I saw a movie a while back that ended with a street chase in an ancient-looking place somewhere in China, with a romantic rustic bridge and red lanterns lighting the way by a river. It looked fabulous, and with a bit of research I discovered that it was filmed in Hoi An, Vietnam. Ever since, I had longed to see the place for myself. Last June I finally made it to Vietnam.
After poring over travel guides, it seemed that this beautiful little World Heritage site was also the best place to go to have something made by the very clever local dressmakers and tailors. I find that if travelling solo, it’s always good to have a focus for the trip, so that you don’t end up aimlessly going from place to place, thinking: “wouldn’t it be nice to share this experience with someone.”
Armed with a couple of drawings of outfits that I thought would be great, I booked a 10-day trip. Air New Zealand had just started regular flights to Ho Chi Minh city and it wasn’t just me who was really excited to be going….the steward filling my glass with bubbles said he felt the same, then he promptly spilt ice cold bubbles over me! We came to a very amicable agreement that as long as my glass remained topped up I would say no more!
Travelling from a small village to the hustle and bustle of 18 million people in one city was quite a shock. After a good night’s sleep I ventured out to check the shopping possibilities in the biggest market I have been to in a long while. The stall assistants were extremely aggressive, and I found it a bit overwhelming. I finally waded in to barter for a wallet: a bit traumatic, but I managed it. A few postcards later though, and I decided that Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as the locals still refer to the place, was a bit too full on for my first day and I caught a taxi to the Post Office (see what I mean…having a focus on what to do takes you onwards).
The Post Office was designed by the same chap who did the Eiffel Tower, and is suitably impressive. I bought the stamps for NZ, spent a few minutes to give some passing students a bit of an English lesson (be careful or you will be doing this for hours as the students have a way of making you feel that you ought to help out) I decided to go back to my hotel and get ready for my flight to Hoi An.
Travellers beware. I stood outside the Post Office with no clue as to which direction I should be travelling in, so took out my street map. I must have stood out as a new tourist without a clue. A taxi driver who was sleeping in his cab nearby woke up and I gave him a card with the hotel name on it. After about five minutes in what looked like rush hour traffic, he stalled the car by turning the ignition whilst moving. He said, “car broken you get out now.” I felt a chill of fear. Was this a set up? Was I going to meet a group of people who were going to threaten me? More importantly, where the hell was I? The taxi driver leant over his seat and made a grab for my purse. Now, I have been a solo traveller for a long time so I am wise to self-protection. I snapped the purse shut so quickly I almost took his finger off, coming out of my dizzy, ‘small town tourist without a clue’ pose, and told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of him and got out of the car. That was an English lesson he would not forget in a hurry! Another taxi took me safely back to my hotel.
The hour-long flight to Hoi An was uneventful. My accommodation was a relatively new small boutique hotel, thankfully, with air-conditioning (it was 39 degrees with 100% humidity outside!).
The hotel receptionist reeled off a menu of boat trips, snorkelling, scuba diving, cooking classes and dressmaking. I casually asked about dressmaking and was given a map and directions to go to her cousin in the old town. There were also dire warnings about not going to Central Market as they would rob me blind and make rubbish clothes. It was a strong sales pitch and I managed to get on my way only by promising I would go to see her cousin that very day. Phew!
The map took me to a lovely street in the old town. Taxis are not allowed into the area and it was now late morning and the sun was blazing. Exhausted, I fell into a café and ordered a cold drink (my fourth since leaving the hotel). Finding the dressmaker’s shop I was told to sit down now! Twenty minutes later I got up to leave, as it was obvious that the saleswoman was busy with other customers, but I was told sit down now! The shop displayed some lovely suits for men and a couple of very dated ball gowns. There was no material to look through, just bolts of suiting. I said that I would come back another time, and left.
It was sooooo hot outside now, with no café in sight. The thought of walking back the way I had come was a nightmare. A cyclo-man offered to take me, but I told him it would be too hot. He insisted he take me to the edge of the old town so that I could catch a taxi, pleading with me to take his offer. I got in the damn thing, and whilst the road was flat it seemed not such a bad idea, but then there was a slight incline and he puffed and panted in a very alarming way. I asked him to stop before he had a heart attack, and he laughed and obliged.
I almost fell out of the cyclo and into the arms of two ladies who came out to see the sight of a cyclo-man nearly dying with a strong built Western woman in his vehicle. I was taken to a booth, given a bottle of cold water and a fan was put on right in my face. Bliss! My rescuers were a mother and daughter who had a dressmaker stall in Central Market! Numerous women came bustling around with selections of fashion books and material samples. One girl wanted to remove the nasty hair on my chin(!) and another wanted to give me a massage. Mrs An shooed them all away, bought me a cup of tea and told me that the market was operated only by women – a government initiative to prevent women having to be sex workers to earn a living. Her English was excellent, and she said that anything I wanted to buy to take home from Vietnam, if I told her, she could come with me and get a good price. A couple of young Western women came and tried on a dress they had ordered, and were really excited about the lovely fit and finish. I asked if I could have something made up, and that was it! A very nice time measuring up, choosing materials and talking about styles began. I told Mrs An about my experience in the old town and she said that it was sad, but there was a racket going on whereby tourists were told that the best deals could only be done by a ‘cousin’, and that in reality the cousin was someone who paid a fee to hotel staff to promote their business. It had made it difficult for the market stall holders as the number of tourists had dropped off. The irony was, that without the market, these tailors and dressmakers all relied on the market to provide whatever materials they needed, and even sent orders to the market dressmakers and paid a fraction of the price that they charged the tourists!
I had some lovely clothes made by Mrs An. I mentioned that I would like to find a good fresh fruit stall to get some pineapple, and her daughter appeared with two of the fruit before I had finished speaking! Mrs An insisted in taking me to a nearby restaurant. She said that I would probably not go there as it was not a fancy place, but I would be able to have their almost national favourite dish, chicken and rice, cooked the way the Vietnamese preferred. She was right. I would never have ventured into the restaurant. It wasn’t dirty, just a very pokey, hole-in-the-wall place. We had dinner and, as her guest I was not allowed to pay. Mind you I had ordered way more clothes than I planned, so I do not think it was such a bad deal for her.
I also would like to recommend that anyone visiting anywhere in Asia should consider getting new glasses to wear from there…but that’s another story…