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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Hoi An, Vietnam

VIETNAM | Friday, 12 October 2012 | Views [1794]

Hoi An! One of the highlights of the trip so far, Hoi An is a beautiful city where the majority of the buildings age from 150 to 300 years old. Hoi An was once considered to be the best trading port in all of Southeast Asia. The city was founded in the 16th century but rose to prominence as a powerful and exclusive trading center between China, India, Japan and Europe. Chinese merchant families settled here and built great homes, temples, and communal halls out of teak wood, many of which are still around today. Hoi An’s importance fell during the 19th century because its river mouth silted up and Da Nang (a nearby town) became the new center of trade. This meant it remained forgotten and untouched by Vietnam’s turbulent history over the next 200 years and luckily both sides agreed to avoid bombing it during the latest war.

Ancient Town, Hoi An
Beautiful Ancient Town, Hoi An

Today most of the city center or Ancient Town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and therefore gets extra money to keep the historic buildings looking, well, historic. The extra money comes in handy during the rainy season when it’s not uncommon for the city to get flooded by around 10 feet of water. Surviving these floods is a point of pride for the city. They mark the height of the water levels each year on the walls of their homes with chalk the same way we keep track of growing kids. Between the floods and wars that Vietnam has suffered, it’s truly impressive how much of the city is still in pristine condition. The town also attracts tourists for its local crafts, delicious food, and nearby beaches.

Flood levels marked in an Ancient House
Flood levels marked in an Ancient House

Since much of the Ancient Town has remained relatively unchanged for generations, you feel like you’ve traveled back in time as you’re walking through it. It was a wonderful place for Joe to celebrate his 28th birthday! Not as old as the city, but still a feat we’re sure many back home thought unlikely. For the occasion, Sarah booked us into the Ancient House Hotel and Spa to experience a little bit of Asia’s luxurious side. This place had it all! Upon our arrival they gave us fresh juice, fresh fruit in the room, and cool towels to refresh ourselves from the heat.  We walked around and took in the grounds. The hotel has a beautiful pool, five star eats, wild orchids everywhere, full spa and salon, and even had a little gym. Once we let slip we were here to celebrate a birthday Joe even got flowers, a sweet coconut dessert wrapped in grape leaves, and a card! Not too shabby.

Joe turns 28!
Joe turns 28!

Besides the old world charm that oozes out from every historic house or shop, Hoi An is known for its tailors. The vast majority of the shops are dedicated to making everything from shoes and accessories to three piece suits and wedding dresses. You can take in a fashion magazine or show them a website and within days they will make you an exact replica. If you’ve ever seen a child’s face the first time they see Disney World, or watched a person being told they won the lottery on TV, then you have a good idea of how Sarah reacted to more than 300 custom clothing stores within a 2 mile radius. It was clear that this was going to be a fun place to stay early on, so we set out to find a tailor to our liking. We tried a big fancy store first, but we had read ahead and knew the prices that they were quoting us were well above the norm even for a high quality establishment. We kindly told the store manager that we were going to shop around and that we would get back to him. He quickly cut his price by a third. We still decided it was best to shop around before committing and so we set out again.

Tailor shops like these were everywhere!
Tailor shops like these were everywhere!

The second place we tried was a little shop on one of the main stretches in Ancient Town. Sarah saw a summer dress she liked in the window so we decided to give it a try. After taking Sarah’s measurements, the shop owner told us that the dress would be ready the next day for fitting! Sooooo fast! We spent the rest of the day sight-seeing and sampling the local fresh beer for 25 cents a glass. One of our stops was in a very nice Australian-owned pub in the city center. It was here we found out the great secret of Hoi An. A bar owner from another part of town was there drinking with his Vietnamese wife who grew up here and she told us that basically all the stores in town just take your orders. Then, with a few exceptions, regardless of the store or price you pay, most of the orders go to the same 20 families to be made. So it doesn’t matter what you pay, you’re probably going to get the same quality workmanship. The real difference is in the quality of the materials you choose. With this information in tow, we decided that first thing the next morning we would check out the tailors in the Hoi An Cloth Market (straight to the source!).

Joe helping me decide at a tailor shop
Joe enjoying a Vietnamese cigar while helping Sarah decide on dresses!

The Cloth Market has the look of a large flea market, but inside it’s nothing but bolts of cloth piled from floor to ceiling for as far as you can see and hidden among them are tailors ready to shape it to your liking for about half the price those in the stores were offering. As we wondered around, a bit overwhelmed (and very hot—no air-conditioning here like in the fancy stores), we met My. She ran stall number 25 and though there were plenty of ladies attempting to attract our business, she was the one we went with. Joe ordered a suit and Sarah ordered another dress. Once again she took our measurements and told us to come back the next morning. Then Sarah went to the store where she’d ordered her first dress to get fitted, had minor alterations made, and was able to pick it up later that same day. The next morning we compared the two dresses: one from a more expensive store and the other from My in Stall 25… My had the higher quality work! That was enough to convince us… we spent the next three days organizing our sight-seeing schedule around fittings and placing new orders with My. By the end of the week, we realized Sarah now had 6 new dresses, a blazer, and a suit with both skirt and pants while Joe had three full suits and three dress shirts. Yikes! We were extremely happy with the final price and we even had enough extra bank to buy Joe a fall coat and Sarah one more dress! Overall it was a very fun experience, My was great to work with, and we have lots of great new clothes!

Hoi An Cloth Market
Hoi An Cloth Market

Besides the crazy temptation to buy every tailored clothing article in sight, we actually did get a lot more out of Hoi An than just clothes. The best way to get around town is by bicycle, and practically every hotel rents them out for a dollar or two per day. We explored the gorgeous historic riverfront area, visited the famous Old Japanese Bridge that has a Buddhist temple built into its side, and bought a day pass to explore many of the Ancient Town’s museums, ancient houses, and temples. We visited several craft workshops to witness the masters at work- carving stone or wood, making paper lanterns, or firing ceramics. We attended a performance at a cultural center where traditional Vietnamese arts such as music, dance, and singing were displayed. We even found time to escape out to the nearby Cua Dai Beach outside of the city to spend the 4th of July relaxing and just enjoying the sunshine.

Hoi An Old Japanese Bridge
Old Japanese Bridge

Traditional Vietnamese Dance
Traditional Vietnamese Dance & Music

Out of a wonderful week, perhaps the highlight was our being there to witness a monthly festival: the Hoi An Lantern Festival. On the 14th day of each lunar month the residents of Ancient Town turn off their lights, televisions, radios, neon lights, and even the street lights, and instead the whole town is hung with colorful paper lanterns. Even motorbikes and cars are banned on these nights. The result is fantastic. Everyone gathers at the river where the lights are reflected in the water. Everywhere you go there are people selling little paper lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers with candles inside. You take them to the river, light the candle, say a prayer or make a wish (whatever your fancy) and set it afloat on the water. These floating flowers sparkled by the hundreds!

Hundreds of paper lanterns floating on the river
Hundreds of paper lanterns floating on the water 

All along the river little old ladies set up their makeshift stoves to grill up snacks and sweets. Street performers come out to perform traditional Vietnamese music, dance, plays, and songs. The craftsmen leave their workshops open for everyone to come in and see them at work. There are carnival games set up in the streets. It is like being at a historic and culturally-focused Vietnamese fair mixed in with a fairy tale. It was amazing. We loved Hoi An. We would live here except Sarah would spend all her money on clothes. So we had to move on…

Paper lanterns of Hoi An

Paper lanterns of Hoi An

Tags: ancient town, beaches, cua dai, hoi an, lantern festival, tailors



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