How (Not) to Get Tailor-Made Clothes in Vietnam

Hoi An is a coastal town in central Vietnam and a World Heritage site. It’s also a haven for those seeking custom-made clothes, with tailors on (and in between) every corner. So we couldn’t resist giving it a try.

I started with a green satin dress and dress pants, added two shirts, and finally ordered a forest green winter coat, all for $125. Fred got a three-piece suit, a white dress shirt, and two jackets. We dutifully got measured by a friendly but pushy assistant who kept asking, “You happy?” and we came back the next day to try on our creations.

Unfortunately, we weren’t prepared for all the alterations that would be necessary, from a tailor that came highly recommended (we don’t recommend them). I wanted a low-backed dress with wide-set straps, and they had trouble getting the top to fit snugly – so much trouble that I had to be motorbiked to the workshop so I could try on the dress after three, four, five alterations. The workshop was a small three-room building strewn with fabric scraps and Vietnamese men playing cards on the floor. The aforementioned talkative assistant herded me into the bedroom and quickly pulled clothes on and off me, examining the fit. (Finally, they got it right.)

Fred wasn’t so lucky – apparently (though I can’t tell), his suit still has flaws. Also, the dress shirt isn’t high quality material, and the casual jacket isn’t casual. Plus, he discovered that they were cheating us (and everyone else) with an exchange rate of 22,000 dong for every USD, when it should have been 21,000.

Here are some photos:

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Sensory Overload in China

Somehow, after only planning a month in China, we ended up spending 6 weeks there. For me, that included a seat at TechCrunch Disrupt; for Fred, visits to the Shaolin Temple – birthplace of kung fu – and the terracotta warriors. Luckily, we also made it to the Great Wall, on a gorgeous day (see below). Some of the highlights from China:

  • The pollution in Beijing really is as bad as they say. On a few days, we awoke to what looked like a heavy covering of fog, but was actually smog. We bought face masks and looked like real tourists.
  • Be on the lookout for stinky tofu, a putrid concoction that many Chinese love. I literally had to refrain from breathing through my nose in much of Old Beijing.
  • Restaurants often offer utensils wrapped in plastic, for a small fee. From what we could tell, dirty ones are shipped back to a cleaning company, which power-washes them to remove any germs and sends them back wrapped up.
  • Chinese food – at least to me – was way too greasy and salty. But I did find the best salmon handrolls I’ve ever had, for just over $1 at Itacho Sushi.
  • KFC, McDonald’s, and Starbucks are ubiquitous.
  • In the street and on public transport, people are extremely pushy and aggressive – if you don’t assert yourself, you’ll get cut in line, trapped in a crowd, or squeezed off a metro car.
  • Domestic plane rides can be a boisterous social experience, with passengers jabbering, sharing food, and selling stuff.
  • Avoid Beijing during National Day – which in fact lasts a week – unless you love huge crowds. The government also tightens up Internet censorship during that week.
  • Speaking of Internet, it’s slow and spotty. GFW, anyone?
  • I’m told that heating is government-controlled and only goes on when the State decides it’s cold enough – which means a cold October in some Beijing courtyard hostels.
  • High-speed trains that average 125 mph make a clean, fun, and fast way to travel – only 5 hours between Beijing and Shanghai (a trip I did three times).

Food Adventures in Seoul

While the highlight of Hong Kong was the view from the peak, the highlight of Seoul was a food tour we took this week. The tour was free, thanks to the Korea Tourism Organization and its German president, Charm Lee – also a naturalized Korean and a Korean TV star – who joined us on the tour.

We began at a small local restaurant for tofu, kimchi, and makgeolli (rice wine), where our guide, Daniel Gray of O’ngo Food, taught us to pour drinks for others and receive a drink with both hands. Charm Lee whipped out a special chili powder, purported to include the five different tastes, to add to the makgeolli.

Next was spicy chicken with yam noodles at a nicer restaurant. Daniel taught us a drinking game: diners take turns flicking a thin piece of metal attached to a bottle cap, and when someone flicks it off, the two sitting next to him have to do a “love shot” –  a shot with their arms intertwined.

On the way to barbeque, we stumbled upon a food stall selling bundigie – silkworm larvae. Fred and a few others downed one each; I respectfully declined. We then passed by some exuberent Koreans making dragon’s beard candy – singing a rehearsed song and shouting “Oh! My! God!” as they showed off their skills – and Charm Lee bought us each a box of the nut-filled, honey-wrapped treat. (I respectfully accepted.)

We then squeezed around two circular tables in a crowded alley for pork-abdomen barbeque, flavored with roasted soybean powder, sesame powder, and onions. Charm Lee showed us a drink he supposedly invented that “captures the essence of Korea” – 60% beer, 30% makgeolli, and 10% Soju – and others did shots of a mix of beer, Soju, and Coke. We grabbed the last pieces of crispy pig off the grill before heading off.

Along the way, there was lots of chatter about Korea. One person said that Koreans were focused on copying businesses and practices from abroad after the Korean War, just to speed up economic development, but now they are beginning to focus on creativity. Another said Korea will become a major hub for Asia. I must admit, though I am less comfortable in Seoul than in Hong Kong, there is something more mysterious about Korean culture that is alluring, insofar as there is more to learn.

Our last stop on the tour was Kwangjang Market, a huge outdoor market filled with stalls of raw beef, shellfish, pyramids of fruit and nuts, barrels of kimchi, and North Korean mung-bean pancakes – our last course. We clambered into a restaurant and used chopsticks to cut crispy pieces of this round, eggy pancake, filled with bean sprouts and onions. And the drinking continued, to calls of “gun bae!” (cheers). It’s fascinating how a group of people can bond over sharing tasty food, and how vital food is to a culture. Yum!

Lost in Translation in Korea

We’ve been in Korea for a week, and it’s very different from Hong Kong. The food is spicy and pickled, and few people speak English. We learned a few phrases on the plane – “thank you” and “I don’t understand” being the most helpful – but Korean is still a mystery. Among our confusing experiences:

  • Everyone thinking Fred is Korean, and the exasperated sighs of cashiers and bank tellers when they find out he isn’t
  • Pointing to menu items for bewildered waiters, and misordered dishes – with mushrooms instead of without, nigiri instead of temaki
  • Going into a convenience store and not knowing what anything is
  • A waitress laughing when Fred played the audio on his Korean language app to ask for a receipt
  • Doing an interview through an interpreter

But once and a while, people are amused by our lack of Korean skills. This includes the two-year old son of our hosts, who dubbed us his aunt and uncle (in Korean, of course); a helpful security guard who called my interviewee and wrote down his office number for me; the owner of a barbeque joint who fed us some succulent pork neck and gave us a free Pepsi; and hopefully others in the next week!

Things That Stick Out in Hong Kong

We arrived last night and dove right in today–with dim sum, a tour of Wong Tai Sin temple, Hong Kong desserts, a ferry ride, a Chiuchow dinner, and swing dancing.

I was expecting some kind of minor culture shock–language, food, or otherwise–but the worst turns out to be the doors. Minimalism seems to be in vogue here, which is sleek but confusing. I was puzzled by our closet door (Fred had to open that), a gym locker (I furtively peered at another girl opening hers), and a diagonal-slanted bathroom stall. But otherwise the city is gorgeous–huge, tropical, and hilly. There are lanterns everywhere.

I’ve also experienced some culinary immersion by successfully downing chicken feet and goose intestine. The dinner waiter, however, was less confident of my digestive abilities and encouraged our dining companion to order sweet and sour pork “for the white girl.” (I admit, that was good too.)

Starting Tomorrow: My 6-Month Trip to Asia

As some of you know, I’m about to embark on a six-month trip to Asia. I left my full-time job at AEI to pursue a writing career focusing on entrepreneurship and innovation, for Tech Cocktail.

Tech Cocktail has graciously supplied me with a camera and video camera, so look out for upcoming pictures and video interviews. (Let’s hope most founders speak English–I’ve learned a bit of Cantonese from my traveling companion, Fred, but just enough to make locals laugh.)

Along the way, I’ll be stopping in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam–if you have a startup there, feel free to contact me.

For other would-be world travellers, here’s a look at what I’m bringing:

That’s 5 short-sleeved shirts, 2 long-sleeved shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a raincoat, pyjamas, 3 pairs of shoes, technology (laptop, Kindle, cameras, etc.), accessories (headbands, cap, sunglasses), toiletries, sleeping pad and mosquito net, and a fair amount of medicine.

If things go accordingly to plan, all that and myself will make it to Hong Kong by 5:30 a.m. EST on Saturday. Cheers, all!