“Shoe Bandit” (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Shoe Bandit

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – December 20, 2018

With heavy rains, constant humidity and uneven cobblestone ground, I’ve had three pairs of shoes break in Vietnam already. On my walk to work, I realized there was a local cobbler that worked repairing shoes and handbags from a squatting position on the side of the road. Surrounded by scattered rusty tools, piles of new soles, and leather scraps of all colors and sizes, he puffed on a cigarette that was stuffed in the corner of his crusty purple lips. He wore a funky palm-patterned button-down, and his big brown eyes were enlarged by his vintage yellow tinted glasses.

He laughed and made a motion with his hands, trying to communicate how big my feet were. I sat on a little metal stool as he literally picked my foot off the ground and put his foot up to the bottom of mine to compare. “WOOOOOW,” he said. In Vietnam it’s hard to find big enough shoes to fit my enormous American feet. I walk into some stores and the owners literally shoo you away shouting, “Nooooo! Too big!!” It’s either this, or they try to stuff you into too-small items and say, “Yes, good fit for you” even when your toe is hanging an inch off the front. They get a bit angry when they discover you’ve outsmarted them and can figure out that—yes, they are actually too small.

He fixed my first pair of shoes for $3, so I brought him another pair a few weeks later, which he fixed for $2. I’ve walked past this man every morning and evening for the last two months and he’s always smiled and waved since the first fix. Walking by him made me happy because I had a buddy on my block… a friendly face to say “hi” to every morning. The entire time, I think he thought I was a tourist, but one morning, I witnessed him finally realize that I’m living here. He jumped off his low aluminum stool and bounced over to shake my hand. He’s always wearing the same yellow shades and seemingly smoking the same unending cigarette.

A few weeks later, he motioned to me to come sit with him and drink cup of his “home-brewed” (powdered coffee concentrate). I had to get to work quickly that morning, or else I would have accepted his offer. He was like a sweet little grandpa that would fix my shoes and flash me a smile every day on my way to work. We were friends. I left him with a 3rd pair of shoes the other day, and made the mistake of going back back after dark to pick them up. He was so drunk as he bumbled around, mumbling to himself and stumbling over his piles.

He asked me to sit on a stool while he searched. When he finally found my shoes, he stood over me and said “free!” I scrambled through my bag and pulled out 50k for him to take, but again he said “free” and started grabbing at my boobs and tugging my hand toward his crotch. He held my shoes behind his back, out of reach, as he grabbed my arm and wouldn’t release. Luckily, he was much smaller than me, so I finally yelled “NO!!” and yanked myself free. He was such a sweet little old man—I thought… But this little old man left such a scary feeling in my heart!!! I’m okay, just a little shaken up! My friend offered me some good advice: “Some people, even the ones we trust, can become ugly.” Sad to see someone I thought of as a friend act in such a way, but from now on, I will definitely will be avoiding his block on my walk.


Alena Horowitz | Miss Potato

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