Hoi An: A perfect fit

ANDY PHILLIPS, The West Australian

‘Pants off!” the young Vietnamese assistant barks at me in the back room of Mr Xe’s tailor shop. “T-shirt off!” she yells after my trousers have dropped to the floor. Soon I’m standing in my underwear, skin looking pasty in the heat of the afternoon. The fact my sunglasses are still on my head adds a comic element to the scene.

She then picks up a crisp white shirt, so new that the buttonholes have not yet been slit. A few faint lines of yellow chalk are visible, the last evidence that the shirt was part of a roll of fabric just a day before.

“Both arms in!” she snaps, clearly revelling in her position of fully clothed authority.

Then come trousers fashioned from cashmere and lined with satin. She lets me put these on myself. By now the tailor, Nguyen Van Xe, a small man with delicate hands and sharp eyes, has joined in the charade.

Finally the jacket is pulled on to my arms and I’m ordered to stand in front of the mirror. Buttons are done up, cuffs pulled taut and lapels tidied. Mr Xe nods.

“Now sit down!” is the final order from the assistant. I do as I’m told.

“How it feel,” purrs Mr Xe, indicating the fit of the trousers.

When I say it feels great, both Mr Xe and his assistant beam, clapping their hands and turning to head back to the front of the shop. Job done.

As strange as all this sounds, it is not an unusual part of life in the coastal town of Hoi An.

UNESCO says about this town: “Hoi An, an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port, is an outstanding material manifestation of the fusion of cultures over time in an international maritime commercial centre. The town is a special example of a traditional trading port in South-East Asia which has been completely and assiduously preserved: it is the only town in Vietnam that has survived intact in this way.”

There are an estimated 500 tailors at work in and around Hoi An’s old town. They cut, stitch and sew garments for around 150 shops aimed at emptying the wallets and filling the suitcases of tourists.

It is a modern version of an old game. Fine silk has been traded in Hoi An as far back as the 15th century. But it was the awarding of World Heritage status in 1999 which began to draw backpackers to Vietnam’s burgeoning coastal trail.

Four years ago, I was among them; frayed clothes in a shabby pack, too stingy to spend more than a couple of dollars on dinner.

Then, I had bought several suits for as cheap as I could get, in the cheapest material. I bartered with the panache of a local and departed confident I’d snagged a bargain.

As it turned out, the pants were durable, if a little hot at times. All that polyester at work. The shirts were comfy enough, but the rigours of weekly washing proved too much for the collar and cuffs, which crinkled beyond repair. The suits have fared well.

I decided to come back for a break.

It is ten years since Hoi An was given its golden UNESCO-branded egg, and I wanted to see what had changed.

For a start, cheap international flights and the entry of Jetstar into the domestic flight network made the trip a much easier prospect.

This time my bag was clean and I had enough money to save bartering over the beer. In short, I had become the sort of traveller I would have snarled at four years before.

Having braved the public bus from the airport at Da Nang (I’m still too stingy to pay for a cab when there’s a bus going), I headed back to my old hotel.

I remembered it as one of the best of my backpacking days: a double room with breakfast, not far from the large pool, had cost $10.

Now, a sign hangs behind the counter showing rack rates of $35 for a double room. I negotiated a fair discount for my lengthy stay, but still felt slightly dazed at the difference.

After a stroll towards the Thu Bon River, I found more changes among the crumbling yellow buildings of the Old Town. The dollar meals served up at outdoor covered tables are still there, but they now compete with well-lit restaurants serving up Mediterranean cuisine and Java-blend cappuccinos. About the only thing which hasn’t changed that much is the tailor shops.

“You get what you pay,” a young female assistant had told me when I bristled at the prospect of paying $120 for a suit. But she was right.

The $50 suits are still available, made in cheap blended material, and the $10 shirts in cheap cotton remain.

I turned my nose up at these garments, and insisted on 100 per cent cashmere for a suit, and higher-quality shirt material.

After approving the garments via my changing room ordeal, I pay $135 for a quality suit plus two shirts. I decide to order a winter coat in wool for $50, and Mr Xe threw in another shirt and another pair of trousers for free.

With the to-and-fro struggle to strike a bargain behind us, it is easier to ask Mr Xe about how the changes have affected him.

Ten years before, he tells me, he was a tailor’s apprentice in a business run by his uncle.

Before that, he had sold peanuts and sugar on the street – where a profit of 10,000 Vietnamese Dong (65¢) made it a good day. Now he owns two stores and pulls in $2000 per month on average.

Though the volume of tailors in the town can make snagging new customers hard, he says, older customers order more.

It turns out that many people – just like me – are also ordering items of higher quality.

It is enough to make me think about not leaving it so long before I come back again. That’s provided I’m willing to brave the change room.

FACT FILE

• Both Jetstar and Tiger Airways have international flights from Perth to Singapore, and onward flights to Ho Chi Minh City. Jetstar’s runs flights from Ho Chi Minh to Danang for around US$50 ($57) one way. A taxi from Danang to Hoi An can be bartered down to US$10 ($12) – but don’t trust the meters. www.jetstar.com.au

• Hai Au Hotel, 576 Cua Dai St (tel: +84-510-914577), has rooms for US$25/35/45 ($29/40/52) for single/double/triple, but barter for a discount. www.haiauhotelha.com

• The Cargo Club, 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc St (tel: +84-510-391-1227), has international and Vietnamese dishes from 75,000 VND ($5).
• Mr Xe tailors, 71 Nguyen Thai Hoc St (tel: +84-510-3910-388).