Apr 15 2008

Hoi An: Hello, you buy someting?

Published by at 9:26 pm under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

“Wake up! We are in Hoi An. We would like for you to get off of the bus now to look at this hotel. This hotel has pool, bicycles, is your home away from home. It is very cheap, very nice. The places in the center of Hoi An are many more expensive and very bad.”

I woke up from the brief nap I’d been enjoying on the bus ride from Hue (say it: Hway) to Hoi An to find that the rickety bus had stopped in front of a large hotel just outside of the old city center, and a bus company representative was starting his sales pitch. Unfortunately, along with those friendly convenience store stops you have to endure when riding a bus in SE Asia, you also have to put up with stopping at some hotel that has bribed the bus company.

“Seriously?” I said to Ben, groggily. “We have to deal with this crap again?”

“Madam,” a hotel employee said, walking up to our seats. “Have you booked hotel in Hoi An?

“No, we haven’t,” I replied.

“Please, come see a room in this hotel. Just a moment, that is all.”

“That’s okay, we would like to check out several guesthouses.”

“But do you know that they are not as good and more expensive? Many people in the center try to sell you bad hotels. This hotel is very nice.”

“No, thank you.”

“Just come see, if you no like, you no stay, get back on the bus.”

Thanks to his unwavering insistence and Ben’s realization that we could hop off the bus here and easily walk to other guesthouses in the area, we reluctantly agreed. It was a fine hotel and a fine price, but because I’m so tired of people pushing stuff on me and I do not want to encourage this sort of behavior, I refused to stay. Ben, who was more tired and is generally more reasonable, did not agree. But he indulged my righteous indignation, the patient man he is, and we set off to check out other hotels. (Although the bus company refused to let us actually disembark at this hotel – they insisted that if we were not going to rent a room, we would have to re-board the bus and be taken to the actual bus stop in town.)

We found a room relatively easily, thanks to a guidebook recommendation, that turned out to be cheaper and had wifi – painfully slow wifi, but wifi nonetheless. Plus it had pink, ruffle-y mosquito nets, instead of your plain, boring white ones!

We’d read that Hoi An has its own regional culinary specialties, and since “culinary specialties” are our specialty, we sought out a restaurant about an hour after arriving in the city and ordered every single one.

As we sat on the outdoor patio waiting for our food to arrive, a woman walked up to us carrying… one of those things. You know, those things. You don’t know? I just realized I have no idea what they’re called. Let’s call them flibbertigibbets. It’s a long bamboo pole with woven baskets hanging from each end that a person hoists on one shoulder – they are ubiquitous in SE Asia, and a very popular way for women, in particular, to transport items or sell their wares. Here’s what I mean:
the streets of Hanoi

So ANYWAY, a really old woman carting a flibbertigibbet walked up to our table. “Hello, hello!” she said, loudly.

“Hello,” we replied. She stared at us for a minute.

“HELLO,” she said again, motioning to her baskets, full of an unidentifiable small, brown fruit.

“Uh, hello, no thanks,” we replied, shaking our heads.

“HELLO, HELLO,” she said again, as she picked up a bunch of these fruits and shook them in my face.

“Hello! No, thank you!” I said, and she resignedly walked away.

“Pretty convincing sales pitch she has,” Ben noted.

It was a fitting start to our days in Hoi An. As the city is smack on the well-defined tourist trail of Vietnam, the merchants of Hoi An have learned a little English to help them communicate with us tourists. Unfortunately, their vocabulary consists of four words: “hello, you buy someting?”

You cannot walk down the street in Hoi An without hearing “hello, you buy someting?” from nearly every Vietnamese person you pass. I one day hope to find the English-speaking tourist who decided to educate the citizens of Hoi An so I can give him or her the giant slap they deserve.

Because it doesn’t even make sense. It’s not “welcome to my shop” or “please have a look around.” After about a dozen “hello, you buy someting?”s and a dozen “no, thanks,” in return, I’d shout “Look, the fact that you have this cart/stand/store/flibbertigibbet set up indicates to me that you indeed have goods available for sale. So ‘hello, you buy someting?’ is annoyingly redundant. If I want to purchase anything, I will browse your wares. Maybe, then, I will ‘buy something.’”

To which they reply, “hello, you buy someting?”

We were both feeling irritable, sniffle-y and sore throat-y during our first days in Hoi An, which we used as an excuse to stay in bed, drink banana shakes, and watch satellite TV. Aside from MTV Asia, which plays awesome Asian boy band videos, there was one English-speaking channel option on our guesthouse TV – a channel called Star Movies. Apparently, to make it into Star Movies’ rotation, it is required that a movie have a budget of less than my monthly salary, star as many D-list actors as possible, and have been seen in theaters by no more than a couple dozen people worldwide. Bonus if the movie went straight to DVD.

We watched Vin Diesel’s “The Pacifier,” a movie starring the Duff sisters (Hillary AND Hayley), a movie where they make a really big deal out of Kirsten Dunst boinking a Hispanic guy, and a movie about a vampire baby. Over and over and over again.

But, honestly, we enjoyed it anyway. ‘Cause some days you just want to do nothing and gorge yourself on junk food.

Speaking of which, the tourist industry of SE Asia has determined that Westerners need two food items in order to survive: Pringles and Oreos. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a vendor selling Pringles and Oreos in any SE Asian city that’s remotely touristed.

I don’t even LIKE Pringles or Oreos, and have no idea why they’ve decided these are the mainstays of the Western diet. But you know what? They’ve starting to convince me that, yes, in fact, I really do need those Pringles! I’m not going to lie: meal after meal of rice or noodles makes those American snacks start to look pretty darn tasty, my friends. You can try to resist, but your efforts are futile. I find myself actively craving something I don’t think I’ve ever in my life bought at home. I’ll be lying in bed at night cursing myself for not picking up a package of Oreos at the minimart.

When we finally got around to exploring Hoi An, we discovered that it is a beautiful, charming coastal town: crumbling colonial-style yellow buildings line a waterfront crowded with colorful fishing boats. It’s been an important port town for centuries and, like so many places in Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Of course, none of that is why anyone comes to Hoi An. People come to Hoi An for one reason: its the best place in SE Asia to buy cheap, custom-tailored clothes. The citizens of Hoi An have taken advantage of their reputation and every other store in the city is a tailor shop.

Ben and I were wary, as usually, and unlike everyone around us, hadn’t come to Hoi An expecting to tailor clothes. I didn’t want to get carried away and end up ordering a bunch of clothes that turn out to be junk – we’d heard many a horror story about bogus tailors, or just shoddy ones.

I had to admit, though, that the idea of it did intrigue me. Thanks to my gangly limbs, I can’t ever find clothes that fit me. Could they actually make clothes here that go down to my ankles and wrists? How novel!

So one afternoon we reticently stepped into a tailor shop off of the main street – one we’d heard was reputable and, even from the outside, seemed more legit that its colleagues. As I suspected, it didn’t take long for us to get swept up in the process, as we perused catalogues, marveled at the hundreds of gorgeous fabrics lining the walls and watched as many happy customers came and went with their beautiful, perfectly-fitting clothes. I couldn’t help myself: I ended up ordering a winter coat and dress pants. Ben, who’d been sitting quietly at a table, leisurely flipping through catalogues, surprised me with the announcement that he was going to order a suit. So he spent the next hour browsing various fabrics and fits and dictating exactly how he wanted his new suit to look. His custom-tailored, Italian wool/cashmere blend, pinstriped suit ended up costing a whopping $130.

Ben being fitted for a shirtThanks to their incredible one-day turnover, we turned up at the shop the next afternoon to find our clothes were ready for our first fitting.

I can’t describe the feeling as I pulled on my new pants. I nearly cried. They didn’t tug in any places, they didn’t bunch. They went all the way down to the floor, they didn’t squeeze my waist. They fit me perfectly. It was like they were made for me.

I know what you’re thinking: DUH. That’s what custom tailored clothes are all about! I know, I know. But actually experiencing it was, after a lifetime of wardrobe frustration, a near miracle.

So I ordered another coat, three more pairs of pants, a business suit and a dress. Oops! Then Ben realized he could order ties at $4 a pop from any material that struck his fancy. Yeah, we spent the majority of our day at the tailor’s. We had to buy additional luggage to carry our purchases home from the enterprising young women selling just that in the local markets.

To get around town, Ben and I had rented bicycles on our first day in Hoi An (at less than $1 per day). We didn’t have the guts to rent them in Hanoi, even though it’s a popular local way to get around, but we felt safe in Hoi An, which is notably quieter, quainter and less trafficked.

bikes in Hoi An Rented bicycles in Vietnam come with two fun features that you don’t find on bicycles ridden by those above the age of ten in the States: baskets and bells. I enjoyed carting things around in my basket probably more than most healthy 25-year-olds should.

Ben and I decided to adopt the local horn-usage technique when riding through Hoi An. That is, honk incessantly to alert others of your presence. They, in turn, better get out of the way or be run over! The tinny ping of a bicycle bell doesn’t have quite the same effect as a blaring car horn, but it worked nonetheless! We received strange stares from pedestrians and moto drivers as we careened through intersections ringing our bells like crazy, but every one of them paused to let us pass.

By the end of our time in Hoi An, Ben and I were desperate to get off the tourist track, a surprisingly difficult proposition in this country. We have experienced our most challenging culture clash yet in Vietnam. We’d had several other frustrating incidents, including one with a cobbler in which I had to get all in her face and sassy, which I really did not want to DO, but I’m sorry, I’m not going to pay for shoes I did not order! Tired of being seen only as giant walking dollar signs, we hired two drivers and two motorbikes, piled our luggage on the backs, and decided to head for the hills!

NEXT: The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 1) »



8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Hoi An: Hello, you buy someting?”

  1. Davidon 16 Apr 2008 at 10:32 am

    Ben, the tailors couldn’t have been as good as those at Chesterfield Towne Center, could they? I bet they didn’t take the time to measure your butt circumference as well as your waist circumference. I hope you got some custom-made man-capri’s.

  2. Ponchoon 16 Apr 2008 at 11:27 am

    I’m just excited to see someone use the word “boinking” in print. I feel it’s an underused word that truly brings a smile to my face.

  3. Tayloron 16 Apr 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I’m not so passionate about the word “boinking,” but if the movie you’re talking about is “Crazy/Beautiful” (say it: Crazy Slash Beautiful), then I think I was one of those couple dozen people who saw it in the theater. And I thought you were there too!

  4. Melissaon 16 Apr 2008 at 4:34 pm

    OK – so where are the pictures of you and Ben in your new clothes??

  5. Pingon 03 Jun 2008 at 2:58 am

    read your review and I am interested to find out the name and address of your tailor. Can you give me the details?
    any recommendation for cafes/restaurants?

  6. Brittanyon 03 Jun 2008 at 9:19 am

    Hi Ping,

    I’d love to give a shout out to our great tailor! Got to B’LAN tailors — it’s just beyond the market, one (I think?) street removed from the waterfront. Based on a Google search, she’s located at 23 Tran Phu Street.

    Say HI to Lan for us! She’s great. You’ll notice her shop doesn’t have those cheap looking mannequins out front, like every other tailor. They’re a bit pricier than the other, sketchier tailors that line the streets of Hoi An, and she’s pretty unwilling to negotiate, but the prices are still remarkably cheap and the quality is unbeatable. And they don’t pressure you into buying anything, which is welcome relief.

    I’m sorry, I don’t remember the names of any cafes we ate at. Actually, I don’t know if I ever knew them! But all the food in Hoi An is great!

    Have fun!

  7. Benon 03 May 2009 at 11:40 pm

    I stumbled upon your blog while Googling for good cobblers in Hoi An, and have to say that you’re clearly a very talented writer! Your blog is a great combo of eloquence and wit, truly a pleasure to read!

    I guess your trip must be over now, but do you think you will keep posting from home? I have a blog of my own and have really enjoyed writing in it during my travels. I’m actually wondering what on earth I’ll do when I get back home and have nothing exciting to blog about anymore. Did you face a similar dilemma by any chance?

  8. Kenon 01 Feb 2011 at 4:24 am

    Fibbertygibbet? Of course! What else could they be called?
    I’m sitting across from B’Lan now getting juiced on Vietnam iced coffee in preparation for the big tailored suit experience. Thanks for the info and the wit.
    Pre-pressed Ken

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