How Much for the Plastic Rat?

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 22, 2007

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.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel on British tourists in New York.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company