I live in Ouray, Colorado, a tourist town where the two main draws are driving around on old dirt roads and climbing up and down giant icicles. I visited a town in France that’s famous for the unique shade of red bricks from which every building is constructed. I spent six months living in a Costa Rican town famous for its clouds. Towns can become known for any number of things, and those things don’t always have to be glamorous like natural wonders or serial killers.
Hoi An, a city of just over 100,000 people, has staked its claim as the world’s #1 destination for the custom-made garment tourist. There aren’t tailor shops on every corner here. There are tailor shops lining every damn block. You can’t swing a dead cat in this place without a dozen Vietnamese women measuring its waist and showing it fabric samples.
I have no idea how they all stay in business. In fact, looking at the tourists wandering around the streets, I have no idea how any of them stay in business.
“Look, there’s a 300-pound man wearing cut-off sweat pants, a Red Sox tank-top and lime green Crocs. He’s probably good for at least four or five custom-fitted suits.”
Besides tailor shops, you’ll find the usual places hocking t-shirts and your basic “Made in China” crap. There are a few art galleries and museums that are worth sticking your head into. The rest of the other businesses around here are bars and restaurants, and I figure they’re all in cahoots with the tailors.
“Would you like another dessert, sir?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m watching my weight.”
“It’s OK, sir. My sister next door can let your pants out another half an inch. I’ll bring another coconut ice cream for your wife, too.”
Hoi An came to prominence in the middle of the 15th century when it became one of SE Asia’s busiest harbor towns. The Japanese and Chinese considered it one of the best places to trade their wares. Merchants from Europe and India also got in on the action.
Things hummed along until the end of the 18th century when various dynasties with names that sound like they were stolen from a take-out menu started crumbling and different powers stepped in to take the reins. Da Nang eventually became Vietnam’s major port, and Hoi An slipped into the background, remaining relatively untouched for 200 years.
And despite people trying to sell you silk dress shirts every time you turn around, much of Hoi An’s charm still shines through. The heart of Hoi An lies in an area called Old Town. I completely fell in love with it. The centuries-old Japanese and Chinese buildings help offset some of the more touristy schlock that’s seeping into town. Old Town takes up maybe four blocks by eight blocks, and the whole place is closed off to automobiles. This makes it an exceptional place to waste the day strolling around, window shopping, checking out the museums, gawking at the fish mongers in the market, or just grabbing a beer and people-watching at one of the many restaurants overlooking the river.
One question Pam and I often ask ourselves when figuring out how much we like a city is, “Could I live here?” In Hoi An’s case, the answer is definitely yes. The heat would drive me bat-shit crazy. (It was 95 when we were there, and it’s much worse in the summer.) So would all the locals constantly trying to sell me boat rides, blazers, and Tiger Beer t-shirts.
But Hoi An is big without being too big. The nearby beaches are clean and fun. There are good day trips to take inland (which I’ll tell you about soon.) The people are pleasant, for the most part.
And while Hoi An is most definitely exotic, if you reach that stage of the journey where you absolutely, positively need a cheeseburger and fries, you can find them.
And after just two weeks of being in Vietnam, trust me–those last two items can count for an awful lot.