We headed to Hội An from Huế in a private car, with our new friends from Colorado, Tim and Julia. Having our own driver afforded us the opportunity to make some scenic stops along the way that aren’t possible with the train (which only goes as far as Đà Nẵng anyway).
The voyage took us through some low mountains. It was London weather there: cool, exceedingly cloudy, and occasionally drizzly. It is the rainy season in central Vietnam.
We watched as the train out of Huế passed into a tunnel under a spur in the Annamite Range. We climbed the road up that same low mountain, and as we approached the peak, we made a stop at the Hải Vân Pass, overlooking Đà Nẵng. Abandoned French, Vietnamese, and U.S. military bunkers from various eras afford a view of the town. The French ones were the most stylish.
We saw a couple that had just been married, having their wedding photos taken in this seemingly odd location on this very foggy day. There was a large, round, elevated platform, perhaps some sort of abandoned observation deck, that served as the staging area for a number of shots.
As we explored the bunkers, Julia, Tim, Becci and I were set upon by a group of opportunistic and utterly relentless Vietnamese women and their baskets of wares. I got the worst of it, harrassed from pillar to post by a woman from whom I purchased a bracelet for the mighty Bex. Despite my purchase, this purveyor trailed me like a Hellhound for the rest of my time on the mountain, jabbering about the possibility of bracelets and scarves and maps, and reminding me that her children and mother depend on her. It was our rude, sharp introduction to a pattern of behavior that would continue to manifest itself throughout our stay in Hội An, although no one since has quite matched her hard resolve.
Our next stop occurred at the Marble Mountain. My three compatriots and I, certain that none of us need more marble sculptures in our lives right now, decided to skip the suggested-multiple-times stop at the “craft village where they make things out of marble”, offered by our driver An. He was keen on stopping there; we were more keen on not. We proceeded straight to the old mountain herself.
Marble Mountain, actually “mountains”, (Vietnamese: Ngũ Hành Sơn; “Five elements mountains”) is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located south of Đà Nẵng. The five ‘mountains’ are named after the five elements; Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). I’m a big fan of how things in Asia seem always to be named after animals (actual and fictional) or other items from nature. “Fire Mountain” or “Tail of the Dragon” sounds so cool compared to “Mount Bush”.
An drove us to the top of the mountain. Not surprisingly, although we had skipped the touristy craft village, opportunities to purchase marble items presented themselves anyway, and frequently. Becci surprised me later that afternoon with a small green marble elephant that she had surreptitiously obtained from a stall near the irregular stone stairs leading up the marble mountain. It’s a beautiful little thing that reminds me of the noble creatures that we met in Chiang Mai.
Reminiscent of Peru, there were many stairs to climb. Unlike vast bits of mountainous Peru, Vietnam has a breathable atmosphere, with reasonable concentrations of oxygen. It turns out that the presence of oxygen makes all of the difference. We climbed and wandered the mountain’s trails and caves.
The mountain was interesting but largely unremarkable. We decided to press on toward Hội An and the promise of a hot meal. We reached the city in the early afternoon, bidding adieu to Tim and his daughter Julia, with whom we had been hanging out occasionally since our very first day in Hanoi. Bex and I foraged for food. We were excited to explore the city, which Melbourne Ollie and his girlfriend (acquaintances from our Thai cooking class) had assured us was beautiful.
As I’m writing this, we have been in Hội An for a couple of days. I have not necessarily identified the city with beauty per se, but rather with commerce. There’s a whole lotta sellin’ going on.
In fact, this city has always been a hub of commerce. Hội An possessed the largest harbour in Southeast Asia in the first century, when it was known as Lâm Ấp Phố. Between the seventh and tenth centuries, the people of this city controlled the strategic spice trade, and with this came tremendous wealth. The former harbour town of the Cham at the estuary of the Thu Bồn River was also an important Vietnamese trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese from various provinces as well as Japanese, Dutch and Indians settled. During this period the town was divided, with the Japanese settlement across the “Japanese Bridge” (16th-17th century). The bridge (Chùa cầu) is a unique covered structure built by the Japanese, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side.
The city’s fortunes fell dramatically under French occupation, with Đà Nẵng replacing Hội An as the major trade center in this area. Today, the town is a tourist attraction because of its history, traditional architecture, and crafts such as textiles and ceramics. Many bars, hotels, and resorts have been constructed both in Hội An and the surrounding area. The port mouth and boats are still used for both fishing and tourism.
The old part of the city is full of shops selling t-shirts and other casual clothes, traditional Vietnamese clothing, eyewear, local crafts, and even prints and paintings. There are also tons of spas, cafes, and street vendors for all sorts of goods. “You come look; you buy something” is a refrain that is heard commonly…continuously…as you walk past the shops and stalls of the old trading city.
The tailors of Hội An are famous for making custom clothing at prices that are a bargain for western buyers. I have been thinking about having some clothes made here ever since Melbourne Ollie mentioned it to be a couple of weeks ago. Intending to buy nothing at all, he had purchased a couple of suits and a handful of shirts. “They gave me a great price”, he told us. His girlfriend confided that the tailor had taken a shine to Ollie and had even thrown in a pair of shorts for free, although a few extra inseam measurements were required. Ollie gave us the old whatever-it-takes shrug.
Savvy travel vets that we (think we) are, we are fairly adamant about shutting down street hawkers, however. The lure of a street hawker is a big red flag; it’s better to buy a suit from the guy who makes the best suits, not the guy who has to hire someone to lure you into the store, right?
So we researched it, and decided to go see Tony the Tailor. Great name, great reviews.
I’ve grown up around the clothing business, and I have a small closet full of custom made clothes, so I went into this relatively clear on what should happen. Things at Tony’s went mostly to script, and I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly these folks were able to turn around my suit and shirts, and by how well these items turned out.
The process was straightforward. I told them that I wanted a suit and a couple of shirts. We looked at fabrics and I picked out a mid-weight black wool for the suit. A few decisions were made about the fit and style of the suit (comfortable, not slim fit; medium-width lapels; two-button jacket; no vest; lining color for the jacket; flat, rather than pleated, trousers). We went through a similar process for the shirts, although most of the time was spent picking out cloth by looking through fabric swatches. Bex also asked for some pants to be made, replicating some that she had purchased in the U.S. and since fallen in love with.
I was measured. There were perhaps 20 measurements, which were taken quickly by a friendly but businesslike tailor (no free shorts for me, I guess). She gave me a written bill and I paid a small deposit. There was no haggling in this place, and there was really no need for any. The prices were very low by U.S. and European standards. I paid $130US for the bespoke suit; I paid $28US for each of the shirts.
We were told to return the next day…less than 24 hours later, to try on the finished products.
When we turned up the following morning, everything was ready as promised. Becci’s pants and my shirts were tried, and everything fit perfectly. Bex was delighted, and ordered another pair of pants.
My suit required a couple of adjustments, as everyone expected it would. They looked at the pants and jacket on me, took some notes, and I made a couple of additional suggestions. The tailor asked if I could come back again that night. I returned a few hours later, and that suit fit like pajamas. I’m very happy.
We even called the Vietnamese Post guy, who turned up five minutes later on his scooter on a Sunday night. He arrived with a portable scale and a rate book. He boxed everything up, weighed it, showed me the price for airmail ($70US; two weeks) and seamail ($35US; four months). I decided that it would be better for my new clothes to go down in a fiery crash next week than to be lost at sea three months from now, and I sprung for the extra cash. Provided that we and the clothes survive our disparate paths to the U.S., I will be reunited with my new suit and shirts when I arrive in Nashville in a month. Just in time to get my ass back to work and start paying for this trip!
Getting those custom-made clothes was the highlight of our short trip to this ancient town, but not the only thing we’ve done. We have finally gotten into a groove with the Vietnamese food, and have had some excellent meals here. The best was at the Mermaid.
We also took a day trip to the beach yesterday, in between clothes fittings. It was peaceful, although not traditional beach weather. We did see a tourist and his teenage son in the rough waters, but none of the locals were in there, and no other tourists either. The water was choppy, and all of the Vietnamese folks that we saw were bundled up like it is Christmas. Even I was wearing a sweatshirt (Maiden!). We took a break from the non-stop Vietnamese food, and grabbed some Italian at a small cafe on the beach.
Tomorrow, we journey on to a Nah Trang, a true beach town, via yet another night train. As you know, we will let ya know how it works out.