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:
* What I buy must be the size of a shoe box or smaller (so I can squeeze a lot in).
* Five bucks per object is the target price; 20 bucks per item is tops.
* It has to be made locally -- at the very least, in the country I'm visiting.
* It should make me think of the place I went to or of something that happened on the trip.
* 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.
What is it? Bottles of "medicinal" rice wine with dead cobras preserved inside. You got a problem with that? Sometimes you'll see a pickled gecko or sea horse instead of the standard coiled reptile. One container I found was packed with bees.
Where can you buy it, and how much? Available nearly everywhere in Vietnam, snake wine is often made by villagers filling up leftover brandy or Perrier bottles. The jug I bought at the Hanoi airport contained three lizards and cost 335,000 dong, or almost $21. (Okay, I admit, this tempting item cost slightly more than my souvenir price ceiling. But I couldn't resist.)
Why would you want it? Scary for drinking, great for display. The snakes are preserved in action poses; the wine is as pink as a nice rosé. "That," someone told me, "is because of all the blood in there."
Reminds you of Vietnam because: In a country known for old-world superstitions, this is the perfect elixir. "Makes man strong!" said my guide, Tuan, when I asked why you would drink this. But when I downed a glass, there was no Viagra effect. I felt sleepy, not strong. The taste was mysteriously bland, like licking envelope flaps or stamps.
Downside: Might leak in your suitcase. Also, the bottle I bought listed "ethanol" as its main ingredient.
Bamboo Baseball Cap
What is it? Looks like someone turned a ceiling fan into a hat. It's your basic ball cap, but with a breeze. Air flows through the molded, strung-together strips of bamboo.
Where can you buy it, and how much? I found mine at the "55 Cloth Shop" on Tran Phu Street in Hoi An. It retailed for 32,000 dong but I got it for 20,000 ($1.25) since I had no more cash on me.
Why would you want it? Even in winter, Vietnam is furnace-hot. The bamboo cap is sure to keep you cool while you're here, plus it doubles as a steamer.
Reminds you of Vietnam because: Clothing here can be just plain strange. Sweat shirts say "Sunless Beach Club" or "Eating on Feet." Baby clothes advertise beer.
Downside: Cap may contain bugs. Also, it's made of wood, not adjustable and designed for petite heads.
What is it? Hard to say. A toy, maybe? According to its box, this motorized rodent has a wide range of abilities. "The feet can take a stroll," it boasts. Also "the tail can turn, and it will give out light." True in both cases. Plus, it plays music.
Where can you buy it, and how much? Along with a lot of other plastic novelties, you can purchase the rat in kiosks along Hanoi's Hang Can Street. I paid 55,000 dong (about $3.50).
Why would you want it? This isn't your average street rat. It's a fluorescent orange animal with blue eyes and the receding hairline of an older man. The rat is fat, too -- about the size of a meatloaf.
Reminds you of Vietnam because: This is the world's cheeriest country. Everyone enjoys a giggle. Even statues of Buddha here wear a silly grin. And, according to its box, this is a "Happy Rat! Happy Rat!"
Downside: Traumatizes household pets.
Rotunda Hypnotic Pills
What is it? Thirty-milligram tablets of something sold under the brand-name 'Rotunda.' According to the label, it's a "Hypnotic, Tranquilizer, and Analgesic." A non-prescription herbal cure for "retarded sleeping." Hypnotic, did you say? Pass me some.
Where can you buy it, and how much? I bought some at a pharmacy in Hue for about 50,000 dong ($3). I noticed later that the box had "expired" in March 2005. You can find Rotunda at almost any pharmacy and at some variety stores.
Why would you want it? Why wouldn't you? "Rotunda can moderate heart rate," promises the leaflet inside, "low-down blood pressure and relax spasm in gut and uterus." Best of all: "So far no drug addiction has been observed." The box alone makes a great conversation piece.
Reminds you of Vietnam because: There are a million mysterious remedies here, stuff you'll never see at CVS. Favorites of mine include Wonderfarm White Fungus Nutritional Drink, Fa brand Whitening Milk with Licorice Extract, and Cleo Hair Removal Spray with Moisturizers and Cucumber Fragrance. (Do cucumbers have a fragrance?)
Downside: I didn't feel tranquil after chewing a tablet and then downing a beer to try to erase the bitter taste. But if you end up enjoying the effects of Rotunda's herbs and spices, it might be hard to order more.
What is it? A fine art object. Okay, it's a cheap-looking wooden paddle with tiny chickens mounted on top. The chickens are attached to strings, which are attached to a wooden ball, which, when you whip it around, makes the birds bob up and down and peck at grains of rice.
Where can you buy it, and how much? Found this in a couple of stores in Hue and at the government-run souvenir store inside Hanoi's Temple of Literature; $1.25 seems to be the going rate and nobody was open to bargaining.
Why would you want it? A lot more fun than those annoying paddles where you swipe at a rubber ball attached to an elastic cord. The chickens are colorful (blue, green, yellow and turquoise), and each has an interesting head of bright red hair. It takes only minimal skill to build up a very satisfying rhythm of typewriter-like pecks. I, for one, find it hard to put down.
Reminds you of Vietnam because: Everywhere you go, you run into free-range poultry. Chickens darting out of alleys. Chickens sitting on benches. Chickens in parks. Even chickens at the beach.
Downside: Nothing major. A slight headache, maybe, from watching the chickens peck. Shouldn't be a problem, though. Suggest you take a couple of Rotunda and a swig of snake wine before turning in. You'll be back enjoying the chickens first thing in the morning.
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