Hoi An Stories and Tips

Hoi An - A Stitch in Time

Hoi An, Vietnam Photo, Hoi An, Vietnam

As the pretty young gal competently took my measurements, her colleague distractedly recorded them in a jumbled notebook, and I attempted mental conversions from centimeters to inches, with the tape measure sizing up the circumference of my neck, the size of my biceps and wrists, the outer limits of my thighs, the span of my shoulders, the volume of my calves, the magnitude of my hips, all the while reflecting that, until now, my only concern had been waist size and inseam length.

In Hoi An, Vietnam, famous for its custom clothing, everything is made based on individual shape, where at least 500 individual tailor shops compete for your business, many of them shamelessly displaying testimonials from satisfied customers. Anything can be copied, just peruse the catalogs and point to whatever it is you want made, or bring sketches of your own designs. Probably the most difficult decision is choosing the fabric, since there is a dizzying array of choices, based on color, quality and type, with bolts of cloth heaped wall to wall in some stores. Interspersed with the shops are the sewing factories, where rows of workers stitch around the clock, with the best employees earning upwards of $60/month.

What began as an innocent new travel shirt - two zippered pockets in a lightweight cotton fabric - greedily ended three days later, with a smart charcoal grey wool overcoat, a classic cashmere wool suit, a pair of cotton pants with three hidden zipper pockets, and another print shirt, all ready the next day. My wife chipped in with a couple of shirts, a pair of pants and two beautiful traditional silk Ao Dai dresses. Shop around and interview a few establishments before making a commitment, perhaps starting with a simple shirt (as we did) to determine their workmanship. The tailor we used is called ‘Impressions Boutique’, which has several stores scattered throughout the town, most with English speaking representatives. They also keep your measurements on file, if you decide to order more from their website.

Hoi An, touristy yet charming, is everyone’s favorite town in Vietnam, in fact, it may be our most pleasing stop so far in our year long odyssey around the world. It’s situated in the center of Vietnam, halfway between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi, with the closest airport in Danang, about one hour away. If you arrive on the train, you’ll also disembark in Danang and require a bus or taxi connection. Hoi An is also a popular stop on the ‘Open Bus Tour’, an efficient and practical method of traveling the length of the country, where a $30 bus pass allows you to get on and off at major destinations. We arrived early in the morning on the surprisingly comfortable overnight sleeper bus from the coastal town of Nha Trang, a journey of 9 hours, where you’re shoe horned with 30 other travelers into 6 foot long vinyl recliners, best for those individuals, like myself, who can fall asleep anywhere.

We visited Hoi An during the month of April, as part of a month long overland trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. April/May begins the summer monsoon season with hot and humid conditions prevailing over much of Vietnam and is generally a quiet time to visit. November through March is considered the high season, with prices and accommodations peaking over Christmas and New Year’s.

Whether you decide to saunter about and appreciate the historic, well preserved streets of Old Town (a Unesco World Heritage site) or choose to dine at one of the many outdoor cafes along the riverfront or just elect to browse the many shops, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect destination. There is a pass you can purchase for $5 (Hoi An Old Town ticket), with the proceeds going towards preservation efforts, allowing access to a choice of historical buildings, although for most people, it’s enough just to wander the streets and soak up the atmosphere. Old Town is pedestrian friendly, with cars prohibited and motorbikes restricted during certain evening hours, unlike the impatient and frenetic tone of Saigon or Hanoi. While we were there, parts of downtown were undergoing a facelift, as it appears that the cobble stone roads and sidewalks are being upgraded.

Accommodations in Hoi An are exceptional value, with a generous selection of comfortable hotels and guesthouses priced in the $20-30 range, many clustered along Ba Trieu Road, just a few minutes walk from the Old Town. We spent the first two nights at the Phuoc An Hotel, a nicely appointed hotel with a small swimming pool, located on a less trafficked lane about 10 minutes from Old Town. We then moved to the Thien Nga Hotel for the next 7 nights, where we enjoyed a delightful room with a balcony overlooking the rice paddies. Rooms facing the street are smaller, noisier and cheaper, so spend a little more and get a room in back with a view.

Café 43, located next door to the Phuoc An hotel, is a delightful and deservedly popular family run restaurant, with great local food and outdoor seating. Besides the very good and very cheap local beer (Bia Hoi) a number of local specialties are offered, including cau lau (flat noodles combined with croutons, bean sprouts and slices of pork), fried won ton, steamed whole fish in banana leaves, banh xeo (crispy pancakes rolled with herbs in rice paper), and ‘white rose’ (steamed shrimp in rice paper). Along the waterfront you’ll find a full range of restaurants, from cheap local food to expensive modern dining establishments. There’s a string of places on the waterfront near the ferry landing, with comparable menus, all enthusiastically competing for your business as you stroll by.

A very worthwhile adventure is the half day visit to the My Son ruins, another Unesco World Heritage site located 50 km outside of town. Built in the 12th century by the Cham dynasty and arranged in a steamy jungle setting, the ruins themselves are in varying states of disrepair, and while many of the towers were destroyed during the Vietnam War, the ones still intact are inspiring. If you go, opt for the 2 hour boat ride back along the Thu Bon River, which stops in Kim Bong Village on the island of Cam Kim, and marvel at the talented master woodcarvers hastily chiseling away on blocks of wood, laboriously shaping them into unique products.

Another recommended excursion is renting a bicycle for a buck and heading east out of town on an easy and picturesque 4 mile route, passing through local villages and crossing over lovely waterways, before finally arriving at the unexpectedly lovely Cua Dai beach. For a couple of bucks, you can drop yourself into a beach chair and soak up the sun or walk endlessly along the sand, a refreshing change of pace from Hoi An. Had we more time, we would have been tempted to spend a few days out at the beach, although accommodations in Hoi An are better value.

Although predominantly clothing, there are other appealing shops located throughout town, including silken handicrafts, artist galleries, custom made shoes and leather goods, as well as a very colorful local market, where I foolishly glanced a millisecond too long at a $10 hat, then patiently suffered the vendor’s persistent nagging, as she pretended to be my Siamese twin. Desperate for a sale, my emphatic denials were immediately countered with further price reductions, until finally, after 15 minutes of pitiful pleading, I mercifully relented at $2, not so much because I wanted the hat, but more so because her Emmy winning theatrics were entertaining. And actually, the hat is not that bad.

From the huggable little grandmas wandering the alleys late at night in their silken pajamas, to the lantern lit cobble stone streets of Old Town, Hoi An will imprint your memory with lasting impressions, with the local residents easily disarmed with a quick smile and hello (‘sing chow’ is how it sounds phonetically). Cultural and charismatic, Hoi An will please and entertain everyone, and our stopover in this little gem of a destination was enthusiastically extended from 3 enchanting days to 9.

Finally, I couldn’t have been happier with my tailor made outfits, with everything cut to my exact size and fitting perfectly. After a round of bag triage, with the new clothes displacing the old, our final task before leaving town was packaging everything for shipment back to the states (which the shop will do for you). With postage, our inflation busting grand total was a ridiculous $302, with my suit being the priciest at $75. Tailor made fashion in an ancient town, indeed a stitch in time.

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