Saturday, March 1, 2008

Getting Tailored in Hoi An

Hoi An was once central Vietnam's bustling harbor city. Chinese, Japanese, and Western sailors visited the Hoi An harbor to trade their goods. Some of the traders would spend as long as four to six months in the merchant town, so the foreign influence was strong. Eventually, riverbeds shallowed, ship trading became less prevalent, and Danang, a city just 30 kilometers north, developed a modern ship port, train station, and airport; Hoi An had lost its importance as a merchant harbor. The merchant spirit of the town, however, did not die with the harbor. Many town residents had well-developed labor skills in the fine arts of tailoring, painting, and carving to keep people returning even today. The town is now a UNESCO world heritage site to be preserved in its harbor trading glory.

Some traditional merchant homes in the quaint streets of Hoi An are open to visitors daily. We visited the Tan Ky house which has been in the family for seven generations. The home is maybe 8 meters wide but 40 meters long with one entrance facing the merchant street and another facing the town canal.


The street entrance brings one into a greeting/living area decorated with mother of pearl wall hangings and furnishings. The living area opens to a small open air courtyard which is the only source of ventilation and light for the home.


Past the courtyard is a large room with beds to one side, a small bathroom to another side, and a well on the far wall. This room is where merchant goods were delivered or exported between the home and the canal. Above the room is a storage area where the goods were kept, lifted from the below room via a pulley system through a wide trap door. The storage area has a balcony that looks out into the courtyard. One wall in the lower room was marked with chalk showing the yearly high water flood levels in the home.


Canalside homes flood every year during the wet season. The inhabitants move everything in the house to the upstairs storage area until the flooding subsides. The walls of the wood home have survived centuries of yearly floods thanks to the hardwood trees they are made from.

The streets of Hoi An provide evidence of its merchant history. One small street is lined with French colonial homes, wooden merchant trading homes, and a Chinese assembly hall and leads to a Japanese covered bridge.





People walk, ride bicycles or motos, or hire a cyclo



to see the hundreds of tailor, souvenir, and Chinese lantern shops.





Hoi An was the town where we were to take our first step into facing our impending doom, a return to corporate America. Laura found a website that reviewed the good and bad of the hundreds of tailors in the town. This gave us a select few to choose from; we were to have business suits made for future job interviews. As we proceeded to visit the shops, we encountered Kathryn, a fellow traveler we had met on our Dong Phu Vieng hike in Laos and had subsequently run into in Pakse, Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even though she had only been in Hoi An some hours longer than us, she had ripped through numerous tailor shops and placed orders. While we were waffling, she was ordering. She pulled out her notebook where she had sketches of clothing she had ordered with stapled business cards and receipts next to the sketches. This was necessary to keep track of the tailor mania. She pointed out a nearby tailor shop, B'Lan, where she had a good experience. Laura recognized the name from her internet research; it had come highly recommended. With the overwhelming number of options, we finally had a place to focus our attention. We had decided earlier that we would order a shirt and blouse first and if we liked the results and enjoyed the experience, we would talk to them about our suits. After an hour or so of looking through catalogs and speaking with the B'Lan staff, we had placed our orders and anxiously awaited our fittings the following day.

That evening, Kathryn invited us to her hotel room where she showed us about 10 different pieces she had ordered, both the good and the bad. Her infectious excitement over the tailored clothing riled up both Laura and I for the following day. We asked her to join us for our fittings since she had more knowledge of proper stitching and fabrics. Laura had a restless night as she not only ordered her blouse from B'Lan but also an evening dress from the dodgy cloth market vendors. Evening dress nightmares tortured her all night.

We met Kathryn the following day at the cloth market; the first fitting was Laura's dress at the cloth market. Kathryn, Laura, and I all agreed it came out beautifully!


At B'Lan, the result was likewise excellent with more complicated clothing designs and better prices. Plus, the staff had been wonderful to work with. We went ahead with the suits at B'Lan where they helped us with suit design and fabric. The shop had mounds and mounds of fabric options for suits, from expensive cashmere to cheap polyester blends. Laura had fabric and the suit selected from a catalogin mere minutes. I struggled with fabric for about an hour before Kathryn finally convinced me on a cashmere-wool blend. How is it a scruffy, traveling man whose worn the same shirt for days can agonize over fabrics for so long? It's a phenomenon that can only be described as the Hoi An affect. Laura's suit was ready first!


After some minor butt-fitting issues were corrected, my business suit was ready!


From left to right is Ms. Thong (I might have her name wrong, I lost the card she wrote it on), who is the do-it-all shopkeeper, Catherine, a French-Canadian who manages overseas/online orders and helps in the shop, myself, and Ms. Lan, the owner of B'Lan. If we land jobs stateside, it will in part be due to this group. Working with the B'Lan staff was great, and the best part was my cashmere-wool blend suit cost me just $100. The good news for readers is they take online orders and can make any clothing you can imagine!

After dropping hundreds of dollars at tailor shops in Hoi An, we needed to get away from temptation. We enjoyed a beautiful walk to Cua Dai Beach, the source of inspiration for the TV series China beach and once a famous R+R getaway for American GIs during the war. The waves were high, and the wind was strong. It would be some months before the ocean calmed and the beach crowd returned.


We travel back to Ho Chi Minh City for souvenir collecting next.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss independent travel. In many of the tourist hot beds, like Hoi An, one will see large groups of Australians, French, Chinese, etc. They often all wear the same hats or hold the same umbrellas. These are the tour group crowds. They follow a knowledgeable guide from site to site and have transportation, hotels, and even restaurants arranged for every step of the way. It's easy, comfortable, and convenient but you miss out on so much that makes travel an adventure. Interaction with locals is limited to your tour guide; you spend most of the time meeting fellow countrymen on your tour. You miss out on hand gesture communication, mispronouncing phrasebook phrases, adventurous teenagers practicing English, or even being taken for a financial ride by a tout. What about cruising the streets on the back of a local's motorbike? What about studying your map only to get lost on some back alley street where a local somehow determines your destination and leads you to it? For all the frustration you might suffer dealing with a popped motorbike tire, a long bike ride, or finding a clean, cheap hotel room, it is all worth it and part of the adventure. There are things you miss out on when you try to do things too quickly or have an agency plan it all for you. You might say "Yeah, the headaches!" but often times, those give you your fondest memories.

Independent travelers are a different breed. They come in all shapes and sizes, tall or short, fat or more often skinny, graying hair or dredds, sandals or running shoes, pants or skirt, but universally hauling a backpack to the cheap hotel district. Some have offered us fantastical stories of their roamings in the streets of Asia, the good and the bad. You can simply plop down at a roadside food stall for fried noodles only to be engulfed in one of the greatest adventure stories told by your tan, scruffy dining companion. Some of the travel companions like Parisian Jerome, San Francisco Joe, or Canadian Kathryn have become friends we hope to maintain a relationship with. Others, you can see it in their eyes, are eternal wanderers only interested in blazing today's convoluted trail.

It's a world we will miss. It's really not hard to do it yourself, and Laura and I wouldn't have it any other way.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

YOU LOOK GREAT IN YOUR STEAL OF A SUIT; can't believe that you get these made so fast and with the quality of workmanship you seem to be describing. look forward to seeing you here son even though you sound sad to be leaving your adventure--you can start another in the future--see you soon LOVE DAD

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