Like other destinations in Vietnam, Cai Rang dials up the activity, color, and sound a notch to the point of overstimulation. Duelling long-tail boats float by and sell everything from turnips to steaming hot soup. At the Mekong Delta's bazaar on water, transactions take place at every turn and boats jostle for the next deal.
We were fortunate to be in Southern Vietnam just prior to Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year (February 18, 2007). The Year of the Pig was being ushered in with an unassailable enthusiasm, as markets burst with flowers, sewing machines in tailor shops buzzed with the new year's wardrobe and shops overflowed with green rolls of Bahn Tet (sticky rice, pork fat and soybean paste rolled in a banana leaf).
Given our nationality and the fact that the Vietnam War ended just over 30 years ago, we were surprised that Vietnamese people showed us no animosity or resentment. In fact, when we told people that we were from America, they very often smiled – and genuinely so. We'd score even more points when we mentioned that we used to live in California, home to a large Vietnamese community. Cynics would argue that the Vietnamese are shrewd businesspeople, but we're certain that our treatment wasn't all about business.
We were aware of the difference in population between Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, a.k.a. Saigon) and Hanoi, but were surprised to find such a difference in wealth and sophistication between the two cities.
HCMC, is a bright, bustling cosmopolitan city. Even with its glitz and splash, it maintains a distinctly Vietnamese feel as street food stalls press up against 5-star hotels. You can still see the French colonial thumbprint in HCMC with buildings like the People’s Committee building (formerly the Hotel De Ville) or the cathedral just a few blocks away.
Sit down Hanoi, watch, and learn from your southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon or HCMC). Though we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to dive into Saigon as deeply as we did Hanoi, we can safely say we prefer its street food scene, hands down.
Here’s just a wee taste.
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.