Hoi Polloi


I am a sheep.

I planned my Vietnam itinerary by figuring out where everyone else goes, and following suit.

Therefore, my next stop after Ho Chi Minh was Hoi An, a large coastal town in central Vietnam known for its beautifully-preserved historical downtown and its highly skilled tailors. (A lot of people go to Nha Trang before Hoi An, but I’m more interested in history than beach. And clothes. Because did I mention that the highly skilled tailors can make whatever you want for very cheap? I have a whole Pinterest page devoted to dresses I want to have made for me while I’m in Asia, and Hoi An seemed like a great place to start.)

On my first day I checked into my hotel (yes, this time I stayed at a real hotel, with a restaurant and a swimming pool and families staying there. But I stayed in one of its two dorm rooms with five other backpackers. Luckily for me, everyone in our room was very nice and welcoming. I spent the first day hanging out with Lydia, a German girl who currently lives in Australia. We started by going out to lunch—which is when I realized that Hoi An is significantly more expensive than the rest of Vietnam. Our lunch cost what two meals would have cost in Ho Chi Minh. I felt like I was being cheated—but then I realized I had paid $6, so I needed to chill out a little. But it was the principle of the thing! The next two days I was very careful to go out of the city center for lunch.

After we ate we walked around the old quarter. It was adorable—a river flowed through the center, and colorful boats bobbed at the banks. The buildings were clearly hundreds of years old and oozed charm. And it seemed like every other storefront was a tailor with beautiful dresses on display in the window.


My brother is getting married in September, and since I’m in the wedding party I knew that I needed a navy blue cocktail dress. Before I left I had scoured the internet, trying to find the perfect design for a tailor to copy, but nothing jumped out at me. Walking through Hoi An, however, I saw lots of dresses that I liked quite a bit. And finally, after we had walked through the stalls of the city market and admired the view from two different bridges, I saw The One. Already the perfect shade of blue, it was a strapless chiffon with a high fitted waist and a flowing skirt. The staff saw me admiring it and rushed out to urge me to try it on. How could I resist?

The dress in the window

The dress in the window

Inside, there were stacks and stacks of bolts of fabric on every wall. Once I had changed, we discussed how the dress could be modified (I don’t like strapless dresses—I’m always afraid they will fall to the floor—so I asked them to add a halter). I asked what the final cost would be, prepared to negotiate them down.

“Thirty dollars.”

I forgot about negotiating.

We agreed that I would return the following morning for my first fitting.

Lydia and I ended up joining two of our roommates—Katie and Katie, an engaged couple from London, and their friends Julie and Neil, a married couple from Belfast, for dinner at Morning Glory, a fancy (at least, it felt that way to me after the places I’ve been eating lately) place in the city center. Neil was apparently very keen to try it as it was supposed to use the best ingredients, etc. Because it was so nice, almost all of us ended up ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, cau lau (a pork and noodle dish that is a Hoi An specialty). I enjoyed it, but others who had had cau lau before felt that it was just as good for a lot less money elsewhere.

I told everyone about my plans to go to Laos and Julie volunteered that she had once taken the 24-hour bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. I asked her what she had thought of it. “We called it the hell bus. It was horrible. There were lots of bugs, it smelled terrible, we were swerving on mountain roads all night, and the row behind me was filled with luggage that local people were sitting on, which meant that I had their dirty feet on either side of my head. But it makes a great story! You absolutely should do it!”

I bought a plane ticket the next day.

Speaking of the next day, I found my way back to my tailor in one try and was very pleased with myself—which turned about to be hubris because it was the last time I was able to find anything in Hoi An in one go. (The streets just look so similar! Fortunately, it is not very large so there is a limit to how much walking back and forth and back and forth you go do.) They had basically finished the dress—I could have taken it home then and there. But I thought it was a little loose in the bodice (at first they argued that it only felt loose because I wasn’t wearing a bra, but then one of them felt it and instantly changed her tune), and I didn’t like the location of the halter straps, so I asked them to move them. They told me to come back in a few hours.

The final draft

The final draft

I decided to use the time to get some pencil skirts made. I could have used the same tailor, but none of the dresses on display in the shop had complicated skirts, and since pencil skirts have to fit exactly right or look incredibly cheap, I decided to go to what Trip Advisor claimed was the best tailor in town: Yaly.

Even from across the street I could tell that Yaly was on a whole other level from my first tailor. A staff member was waiting right inside the door to welcome you. Instead of one room, there were two floors, a courtyard, an area with changing rooms and mirrors, a shoe section, and catalogues and laptops to help you figure out what you wanted. I pulled up my Pinterest page for my consultant, Nga, and showed her a picture of a J. Crew pencil skirt. She told me it would be $35, which seemed like a lot when I had just gotten a whole cocktail dress for $30, but I knew that the skirt would probably be more work than the dress, since it would have to be tailored so precisely. We went upstairs to look at fabric. She pointed me towards a stretchy blend, and I picked out four colors: kelly green, aqua, cobalt blue, and red. (I know what you’re thinking, but I am unrepentant. Except for one t-shirt, which I bought because everything else I owned was filthy, I hadn’t bought anything for myself for the entire trip. And I had been coveting these skirts forever).

Deciding to get pencil skirts was easy; answering all Nga’s questions about every little detail of the skirts was not. How wide did I want the waistband? What fabric did I want to use for the lining? How narrow did I want it at the knee? How long did I want it? Fortunately, most of the choices I could put off until the following morning at my first fitting.

I sat on a bench by the water and read my Vietnam War book (and deflected people’s offers of boat rides) until it was time to pick up my dress. This time, it was perfect (if a little tight—I was alarmed to find that I could not zip it up all the way, but the tailor was able to very quickly… I just hope that someone, anyone can zip it for me in September). She thanked me for the business and told me to give her best wishes to my brother, which I thought was very nice.

Back at the hotel, Lydia, the Katies, and Leonart (a medical student from Germany), all admired my purchase. I amused myself by writing to my future sister-in-law and telling her that the dress is a style that is very popular in Vietnam that I haven’t seen anywhere else yet—a corset with a sheer skirt over hot pants.

The five of us decided to be lazy and have dinner at the restaurant next to the hotel. It was exclusively populated by white tourists, and it was open to the outdoors , resulting in a seemingly never-ending parade of vendors popping through, offering you everything from bracelets to toys. Saying no over and over again to very hopeful people wears you down a bit after a while.

I began to worry that ordering my pencil skirts was a huge mistake. What if the fabric was wrong and they looked terrible?

But the first skirt looked absolutely fantastic. Even though the bottom seam wasn’t even basted, it looked so good that I was ready to jump up and down. This skirt looked so fabulous that it made up for all the weeks of dowdy gray t-shirts.

Draft one of skirt one

Draft one of skirt one

In between fittings, I decided to explore the other side of the river. I walked far enough (maybe 10 minutes) that I found restaurants where only Vietnamese people were eating. Picture a carport: concrete floor, roof, open walls. Now add some plastic, child-sized furniture (I don’t understand why the Vietnamese use this tiny furniture. Yes, they are short, but they are not kindergarten short. And yet, you can tell a restaurant is really for the locals because the seats are 1 foot off the ground.) I decided that it was time for lunch, and I chose a place at random (there were several in a row because a branch of the river flowed by the back). Later I noticed that there was a monkey on a chain in a tree in the front yard.

When I walked in, there were about three tables of Vietnamese diners. Nobody approached me until I had stood in the center of the room for close to a minute.  Finally, a woman came up to me and said, “Drink or food?” I replied, “Food and drink.” She replied, “Cola?” Which I thought was a little odd, but maybe she only had cola, so I said, “Sure.” Then I sat down at a table next to the river. She returned with a bowl of noodles. I started at it for a moment before realizing that she hadn’t said cola—she’d said cau lau! Whoops! Fortunately, cau lau was fine with me. (I ended up having some cola too. She brought me a glass with ice cubes, which I was pretty sure were made with tap water. After several seconds of indecision I decided to discreetly dump them over the railing onto the embankment. I figured that that’s what the Vietnamese would do in that situation.)

While I was eating, my waitress turned on a TV in the corner to reveal a Korean soap opera. She was absolutely engrossed in it—the whole family gathered in front of it in tiny plastic chairs–and it took a long time for me to get her attention when I needed to pay. Since there hadn’t been a menu, I was a little nervous that she would try to tell me a ridiculous price, but in the end, my noodles and Pepsi cost me a very reasonable $2.

Back in town, I went to my second fitting, where I got to try on all the skirts, which were more or less finished, minus the bottom hem. Some fit much better than others and needed a lot of adjusting. It was a bit strange to have all these women, who came up to my shoulder, poking and prodding me. I felt giant. (I am 5’5”.)

With Nga, who made me feel like a giant

With Nga, who made me feel like a giant

Other things I did to kill time between fittings (I had three for my skirts): look at eyeglass frames (Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City had told me her glasses were very expensive–$35!); visit a temple (this was a very disappointing experience. An old man waited by the front gate to sell tickets for $1, which seemed wrong since I’d never had to pay to go into a temple before, but I thought I might as well do something cultural in Hoi An. Then he insisted on taking my picture (“you take me picture!”)  in pre-ordained places around the (incredibly uninteresting) grounds. Then he would demand that I look at the picture and give my approval. He couldn’t answer even basic questions–I tried to ask what kind of temple it was, and all I could get out of him was “no Buddha.”)

The old man told me to stand there

The old man told me to stand there

Sadly, the Katies (who had rapidly become some of my favorite people from the trip) and Lydia all left on my second day, so my third and last night in Hoi An Leonart and I walked into the city for our final fittings together (he had several suits made at two different tailors). I think he was amazed by how lost I was able to get on my way to a place I had already been to three times. He dropped me off at Yaly and went on to his tailor. Most of my skirts still needed minor adjusting; the lining needed to be tacked down on a couple. But one of them had bigger problems; it just wasn’t falling straight. I was trying to think of a tactful way to say it when the supervisor said it for me, in rapid Vietnamese that I could only understand because the hand motion she used mirrored the angle of the skirt. I was glad I had paid extra to go somewhere where they care enough to make it perfect, without my having to ask. (Leonart was not so lucky; he had commissioned the tailor to make two shirts. One had been perfect at the last fitting, one too loose. They had somehow managed to tighten the perfect one and leave the loose one alone!)

All in all, my time in Hoi An was very pleasant. I never made it to the beach, but that seemed just as well since Lydia and the Katies got badly burned there and they said that it was not that attractive a place anyway. I feel slightly guilty that all I did was buy clothes, but, hey, I supported the traditional local economy. (And I’m going to look so good in my skirts, you are going to hate me.)



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