Hoi An is a quaint little town on the central coast of Vietnam, home to a unique and extremely addictive shopping experience. Here you can have any item of clothing or footwear tailor made for a tiny fraction of what you’d pay in the West – is it even possible to resist at least a couple of small purchases (even if it means lugging them around the whole of South East Asia in your already overstuffed backpack)? S.E.A Backpacker Magazine Editor, Nikki Scott was up for the challenge!
Do I really need a pair of tailor made bronze plaited sandals, a snugly fitted cocktail dress and a floral sun dress with a pleated empire waist for backpacking in South East Asia? The answer, quite clearly, is NO! Of course not! But for one very good reason, those are the items sitting in my backpack after a visit to Vietnam.
After a slog of a 14 hour overnight bus trip, I arrived in Hoi An having heard of its reputation as an essential stopover for fashion conscious flashpackers hungry for a taste of Vietnam’s very own version of Milano. On the way there, I’d met one such pilgrim, an enthusiastic English girl, Sarah, who was well prepared for the forthcoming opportunity. I’d watched in a state of awe as she pulled out cuttings from magazines, sketches, samples of colours and textures she’d carried with her! I won’t be swayed, I foolishly mused.
The next day as I met Sarah for breakfast in a riverside cafe, the rain came down in buckets over the picturesque streets of the ancient town. Despite the rain, daily activity was taking place – boats carried hundreds of bananas, crabs, fish and goodness knows what else, market sellers scooted around the streets flogging everything from cakes to hats. My plan that day had been to hire a bicycle and explore but, as the rain showed no sign of stopping, I agreed to accompany Sarah to the tailors. What harm could it do? School girl error number one.The main road is chocka full of bright lights and eager saleswomen beckoning you inside with glowing smiles and the promise of a style extravaganza!
Sarah got to work right away with her designs. With the creative process underway, an American guy started chatting to me; told me he was picking up a few items he’d had made earlier. As the ‘items’ appeared, and he tried on a tight maroon velour jacket, nice huh? I faked a ‘oh yes definitely’ and wandered off around the shop. School girl error number two.
Every type of material in every colour and pattern you could imagine lay on the shelves all around. Polka dot silk, black velvet, blue satin, white linen, paisley, floral, checked, striped, bold, bright, classy, gaudy, trendy. zig zag… a stylist’s dream! As I looked around in awe, the saleswomen sensed a potential kill and slowly encircled like sharks around a dinghy, the smell of blood in the air. I was done for. ‘Hello Madam.’
All at once, swathes of material were up against me, my every body part complimented and I was presented with catalogue after catalogue of designs. They swooped in to take measurements of bits of my body I didn’t know I had! I felt like an actress! With my ego boosted, the temptation became too much. I caved. Three dresses for 20 dollars and pick them up tomorrow! How could I refuse? And, her sister down the road will make me some bronze sandals just like the ones in the book, and why not get the dress in blue too? Why not?! At that price, get it in black and white check and why the hell not in red too just in case!
Later that night, supping beers in one of the lively bars in town with fellow travellers, I heard similar stories of backpackers that had ‘cracked under pressure’. I spoke to a Dutch girl who had bought two duffel coats, ‘the first one just fit so well’ she said. A New Zealand girl who’d lingered two days more than planned because she’d needed several adjustments to her handmade cowboy boots!
And it wasn’t just the girls who’d been swayed! A group of the the rugbiest looking rugby lads from New Zealand admitted they’d been taken in hook, line and sinker. They laughed and took the piss out of each other as they described how they’d spent all day stroking fabrics, picking just the right texture of satin linings for their three piece suits!
The next day, we took a day off while our clothes were getting made and cycled to the beach…it was lovely to get out into the countryside around Hoi An, which turned out to be very unspoilt and traditional. It’s very easy to get off the beaten track and find yourself amidst local village life. All I could think about though, were my imminent purchases. Would the capped sleeves turn out as I hoped? Had I got it an inch too short? A shade too dark? And did the little buttons that I’d picked bring out the white in the pattern!? Once a carefree backpacker, now a fashion victim – what was happening to me?!
All my doubts subsided later that day as I was presented with my items. They were fabulous! Donatella Versace eat yer heart out! I tried them on and the tailor made a few adjustments right there and then in the shop. I really felt like I owned something unique and special.
Sarah, (now completely addicted) decided to stay longer to get more things made as she’d spotted a new fabric on her way to the beach and wanted just one more sun dress ready for the beaches of South Thailand! I made the crucial decision to leave before I was well and truly turned into a flashpacker!
So, suited and booted, I finally managed to escape Hoi An with a much heavier backpack and a much lighter wallet, and, despite my initial doubts, I’m pleased that I was so easily swayed! My new clothes are fabulous and the quality second to none and I’d only spent 30 dollars – a huge amount less than the same items would have cost me at home! I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world you can get such a unique style makeover for so good a price! Just make sure you don’t get too carried away…
Backpacker Fashion Tips for Hoi An!
If you’re really short on space in the old rucksack, posting things home from Vietnam is efficient and cheap. Why not have some new work clothes waiting for you when the time comes to return home back to the ‘real’ world? You’ll be kitted out no end!
Any bartering attempts will most likely end up in you getting more clothes. If you’re aware of this beforehand you can use it to your advantage and get a three-for-two kind of deal.
It’s a bad idea to go shopping when you’ve had a few beers! Before you know it the tailors are complimenting your exquisite derriere and you’ve got another item in your rucksack. Merry and gooey eyed, you’ll buy anything!
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor
Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.