While Dalat is kooky, Hoi An emanates pure charm. Hoi An is a small town in central Vietnam along the coast; most people come here for the tailoring—men can get a custom-made 3-piece suit (with an extra pair of trousers and 3 dress shirts) for US$90. Actually, you can get it made even cheaper than that, though the quality and fabrics may be suspect. The streets in the Old Quarter are stacked, one after the other, with clothing shops that have their samples dressed on mannequins. Alternatively, you can also look through one of the giant catalogs they invariably have in the shop, or bring in a photo or drawing of a garment and they’ll sew it up for you (though I would be wary of this unless it is a reputable place and/or you know the quality of their tailoring).
The weird thing is, almost every shop in Hoi An has exactly the same garments, with minor adjustments (perhaps a jacket will have a different pocket or zipper than the one next door). I am not sure if one shop in Hoi An started selling a wool coat with an asymmetrical collar, and then all others followed suit, or if the shops are just fronts for the same 2 or 3 sweatshops that offer the exact same garments. In any case, it’s sort of hard to decide if you’re going to go to this shop or that shop…it seems the Vietnamese (at least in Hoi An) have not quite discovered the competitive advantage of differentiation.
The one standout was Yaly, which light years ahead of the competition. There were true couture garments being made here. And while they were not cheap (I saw an incredible dress for US$1000), you still pay a lot less than you would back at home and the clothes were absolutely of the same quality as European designer garments (being the seamster that I am, I inspected the stitches and finishings…are you surprised?!?). They wouldn’t let me take pictures of the garments, but the interior of Yaly was gorgeous too…really peaceful and professional.
Since we’re traveling for so long on a tight budget, we didn’t really splurge on any custom-made suits or ball gowns (and I wasn’t even tempted! Who knew that travel could take the clotheshorse out or me?!?) But I did have a new pair of pants made. It wasn’t that exciting…just a loose pair of travel pants to replace a pair that was starting to tear.
For those uninterested in clothing, you can also have shoes, Chinese lanterns, and even paintings made to your specifications. In case you always wanted a pair of star-spangled, glitter-studded fake Nikes or some Adidas made out of Chinese silk, you can get them here in Hoi An:
You could also buy an embroidered reproduction of a historical painting, or a portrait of Jesus Christ:
It is fitting that we purchased our first souvenirs of the trip here in Hoi An—some handmade Chinese silk lanterns from a really cute family on Tran Phu street:
We purchased 9 lanterns of various shapes and sizes (some of them were enormous) for US$40 and shipped them home via seamail for another US$40. That in and of itself was an experience…a woman from the post office came to our hotel with two small boxes, which definitely could not contain our giant lanterns (one of them was 1 meter in length when folded down). Within minutes, she had frankensteined the two boxes together and mummified them in packing tape, ready for 3 months on a boat towards SF.
There’s also a pretty visceral market in town, full of smells and weird things for sale, like this (the furthest we could deduce was that it was some sort of tail…when we asked what kind of tail it was, the woman cupped her hands around her ears and said, “ba“):
There is even a beach near Hoi An. You can rent bicycles and ride 4 km to the shore, where you’ll pass through beautiful countryside and see kids getting out of the local school.
When we arrived at the beach, a young girl waved us over to her beach chairs (you can sit on the beach for free, or pay about US$1 to rent a beach chair in front of one of the restaurants on the shore). Many of the women in Vietnam wear face masks, and we assumed that they did so in order to protect themselves from car exhaust and dust. I noticed that the girl was wearing not one, but THREE face masks, one on top of the other. I asked her why she did this and she told me, “I like white skin.” That’s when we noticed that she was also wearing a jacket over her long-sleeved shirt, GLOVES, a hat, and socks. On the beach. Believe me, the irony of this Vietnamese girl all bundled up around a bunch of half-naked Westerners looking like lobsters did not escape us. When I asked her if she was hot, she said, “I don’t want to burn my skin. I like white skin. We always want what we don’t have.” Wise words from a young, sweaty lady.
Most people really love Hoi An, but we weren’t as sure at first…while you’d have to possess a pretty hard heart to dislike the place because it’s so peaceful and pleasant, we just wasn’t immediately convinced. I guess we were unsure of how contrived the place was; Hoi An used to be an old shipping port, and if that’s the case, how did the tailors get here? Were clothes and/or fabric shipped here so it was convenient for tailors to set up shop? Or did the tailors arrive after Hoi An had dried up as a seaport and it needed a new industry (i.e., tourists looking for custom-made clothing) to sustain itself? Additionally, the Vietnamese government has preserved the Old Quarter in Hoi An so new construction is severely regulated. Is that because they care about preserving Vietnamese culture and traditions, or because Westerners like this brand of quaint, old-world charm and will pay good money to experience it, no matter if that way of life is now irrelevant in a Vietnam moving rapidly towards globalization?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think it’s cool that we are given the opportunity to witness this moment in Vietnam, when capitalism has taken a firm hold and the country has so much momentum and energy. Towards what, I don’t really know either, but it will be interesting to watch Vietnam grow and develop now that we’ve been here and have seen the culture in action.
And, Hoi An did manage to work its magic on us. Each night we would cross the bridge over to An Hoi islet, where food and drink is a bit cheaper than it is on the Hoi An side, and we could watch the sun slowly color the buildings of the Old Quarter as it descended into night.