December 1st, 2016 – 7:09am Hoi An time – Cozy House Homestay Guest House, Hoi An
Waking to the sound of rain sputtering outside our window set the tone for our 4th day quite accurately.
As the tropical storm continues to flutter over Hoi An, we take our time getting out of bed before enjoying some delicious Vietnamese coffees on the balcony of our guest house. We’ve bumped into an older lady from Lake Country - a stone’s throw away from our home town of Kelowna. The more we venture, the smaller the world feels. It’s fascinating that in exchange for time and money we’re able to project ourselves unto the far reaches of the globe. What a privilege.
Wanting to get ourselves some of Hoi An’s famed tailored suits, we’ve asked Li for some local insight. He accompanies us to meet with our UK compadres and fills us in on the best approach to obtaining a suit in Hoi An. It turns out that the storefronts here are not where you get the best quality or prices, since most of these are tailors from Hanoi or Saigon who set up shop in Hoi An to benefit from the city’s custom clothing reputation. They pay high rent for these prime locations and have tricks to speed up their process either by taping seams, single stitching and even outsourcing to the tailors we’re about to visit.
The traditional tailors in Hoi An set up in the government building. Their storefronts appear to be of those selling fabric instead of clothing. They’re the fabric source for the rest of the tailors in the city. However, they’re also the true artisans when it comes to custom suits.
The process sounds more simple than it is. First, you pick a style from the multitude of catalogues they have on hand. From there, you select your fabrics from a daunting wall hosting any colour and pattern you can imagine. Without coming into this with a clear idea, it’s quite overwhelming to make a decision. Once the fabric selection is made it’s on to price negotiation; and this is where it gets tricky.
Li let us know to expect anywhere between $60 and $140 USD per suit. Amongst the four of us, we’re looking to order 7 suits (4 of which will be cut from the same literal cloth – we’re all big fans of the light blue cashmere), 4 waistcoats, and 4 dress shirts. Considering the size of the order and the fabric selection, we’re confident a low price can be negotiated, as is Li. We huddle and agree on a budget, then dive headfirst into some very tough negotiations. After a solid attempt and quite some time, we freeze our offer at $700 USD for the lot and decide to take a walk for some lunch and a beer; they’re not budging on their request for $750 USD, dropped hastily from their original $950 request once we showed signs of leaving.
Li takes us to the local dining hall across the street far from the waterfront restaurants we would have ended up at on our own volition. Cao lầu, a traditional Hoi An dish that can only be made with noodles using the local well water is the meal of choice. The noodles are thick, similar to udon, served with fresh greens and pork topped with fried pork rinds and scallions. It’s outrageously delicious and priced at 20,000 Dong per dish (just over $1 CAD). Li encourages us to also try the fried rice pancakes which are equally tasty. We finish our beers and head back to finalize the suit negotiations.
Their last price of $750 USD is within reach, so we negotiate another two shirts into that price and come to an agreement. All things considered, we’ve done extremely well, but a dose of traveler’s guilt is kept close to the heart nonetheless; and it doesn’t have to do with negotiating our way into a better price. These tailors receive a constant influx of business, which some pay the immediate face value, and others haggle the prices down. The real difficulty lies in the paradigms of this entire system, which points directly to a larger issue.
‘Developing nation’ – the ultimate paradox. Development implies a path of progression towards improvement and sustainability. But this is clearly not the case; Westerners don’t want this or any other ‘developing’ country to in fact develop. Where else would we retreat for such inexpensive and bodacious vacations, tailored suits, custom clothing, jewelry, food and drink, all for a fraction of the price? If we wanted these nations to become self-sustaining, we’d forfeit our expectations of affordability.
This trip so far has provided an extreme shift in perspective, both good and bad. And although it’s difficult to come to these realizations and wrestle with them in the depths of our consciousness, the path ahead is welcomed with open arms. This is why we travel.
We make the best of the rain by taking a literal tropical shower, soaping up in the street drawing gazes and laughs from the locals. After a couple more hours of relaxation, we take to the streets again to try the local beer, brewed daily and advertised as ‘fresh beer’. Although very inexpensive (5,000 Dong per glass) it tastes like a malty hangover. We quickly switch back to the preferred Tigers and enjoy our meal and company, once again with Mark and George. The locals who made our dinner let us know of their cooking class starting at 10am the following day which we eagerly sign up for.
We finish up yet another delicious and affordable dinner then retreat to The Dive, a local bar with an interesting inside balcony with knee-height tables and cushions for chairs. Mark teaches us some card games as we dip into some Larue beers, a local brew, and some shisha to pass the time. Another relaxing evening filled with smiles and laughter is in the bag.
December 2nd, 2016 – 7:28am Hoi An time – Cozy House Homestay Guest House, Hoi An
Waking up feeling slightly sickened by the street showers from the night before, we slowly get up and make our way to the 10am cooking class we’ve signed up for. On average, classes in Hoi An run from $35-$50 USD; however we’ve had the good fortune of finding a $15 USD class taught by some true locals who’s storefront consists of a couple burners and some picnic tables at the beginning of a long row of these in a covered food court area.
Upon our arrival, the travelers dining at the table behind us in this same food court from the night before show up for the same class. We re-introduce ourselves to Tobias from Germany, Alex from Switzerland and Janneke from Holland. We tell our instructor the types of dishes we’d all like to learn to make: papaya salad, spring rolls, rice pancakes, chicken curry, and (of course) pho.
To our surprise, the class starts with a push-boat trip to the town’s only market. There is no supermarket or grocery store in Hoi An, so everyone gets their food from this same market. We’re exposed to both familiar very unfamiliar sights, like butchers smoking cigarettes, fresh tuna, foreign-looking vegetables like cucumbers covered in lumps, plucked chickens in the fetal position, and so much more.
Once all of our ingredients are in hand (thankfully none of us had to barter with the merchants or we probably would have been there all day) we head back across the river on the push-boat and head to our cooking station. We spend the next few hours sharing stories and knowledge about our cultures with eachother, mixed in with lots of laughter, and walking away with three new friends.
The dishes are all amazing and our teacher couldn’t be more friendly or knowledgeable. She even hands us special papaya peeling tools (a food prep multi-tool of sorts) and a surprise banana pancake for dessert (a local staple) despite us being so full we can hardly eat another bite…but we do anyways. We take some photos and exchange contact information with our new friends before parting ways and linking up again in an hour to introduce them to Mark and George before heading to our much anticipated suit fittings.
The suits are no less than impressive, though not quite perfect just yet. We provide feedback to the friendly tailors explaining the alterations and improvements we’d like made for our final fitting the following afternoon.
We head back to our room to rest up and fight off the on-setting cold caught the night before. After a rock solid nap, we lounge about and watch some terrible action movies before heading out for dinner. Teaghan heads out to meet back up with our friends while I stay behind to get an early night’s sleep to combat my illness.
It’s now the morning of day 6 and although feeling much better, the rain outside is still unrelenting. We’re planning on renting scooters with our friends and heading out with Li to show us around the My Son ruins soon. Let’s hope the skies are forgiving enough for us to enjoy the view from atop the mountains, which is said to span for miles on all sides. Time for Vietnamese green tea and banana pancakes before seeing what this day has in store for us.
Words by Baylan McGraw