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Aug 05

Big and small?

By 1.00pm I was already exhausted. A tailor brandishing a measuring tape shuffled around me as I held my arms outstretched. She paused, gestured at my chest and then at my hips before pointedly inquiring, “Big and small?”

I was lost, so I just returned the question with a blank stare, hoping she’d elaborate.

“Big and small?” she said again. Despite the English, she was still speaking a language I didn’t understand, so I looked helplessly over to Cheryl and asked for a translation. Cheryl thought for a moment, then matter-of-factly stated, “Oh, she’s asking if you want the sides straight or fitted.”

Clearly, I’m not a clothes shopper.

Welcome to Hoi An, a town on the World Heritage List. However, its old buildings are perhaps overshadowed by what most tourists end up doing here – getting clothes tailored. There are literally hundreds of tailors (or “cloth shops”) in Hoi An, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say it is a town full of master tailors. They can make anything and everything.

The process goes like this. You find yourself ushered into one of the myriad of cloth shops. Inside they’ll have a stack of fashion magazines and the latest British mail order catalogues. It’s simply a matter of flicking through the books and pointing out a design you like. You can come prepared too, by bringing along a favourite item of your own clothing you’d like replicated, or a picture clipped out from some magazine. If they can see it, they can sew it. And even if you orally describe something and draw a rough sketch, they can do a pretty good job of things too. After you pick the design, you spend time looking through walls full of fabric – silks, cotton, wool, cashmere, synthetics and so on. Pick a fabric and pattern, negotiate a price, get measured, pay the deposit (about 50%) and your clothing will be ready for review normally within 12 hours.

As good as they are, it is quite likely you will need time to make adjustments. Although my business shirts were fine the first time I got them, I had to send a coat back for adjustments three times because the right shoulder of it wasn’t sitting correctly. Don’t be afraid to ask for adjustments. No doubt when you complain that something’s too tight they will say, “Not too tight! It looks good!” But if you insist, they will oblige without (too much) complaint.

Perhaps the biggest issue is choosing a tailor. I don’t believe this is too big a problem. People who have been to Hoi An will have found tailors they swear by, and many tailors have billboards outside displaying testimonials written in all manner of languages from satisfied customers who have bought an excessive amount of garments. Virtually any tailor you go to will do a good job. That said, there are probably two good ways to ensure you don’t end up buying from the rare bad tailor. One indicator is if there are any other tourists buying from the shop. The second way you can judge is to get one small item of clothing made – a shirt or similar – and check the quality.

We got clothing made at four tailors. We got a couple business shirts made at Mai Cloth Shop (Stall 7, Hoi An Cloth Market). Mai’s is located in the cloth market, a group of stalls in a warehouse where you can watch tailors sewing. Mai’s stall is extremely busy. A little too busy for my liking. Especially in the evening, there can be over ten people crammed around her tiny stall. With everyone talking at once, staff are easily distracted. One lady there was taking Cheryl’s measurements when she got sidetracked half-way by another customer and didn’t come back for five minutes. They have a dodgy fitting room in an alleyway which you’ll have to share with some of the fattest rats in Hoi An. Nonetheless, despite the chaos, Mai does a good job with the tailoring.

Cloth Market

Hanh Hung (39 Phan Dinh Phung St, on the corner) was the store we got most of the clothing made at. The atmosphere was a lot more relaxed and pleasant, and if you look like you’re serious about buying, they’ll give you a complimentary bottle of water (we received about 6 litres of water between us through our visits there). The store is very clean and well kept, and the staff give you a bit of breathing room (although they will still ask “you want something more?” every ten minutes or so). Workmanship was generally very good. I suspect that Hanh Hung is more expensive than other stores, but by western standards, the clothes they produce are still very well priced. Business shirts are from US$5-10 depending on material, and suits start from US$40 or so upwards. I got a suit made out of cashmere/wool for about US$85. They accept credit card (3% surcharge, but you can try and factor this in when you are negotiating price). In case you thought all tailors were women, Hanh Hung also uses male tailors.

In the end I got eight shirts, one suit and a pair of shorts for just over A$200. Cheryl made five shirts, two suits (coat, pants, skirt), one dress, and one trenchcoat for around A$320. We were also given four complimentary silk ties… though probably not so complimentary given what we paid for the other stuff. (A$1 = US$0.76 = 11000 Vietnamese Dong.)

The main problem you will have is buying too much. Weight and space are issues you must consider beforehand. Shopping for clothing here can be addictive, and it is all too easy to get much more than you initially planned.