06thNovember

Tailors, Tastes, and Tales of Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An on Wednesday night via a 1 hour flight from Saigon to Danang and a 30-minute taxi ride (the nearest train station and airport to Hoi An are in Danang – the cab ride is about USD $16 – though there are supposedly buses during the day). It is advertised as the most charming city in Vietnam with its river-side location, French colonial architecture, friendly population, and beach resorts. We were skeptical – these types of tourist favorites are usually our least desirable travel spots, but the allure of affordable tailor-made clothes was too strong to ignore. Sure it’s extremely touristy in the “ancient town” with its gazillion hawkers and store-owners hounding you with “buy something please” every 2 seconds, but for some reason, it didn’t annoy us. I think because the Vietnamese women aged 18-50 are so damn nice and cute and helpful – you can’t help but smile and say “no thank you” every 2 seconds in response. It’s very unlike India where I have to resist the urge to punch people as they hound me incessantly. Indians just aren’t as friendly, and you always feel like they’re scamming you, whereas the Vietnamese have the art of sales down. They compliment, smile, and persist without being obnoxious – it’s truly something to admire. I’m SO glad we didn’t skip Hoi An – it is even more lovely than the guidebooks say. And the world-famous tailors the city is known for came through and produced some gorgeous pieces for us (after I did a ton of research on which ones to go to). We spent a bit of money in Hoi An, but everything was an incredible value, and our memories of this place are priceless.

The Hai Au Hotel wins best accommodation of our trip thus far. For $30/night, we had a HUGE room with king-size bed, AC, bathroom with hot water and separate tub (yay no water on the floor so I didn’t slip and almost break my arm for the 3rd time in Asia…), desktop computer, fridge, delicious breakfast, strong wifi signal, and no bugs. For $0.75 a day, we could rent a bike. And every single time we walked in/downstairs, we were greeted with “HI SEEMATYLER – HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” by the nicest and most helpful staff we’ve ever seen. They arranged our plane tickets, tour tickets, and even had 2 post office people come to the hotel to box up/weigh our newly-acquired clothing to ship home (via SeaMail – will take 3-4 months but we have a USPS tracking number and insurance, and it cost less than $100 to ship 16kilos halfway across the world).

If you google “best tailor in Hoi An” you get a lot of different results and not many of them are super helpful. Hopefully this post provides some stranger with useful advice because I really think we found some of the best deals and quality in town. Our favorite is Miss Forget Me Not at Stall #20 in the Cloth Market in the old part of town. No there isn’t a changing room or real desk/chairs or even a powerful-enough fan, but there is an adorable, funny, and utterly professional woman who will make you gorgeous clothes at obscenely cheap prices. We scoured her books and picked designs and fabrics and linings and pocket designs etc. and came out with the following: T- 7 dress shirts, 2 blazers and S- 2 skirts, 5 dresses. Tyler had 2 beautiful, perfectly-fitted, well-stitched suits made at Mr. Xe – one a black pinstripe and the other a 3-piece gray. They threw in a dress shirt for free, but I would’ve happily paid for it given the hilarious experience of watching the extremely effeminate Mr. Xe run around with his tshirt pulled up revealing his giant rotund belly as he slapped T’s butt exclaiming “the pants are perfect!” We had a winter wool peacoat each made at Duong Dong, and I also had a simple summer cotton dress made. T had a pair of jeans made for $20 at another shop, and though he likes them, I’m not sure I’d recommend the place for much else. There isn’t a lot of denim around town though, so if you want jeans and will be heading to Hoi An soon, let me know and I’ll try to dig up the name of the shop.

We also had shoes made at Everybody’s Fashion. T got a pair of brown dress shoes and black dress shoes – both picked out of magazines and replicated perfectly with soft, nice leather. I got a pair of black knee-high leather boots with a tiny wedge heel – something I’ve wanted forever and have never been able to find since my calves are stupidly sized. They fit so well and looked so great that I ordered 2 more shoes – black patent sandals and nude peep-toe pumps (again, with my desired heel size). I love the pumps and like the sandals and am overall super excited about our purchases. My feet have a better chance of staying the same size for the next few months so the shoes will go to good use immediately upon our return. My waist and newly-made clothes on the other hand have to face the reality that I LOVE food, especially Asian food, and Vietnamese is quickly giving Thai and Indian a run for their money.

Before you get too concerned that all we did was shop, we also explored the historical sites in the city including ancient houses, the old Japanese covered bridge, a couple pagodas, and took a day trip to the My Son temple ruins. Of the original 70 temple structures, only portions of 20 exist now thanks to American bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War. The ruins at My Son are Hindu temples dedicated to the God Shiva and date back to the 4th-14th century when the Champas ruled Vietnam. The ruins are a UNESCO world heritage site, and it is perhaps the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina. After visiting Angkor Wat, the temples were perhaps less-than-exciting, but we still enjoyed the day-trip.

We ate well in Phu Quoc and HCMC, but Hoi An is where our eating adventure really took a turn for amazing (naturally, since Hoi An is considered the best place for food in Vietnam, even according to those in HCMC and Hanoi). We did a cooking class/demonstration (cheapest one in town) at Vettiver and learned how to make pho bo (beef noodle soup), fried stuffed eggplants with chicken, morning glory salad with beef, and pork in clay pot. We ate the most amazing Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich – usually with pate and pork, pickled radish, cucumber, some greens, chili sauce, and random other sauces on a specifically shaped French baguette) ever at Banh Mi Phuong (Anthony Bourdain’s favorite as well) near the cloth market on Hoang Dieu Street. Here’s Tyler’s Tripadvisor review:

“The place of the god-wich”
The only way to review this place is to say that it is as close to god as a sandwich can get. You may think this is blasphemy, you may think I shouldn’t compare god to a sandwich, but you are reading this review which means you have yet to eat said sandwich. Trust me, god considers this review a compliment. This is the best Banh Mi in Hoi An, I know, I did the street tour and tried all the Banh Mi there is to try here. Not only that, it qualifies as the single best sandwich I’ve ever had. My wife and I also had a discussion while eating the sandwich for the 2nd time in 3 meals whether or not this was the “most satisfying” food we’ve ever eaten. We failed to come up with any foodstuff more satisfying than the Oppla Banh Mi (Banh Mi with egg) or the standard Pork Banh Mi – which means it wins both “Best Sandwich Ever” and “Most Satisfying Meal Ever” awards. As if that weren’t enough, the sandwich costs only $1, making it easily the best value meal you could possibly put in your Banh hole. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this place if you are like me and consider sandwiches to be a religion.

As if that’s not food enough for you, we also did a tasting tour (The Original Tasting Tour of Hoi An – run by an Australian guy who is super nice, funny, and interesting – highly recommend!) that involved trying 50 different dishes in the span of about 4.5 hours. I won’t even try to recall the many things we tried, but know that our favorites (in addition to banh mi of course) are pho bo, cao lau noodles (noodle soup with pork), banh bao pork (steamed bun filled with pork), goi du du bo kho (green papaya salad with beef), mi quang (turmeric noodles with pork & shrimp), xoi dua (coconut sticky rice with sesame & peanuts), che dau hu  (tofu with ginger sauce), and black sesame seed and peanut soup.

One more note – Vietnamese coffee is delicious. It may not be the most elegant or expensive or refined, but it is strong and unique. Since it’s roasted in corn oil, it has a very earthy flavor that many people don’t like, and when you mix it with the requisite condensed milk, it can be a little on the sweet side. The trick is finding the woman at the random street cart who has been making it for decades and knows exactly the right mix of everything to give you the jolt of heaven you need to make it through your day. We can’t get enough – especially on ice (don’t worry, mom, it’s ice made with purified water – or so we’re told).

  • Dad M

    Great report, as usual, Seema. I asked this on a facebook picture post, but I’ll ask here too. Does life under Communism there seem much different than, shall we say, the places you visited in South America. If so, how? I know some censoring of the internet takes place, but how do merchants make a profit in a supposedly non-capitalist society? Stay safe and know we love you.

    • Seema

      SO I just wrote a really lengthy intelligent response to your question, but then Laos internet decided to die and delete it. So now I will just say Communism FAIL. 🙂 j/k – will respond again when I can remember what I wrote!

  • Scott

    As the resident sandwich expert in the greater Chicagoland area, I request that you Fed-Ex me one these Banh Mi sandwiches for an official evaluation. Hold the mayo.

  • Dad

    I am catching up on my reading of your blogs. Was this sandwich better than my egg sandwich?

    Can’t wait to see you guys in your new clothes and shoes!

  • Mike WanderingMe

    Miss Forget Me Not has moved from the cloth market to her own shop in town. We had a terrifying (initially), but memorable experience getting clothes tailored.

    http://www.wanderingme.com/destinations/asia/south-east-asia/vietnam/tailoring-in-hoi-an-miss-forget-me-not/

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