The world's biggest clothes shop
Trip Start May 24, 2004
70Trip End Jun 2005
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As for the bus ride, in the 3 hrs before I got to sleep, we passed 3 crashes, and on the windey and hilly coastal road, the driver kept himself amused with the usual displays of dragging other buses, overtaking on blind corners and the odd eratic swerve. While I was asleep, I also remember waking up a few times thinking that the road was incredibly rough. In retrospect this may have been the driver falling asleep and driving onto the shoulder...
However, in one piece, we got into Hoi An nice and early at about 5:30am, which really sucks after sleeping on a bus. You spend the entire night contorting yourself into various shapes, in the (naive) hope that one of them may be vaguely comfortable. Then you wake up, groggy as, trying to work out if this is the city you're meant to hop off in and, if so, where the hell in that city you are. Which is why we were so happy to be able to walk straight off the bus and into our complimentary hotel (you get 1 night free with the open ticket). This was a bit of a godsend, as we really weren't in the mood for a search for decent hotels. Crashed out on the bed for a few hours, and woke up just in time to catch Anna (from Nha Trang) for a late morning tea.
Happily, Anna had survived her bus trip too, coming up the day before us. However, after risking life and limb to get here, she was leaving that evening as she found she was spending too much money here. She hadn't seen a single attraction, but was partaking in the other major tourist activity here - tailoring. Hoi An is THE place (in the world probably) to come to get clothes custom-made - in one day Anna had got half a wardrobe made up, and was scared she would have to fly straight home if she stayed much longer. Christina had got about 3 suits made I think. The reason people go crazy here is threefold:
1) They are cheap - a suit for $30 anyone?
2) They are fast - from pointing out the material to an outfit in 8hrs.
3) They are good - you vaguely say what you want, they provide it that night, better than you could imagine it yourself, and perfectly fitting.
A work colleague used to frequently use the motto - "cheap, fast, good - pick any 2", but I would say that Hoi An tailors are the exception to the rule.
So of course, we started looking. There must be 1000's of tailor shops in Hoi An (stunningly for Vietnam, they actually outnumber souvenir and tour shops COMBINED!). I was interested in a suit and some shirts, M was interested in pants and shirts. We got organised - recommendations from friends, and friends of friends. We learnt about what makes a good suit. Types of material. Stitching quality. The lot. I am not a clothes shopping man normally. I am more the "if you can't see a butt-cheek yet, why do I need a new pair?" sort of guy. But you can't avoid it here. For everyone who does not have the perfectly proportioned body, Hoi An is for you. I personally have a problem with shirts - the breast pockets becomes more of a tummy pocket on me. Its also the place for you cheap bastards (which category I am fairly often in these days as well).
Alas, Hoi An is also stinking hot. Like wow. This is probably as hot as we have been so far (since Huangdao at least), and trying on clothing just doesn't work. Plus, because of the heat, the place is as quiet (blissfully) as a church at this time of day - you have to wake up the shop owners to get any service. So we had lunch with Anna, checked out her hotel (our hotel was a bit too pricy for us to stay more than the one free night), and then wished her good luck for Hue, her next stop (she later emailed us that she might just pop-in on Hoi An on the way back...). Then we crashed by our glorious pool, definitely a necessity for Hoi An. Obviously, indescribably nice after a night of death-defying bus rides and a day of scorching heat.
Later that night, we were back clothes shopping. The other problem with me and shopping is that I really suck at it. (M: understatement) I do not make a fast decision. (M: bigger understatement) Those who know me have probably just strained their neck from nodding so fast regarding that statement. (M: yup!) I am so indecisive it hurts - usually, whoever I'm shopping with and the poor shop assistants. There is now a shop in Hoi An that will not let me take anymore material down to look at... In the time Anna had refitted her wardrobe, I had achieved precisely squat. So we gave up that night, M starting to get cranky and both of us absolutely shattered.
Went to the Cham ruins the next day - about 30km from Hoi An are the 1000-yr-old ruins from the old rulers of the place. They're compared with Angkor Wat, Ayuthya and that one in burma, but they are definitely last place in this list. They were nice to wander around, but rather limited and pretty much the worse for wear after pillaging and wars, although there was a cool jeep ride included.
Way to give a fella a complex, guys.
However, our opinion may have been clouded that day, so perhaps they got a bit of an unfair dishing from us. We weren't in the best frame of mind, as for starters it had taken us 3 hrs to get to the ruins - for a 30km road trip... The entire trip was 6hrs long, for which we spent only 1.5hrs at the ruins. Beggars can't be choosers though - we had picked a bargain-basement tour. Only $2/person for a guide and transport.
The tour guide also broke into Karaoke - jeese, get a local anywhere near a damn microphone and they can't resist. Then he had us all singing the "Ho Chi Minh" song, which we still can't get out of our heads. More bad jokes and waiting around. What was annoying about this tardiness, however, was that it meant we got to the Cham sites - basically big open fields with no shade - at about 11am, right at the heat of the day. As I've said, Hoi An is damn hot, and this does not put you into a mood for archeology.
On top of this, the driver was my favourite kind of person, a manic horn-honker. This is so getting on my nerves here. Everywhere you go. Its non-stop honking. I saw a rotary-hoe pulling an old wooden wagon the other day. It was a wreck - not even a headlight, but what it did have, right out in front, was a huge, sparkly horn. Its not just the frequency they use them though, it's the ear-splitting volume, even on little scooters. It's like it's some sort of arms race. All we can hope is that it eventually escalates to some sort of nuclear-horn, that will result in an uneasy MAD-type truce. Everyone is super polite, because the consequences of actually using one of these horns could result in an apocolypse...
Anyway, horn-rantings aside, although considerably more expensive, I would to recommend anyone else that they bite the bullet and fork out $20 for a 4-person taxi, to catch it early morning, out of the heat (and crowds) and without any karaoke.
On the bright side, it was good to see Vietnam does have a countryside. You're so "on the beaten track" with these open bus tours, you can be forgiven for thinking the whole country is a souvenir shop. But there we were, driving through lush paddy fields and quaint villages. There were pigs running across the road and seeds drying on the road (bit of tyre-tread with your chilli, sir?). There were people busy at work in the fields, doing this cool trick where they empty football-field-sized paddy fields of water with just a single bucket roped between 2 people (and a hell of a lot of time, I imagine). It was nice, as China, Laos and Cambodia are all in their dry seasons we hadn't seen much of this (due to irrigation, Vietnam has an extra crop rotation).
Back to town for a change of hotels. Only $9, but pretty damn average compared to what you would get in Saigon or Nha Trang for that - hotels seem to be getting pricier as we head north. Then more looking at clothing. I had now achieved the impossible, and turned M off clothes shopping (M: only with C though). Eventually, however, I made a choice and late that night, with our tummies rumbling for want of dinner, I picked out a shop, and a faintly pinstriped, single breasted suit. I pointed to various styles of shirts and suits and mumbled about square collars versus pointy collars. They measured bits and pieces, and told me to come back tomorrow afternoon for a fitting.
With the boredom of my decision finally over, M dived into a nearby shop and, like a kid in a candy shop, got to work on selecting her stuff.
Walked around Hoi An the next day, awaiting our masterpieces. The town of Hoi An is a world heritage site - because of the difficulty of putting up large buildings in the soil here, it still has a neighbourhood of nice, old merchant buildings that are a cross between Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese styles. You buy a ticket for 55,000 dong, and, unnecessarily complicatedly, that allows you to go to one example each of their 5 "features" - Chinese congregation buildings, museums, old houses, bridges and souvenir shops. Obviously, the whole neighbourhood is very in-character, but because of the multitude of power and telephone cables, the incessant honking of motorbikes and the odd bored shop-owner doing some impromptu karaoke, its not a particulary spectacular walk through it. Once inside the buildings, however, it is a different story, with magnificently preserved/restored buildings to wander through. All wood, open air and with a very pleasing architecture to it. Wandering through the house was the best of course - they had amazing furniture packing the place out - all dark wood and with mother-of-pearl inlays. The columns also featured calligraphy with mother-of-pearl. Amazingly good shape, considering the house had been lived in for 8 generations, and now had hoardes of tourists passing through.
Those are coiled incense sticks - they last over an hour.
Expanded the tour to check out the market (haven't we got sick of these things yet?), which was a hive of activity, right there on the river wharf.
Checked out a cotton factory that we could hear clattering away (nice to know where the material for your clothes is coming from). No wonder its all so cheap - in this building that looked older than the historical tour we had just done, they had dozen of looms (?) that were probably still steam-driven, all clattering away at breath-taking speed. The needle was shooting back and forth. I was mesmerized. Guess I'm still a Process Engineer at heart. Not sure if we were meant to be wandering through - a guy sitting in the shade near the entrance looked us over, but decided we weren't worth walking in the sun for...
And also poked our head into a few craft shops, which (along with the rest of Vietnam), Hoi An has an abundance of. Lot of very nice woodwork actually, which we hadn't seen as much of elsewhere. However, a 6ft long dragon serving as a table is not the most practical of items to carry around for the next few months.
Cheerful guys, although anyone who has read a lonely planet etiquette blurb knows that its very bad karma to point your feet at budha. What are the consequences of this?
Afternoon checking out the pool of the new hotel (ahhhhhhhhhhhh) and then we headed in for our fittings. They really are amazing. 20hrs for a complete suit, and the only problem was that one of the shirt buttons was on the wrong side and the suit jacket needed shortening (presumably they err on the side of caution first). M's were spot on. Asked them to make another shirt, and they replied - "sure, come back at 8:30". Less than 4 hrs! M did likewise, picking up a second pair of pants. Total cost of 3 shirts and a suit - $95 (I opted for the most expensive material).
In the meantime, while they slaved away on our clothes, we had dinner with Alex and Bruce, who I had bumped into that day. Tried the local delicacies - fried won tons (which resembled Nachoes more than anything), white roses (boiled dumpling type things) and some sort of crispy noodle dish that you mix up yourself.
We were going to leave Hoi An the next day, for Hue, but got to the booking office after it was closed. Having previously experienced the earth-shattering problems that are caused for the system if you try to book the ticket on the same day, I guess that meant that we weren't going to leave Hoi An the next day...
Instead, we resisted the temptation (just) to get more clothes, and had a nice day out on a motorbike. It was cheap - $2 - but what really staggered us was that the guy took no collateral (like a passport or credit-card) or evidence of who we were. Just told us to be back at 6pm. So basically, he sold us a bike for $2 (of course, we weren't going to steal it, but he didn't know that).
The plan was to head out to Cau Doc, a nearby beach. We are not so stupid to ride a bike around town - although it may be safer than walking sometimes. Although Hoi An is lovely and quaint, it has the shitty motocycle drivers that the rest of Vietnam has (I'm beginning to reconsider my assertion that Chinese drivers are the worst). It's always a headache on the street. I marvel when moto-drivers offer me pot to buy - I can barely survive these streets sober as a judge. How long would I survive high?
So we headed to the beach. Quite a lovely little beach it is too. White sand, palm trees, off-shore islands. Unfortunately, we had picked the only day Hoi An that was not stinking hot. In fact, it was over-cast and just a bit blowy. We stood on the beach for about 5 minutes, getting sandblasted and commisserating with the beach touts, who weren't doing a lot of business that day. At least they were still keeping their sense of humour.
Then headed back onto the bike. Through the inland prawn farms and then north (much to the consternation of the little guard who was adamant we couldn't go down the road) past a whole heap of beach developments. It seems pretty obvious that Hoi An is going to be the luxury resort spot in Vietnam in a few years - beaches, ruins, shopping and culture.
Little prawn farms
Then followed a road through some paddy fields, looking for a rumoured Japanese tomb. It was quite surprising how quaint it all was - only minutes from the obnoxiousness of Hoi An. We sat watching some Vietnamese hand sow and water their fields. Its always so relaxing to watch others toil. They didn't seem to mind the audience, and instead of coming over and asking us if we wanted to see their clothes shop, or give them some NZ coins, or get a moto ride, or have dinner, they just waved and smiled. Its been a bit of a bummer that we haven't had the time/inclination to go off the track here a bit - seems like its not hard to go from a walking dollars sign (what we feel like in the Vietnam we know) to a novelty.
Backed out of there, spotting no errant Japanese tombs, and then back down the main road, where some guy on a bike gestured us to look at an obscured sign. Voila! One Japanese tomb. Not much really, but it was a nice walk through the paddy fields (M being proud
not to fall in any) and at least gave us a semi-purpose to the trip.
Watched some kids hand-"fishing" in the mud leftover from a drained paddy field, and gave our mute guide a mandarin as a tip. Then successfully (and surprisingly, considering our total absence of maps thus far) made our way back to our hotel. A relieved owner took the bike back off us, with a 1/2 tank of gas as tip.
So, considering the shit weather, we were quite happy with our little day trip. Not much else to do that night - Indian meal that did not taste anything like any other Indian meal I've ever eaten. Packed the bags, now considerably heavier. Actually, that was one other thing I liked about Hoi An - for once, there were lots of people who actually had bigger bags than us. All this time through Indochina, we've been looking on enviously at everyone else with their dainty little packs (this area doesn't really require one to carry much). I hate them all. But here in Hoi An, we giggle gleefully as we see small women totter under their blimp-like packs, trying to balance 2 shopping bags in each hand.
Of course, remembered to book the bus this time. With our loss of a day, and not hearing the best about Hue, we decided to do a mission - catch the bus to Hue in the morning, have a 3hr break there, and then catch the overnighter to Hanoi the same day. 21 hrs of Vietnamese busses. Oh joy.