Hoi An: A Stitch In Time – Vietnam, Asia

As the pretty young gal competently took my measurements,
her colleague distractedly recorded them in a jumbled notebook. 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 $60.00 a 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 – 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, a generally quiet time to visit. November through March is considered
the high season, with prices and accommodations peaking over Christmas and New
Year’s.

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

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 $5.00 (Hoi An Old Town ticket),
with the proceeds going towards preservation efforts, allowing access to a
choice of historical buildings. For most people though, 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 and Hanoi.
While we were there, parts of downtown were undergoing a facelift. It
appears that the cobblestone roads and sidewalks are being upgraded.

Accommodations are exceptional value, with a
generous selection of comfortable hotels and guesthouses priced in the $20.00 to $30.00
range, many clustered along Ba Trieu Road, a few minutes walk from the Old
Town. We spent the first two nights at the Phuoc An Hotel, a nicely appointed accommodation 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 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 the 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 good and 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.

My Son Ruins

My Son Ruins

A very worthwhile adventure is the half day visit to the My
Son Ruins, another Unesco World Heritage site located 50 kilometers outside of town.
Built in the 12th century by the Cham dynasty and arranged in a
steamy jungle setting, the ruins are in varying states of disrepair. 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 done just that, but accommodations in Hoi An are a 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 colorful local market,
where I foolishly glanced a millisecond too long at a $10.00 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 $2.00, 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.

Lantern Lit Alleys of Hoi An

Lantern Lit Alleys of Hoi An

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, the
local residents easily disarming with a quick smile and hello ("sing chow") is
how it sounds phonetically). Cultural and charismatic, Hoi An will please and
entertain everyone, 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 $302.00, with my suit being the priciest at $75.00. Tailor made fashion
in an ancient town, indeed a stitch in time.

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