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Expat’s experience: The shoeshine hustle in Hanoi

Expat’s experience: The shoeshine hustle in Hanoi

Monday, March 09, 2015, 09:08 GMT+7

HANOI – I’m wearing a pair of new shoes – so new, in fact, that as I started to write this column I could still smell the glue, or maybe the polish.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

So maybe they’re not really “new,” but they look new and feel a little funny – a bit tight, not yet broken in. That’s because my new shoes are really the same leather deck shoes I’ve been wearing nearly every day since last summer, when I bought them at a Payless store back in the U.S. – the shoes that became tired, worn and dirty and thus were targeted by a couple of shoe guys working along Xuan Dieu in Tay Ho District.

At first I agreed to a clean and polish. The right shoe, you see, had sunk into the mud of a rice paddy during a Tet (Lunar New Year) visit to the Mekong Delta. I was carrying my five-year-old and my foot slipped off the narrow path. I washed my shoes off in the river, but paddy mud is stubborn. But what’s the point of wearing deck shoes if they don’t get dirty and wet?

This is the second time in the past four years that I’ve allowed shoeshine guys to hustle me. I really don’t have a good explanation for the first time, down on the edge of the Old Quarter. I was wearing some black leather shoes that I hadn’t worn in years but wear fairly scuffed. When he offered a shine, I said “How much?” If I recall correctly, the guy, who looked about 40 years old, offered to clean and polish them for 40,000 dong – less that US$2. I shrugged: OK, why not?

He took possession of my shoes and put my feet in plastic slippers he had in his kit.  Speaking no English, he pointed out a place where I was to understand the shoe was coming apart. I didn’t see it – and I didn’t really care if these shoes were coming apart. Yet I was sort of mesmerized as he took out his tools and proceeded to add extra stitching to shoes that I didn’t care for. He also pointed out that the insoles were worn and quickly replaced those with new ones.

My 40,000 polish escalated somewhere near 400,000. I can’t recall exactly, but I knew I’d been hustled. And I could rationalize the cost as part of a lesson in the art of the Vietnamese street hustle.

This time, I knew my deck shoes were in much worse shape – not just dirty and scuffed, but with a hole in the heel and ratty, worn insoles. And this time, I was targeted by a young duo, both in their early 20s.

How much for a clean and shine? “30.”

Again my feet went into plastic slippers. This time, each guy took one shoe. As one cleaned and polished, the other pointed out where the leather was separating from the sole and applied glue to the problem. Then he pointed out the small hole in the sole on the heel of my right shoe.

“Yes, I know. I need new shoes.”

“It’s no problem.”

“No, that’s OK. Really!”

But he’d unfurled the thin rubber from his kit and I dumbly watched him quickly resole my heel, using box cutters to trim away the excess rubber. Again, I found myself mesmerized by the process. We did not discuss how much the extra work would cost – but, unlike before, I knew my shoes really were falling apart.

At any rate, I wound up with new soles on both shoes, and also new insoles – with a floral design. Rather festive, perhaps even feminine. Whatever.

The entire process took about 15 minutes. Maybe I’ll get a hundred more miles from these shoes.

“How much?” I asked when we were done.

He mumbled a response.

“50 thousand?” I said. For a second I thought I’d hustled them.

“No! Six hundred fifty!”

“No, too much.” (I forgot to say the first Vietnamese phrase I learned: “Dat qua!” or “Too much!”)

I reluctantly handed the guy a 500,000 VND note. He asked for another 100,000. 

I could have walked away at that point, smiling, and they’d have been happy.

But what the hell. I gave him another 100,000 note.

Consider it a tip for another lesson learned in a culture where tipping is not expected.

Scott Duke Harris

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