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Visit Vietnam but be careful buying dresses in Hoi An

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With only rumors in mind, Joy and I rode into Hoi An through a misty dream-like morning on a sleeping bus.

The Vietnamese countryside slipped out of its chemise at dawn to reveal its idyllic pastoral which we passed through and were unable to touch, only see and wonder and revel in our seeing: bicycles on green-lined lanes, the conical hats and a million routines.

Then the town appeared and we were off the bus and walking hot with heavy backpacks, but not before breakfast, coffee and a cigarette. Because we were alone and without our boyfriends, Joy and I splurged on a hotel with a pool and a room with a balcony. We went swimming in the pool and stayed sunbathing besides it and drank beer on our balcony, but not before we ventured into Hoi An, to validate the rumors.

Hoi An, Vietnam, is renowned for its tailor-made goods: clothes and shoes.

“We can make any article of clothing,” Hoi An tailors boast, “Any kind of shoe.”

And when the price is right, it’s too good to be true.

The many shops are lined with Western styles you can choose from or you can create your own or bring in pictures. We didn’t have to be persuaded, after a twenty minute walk we had dresses ordered, and shoes.

Joy, who sews, had thoroughly asked the shop owner questions about her stitches, we casually chatted for awhile on her couches, so we were convinced that she would make our dresses. We were convinced that not only would she make the dresses but make them fit, for she took our measurements and wrote them down in her book. We were convinced, upon leaving the shop, that our twenty bucks were the best twenty bucks ever spent.

Hoi An is a charming town, albeit overrun with Westerners. Red paper lanterns bob above the river at night blending their reflections with the stars. The old wooden buildings cluster along the waterfront in a sheltered invisibility as if their solidity came with the daytime. The air is festive but subdued, a garden party from which the visitors leave early, only slightly tipsy.

The dresses were ready in two days. We returned eagerly to the shop and the friendly shop owner: Joy tried on her dress and I tried on mine. We looked at each other, we became confused. Mine was missing a zipper.

Joy began: “Well, when I get home I can take it in a little here or remove the sleeves or…” It was only on the following day when we left Hoi An for Hué that we allowed ourselves to realize that the dresses we had bought were hopeless, were ugly and that most of all, they didn’t fit and there was nothing we could do about it.

In a rash gesture of disappointment, we tossed the dresses from the train window.

Later, Joy Googled Hoi An and discovered some alarming facts.

Most likely our “tailor-made” dresses were made in sweat-shop-like conditions, in a room with sewing machines going all day, sewed by people who didn’t care; that the shop owner was a facade and she had tricked us. Most likely there are tailors in Hoi An, but the wary visitor would be wise to do some research first.

And to be fair, I did have an excellent dress made in Vietnam by a young woman who called herself Smiley, whom I heartily recommend.

About the author

Amber Ruth Paulen has been living in Italy for five years. She travels
whenever possible and is currently working on a fiction manuscript.
Her writing has appeared in The American in Italia, The Millions and
Why Go Italy. She can also be found blogging about books, writing and
Italy at "Descripted Lines".

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