Big Question Marks

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Catching up—10 days in Hoi An

It’s well established on the Vietnam tourist trail, so we weren’t sure how we’d like it after spending a few days as the only tourists (and thus quasi-celebrities) in Quy Nhon. It’s unlike any other spot we’ve been to—on one hand, a somewhat quiet & conservative town that goes to bed around 9 pm, but it’s also a mad mix of history, shopping, and quaint charm. By our third full day of exploring the easily walkable and incredibly picturesque town, we were far from that feeling of “we’ve seen it all”.
Hoi An has been a trading port since the 17th century located on the Thu Bon River, just a little inland from the South China Sea. A stroll through the narrow streets past the old, comfortably decrepit buildings one can feel very much like you’ve stepped into another time. Various influences—French, Chinese, Japanese—blend together in the architecture, making “Ancient Town” a charming collection of buildings with faded yellow plaster walls, mossy roofs, dark wood shutters, and bougainvillea… many of the houses have been passed down within families for hundreds of years; there’s many ornate temples and congregational halls to explore, and then there’s the old tea warehouses, which convert beautifully into restaurants and shops! It’s all set along a (slightly stinky) river and with a strict ban on cars (only “primitive vehicles and walkers” allowed, according to signs), it’s a little reminiscent of one of the islands of Venice.

And then there’s the shopping…

Besides being a magical and historical place, Hoi An is tailor central. Thanks to the availability of gorgeous silk of every colour and texture, about a zillion tailor shops offer to make shopping-hungry tourists custom-made clothing unbelievably quickly and for supercheap. At first, these shops are a bit overwhelming—there are so many of them, for one thing! And then there’s the sales tactics—pressure, more pressure, lots of false flattery, calling out to you to come into the shop as you walk by… just walking down the street can be a bit harrowing, so we avoided them as much as we could for the first few days.
Inevitably, we all get a little braver and enters their first shop. At first we tried to enter and leave as quickly as possible—get the basic info (prices, how long everything takes to make, and take a peek at fabrics and clothing samples) and a business card and get out while you can. We browsed many good and bad reviews of various tailors online before coming, and perhaps were a bit warier than some after reading quite a few horror stories. While Dayle was thinking more about a few dresses (something that can’t be messed up too badly), Adrian was hoping for a nice suit. We visited about 12 shops or so—from tiny and dusty, to high-end ones with elaborate fishponds and lounge areas within the shop—and finally settled on Mr. Xe, a guy who’d gotten great reviews online for his tailoring. At $85 USD for a tailored wool suit, he was somewhere in the middle (we found $60 to $120 was about the average price) and very firm on needing a few days to sew everything well and fit it properly—while some prided themselves on speed, we had a good feeling about the very flamboyant Mr. Xe (if not mixed feelings about the very friendly and extremely “encouraging” salesgirls). And our instincts turned out to be right—Adrian’s suit (and his dress shirts, and pants) turned out great! On the other hand, the dress Dayle asked for to be copied out of a magazine (in a way, to see how well they’d do) turned out to be a little more Amish than Lily Allen. Which brings us to our first lesson of Hoi An tailors: they all have their fortes, so work with them, not against them! Later we found another shop, Blue Rose, with a couple of very trendy shopgirls and clothing samples and great fabrics. The garments we got made—a mix of dresses, casual shirts, and a sporty jacket—look fantastic on, but the sewing and construction is pretty much nowhere close to Mr. Xe’s in quality. We even went to a third shop, which we found to make gorgeous silk dresses and really cool winter coats, but the tailored items were definitely not up to the fit standard we now had to compare to. But we still came out with a lot of cool, really original and well-fitting clothes made for a fraction of the cost you’d find them for in a store back in Canada or Australia (and sometimes for less than what we’d pay just for the fabric). And we had a great time doing it! So Lesson #2: if you go in to have some fun, and don’t expect haute couture for $25 a dress, you’ll leave with a great experience and a wicked new wardrobe.Another thing to think about if you’re going to Hoi An and planning for some tailoring, give it time! Not that we spent 10 days in fittings, but nearly every day there were a few adjustments (and often new orders to make). One of the most frustrating experiences was when Dayle had a pair of shoes made (honestly, she would have been happy just to shop around til one store had the right size). Somehow the cobbler must have cut the shoe too small to begin with, and though each fitting found them a little bigger, there was still that toes-jammed-against-the-front feeling (Ouch!) until they finally agreed to redo it completely. And you feel a bit bad making people adjust things so many times, but you wouldn’t purposely buy shoes a size too small normally, would you? So Lesson #3: Allow time to get things fitting properly, and don't be afraid to be picky! All we lost was time, and we managed to discover many great restaurants and street scenes in the many walks back and forth between tailors and the shoe shop.

And we must mention the restaurants! Hoi An has a few culinary specialties of its own—ie. the noodle dish Cao Lau, made authentically only with the water from the ancient Ba Le well, located in a tiny laneway in a residential area of town. We were never up early enough, but apparently there’s a daily pilgrimage of little old ladies to the well. And Cao Lau (which also comes in a splendid vegetarian version) and Adrian’s favourite, fish grilled in a banana leaf, are the perfect foods to eat at a riverside restaurant, under glowing silk lanterns and washed down by 4000 dong (that’s about 40 cents) glasses of bia tuoi (draught beer).

On the complete other end of the scale, there are the posher eateries, like Tam Tam Café, set in an old tea warehouse with a menu of fantastic salads and French-style sandwiches (hard to find in Vietnam!). And across the street there’s Cargo Club, part white-tablecloth restaurant and part patisserie, which we’re positive makes the best chocolate mousse on the planet!

And if it is possible to get bored/sick of Hoi An, there’s always the peaceful 4km bicycle ride to beautiful China Beach, where American GIs used to head for some relax time during the American/Vietnam War. And there are the ancient Cham ruins of My Son, a sort of mini Angkor Wat set in a steamy butterly-filled jungle (and also decorated with bomb craters from the war), a very fun motorbike ride away from town through the rice paddies.

We must have visited at the most exciting of times too—while we were (sort of) sticking around for Earth Hour, where the town would shut off the lights with many other world cities, there was also a major build-up to March 28 which we were puzzled about. Banners around town mentioned the 28th with a slogan in Vietnamese punctuated by an exclamation mark. Every evening there seemed to be another lit-up, music-blaring boat dressed up in brightly-coloured fabric, flags, and images/statue busts of Uncle Ho. There were musical performances in public areas and finally, a parade of blindingly bright floats covered in Ho Chi Minh, sparkles, and peace doves (complemented by a sky covered in lightning streaks and thunder!) As we noticed more and more Vietnam flags decorating the shops, we also learned in a loose translation, that March 28 is Hoi An’s (and nearby Danang’s) Liberation Day, when the Americans finally left (in defeat?) the area. So while we were getting excited to see the lights go off and candles float down the river, the townspeople were getting excited for a much more patriotic kind of occasion. It was quite the buzz… though not that Hoi An isn’t every day!


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