Shopping Mission — Hanoi

7 Jun

Bicycle covered in flowers parked in side street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Flowers by bike: Hanoi, Vietnam

It was S’s (the nine-year-old’s father’s) last day with us today. And we spent it in Hanoi. The bulk of it, in fact… drum roll… shopping for a… cymbal clash… pencil sharpener.

Now, when it comes to travel, I’m a great believer in the power of mooching. Sort of ambling around. Not doing very much. Gawping a little. Making friends with people you meet. Slowing way, way down. And seeing life around you as it is lived, not as it is composed for a tourist postcard.

But it’s good to have a mission. And a mundane mission, such as a quest for a pencil sharpener, a good kindergarten table spring roll joint, the perfect souvenir lighter for your pocket pyromaniac or all of the above, makes for a better walking tour of the city than any number of tour guides could provide. It brings you straight up against how alien life is, in its everyday mundanity, and takes you on a lazy tour of a great city’s back alleys and byways.

Because, believe you me, buying a pencil sharpener is a hell of a lot harder and infinitely more enlightening than scoring opium, silk dressing gowns or lacquer vases. And, yes, since you ask, I am regretting allowing Z his choice of lighter.

Z shooting camera with fake gun lighter and laser pointer. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Illegal on at least two counts in the UK, I do believe.

Now, I don’t have a problem with Z’s pyromania per se. As far as I’m concerned, the desire to set light to things and see if and how they burn is a natural part of growing up. And, when it comes to lighters, as with books, pens, paper, toothbrush and laptop, I’d frankly much rather he had his own.

He has burnt himself precisely once. And now he knows that melting plastic really, really hurts, he approaches the stimulating task of fusing plastic straws with a great deal more caution than parental warnings could ever have engendered.

When it comes to parenting, my default is to say yes unless there’s a good reason to say no. Money, like computer time, is rationed. But Z has been hoarding his pocket money for the last five weeks and shopping for the perfect lighter for rather longer than that. So when he set his heart on a lighter not only shaped like a gun but also with a built-in laser pointer, and haggled with the vendor to get it in his budget, his father and I were, like, totally fine with that.

Here he is. Deep in discussion with the vendor.
Discussing the finer points of lighters with street vendor, Hanoi, Vietnam.

On the other hand…

I smoke. S doesn’t. Our son owns a lighter. It is shaped like a gun. Removing a cigarette from the packet has never been so fraught with danger…

The built-in laser pointer added an extra-special magic to our day after his dad’s return to cooler climes. Particularly once he realised that the gecko on the balcony across the alley would track the bright red light as if it were a bug. (Final score? Gecko one. Z nil.)

Incense sticks on shelves, incense store, hanoi, vietnam.

Look! This burns too!


But back to the pencil sharpener…

It’s hard to wander Hanoi without encountering exotica. The walls of scooters hooting lethally towards each other then merging in mysterious ways. The gilded Chinese temples, the vendors selling seven different varieties of live snails, the cramped rabbits, flip-flopping fish and tired bonsai in the marketplace.

Bonsai pots in market, hanoi, vietnam.

Bonsai pots in the market, hanoi, vietnam.

The old ladies in their limpet hats flogging fresh vegetables from rattan baskets on a yoke, the incense stores and fireworks stands, the tourist silk ‘n’ lacquer ‘n’ Ho Chi Minh T-shirt emporia, the hustlers wearing fake sunglasses and lighters on a tray around their necks like 50s cigarette girls, and the massed aerobics in the city parks.

In Vietnam, as in medieval Europe, stores of a similar (or identical) nature tend to cluster together. There is an entire corner in Hanoi devoted to stove extractors of various kinds. Whole streetfronts lined with dried medicinal fruits…

Yarns in display case. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Too hot to sleep, but the yarns still sell...


Yards of knitting stores, with bobble hats in funky wool, bamboo needles cheap as chips, and great perspex display cases crammed with fluffy nylon yarns.

No sewing needles, though. That would be too easy. For those (and safety pins), which were also on my shopping list today, you need a trimmings store. The pavement outside it will look a bit like this:

Pavement covered in sequins, threads and trimmings. Hanoi, Vietnam.

A haberdashers? Oh, no, madame.


Yet all these tiny, individual stores survive. Thrive, even. Supporting staffs of three or four, with barely room in the cramped little box of a shop to pour tea from the communal thermos, let alone serve customers, should any squeeze their way along the pavement, their capitalist ethos burning strong as it always did in communist Vietnam.

It’s refreshing. In the West, we knock out low value goods like needles, thread, pencils, safety pins and sellotape in corner shops, 24 hour stores, or giant supermarts. The few specialist shops that survive, like traditional haberdashers, sell the whole spectrum from cloth to thread to yarn and knitting needles. A spectrum which, in Hanoi, would take up four or five individual stores on four or five individual streets.

That is, with the exception of pencil sharpeners, which are few and far between. And, yes, I know you can use a knife… And, on reflection, I imagine almost all Vietnamese do.

I’d done a previous pencil sharpener mission in Haiphong, where we had three hours to kill between the slow boat and the train, and had kept a weather eye out for sharpeners on Cat Ba island, too. I found amazing dragon sculptures, a gorgeous high-spec calligraphy store (which looked, from across a street filled with surging storms of scooters, very much like somewhere selling pretty notelets, and therefore, surely, pencils too), a theme park, fine fruit and some gorgeous IndoChinese alleyways. But no pencils. Or sharpeners for that matter.

But today there was an urgency. S returned to the UK today. Bringing presents (lacquer and Ho Chi Minh T-shirt, since you ask) and, more importantly, birthday cards to two very important people. Cards which Z would not create without sharp crayons.

I have to say that once S armed himself with a blunted colouring pencil to insert obscenely twixt forefinger and thumb — miming comes in bloody handy, all over South-East Asia — I assumed our objective was achieved.

But nobody, it appeared, of all the folk we asked, knew where one was to be found. They understood what we were asking for. But had nary a clue where one was to be had.

Because it’s not like in the West. Where needles, thread, and pencil sharpeners are cheap goods, that get lost, or thrown away, and replaced on a whim. They are items, in their own right, which merit a journey to their own special store.

We passed the bonsai trees. The incense stores. The fireworks shops. Walked past children’s clothes alley and down plastic toy street, until we found a man who pointed us to this place. You see, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy. They had faded boxes full of drawing pencils, too.

Table with pottery outside an art store/stationers, Hanoi, Vietnam.

For pencil sharpeners, apply within.

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4 Responses to “Shopping Mission — Hanoi”

  1. andre bilokur at 8:20 pm #

    I have a similar search to perform with my family in Hanoi. What a lovely way of writing you have. “Items, in their own right.” How right. A challenge, true, to find these things, but not altogether unenjoyable. Thanks for the reminder.

    • MummyT at 8:49 pm #

      Aw, thank you! Come by and visit us again…

  2. Pencil Sharpeners at 12:56 pm #

    A great look at another culture. Never would have considered something like the place of pencil sharpeners in another culture.

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