Vern: Bunk beds on a bus are a rather good idea and we arrived in Hoi An relatively well rested. Rested enough for me to notice that Hoi An is an anagram of Hanoi, the capital. This isn't remarked upon anywhere in the guidebooks or tourism literature and both cities are major stops on the tourist trail. And when I point it out, most people just shrug. Words are FUN, people!
The 'ancient centre' of Hoi An is cluster of mustard colour buildings on the bank of the Thu Bon River stained by weather and age. Overgrown plants creep over the Japanese-, Chinese- and European-style structures which clutter the narrow lanes of the little town which served as an international trading port from the 17th century onwards.
Today, the foreigners are here to be fitted for custom made dresses, suits and gowns. Eighty percent of the crumbling buildings are now tailors, with the latest European designs pinned to mannequins in the storefront (some well-fitting, others less so) and towers of fabric-rolls in the back. Every step you take, a man or woman is there yelling at you, waving a catalogue or a book of fabric swabs. There are hundreds of them. It is incredible that there is enough work for everybody, but they ensure that there is - if they're not sewing they're selling. Selling hard! Andrea wondered out loud if this is the dream of all the Vietnamese sweat-shop seamstresses stitching Nikes fourteen hours a day: their own Hoi An tailor shop?
We shook them off and shook them off and made our way to the river where brightly painted boats slosh around in the water's ruffles. Over the bridge, at a restaurant on Hoi An island we sampled some local dishes: cao lâù - savoury MSG noodles; white rose - small floral-shaped pork dumplings in a sweet dipping sauce; and Hoi An spring rolls.
All the delicacies in the world, however, could not give us the energy to deal with Hoi An's street peddlers. Their wares are never priced; not a stick of lip balm, not a pack of batteries, not a piece of fruit and not even a bottle of water. Every transaction is a tedious negotiation and the vendor starts with the highest amount they think can gouge a foreigner for. Even the prices of essential toiletries are negotiable! If the vendor started too high, Andrea, determined to teach him a lesson, would storm away. This was usually followed with the vendor shouting after her, "How much you want to pay?"
To which Andrea would yell back, "That's irrelevant, just give us the real price. The price you charge locals. You tried to rip us off and we're going elsewhere!"
Sometimes we went elsewhere, sometimes we were left wanting. Always we were irritated.
By night Hoi An is dazzling. Paper lanterns of all different colours hang on either side of the restaurant doorways and adorn all of the trees. The reflections mix to form a kaleidoscopic patchwork quilt draped over the river. Beneath the intricately carved Japanese Bridge, tourists buy candles on lotus-shaped paper rafts and set these afloat. Most flicker and go out seconds after they've been released, but some stay lit to make the river even more enchanting. .
There are many fancy, atmospheric restaurants where visitors dine while they soak it all in, but we're still watching the budget. Instead, we pieced together a three-course dinner, starting with a pho in an alley in a gritty part of town, then DIY fresh spring rolls at a pop-up restaurant alongside the river and lastly a large pineapple pancake on the porch in front of a café-cum-cooking school.
The next day we rented bicycles to ride out to the beach. The potholed road out took us past muddy paddies, simple ramshackle villages and big budget resorts. Under an overcast sky, the beach was empty and unimpressive. Over-zealous locals were running a bike-parking scam, so we didn't stop for long. Instead we rode a large loop, past farmers de-weeding the rice plantations and back though urban sprawl into the old town.
While we quaffed down chicken noodle pho at a market stall later, a middle-aged Vietnamese woman struck up a conversation with us, starting with all the usual questions: where you from, how long are you staying, do you like Vietnam? We answered curtly but politely and wondered what she was plugging. But she didn't let on. Not until we stood up to leave, then she said, "I am a tailor. You come see my shop? No have to buy, just you looking." Our resistance had been worn down by a couple at our guesthouse gushing about their new clothes and so we followed her, aware that we were thereby rewarding her intrusion. So, to everyone who follows us to Hoi An and has their lunch hijacked by a salesperson, we say "You're welcome!"
Corridors flanked with cotton, linen, denim and wool piled to the ceiling, run up and down a warehouse labeled the 'Clothing Market'. Inside busy woman are cutting fabric or feeding it through an antique Singer. Andrea wanted jeans and the tailor handed her a store catalogue. Anything GAP can make, she could make. The tailor measured her up, and an assistant took notes while Andrea picked a style, fabric and thread colour, all in the course of five minutes. "Come back at five-thirty to try them," said the woman. Two hours. On the way out, Andrea couldn't turn down a $1 pedicure and I went to find us some fruit. In the fresh produce section of the market, some fleshy ripe mandarinas caught my eye. (Although I have grown up calling these fruits naartjies, and Andrea grew up calling these tangerines, we ate so many in South America that forever more we'll automatically refer to these by the Spanish name, 'mandarinas'). "Forty-thousand dong", she quoted me.
"Twenty thousand," I countered, irritably.
"Twenty," I held my ground.
"Thirty," she came down some more.
"Fine, twenty five."
"No. Thirty. This the price Vietnamese pay," she said candidly.
"THEN WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST PRICE IT THAT WAY FROM THE BEGINNING!" I fumed. Just write down the going rate on a piece of cardboard like market folk everywhere else in the world are doing, gah!
When we returned to the clothing market in the evening and Andrea tried on the jeans, we were less than impressed. It was incredible that this complete piece of clothing had come into being just a 120 minutes after it had been conceived, but the fit wasn't quite right. The jeans looked squared-off and manly. The tailor noted Andrea's objections and started pinning the fabric back in the areas where it wasn't figure-hugging. She seemed confident that Andrea wouldn't need a second fitting, Andrea seemed less so, and we went back to the riverside for dinner. Shortly after the market opened the next morning, we were back and the jeans fit perfectly. I was agog and Andrea was thrilled. After eleven months in "ugly practical high-water zip-off conversion pants" she was finally back in denim. Denim that fit her perfectly. And what did all this happiness cost? Only $17, we didn't even have to break the budget.