Poverty-reduction campaigner, Clint Borgen once said, "When overseas, you learn more about your own country, than you do the place you're visiting."
I realised he was right the first time I was gathered into a bear hug in America by a near-stranger who did not seem to be after my wallet. Since then, I've been forced to recategorize certain behaviours from 'WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?' to a grudging acknowledgement that I may do things differently because I was brought up British. My top three in this list would be:
- I don't like being touched.
Being swept up in rib-cracking hugs in the USA made me so uncomfortable, that I typically avoided the offending friendly soul for the rest of eternity. On the other hand, anyone who correctly read the 'deer-in-headlights' look and kept their distance, promptly because my best buddy... whereupon it became totally fine to hug me. Now I think on it, it's a wonder I made any friends.
- I dislike talking about money.
If hugging strangers is too friendly, talking about money is too unfriendly. Even in a shop, it takes the focus off the quality or beauty of the goods, and having to ask the price puts pressure on the decision to purchase.
- I'm uncomfortable with personal questions from people I've just met.
Seriously, woman-on-the-plane, I'm still annoyed at you.
Given these charming cultural idiosyncrasies, visiting a tailor shop in Hoi An was always going to be challenge. Vietnamese market places are typically haggle-central. The seller lists a price, you offer half and you either meet in the middle or are chased down the street for six blocks. Tailoring clothes also takes time, which means there's plenty of opportunities for small talk: where do you come from? How long are you staying in Vietnam? Why aren't you married, have you ever been married and where are your children? Also, it isn't really possible to fit clothes by being eyed from a distance while wearing a baggy tee-shirt.
Based on these fairly obvious particulars, one might ask why I considered such an expedition a good idea. The answer was that I was in Hoi An. In Hoi An, you get fitted for clothes. It's just what you do.
Situated in the middle of the country, Hoi An was declared by one of our guides as 'the real Vietnam'. The north --he told us-- was heavily influenced by the Chinese, while the south had cultural connections with Cambodia. This part of central Vietnam was first explored by Europeans at the start of the 16th century, with the French Jesuit priest, Alexandre de Rhodes one of the early arrivals. de Rhodes is responsible for first devising the Romanised form of the Vietnamese language, his own nationality explaining the excessive use of accents. A pretty little tourist town of only 120,000 residents, Hoi An's old winding streets with open shop fronts and historical buildings were declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. There are also hundreds of tailor shops. Literally, hundreds, in a trade that goes back centuries.
As with any attraction that has evolved to be aimed at tourists, one concern is the danger of being scammed. With tailor shops lining the streets, it is hard to tell which will give you a perfectly fitted shirt versus a rendition of the fabled Emperor's New Clothes. The shop we visited was recommended by our tour guide. This was still slightly chancy, since our guide had pointed us to a friend's business and likely received a commission on our purchases. That said, the tailor she suggested had excellent reviews on 'Trip Advisor' and upon stepping into her shop, we found ourselves confronted with a brisk business woman.
Tailor Tina's business had herself and three girls in the store, with another 15 sewers back at her house out of town. Town property prices --Tina explained-- were high, so the sewing was done at her home outside the centre where she had more space. We were measured in the morning, returned for fittings the next morning, plus one final check in the evening. Since the purchases for our group of five people included roughly one suit, six shirts, one mens' jacket, two womens' jackets, a dress, two pairs of trousers and a top, this pointed to a work ethic that makes academia look a cake walk.
The prices for our clothes were similar to high street, but fitted to your body. Tina also did not go in for haggling, which was a relief after walking around the normal shopping markets. While the measuring process involved far too many tape measures wrapping around every inch that I wear clothes to cover, I admit the result was a perfect fit.
I ordered a pair of black stretchy trousers and a boat-neck top in teal. For those who might argue that such trousers can be bought at any sports shop, my response is that YOU'VE NO IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO GET THE PERFECT LENGTH AND CUT. Basically, I have two (now somewhat raggedy) pairs that I like, and a number of others I wear and sulk. For those who might argue such trousers are boring and I should mix it up, my response to you is YA BOO SUCKS. I handed over one of my precious two pairs and asked for a duplicate.
For the top, I picked the design out of a high street store catalogue (the UK chain, 'Next' to be precise). The results was more surprising than for the trousers. I had enviaged a stretchy top I would pull over my head, but the material and cut was more fitted than I anticipated. The result was a zip up the back. It looked good, but it was interesting the differences that are introduced when you go from material swatch to clothing item.
The most popular item to buy from a Hoi An tailor is a suit; garments that are cheaper in Vietnam than in a high street store and benefit the most from fitting. While my outfit was not necessarily cheaper than what I could have bought in a store back home (depending on branding), it was quite an experience to have clothes cut for you to produce garments that actually follow your own body lines. It might even have been worth the measuring proceedure.