I don’t recall when I first read about Hoi An but when I learned that the town is full of tailors and new clothes can be had for cheap, it made my list of must-go places in Vietnam. Not only are the tailoring options plentiful, there’s an old town with buildings that weren’t destroyed in the American-Vietnam War, a full moon festival that has nothing to do with partying, excellent restaurants, and decent diving. Travelers we’ve met along the way have likened it to Siem Reap as a great place to lose a few days. We spent six nights there and although it was nice, it was a disappointing week for me.
On the night of a full moon, Hoi An’s Ancient Town turns off the lights for a few hours and colorful lanterns bob about in the breeze. Locals and tourists light candles and set them adrift on the river while crowds of people surge through the streets. Motorbikes and cars are prohibited in the Ancient Town so voices fill the air and conversations can actually be held outside. The night we were there, we also saw two live performances. The first, a small group of people on a boat tied up near the center of town, consisted of songs with breaks between lasting up to 10 minutes. The other was a man and a woman who were, we think, storytelling. Children were captivated and from time to time, one would raise a hand and the male performer brought her a little Vietnamese flag to wave. I couldn’t understand a word but loved joining the families for a bit, watching the audience enjoy the performance. Hoi An is a pretty place to begin with but with lanterns, candles, and groups of happy people, it’s downright beautiful during a full moon festival.
As in Siem Reap, I managed to find good cheese one evening in Hoi An. This time, we picked a wine bar where we each had Vietnamese dishes for dinner then shared a cheese plate and glass of sparkling wine. We had some other good meals in Hoi An including one at a restaurant recommended by a German couple we met in the Mekong Delta, one at a vegetarian place our new American friends took us to, and two with Madam Khanh, the Banh Mi Queen. Looking back at our month in Vietnam, I was happiest with the food in Hoi An.
15 cent draft beer. Need I say more?
We had recommendations for cooking classes from others we met before arriving in Hoi An but at the last minute we took a risk on Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Tour. And I’m so glad we did. Not only did we meet great people, we actually learned how to cook a few excellent Vietnamese dishes with modifications that we can use elsewhere in the world. Our market guide spoke English clearly and had a good sense of humor as did the chef leading our lesson. The chef’s English was minimal but her body language said everything we needed to know. The teaching was so effective we both managed to flip our crêpes on the first try.
For Jen, tailoring was a success. She got a fabulous custom-made suit and blouse for her long limbs with just the right amount of feminine shaping for her lean figure. Sadly, we sent the suit back to the U.S. without getting a photo of it so hopefully it will arrive safely before too long.
The hype is that Hoi An tailors can copy anything from a photograph or an existing article of clothing. Not in my experience. And if you know me, you know that I like my clothing simple: clean lines and solid colors. I have short legs so all of my pants require shortening and with my long torso, dresses usually need some altering, too. The thought of having clothes made from scratch for my oddly-shaped body for the same amount I’d pay just for alterations at home made me giddy with excitement. Alas, my hopes were set too high.
There are thousands of tailoring shops in a town with a population of about 131,000 so selecting one is no easy task. Staff members cry out from storefronts trying to lure in every foreigner who walks by. “Madame, you want dress?” “Sir, you want suit?” “I give you best price. Come in my store.” “Special price for you. You buy from me.” Samples line windows and sidewalks, shops are piled with look-books and oodles of fabrics in varying patterns and colors. It’s enough to drive anyone to one of those 15 cent beers.
We read countless reviews and blog posts about various tailors, ultimately deciding to stop by a select few, see their work, talk with the staff and maybe a few customers there for fittings or picking up finished work. Jen only wanted a suit and she chose an upscale tailor with a tremendous selection of fabric and a reputation for making quality suits. I wanted a ton of stuff: a little black dress to send home; a lightweight maxi dress to wear here in SE Asia; a pair of pajamas; a lightweight short-sleeve shirt to supplement my travel wardrobe; a lined raincoat to send home; a pair of shorts to replace the pair I’m currently using as they were, umm, disfigured by a laundress in Cambodia; a pair of dress slacks to send home; and the list goes on. I also wanted alterations to a dress that I’ve had for ages so that I could stop using safety pins to make it more flattering and practical. In the end, I used three different tailors and wound up sending home a new pair of pajamas. I have a maxi dress that shrunk in some ways and stretched out in others after its first wash and a short-sleeve shirt I’m afraid to wear in the rain for fear the dye will run into my pants. The dress I wanted altered? I got one of my three requested improvements. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t pay that much for my new clothes but the entire experience was depressing. One tailor’s attempt at the little black dress I asked for was so bad that she didn’t charge me anything despite the wasted silk and labor costs. Every shop I visited tried to push fabrics on me that I knew would be hot and unflattering. Even the pajamas aren’t quite what I wanted but hey, they’re just pajamas and I got a good deal so I count those a Hoi An tailoring success.
Diving – this is getting its own post and in all fairness, belongs in both the highlights and challenges categories. The diving itself was great but the dive shop we dealt with was far from it. For now, suffice it to say that it nailed shut the coffin of our willingness to book affordable group tours in Vietnam.
Vietnam, as elsewhere in SE Asia, is crawling with greedy people trying to get your business. I can tune out many of the hawkers we’ve encountered along the way but in Hoi An, we found it even harder to deal with. Restaurant proprietors call out trying to lure you in – this happens in just about any tourist location in the world, as far as I can tell. Usually, it doesn’t bother me. If we’re hungry, a place looks crowded, and there’s a menu out front, we’ll stop to check it out. We typically don’t read an entire menu, just flip through to see if there are adequate selections given my vegetarianism and Jen’s shrimp allergy and anti-pork status. In Hoi An, more than anywhere else we’ve been, restaurateurs hovered over us, turned the pages of menus for us, and even read their menus out loud to us. Hard selling seems to be the norm in Vietnam but this overbearing behavior went well beyond what we found elsewhere.
In addition to the usual street vendors of all-kinds-junk, Hoi An seems to have a high number of women selling nuts, dried fruit, and other edible nibbles which they peddle to diners inside restaurants. A woman enters with her wares, approaches a table, and when a diner’s hand is even close to uplifted, she drops samples into his palm. You can imagine how the ensuing conversation goes. I can tolerate the vendors on the street, everyone has to make a living. But this level of desperation and intrusion into another business to find customers exhausted us.
For reasons I’ll cover in more depth in an upcoming post about my overall frustration with Vietnam, we didn’t do much sightseeing near Hoi An. I’d have liked to see the Cham ruins of My Son but neither of us had the energy for a group tour nor the willingness to motorbike there by ourselves. Unlike in Dalat, it’s not easy to find Easy Riders to give you a countryside tour for a few hours or a day. And although we took a $20 private car to Marble Mountain and back, we didn’t have the budget for one to My Son. We could have bicycled to the beach but as we’ve said elsewhere, we really aren’t beach people so that held little appeal. Other than Marble Mountain and our day of diving, we felt stuck in Hoi An. Not a bad place to be stuck but oh, how it made me miss the tuk-tuks of Cambodia!
Hoi An is a lovely place but it fell a bit short of our expectations. If you’re headed that way, don’t set your hopes too high for a new wardrobe, be prepared to feel like a walking ATM, and plan on spending time on motorbikes or tour buses. Or just soak in the beauty, go to the beach, eat well, and drink for pennies!