Hand-tailored clothing has always been for the well-to-do: refined elitist fashion that fits like a glove but can cost an arm and a leg. Or at least it was, until word got out among savvy travelers about a tiny coastal town in the middle of Vietnam where hundreds of shops filled with fine fabrics and teams of skilled seamstresses lined the streets.
In Hoi An, a few hours south of Hue, even paupers (or in this case, budget travelers) can arm themselves with enough handmade stylish shoes and suits to pass as kings. Hoi An is worth a stop because the clothing discounts are deep and the textile temptations are many. Still, too many days in this tourist-ridden town can result in major headaches and a serious blow to an already tight budget. With these seven tips, travelers will avoid first-time tailoring mistakes, learn how to find the best shops for clothing and shoes, and leave with their wallets (and their sanity) intact, too.
Decide on a budget before you go
It’s easy to get caught up in the purchasing madness of custom tailoring—especially in Hoi An. It’s practically the only industry in this tiny town, and an opportunity to try or buy can be found on every corner. (And everywhere in between.) But handpicked items cut and sewn to personal specifications ring in at a price less than a t-shirt from Target, so adding just one more seems like the right thing to do. But one more can quickly turn to five or six. Fifteen dollars easily becomes $85. And while the blow to a budget is bad enough, the damage to a backpack can often be even tougher to handle. Tailor made suits aren’t the easiest things to pack, after all.
For this reason, it’s best to set limits. Know exactly how much cash can be parted with before heading out to the shops. It makes avoiding the impulse purchases, and the inevitable buyer’s remorse that follows, a whole lot easier.
Talk to the people
Hoi An has tailors the way Las Vegas has strip clubs or New York City has delis. And like delis and dance halls, some are definitely better than others. Talking to travelers who have already made purchases and had positive experiences is the absolute best way to know where to go—and where to avoid. In Hoi An, word of mouth is really the best form of advertising.
From my experience, one of the best and most reliable places for high-quality, hand-tailored suits is A Dong Silk (60-62-64 Tran Hung Dao St). While slightly more expensive than some of the lesser known shops on the main drag, its reputation and product quality are worth the extra dollars. They don’t offer much in the way of “fun” fabrics, which makes this an ideal place for a really well-made, beautiful and classic dress or business suit (as opposed to a funky number from the pages of a fashion magazine). A Dong’s tailors are skilled and they are more than happy to do multiple fittings to get the garment right. They have internet access and computers, which makes plugging in a thumb drive or dialing up images for copies a whole lot easier. They’ll also tell you if an item or style you’ve picked out is going to be a total miss.
Elegant Thanh Lich (66 Le Loi Street) is similar in quality to A Dong but at a fraction of the price. They’re great at making custom made shirts, suit jackets and pants, too. They have fewer fabrics to choose from than A Dong, but their turn around time is faster because they are a smaller shop and are off the beaten path.
Know what you want
Who would have thought that brides fly to Hoi An in search of their perfect dress, or men touch down looking for their one power suit? They travel the distance because in this tiny town, when it comes to fashion, anything is possible. Whether it’s a cocktail dress, a pair of slacks or some slouchy boots, these expert tailors and cobblers (because yes, they make shoes, too), can create almost anything.
But all those choices mean it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so it’s best to arrive with specifics in mind. Elaborate descriptions from memory are usually lost in translation, but expert tailors can create nearly identical garments from pictures, magazine clippings, or even a favorite pair of pants—all without patterns. So raid drawers for favorite items to get copied and leaf through fashion publications or online sources for ideas before visiting Vietnam. Because the happiest shopper in Hoi An is the most prepared shopper in Hoi An—the one who arrives with plenty of pages of pictures.
Splurge on at least one item
Budget-conscious travelers tend to watch their dollars and cents closely. But few people ever have the opportunity to have clothes made to their specifications, so a trip to Hoi An is one time when it’s okay to splash out. Stay cheap on standard items like dress shirts, skirts and pants, but go for broke on at least one big-ticket item and it’s unlikely you’ll be sorry.
Hoi An attracts fashion-forward men and women from across the globe for one reason: custom suits. It’s one of the few places a person can pair any luxurious fabric with absolutely any suit design. The price is definitely higher than most other tailored clothing items in town, but it’s still far less than a quality suit off the rack at home. (And much more stylish, too.)
Allow enough time
Even the most basic garments require at least two fittings to finalize. Suits, shoes and dresses can take several more. As a general rule, leave more time than you’d expect to get each piece right—at least two days for each different tailor used, and no less than 24 hours for boots and shoes. After shelling out the dough and making room in a backpack, it’s important that everything is exactly right.
The best tailors and cobblers will ensure that every item fits perfectly. They’ll return it to the sewing factory as many times as necessary—usually without question. But even the cheapest of shops should honor requests to retool or refine a piece until the buyer is satisfied.
Most tailors in Hoi An are good. Some are truly great. With so much talent in such a small place, it’s tough to go really wrong. Still, diversifying purchases is a good idea. It distributes business, and it increases access to textiles, fabrics and leathers, too, since each storefront has its own supply to work with. Diversifying also helps to avoid disasters. Only a couple of items are being produced at each shop, so should a tailor turn out to be a major miss, all is not actually lost.
Consider using more upscale tailors with fancier show rooms and a wide selection of wool and silk materials for suits and career clothes. Opt for more standard-issue tailors that offer interesting fabric selections for less expensive items.
Be prepared to bargain
Prices are rarely marked in the shops of Hoi An, so it’s all about the barter when it comes to getting a decent price. Some tailors offer bigger discounts the more you buy, but most are eager to drop the price at a mention of a better deal down the street. With so many options, shops are in constant competition, which is a serious advantage for consumers.
It’s important to settle on costs up front and agree to them in writing. Most shops ask for half the price up front, but anything more is out of line. It’s easier to refuse payment until the garment is right than to convince tailors of necessary alterations after the full purchase has been made. Remember to always get a receipt to avoid disputes later.
Also, be sure the tailor is using the best exchange rate. The cost of items is in USD and, depending on where you go, they may pad the price a bit by using a less favorable exchange rate. Everyone has a calculator and will type in the numbers, but just show you the end amount. It’s okay to refigure it using the exchange rate that’s posted at banks and go from there.
Ready to go? Look for cheap flights to Vietnam, plan your trip with our Vietnam travel guide, and look for hostels in Vietnam. Or get tips on visiting Southeast Asia as part of your round the world trip.