Category Archives: Vietnam

Tailoring in Hoi An: A Stich in No Time!

Hoi An may boast World Heritage historical houses, temples, and nearby beaches, but one of its main draws is getting custom fitted clothes in any style imaginable.
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Misha and I definitely came with tailoring largely in mind.  There are tailors in Lao, and I have done some tailoring here, but most only really do traditional Lao outfits for ladies, and men’s work clothing.  Tailors who make styles other than tightly-fitting silk tops are harder to come by, slow (a month or more), and most importantly, there is no variety of quality fabric (aside from those for the traditional dress).  I knew Hoi An, with fabric in multitudes of textures and colors, was going to be overwhelming.

And it certainly was… In Hoi An there is an impression that everyone in the town is somehow involved in the tailoring industry.  If you meet someone who isn’t a tailor themselves, you can bet their brother/wife/cousin/sister-in-law/best friend/niece is.  Every third shop is a tailor shop, with someone calling out to you sweetly from the doorway.  The range is extreme, with some fancy high-end stores with uniformed staff, their own labels, and waiting courtyard areas.  Meanwhile, others are just one-room affairs, with a few family members running the show.  With this overwhelming amount of choice, it was essential for us to strategize and plan ahead–what we wanted, and how much we were willing to spend.  There were so many details to consider: fabric type, texture, weight, color, zipper style and placement, seams, neckline, buttons, lining, sleeves, length, and so on.  Who knew that getting custom made clothes could actually be so stressful!? (But hey, I’m not complaining).  In Hoi An, it feels like sky is the limit–winter coats, sundresses, ball gowns, suits, shorts, even shoes (from Converse, to strappy sandals, to knee-high boots)–it all can be made in a day or two.

Approaching the cloth market.

Approaching the cloth market.

Inside the cloth market.

Inside the cloth market.

A stall inside the cloth market.

A stall inside the cloth market.

In the end, after a day of scouting, sketching, price comparing, and feeling fabric, we decided to go for a combination, getting a few key items (a nice dress and jacket in my case) at an expensive designer store, and more standard items (copies of shirts and shorts already in my wardrobe) at a stall in the cloth market.  And of course–shoes (just boots and wedges, in an act of incredible restraint).

The interior of one of the fancier tailor shops.

The interior of one of the fancier tailor shops.

Truly, the most astounding part of the whole undertaking is the speed.  On our last day, we ordered a last-minute pair of shoes at 10am…which were ready, stitched-soles and all, by 8pm.  Perhaps it’s a good thing this isn’t more common as it would be sorely tempting…don’t know what to wear tonight?  Make something new!

Picking out colors at the shoe tailor.

Picking out colors at the shoe tailor.

The boot aisle at the shoe tailor.

The boot aisle at the shoe tailor.

Indeed, tailoring and eating took up most of our time, but occasionally we did manage to have moments for more tranquil and cultural activities, like walking along the harbor in the old town, and visiting the famous Japanese covered bridge.  One day, we even left downtown for the beach, walking a sweltering few miles to An Bang, the slightly less touristy beach.  We “rented” umbrellas and chairs for free, in return for patronizing an astoundingly mediocre beachside restaurant, and admired the strage circular rowboats docked on shore.

The circular boats on An Bang beach.

The circular boats on An Bang beach.

Between fittings and feasting on cao lau, the four days in Hoi An flew by, and soon we found ourselves back en route to Vientiane, with full suitcases and full stomachs to show for our week in Vietnam.

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Hungry in Hoi An

Touching down in Danang and driving the one hour to Hoi An, on Vietnam’s Central Coast, seemed quiet after the hectic streets of HCMC.
japanese covered bridge
Our main destination for the trip was Hội An, formerly knowns as Faifo (most everywhere in this part of the world has more than one name, it seems), a historic UNESCO World Heritage town of around 120,000.  Hoi An was historically a trading town, strategically located on the river, near the sea, and the architecture and fortunes of the city were strongly influenced by past merchants and settlers, especially from China and Japan.  Undamaged during the war, the town is an extremely popular tourist spot today, known for its beaches, architecture, food, and tailors.
boats in Hoi An
hoi an
Just like Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An is one of those places that remarkably retains its charm despite the influx of tourists.  Every third person on the street is a tourist, rather than a local, and it seems like nearly everything is geared to attract their dong (the local currency, the name of which is predictably the butt of many jokes and bawdy t-shirts).  The calls of “Miss you want bicycle? Come into my shop? Just looking? You eat here?” and so on, do get annoying, but the appeal of Hoi An manages still to transcend the touristy fanfare.  The downtown area has narrow streets, open only to motorbikes, push bikes and pedestrians, and the buildings are all a beautiful mustard yellow, with vines and blossoms cascading over their walls.  Rice farmer hats and paper lanterns abound, and narrow alleys reveal crumbling and dignified porches.
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lanterns
Before this trip, my Asian food allegiance was solidly in the camp of Lao and Thai food, but in Hoi An, Vietnamese food stole my heart.  Back in the US, most of my experiences with Vietnamese food seemed nearly identical to Chinese food in the States.  Whether this is because I didn’t know what to order before, or because all exported Asian food ends up looking the same after awhile, I’m not sure.  But now, my impressions are of a light, flavorful, often quite healthy, cuisine.

Some highlights:

Vietnamese drip coffee: The rocket fuel of Asian coffees, which I always order “white.”  The secret is that it’s really just like drinking highly-caffeinated sweetened condensed milk.  It’s necessary to take a little break from caffeine after drinking this everyday for a week.
drip coffee
Cao Lau: A Hoi An specialty, served in many different styles around the town, but always with: pork, thick noodles, greens (often mint, lettuce, and sprouts), and a mystery sauce that is light and salty.
Cao Lau
Salads: Creative mixtures of meat or tofu with peanuts, bamboo and other fresh veggies.  I don’t actually know what they’re called in Vietnamese but all sorts of delicious varieties crossed our plates.

Beef salad and Vietnamese iced tea.

Beef salad and Vietnamese iced tea.

Pho: Ah pho, an old friend.  Although I can eat this all over Laos, it’s just not quite the same as in its homeland of Vietnam.  A cheap, salty bowl of rice noodles and meat, known to be tastier the more brackish looking the broth is (it means that the bones have been boiling for longer).  Add fresh lime, chili sauce/flakes, mint, sugar to taste.  I’m sure there are posh Manhattan fusion restaurants that sell it for $14, but I’ll never be willing to spend more than $1.
pho
Spring rolls: Another ubiquitous Asian food that just seems better in Vietnam, perhaps for the sheer variety. Tofu, BBQ beef, shrimp, fish, egg, pork, you name it.  Freshly wrapped in rice paper with sweet peanut sauce for dipping.

Spring rolls eaten on the street.

Spring rolls eaten on the street.

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Hanoi

January 15-19: Hanoi

A few days after returning from Thailand, I set out on my last winter break adventure: four days in Hanoi, Vietnam, with my housemate Alex, who had also just been traveling in India.  Hanoi was quite a contrast to Vientiane, despite the fact that it’s not that far away.  The weather in January was quite cold…maybe only actually in the low 50s, but uncomfortable because very few buildings were heated or insulated at all.

The money:
Vietnam’s currency is the dong, which is naturally the subject of many jokes and tourist t-shirts that say things like “Keep your hand on your dong.”  In addition to providing a laugh, this is actually good advice.  Hanoi is a bit notorious for various scams (one of our other housemates told us she’d been robbed 3 out of 3 times she’d visited Vietnam).  Each note features a picture of “Uncle Ho,” who seems  still ever-present.  We ran out of time to visit him in person at the mausoleum complex, but his image was on some modern banners around the city.

The sights:
The main attraction in Hanoi was just walking around and soaking up bustle of the Old Quarter.  Starting early in the morning, the streets had a constant hum of activity–motorbikes, cars, ladies with rice hats, vendors.  Each block in the Old Quarter has a different specialty, and is packed with one particular thing being sold.  Some examples: food (with lots of fresh frogs and fish out on the sidewalks), party decorations, headstones, tin boxes, silk, sunglasses.  There’s one street with all the blacksmiths, one street with all of the hardware stores, and so on.  In the middle of all of this is the Hoan Kiem Lake, whose park is a peaceful respite from navigating the city streets.

Vientiane doesn’t have many museums, and has very few places to see art, so it was exciting to visit some of the museums while in Hanoi.  The Fine Arts museum was an interesting look into Vietnamese culture and perspective on history.  Every third piece seemed to reference the “American War” (as it is known in Asia) in some way, from outright images of war, to depictions of the  emotions associated with that time.  We were led to reflect more on this chapter in history when we visited the “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison used first by the French and then by the Vietnamese, where John McCain was kept as a prisoner of war.  The Vietnamese government’s take on events was extremely clear in the museum displays, as they emphasized the atrocities committed by the French colonialists in the prison, but portrayed the treatment of American soldiers there as something like summer camp.  Thank you letters from American troops, games, and Christmas decorations are among the artifacts to show the humanity of their treatment in prison.

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The food:

Every morning began with a traditional breakfast of pho, or Vietnamese rice noodle soup.  Supposedly, the best pho has almost brackish-looking broth, because its been stewed with bones for hours.  Our first bowl looked like it had been taken right out of the Mekong River, which meant it was appropriately hearty and delicious.  We enjoyed it Hanoi style, sitting on the sidewalk on tiny plastic stools barely a foot off the ground.  The next morning, the pho was a little less satisfying–perhaps because it was made of chicken, or perhaps because there was a frozen pig heart just sitting out on the shelf behind me.  Being a former French colony, there is also excellent French food in Hanoi, and one night we took a break from noodles and spring rolls to indulge in a meal in the French Quarter, served in a restored colonial house.  We also of course tried some of the diesel fuel Vietnamese drip coffee and some of the infamous local liquor.  The Vietnamese rice wine is often brewed with snakes and other poisonous or endangered animals in it, but we opted for the more tame version, which was just made with various herbs and fruit (but still tasted pretty weird).

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There and Back Again

It’s been 4.5 weeks, 33 days, and 4 countries, and here I am, back in Vientiane and ready to start a new term of teaching.

Since I last wrote, I rode:
10 airplanes
6 trains
7 inter-city buses
2 subway systems
8 autorickshaws
20 taxis
2 boats
1 bicycle, and
1 elephant

I traveled from Laos to Bangkok, to Northern India, to Southern India, to Singapore, to Northern Thailand, back to Laos, to Hanoi, and back here again.  There are countless stories of frustration, fascination, sickness, and festivities to be told soon, but here are some photos as a preview.

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On another note, tomorrow is the beginning of Term 1 at Vientiane College, which will surely prove to be another ten weeks of learning for both me and my students.  I’ll probably be writing less about my classes and life in Laos for the next few weeks as I try to catch up on the travel adventures, but this term I’m looking forward to teaching five classes–what should be a busy and varied schedule.  I have two Young Learners classes: one Elementary class (probably in the age range of 10-14), and one Pre-Intermediate (my teenage students from last term again).  I have one adults class at the Intermediate level, and I’ll also be teaching a class called “CORE 1” in the “Diploma” program, for students who have graduated from the general grammar-based English classes to the content and critical thinking classes that work them towards a language certificate.  Mine is the first required class in the program, and is loosely current events-based.  Finally, I’m teaching a daytime class on study skills for a special program for students working to improve test scores to earn a chance to study abroad in Australia.  With this wide variety of classes, I’ll certainly have my hands full for the next few weeks, but will try to update with regular installments on my December-January adventures!

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