Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Perfect Fit: Making Clothes (and friends) in Hoi An

Hoi An just might be our most favorite small town in Asia. It's charming, it's romantic. It has a clean blue river and exceedingly cool, unique architecture. Hoi An even has it's own special noodle made with sacred well water called cau lau. But most important of all, Hoi An has tailors! Tailors, tailors, tailors, sewers, weavers, lace makers and more tailors. They beckon at EVERY street corner, plying you with custom clothes made of silk and sewn in mere hours for your whim and desire.

Reflecting on that now, I should probably change my testimony from above and say that Hoi An is evil and seductive with dark dangerous stores that suck you in for hours and wreak havoc on your ATM card. But at least it's in the most decadent, creative, fun and practical way. I mean, really, now Andy and I have new clothes to wear as souvenirs from Vietnam! SO much more practical than a fabric wall hanging, Communist t-shirt or conical peasant hat.

We were lured in to Hoi An by its reputation for beauty and charm, and it lives up to every recommendation! Which was a welcome treat after a stressful bus ride from Danang~> read more (with photos!)

 on which we were purposefully overcharged three times more than all 82 of the other Vietnamese on board, squished between a bald Buddhist nun and ten rice field workers in its dusty, un-aired backseat, clinging to our backpacks and clueless as to when to get off. Fortunately, repeating "Hoi An?" with big eyes and a questioning look worked as some of the human cargo told us where to get off and we waddled through the crush of people with our backpacks, steaming from both the heat and the idignity of being flagrantly ripped off. Luckily, our new British friends from Saigon, Gordon and Lucy, were a day ahead and did the leg work on finding a clean, cheap hotel in Hoi An and we were soon off with them to have a semi-cold beer in an old shophouse with a candlelit view of the river. Ahh...sigh...Hoi An!

Lucy and Gordon also did the leg work on researching Hoi An tailors (literally, by walking around), and after dinner, we set off to Thinh Thanh for a fitting of their new clothes ordered only hours before. Now I will admit that I was guilty of 'pre-meditated clothes making' as I'd heard from a Canadian in Queenstown, New Zealand about wool coats and silk pajamas for a pittance and felt I might "need" one of the aforementioned. And, I'd splurged on an In Style magazine in Phuket and saved a few pages of ideas for a possible 'knock off'. But I had no intention of going crazy and designing my own things. None whatsoever. All of you who know me, know that I need a new pair of Chinese silk crop pants like I need a hole in the head. Be that as it may, thanks to Gordon and Lucy, Thinh Thanh and Vietnam's fabulous culture of sewing and fabric, Andy and I now have 18 new items between us!!!

But first, let me back up, and explain why Hoi An is charming outside of the tailor shops. Once a bustling, vibrant center of international trade, Hoi An was home to Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese and Vietnamese merchants who peddled their wares from the 16th - 18th centuries in quaint hardwood shophouses along the Thu Bon River. In these days of yore, tall-sail ships and wooden junks cruised in from the South China Sea and unloaded porcelain, perfume, spices, silver and more for sale and export at Hoi An's port-market. This cross-cultural buying frenzy bore a potpourri of architecture that mingles covered bridges, pink pagodas, teak shutters and French balconies in washed tones of maize, turquoise, aqua, caremel and ruby.

There is something intensely romantic about Hoi An. Girls bicycle by in flowing white silk ao dais, the traditional pajama-tunic dress of the Vietnamese, and grandmas in Chinese coolie hats barter animatedly for mangoes and dragon fruit at the outdoor market. Men with skin as warm and brown as tobacco fish in barefeet from primitive basket boats or wooden canoes, and the incense sticks burning inside of Hoi An's old pagodas are so pungent that your eyes crinkle and nose crumples from the sweet, smokey scent. When strolling at night, fabric lanterns dangle from shops and porches, throwing a color and light show on the black-mirror river surface like silent fireworks. In Hoi An, I feel like I stepped back in time to a Vietnam without war and occupation and glimpsed how things were meant to be.

But back to the clothes...

Andy and I were cautious at first. We watched as Gordon got measured for cotton business shirts ($7) and Lucy tried on the a 'first draft' of her black and gold Chinese dress ($12). I eyed the fabric choices while Andy sat sweating from the heat AND the anticipation of how much I'd be spending. And we both met "Daisy" (that's the English translation of her Vietnamese name, which is MUCH harder to pronounce), who is the front-woman for the Thinh Thanh. She speaks the best English of her multi-member, magical sewing family which includes two sisters, one brother, three cousins, a dog and baby. She asks us casually with a bright, crooked smile and even brighter black eyes that flick back and forth between us and the tv blaring a Vietnamese nighttime soap, "You want to buy sum-theeng?" and points to the styles that adorn bust-and-torso only mannequins. We casually respond, "Not now, thank you. Just looking, but maybe tomorrow."

Frankly, at that moment, I was a little overwhelmed! Thinh Thanh, which probably measured no more than 15' wide by 10' deep, and was the front part of the first level of the family's centuries-old home, literally burst at the seams with fabrics of all color, texture and shine. One one side, worsted-wool with pinstripes and houndstooth for men's suits is piled high, and on one half of the back shelves is floor to ceiling high with cotton broadcloth for tailored work shirts while the other half of the back is a riotous rainbow of Asian silks...some flecked with golden bamboo and dragons and others raw with nubby threads and beautifully pure in their solid colors. The left side of the shop has bolts and bolts of cotton for women's dresses and rolls of wool for coats or skirts, and the center of the store holds extra bolts of random fabric and a tiny glass table, with even tinier metal chairs, where you do your bidding and bargaining with Daisy over a calculator and complimentary bottled water. I wasn't sure how I'd ever begin to choose what I'd like to have made, and I wanted to go home and think about it...and then test the waters to see if I felt custom-clothes were a good fit for me.

So, the next morning, after a cheap breakfast of eggs, baguettes and the best strawberry smoothies ever, Andy and I circled back through the slant-roof shophouse-lined streets to Thinh Thanh. Daisy and one of her sisters, who had a gorgeous oval face and creamy skin which blushed when I complimented her on it, were ready and waiting to relieve of us of our money and inhibitions. Andy and I had a few ideas of what we wanted: some Ben Sherman style shirts in fabric of his own flair and business slacks; a Chinese top in magenta and butter yellow silk and a floaty cotton dress for me copied a style of one I had in my backpack. As I slowly explained what I wanted and expressed my concern about their ability to sew for women with curves (over here, that's any female who is not Asian), but Daisy just smiled, nodded and flapped her hand saying, "Can! Can! Can!" She measured Andy and I with an old-fashioned orange vinyl tape and barked out the numbers in Vietnamese to her sister who sat at the tiny glass table writing our dimensions down in a dog-eared paper book. And told us to come back around 5:00pm for another fitting. 5:00PM!!! That was about 5 hours later, but we did as we were told.

At 5:03pm when we walked in the store, totally sweaty from our sightseeing, Daisy greeted us by pointing to our clothes hanging along the bolts of fabric by the one mirror in the store, and her sister got us bottles of cold water. Which I can never seem to unscrew properly without spilling as many SE Asian companies use the cheapest, squishiest plastic and when holding the bottle to unscrew the slippery lid, water inevitably squeezes out on to me and the floor. I guess Daisy's sister witnessed this in the AM, as she took over opening my bottle for me to avoid any spills...and most likely, to protect the silks in my vicinity. Andy's shirts looked awesome on the hanger, but seeing how sweat-slicked he was, I tried on my things first. Try to imagine sliding into satin and silk when it's 100 degrees and you're already moist and sticky with sweat. It's not me! I managed to get my Mandarin-style-with-a-twist top on, but couldn't get the silk frog clasps closed, so I stepped out of the dressing room (which was a curtained-off area below the stairwell to family's living quarters) with the top open and some of my bra showing. Daisy saw me as I entered back into the store and practically leapt across the room to cover me up and get the fros clasps closed. Obviously, the Vietnamese are very modest and I committed a faux pas, so from then on I was careful -- and she was careful. Every time I needed a zipper pulled down, she did it, then held the article of clothing tightly closed and walked me back to the dressing area. Whoops!

Our clothes looked and fit great, save for a few final nips and tucks, and we finished that up with Daisy pinning things and calling out orders to her sister to write in the old notebook. We had a funny moment of confusion where I wanted something adjusted and she said, "I think more low." Puzzled I looked at the already-low line of the top, and my bust, and couldn't imagine Ms. Conservative wanted me to sport serious cleavage! I told her that I thought it wasn't too low, and she looked back at me with surprise and said, "I think more low is more lub-ly." Andy and I looked at each other trying to decipher that one, and then I realized that Daisy meant "more loose" but says "more low". Once we got through that, which could have been a major clothing debacle if I'd ended up with an ultra-low cut, tight fitting top that embarrassed them the second I walked out of the dressing room, so that was a relief. And that translation came in handy for Andy when getting his slacks altered as "not more low" saved dire consequences!

Back and forth we went from Thinh Thanh to Hoi An's sites, fitting the UNESCO World Heritage treasures of Hoi An in between our fitting schedules. Our initial order of clothes turned out so great, in price and artistry, that we ordered a few more. And more. And more again. And one last item that had me overthinking and obsessing and then deciding with Andy's sweet encouragement, "What the hell?" and designing something of my own in chocolate raw silk that has elements of Burberry, Chloe and BCBG. Each time we visited Thinh Thanh, we spent more time with Daisy and met more members of her family. One sister, who spoke little English, but sewed a lot of my things including some skirts that I had copied out of a Singapore fashion magazine with my own 60's flair fabric, and I pirouetted around the store barefooted in glee when they fit perfectly and looked spectacular. Her face lit up and I hope it was because she knew I was happy instead of crazy. Daisy and her family also adored Andy (who wouldn't?) and I think it's because they rarely have a male client who comes to the store and has his own ideas of style that involves cool colors and fabrics beyond boring, basic broadcloth.

Each time we created, deliberated and were meausured, Andy and I got more time with Daisy and her family. One time, they fed us watermelon as we tried on drafts of clothes. Another time, Daisy asked us how old we were and hearing that I was older, she told us of her first love and almost marriage to a younger man that hadn't worked out because he'd left their town to get work and met someone else. Another time, as her brother raced off on a motorbike to get a shirt from its final alteration for Andy, Daisy told us about her life with her husband, daugther and family, and said how happy she was that everything had worked out, despite the heartbreak of her first love, and how happy she is. The three of us talked at lenght, albeit in simply, animated and abbreviated English so all could understand, about the importance of being happy in life and how grateful we are for good fortune. It was all, as Daisy might say, "quite lub-ly." When Andy and I finally said good-bye to Daisy and her family of Thinh Thanh, we felt sad. Our arms were laden with beautiful packages, but as we walked up the ancient street lit by blurs of lantern and flourescent lights, it seemed like we'd left something behind. I think it was our friendship with Daisy. Over the last four days, Andy and I enjoyed Daisy and her family's company and craftsmanship, we laughed over common feelings and each shared a little life history. Who knew getting fitted for clothes in Vietnam could ever be so intimate?

We have several more photos from Hoi An that we hope you will enjoy posted here (2 pages of photos):


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see all your clothes! Sounds like you guys had a great time and made some good friends. Love, Wendy

7:07 PM  

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