High Fashion in Hoi An

18 – 23 May 2010, Vietnam

Our tour with the Easy Riders ended on May 18th when we rolled into Hoi An. After six tranquil days on the motorcycles Hoi An was a shock to the system: traffic filled the streets, there were tourists everywhere, and without Hong and Duc our chances of paying anything resembling local prices were just about zero. The motorcycle trip moved our route inland instead of along the coast but we’d always planned to visit Hoi An. The city is famous for custom tailors, and just about every article of clothing I’d worn to work since 2006 was sewn in Hoi An. My recollection was that Hoi An was like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with perfectly fitting, high quality garments produced magically overnight. Unfortunately our second visit reminded me that the process isn’t quite that lustrous.

Our first step was to choose a tailor, which was not an easy task with literally hundreds of shops lining every street in the city. We initially followed the recommendation of our honorable motorcycle guides, and quickly set about choosing styles and fabrics. All of the shops are filled with fabrics as well as stacks of European fashion magazines, and they’ll copy any design. At this stage we encountered the first signs of trouble in Asian haute couture paradise. Not exactly an expert myself, I looked to the salesperson for advice about fabric selection. He enthusiastically recommended a cotton blend that he himself had purchased for the shop; however, he didn’t seem to know the precise content of the blend. I later learned that he’d only recently returned to Vietnam after living most of his life in Canada, where he’d worked as an engineer. Unless I slept through my textiles classes I’m pretty sure an engineering education isn’t exactly appropriate preparation for a career in fashion. I wasn’t very impressed with the shop but eventually ordered some cotton shirts and wool trousers, and after my measurements  were taken we left so the elves could do their work.

The next afternoon, less than 24 hours later, we returned for my first fitting. Although the shirts fit well, the cuffs were inconsistent, there were small stains on the fabric, and the pants were too tight. It took an exasperating four more fittings before the problems were fixed. A second tailor couldn’t seem to produce two shirts that fit the same. The only truly painless experience was at one of the most expensive tailors in town. A first dress shirt fit perfectly after a single fitting and alteration and an additional two didn’t need any adjustments at all. However at $40 each they were more than twice the price as those from the first tailor.

After five days of staring at fabrics, haggling over prices, and seemingly endless fittings we left Hoi An with several extra bags in hand. Despite the hassle, our visit to Hoi An was worthwhile; with ready-to-wear shirts back home I’m left with the choice of sleeves that barely extend beyond my elbows or a chest with enough extra material to power a small sailboat. Allison, on the other hand, has no problem filling her shopping bags back home and left Hoi An with only a dress and a shirt. Later, back in Saigon, I put my faith in the Vietnamese postal service and sent my purchases off on a slow boat to the USA. With any luck they’ll be waiting for me when I return home, and with a little more luck I’ll find a job to wear them to.

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