dong Khoi Street looking in that window, the first thought was how did they come by hundreds of U.S. military lighters from dozens and dozens of military units? The first guess wasn’t particularly good, but than I thought back to those days. The lighters were solid, well made, reliable and pretty inexpensive, and everyone wanted them. Working with the Vietnamese it was an inexpensive gift that was very appreciated and we often carried a couple on us as a reward or for barter. In the months that I served, I probably gave away over a dozen of our unit’s Zippo lighters to Vietnamese we worked with. That’s where those lighters came from…
The memories of the war are everywhere in Vietnam like the Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong hid from the enemy. We came across a few shops that were selling “art” made from left over war materials. A couple of times we came across models made from 50 caliber shell casings.
Walking the neighborhood around Dong Khoi Street there are a number of notable sites like the Saigon Opera House and the Rex Hotel, but it’s the shopping that brought us there. As a visitor, we discovered a number of remarkable items in Vietnam. One is laser-cut greeting cards. You know those cards with finely cut patterns that pop-up when opened. At home these sell for up to $10 but, in Vietnam, street vendors sell them for 1 to 2 dollars. Tee shirts are a great buy with prices as low as $3 or $4 but sizing is all over the place so be careful when purchasing. Saigon is also noted for great prices on high fashion and custom tailoring with a number of famous fashion houses represented along Dong Khoi. Lacquerware featuring hand painted pieces with that deep, dark finish are a local speciality available in a number of shops. For small items there are also hundreds of things crafted from water buffalo horns like hair combs and art carvings that make good souvenirs. Bamboo and wooden products are mostly hand made and available in a variety of woods and colors. Look for carved bamboo hats, bowls, trays and baskets. Paper fans are also a familiar item in Vietnamese lives and make a good souvenir that is easy to pack.
If you’ve had reservations about visiting Vietnam as an American, put them aside. This country is on the move and the people are friendly and welcoming
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