But midway through our three-week travels in Vietnam, I’m lured to a more traditional spot about 15 miles south: Hoi An, a centuries-old trading town that 200 years ago was a bustling Southeast Asian emporium for tea, spices, porcelain, lacquerware, paper, sulfur, silk and other goods. Silk is still big business there, and the town’s dressmakers and tailors are renowned for turning out fine custom-made garments overnight.
I tell Glenn that I’ve heard that men can have suits made for a fraction of the price they’d pay in Washington. He considers that prospect for a moment, then adjusts his beach chaise and waves me off. “Sweetie, it’s too hot to go shopping, but you have fun.”
As I step out of an air-conditioned shuttle van a half-hour later in Hoi An, I’m quickly besieged by smiling sales clerks from a shop opposite the stop. “Would you like to have some clothes made, madame?” a woman asks, handing me a frosty bottle of water. She’s wearing an ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress, which consists of a snug-fitting silk tunic over silk trousers. Her long-sleeved, full-length tunic is slit high enough on the sides to reveal an inch or so of her slim waist. Apparently this flash of bare midriff, adding a soupcon of daring to an otherwise modest outfit, is a popular way to wear the ao dai, also the school uniform of Vietnamese high school girls.
“My name is Phoung,” she says, pointing to her name tag and leading me into Viettown Silk, a shop a few steps away. It seems to be a well-run establishment, with mannequins in pretty dresses, jewel-colored silk blouses and versatile blazers deployed strategically around the room. Bolts of fabrics in bold colors, subtle hues, prints and florals reach from floor to ceiling. Several women, probably British or Australian from their accents, sit at a large wooden coffee table sipping cold bottled water and flipping through fashion books. The genial sales assistants have mastered the art of hovering nearby in case you need them, without appearing too aggressive.
“Do you have anything in mind, madame?” Phoung asks me. From the bottom of my roomy purse, I extract my favorite pair of black pants, which I’ve brought thousands of miles for this moment.
“Can your tailors copy these?” I ask. The silk and linen blend trousers are nearly a decade old and getting threadbare, but I can’t find the straight-leg style in a similar fabric, I tell her. She shows me several grades of black silk, explaining the weave and suitability for my request and invites me to feel the material as she drapes it around me. Prices per meter are written on the bolts, but the sales people can quickly calculate an estimate for a garment. About $50 for the pants, she says.
Though I don’t find the ideal fabric, I tentatively settle on one and set my sights on a lustrous silk top to complete the ensemble. Sizing me up, Phoung pulls a few styles off the mannequins for me to try on. Even though they’re marked “S,” my usual blouse size, they’re too small. Phoung joins me in the fitting room, studies the ill-fitting angles of the top, pulling here, adjusting there, then runs her tape measure up and down and around my body. She loudly calls out my measurements to her colleague; mercifully she’s speaking Vietnamese, so I’m not too chagrined. In fact, I smile as I imagine the possible descriptions the dressmakers might yell out about their Western customers’ waistlines and posteriors.
Here’s a tip: If you’re buying ready-made clothes in Vietnam, buy them at least one size larger or try them on if possible. An embroidered top that I picked up from a street vendor fits me very nicely, and it’s tagged “XL.”
Such a bargain
I’ve been shopping about an hour, and I’m pleased with the service I’m getting at Viettown, but Hoi An has dozens of tailoring shops and hundreds of tailors. Phoung graciously agrees to hold my preliminary order, and I join the throngs of tourists in the ancient streets. Despite the crush, a relaxed, unhurried vibe predominates as people stroll or pedal bikes down the narrow lanes of Hoi An’s Old Town section. Cars are prohibited in the area, but one must be alert for motorbikes sharing the streets. Traffic here, however, is mild compared with the white-knuckle experience of crossing a busy street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
I stop at a restaurant and order a popular Vietnamese dish called banh xeo, a crispy rice flour crepe filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts and served with a tangy shredded salad with mint and cilantro. A waiter shows me how to wrap bits of everything in a little square of rice paper or a lettuce leaf, then dunk the packet in nuoc mam, a fish sauce accompanying most Vietnamese cuisine.
The next few tailor shops I wander into are somewhat disappointing after the solicitous service at Viettown. Many of the smaller shops are little more than stalls with just one salesperson. One business appears empty, but as I turn to go I spot the proprietor sleeping in a hammock behind a rack of clothes. The merchandise in some of the stores sags limp and faded on wire hangers. Quotes of $20 to $28 for a made-to-order silk blouse lure me in, but upon close inspection the thin, shiny fabrics seem inferior to the sumptuous material I have my eye on at Viettown, priced at $40.
Though I don’t attempt to bargain in the sophisticated shops, I give it a try with the street hawkers and buy beach sandals for half the original price, a lacquer box for $4 (reduced by $6), a $12 sweatshirt for $7. I don’t even attempt to haggle over the asking price for a sweet little water-buffalo-shaped clay whistle: 50 cents. The water buffalo, the gentle beast of legend in Vietnamese culture, is still the workhorse of the rice paddies.
Eventually I arrive at a silk shop housed in a large, beautifully restored wooden house. Attired in uniform green ao dai, the saleswomen are standing at attention or assisting customers. As I enter AoBaBa, a staffer greets me with a cold bottle of water and a cold towel. Plenty of mirrors, fashion catalogues and fitting rooms indicate a professional operation.
Barbara (her Vietnamese name is too difficult for foreigners to pronounce, she says) takes up the challenge of matching the fabric of my much-loved old silk pants. We head to the second floor. At the top of the stairs I nearly stumble over a young woman sleeping on a mat. As I look around the room, I notice four or five other women employees sprawled on the floor, their colorful silk ao dai swirled around them like butterfly wings. “It’s their nap time,” Barbara whispers. (Though I never learn the Vietnamese word for the midday snooze, the siesta is alive and well throughout the country. Most museums are closed from 11:30 to 1:30, and a few days later, we would enjoy an al fresco lunch at a Mekong Delta restaurant and then be invited by the owner to take naps in silk hammocks strung between palm trees before resuming our boat trip on the river.)
Barbara soon finds an excellent silk for my pants. She takes my measurements and, like Phoung, publicly announces them in Vietnamese to a fellow worker. In addition, she uses a huge scanner, which reminds me of airport screeners, to create a full body image of me to send to the shop’s tailors, who work offsite overnight.
Back at Viettown, I finalize the order for a collarless, cap-sleeved silk blouse in a dazzling shade of blue and cancel the order for the slacks. Thumbing through the fashion books, I spot a dress with a shirred waist. It’s a good basic style, and with Phoung’s advice on the many options — cotton or chiffon, A-line or bias cut, V-neck or round, sleeves or sleeveless — it becomes a one-of-a-kind summer dress that no one else in Washington will be wearing.
Scores of tailors will work all night at sewing machines in back of the shop, Phoung says, to complete my order and dozens of others by morning.
While browsing among the shops, I’m repeatedly distracted from the hunt by the charm and beauty of ancient Hoi An. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the town lies on the Thu Bon River and is a living museum of picturesque, very intact 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Diminutive in scale compared with Western architecture, the temples, residences, trading houses and pagodas reflect influences of Japan and China, two nations that established headquarters in Hoi An during its trading port heyday. When I tell Glenn how lovely the town is despite the glut of shopaholics and vendors, he accompanies me to pick up my new clothes, and we embark on a walking tour.
We stop at a tourist information kiosk to buy admission tickets to some of the 15 or so historic Heritage buildings. Brilliantly hued silk lanterns decorate the entrances of many of the weathered but sturdy wooden structures. On the 14th day of the lunar month, under the full moon, Hoi An streetlights are turned off and the city is lit solely by lanterns. Some of the tiled-roofed, low-slung houses feature elaborately carved dark woods and mother-of-pearl inlaid panels and open to pretty courtyards.
In the Tan Ky house, built by a wealthy merchant in the late 1700s, a guide serves us tea and introduces us to a woman who is a descendant of the original owner. We also linger on the Japanese Covered Bridge, an iconic symbol of Hoi An, and tour the sprawling, ornate Fujian Chinese Assembly Hall, a complex decorated with statues of deities, murals and fountains. Huge spiraling joss sticks that burn for weeks hang from the temple ceiling, perfuming the air.
Glenn pokes around a small ceramics museum displaying ancient wares, much of it from shipwrecks, while I visit a handicraft shop to watch young women cut and assemble the sumptuous silk lanterns that give the town its festive air. A tour guide informs us that we can visit a silkworm farm just a few blocks away, at Yaly, which turns out to be an upscale silk shop.
On the way to the back of the store, we pass an array of eye-catching menswear, and I try again to interest Glenn in snagging a bargain, but he’s mesmerized by a display of two-inch white larvae wriggling and munching through a bed of mulberry leaves. Another case contains a pile of cocoons, spun by adults from glandular secretions that harden into the ultra-thin fibers we call silk. Nearby, a young woman works a vintage spinning wheel, pulling the threads from the cocoons, which have been heated to loosen the fibers. Of course, the silk goods that Hoi An shoppers haul away are spun by machines, but it’s edifying to observe the traditional methods, though a bit disconcerting to see the little critters that sacrifice their lives for fashion.
By the time we arrive at Mango Rooms for dinner, I’m over my PETA moment and dive into fusion-inspired duck and shrimp dishes with gusto. Seated on a tiny second-story balcony, we have a view of the Thu Bon River, its far bank aglow with colored lights in the darkening evening. Laughter and lively conversation float up from the street, mixing with our small talk with the French and British couples seated so close by that our knees touch.
Finally, we head to the shops to see what the tailors have wrought. I emerge from the fitting room at Viettown wearing the cotton summer dress of my very own design, and Glenn gives me a nod of approval. The silk blouse is also spot-on. Alas, when I return to AoBaBa, I find that the trousers, while deftly copied, are too baggy and require a few more nips and tucks. No problem, Barbara tells me, but they must be sent back to the tailors and won’t be ready until the next morning.
Another buyer caveat: Allow sufficient time for final alterations. Sometimes even Hoi An’s bespoke tailors need a do-over.
Holmes is a Washington-based journalist.