Our forays into the tailor shops in Hoi An left us with more than just extra (or superfluous) clothing for our wardrobe. Even when a business deal was clearly not involved, we found that shop owners were often open to sharing their lives and their opinions with us. These unprotected moments provided us with insight into Vietnam's diversity, the legacy of the Vietnam War (or, “American War”, as it's called here), and opinions on the impact of Vietnam's breakneck speed development is having on Vietnamese tradition and culture.
We hired a car to take us at 5:30 AM from Hoi An to the Hindu temple complex of My Son, about an hour’s drive away. We arrived in such good time that the ticket office had yet to open and used our available time to share a coffee with our driver as we waited for the ticket office to open.
After you've settled into your new Hoi An custom-tailored wardrobe, hit the streets in search of food and burst a few buttons on those new duds of yours. Your well-dressed taste buds will notice a flavor that resembles a blend of Chinese, Vietnamese and fusion (i.e., experimental and not traditional). Some dishes even purportedly (and oh so exotically) call for water from a local well. Anyhow, it's all fairly satisfying, if questionably authentic.
Hoi An is considered the architectural and culinary gem of Central Vietnam, receiving the stamp of approval from UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We arrived there on a tourist bus from Danang and were dragged through the typical Vietnamese tour routine.
The bus conveniently stopped at one hotel where we got a hard sell. Those tourists who returned to the bus were taken to a second hotel, with guesthouse touts literally following the bus until its final destination.
Despite what my husband says, I am not a clothes junkie. I avoid shopping if I can get by another season with the same clothes as last. Why is it that I turned into a custom-made clothes fiend searching for tailors while in Hoi An, Vietnam?
The Hoi An Clothing Craze Begins
As soon as we entered the first tailor shop (there are over 200 in Hoi An), a recommendation from the Swedish travelers we had met in Sapa, I wanted all the silk tops and dresses I saw hanging on the wall. The saleswomen quickly tuned into my excitement and went to work taking advantage of it.
“This place is a shxxhole.” These were Dan’s first words when we arrived in Vientiane. We had just spent several hours on a dustbowl trail, which eventually transformed into Grapes of Wrath meets full blown industrialized pollution. Oh, and the scowling faces. Someone forgot to tell these people that the rest of their countrymen actually smile. Vientiane's roads seem to cake pained looks onto the faces of its motorbike drivers who struggled to breathe as they drove without face masks.
We took the boat to Nong Khiaw to visit a less developed area than Luang Prabang. Most people stop off in Nong Khiaw on the way to more popular Muang Ngoi Neua. We decided to stay a couple of days to explore and take advantage of the trekking we’d heard was available in the area.
Imagine having to sit, in all your adult fullness in the kindergarten chairs of your youth, perhaps a bit smaller…for 10 hours and without access to a bathroom. And we paid money for this.
Big Brother Mouse (BBM), a book publishing and literacy program in Luang Prabang, produces children's books in the Lao language to help promote the love of reading and learning in children. The organization was started by a retired American publisher who saw the need for children's books and decided to try to fill the gap himself. The project is taking off and growing.
Diversity is tucked into the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. Our trek took us through three distinct layers of hill tribes, culture, and life – Lao, Hmong and Khmu. Our guides patiently waded through all of our questions – from life in the villages to the American bombing of Laos in the 60s and 70s – and our group (two Australians, one Guatemalan, and two Filipinos) kept the conversation lively throughout the day.