In Vietnam’s picturesque Hoi An, speedy tailors and delicious food

Sunday, September 04, 2011

By China Millman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bill Cain. In Hoi An, a woman wearing the traditional ao dai strides past a shop.

HOI AN, Vietnam — This charming city, located near the coast in Central Vietnam, has many attractions: an old town full of well-preserved historical buildings, a bustling market offering delicious local specialties and the nearby Cua Dai beach with white sand and calm, warm waters. But the town’s character and its popularity as a destination have been heavily influenced by its main industry.

Walk through the town in almost any direction and you’ll pass hotels, upscale restaurants and sleek cafes, but mostly you’ll pass tailor shops. Storefront after storefront is filled with racks of fabric and identical mannequins dressed in every possible style from traditional silk ao dais to cotton capris and ruffled shirts to tuxedos and wedding gowns.

The tailors of Hoi An are famous for their skill, speed and business acumen, with several hundred shops all making the same promise: Bring us a picture of a garment, something to copy or even just a description and we can make it.

Throughout Vietnam, tailor shops advertise “suit in 24 hours” and “quick alterations,” but the sheer number of Hoi An tailors helps ensure the best deals and quickest service, and the town has a well-developed infrastructure for making sure the experience goes smoothly.

The first challenge is picking a shop. While some are larger, with more clothing and fabric on display, there’s little to distinguish one establishment from the next. Hotels will readily offer recommendations, but kickbacks are de rigueur in Vietnam (and plenty of other countries), so promises of quality and price should be viewed with a little skepticism.

Shopping around may get you a better price, but it will also take up more time. Larger orders should result in better discounts, so be sure to negotiate, rather than asking for a total up front.

I was not the ideal customer. I came unprepared, without magazine cut-outs, photos or sketches, or anything to copy, which meant relying on books of designs provided by the tailor. She stood over me as I flipped through the pages, clearly trying to get a read on how good a customer I might become. While she and her colleague spoke better English than most, they showed little interest in conversing.

Basic clothing such as shorts, slacks, button-front shirts and simple skirts or dresses typically cost from $8 to $20 depending on the quality of the fabric, how quickly the garment is needed and how many finishing details are requested. For more elaborate requests, such as formal suits or evening gowns, the costs can run into the hundreds. Some people have whole wardrobes made; I just wanted an interesting souvenir or two.

Reaching Out Handicrafts helps the disabled

Most Hoi An storefronts are filled with tailors or shoemakers, a newly burgeoning industry, so the few exceptions stand out. At Reaching Out Handicrafts, shelves displayed vases and bracelets made from cow horn, lacquered boxes, silk quilts and bathrobes, cloth toys, and beautiful ceramic table settings.

The goods were some of the most attractive and unusual we’d seen, but the store’s mission was just as impressive: to teach young disabled Vietnamese people marketable skills. Reaching Out was founded in 2000, and the Hoi An shop opened in 2001. Today, the shop also sells goods produced by disabled artisans throughout Vietnam, operating under Fair Trade principles.

During the day, visitors can tour the on-site workshops and meet some of the artisans. The program is still relatively small. They employ about 100 artisans, some working on-site, others at home. The shop also supports community programs for people with disabilities throughout the country. Those interested in supporting the program can also sponsor a trainee.

In addition to the Hoi An shop, Reaching Out sells some handicrafts online at www.ReachingOutVietnam.com.

Shops try to impress with their promises of speed, but for the best fit, you’ll want to have at least two fittings, one to take measurements and one to try on the partly or completely finished garments. Inspect garments carefully. There’s nothing wrong with requesting changes in cut or additional detailing, and they should rarely increase the price.

Between fittings, there are diverse activities to pass the time. Hoi An’s old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Chinese-influenced architecture has been beautifully preserved. Tickets are required to enter many of the buildings, one reason that Hoi An can feel a bit like Disney World. Instead, I opted for early morning visits to the city’s bustling market for a glimpse of local life.

Here I tasted my favorite version of Cao Lau noodles, a local specialty of rough wheat noodles in a savory broth, with roast pork, lettuces, herbs and crisp wantons fried in pork fat. Dark red chile jam added a pungent heat and the wontons were fried until dark brown — just a few stalls down women sold baskets of the fresh noodles, which are supposedly made with water from a particular Hoi An well.

The town is filled with restaurants, and some are better than the typical tourist spots, but the seats are filled with visitors, and dishes rarely live up to their street food counterparts. The best restaurant food in Hoi An can be found at the outdoor seafood restaurants that line the shore of Cua Dai beach. Our taxi driver took us to “his” stall, but we stayed firm — I had a recommendation for Hon (stall) No. 8. Here, we feasted on steamed clams in a broth of lemongrass, chile, mint and lime juice; squid sauteed with pineapple, tomato and onion and smoky grilled eggplant, all washed down with local beer. Tables were set on a strip of grass between the road and the beach, and tiny crabs skittered through the nearby sand.

The seafood restaurants are open all day and also rent beach chairs for just a few dollars.

Hoi An is nearly as famous for its cooking classes as for its tailors. There are dozens of options, but two of the most well regarded are the Red Bridge Cooking School and the Morning Glory Restaurant. The latter required advance reservations, so we signed up for a full-day course at Red Bridge ($43 per person, 8 people maximum). The program included a market tour, a visit to a beautiful model organic farm and a multi-hour cooking class where we steamed rice noodles over a pot of simmering water for pho; grilled shrimp mixed with an herb paste in banana leaves; and simmered sea bass in a delicious caramel sauce with dill and garlic. There was a limited amount of hands-on cooking, but plenty of learning and eating, and the afternoon included a chance to cool off in the school’s stunning 20-meter swimming pool.

We returned to town by boat, and the day’s talk of food quickly turned to Hoi An’s main industry — everyone, it seemed, was having clothing made, filling extra bags with tangible reminders of their travel. The summer dress I had made for just $18 is a unique souvenir. I suspect, however, that I’ll remember the taste of wheat noodles and roast pork, and the smell of clams steamed in lemongrass long after I’ve stopped wearing the dress.

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