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.