Hoi An: The Real Reason We Return to Vietnam
In 2008, our Intrepid Travel group drove from Da Nang to Hoi An, a Vietnamese national cultural site where we stayed for three nights. It is known for its “Ancient City”, which was a thriving trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries and reminds me of a Vietnamese version of Colonial Williamsburg -- there were many people duplicating old crafts, but the tourists outnumber them 10 to 1. There's a market with a larger than usual selection of tourist wares, as well as gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels. If you have a guide, he or she will almost certainly take you to a favorite (read “paid”) restaurant, hotel, or tailor, who will make you beautiful custom clothing. In 2019, the New York Times said there were more than 600 tailors in Hoi An. Needless to say, Intrepid did not book us into one of the boutique hotels – we stayed in the real, normal, modern-day Hoi An.
The “real” section of Hoi An also has dozens of tailors, and we met a wonderful family in a tailor shop called Cam Thach just down the street from our hotel. Cam Thach (meaning “Jade”) is the shop owner. Tom had his Columbia shirts and shorts duplicated at very low cost and I bought three pairs of trousers, two blouses and a winter jacket. Total cost was about $200, and everything was tailored to exactly match our bodies. The man making Tom's shirts took his measurements, photographed the shirt, and left with the fabric on his motorbike. Six hours later, Tom had a new, perfectly-fitting shirt. That evening, we met the couple’s 18-month old son, Chien, who now has the English name of Tom. The next evening, Hieu, Cam Thach's husband, introduced Tom to Vietnamese rice whiskey.
One thing to note about Cam Thach -- the shop, like most, moves depending on cost and leases. On the three times we've visited, the shop -- same name -- has been in three different locations. Please visit! But check online for the correct location.
Several of us from the Intrepid trip bought new clothing. Here' s one reason why: I’m 5’0” (152 cm) with a long torso and ridiculously short arms. My friend, Anders, is 6’6” (about 2 meters!) and built like a thermometer. We both have correctly fitting shirts for the first time in our lives. He’s from Denmark and kept saying, “Look! I can tuck in!”
In 2012, we knew we were returning to HoiAn to see our friends. In between trips, staying in touch was a challenge, as we speak no Vietnamese and their English is shaky. Letters were of the “how are you – I am fine” variety until I met the couple who run Star Nails in Madisonville TN. They’re also Vietnamese and don’t mind at all translating my letters and the ones I receive in return.
We had a hotel car waiting at the station, just to avoid the hassle of getting a taxi for a 45 minute trip, and got to Hoi An early enough to grab coffee and a light breakfast/lunch. This was a foreshadowing of things to come, for as soon as our friends arrived at our hotel, they whisked us off for coffee on their little motor scooters, and took us to their house for more food. Then they took us back to the hotel for a rest and then took us back to their house for MORE food. Good, simply cooked food (duck, greens, rice, soup), but in quantities that told us the Lonely Planet was right about the culture of eating here: it is polite for the host to offer more than you could possibly eat and it’s also polite for you to stop before you eat everything.
We spent the next day with Cam Thach and Chien at her tailor shop. Things are tough for them, as tourists walk all around the Ancient City, mostly following guides, shopping at stores that pay commissions, eating at the restaurants that pay commissions, and paying top dollar to never leave this Disneyland of ancient culture.
If you’re reading this because you’re considering a trip to Hoi An and you don’t want to give away your wallet, leave the old city and discover the new. Cam’s tailor shop is in what I call “real Hoi An” – we bought three silk blouses for me, four gifts for women I work with, a pair of wool winter sailplane flying trousers for Tom and had two shirts tailored for a total of about $100.
Tom quickly bonded with his namesake, especially since he handed over the iPhone with its games. They became buddies and young Tom spent hours sitting with old (?) Tom, playing games and cuddling. We learned that public school in Vietnam is NOT free, and that the usual cost for a year of elementary school averages about $1000 per child. Since this family is also responsible for putting Cam's two sisters through the university, Chien's schooling has been put on hold. That evening, we took the extended family for dinner at Morning Glory, a nice (tourist) restaurant in the Ancient City, where our friends were the only Vietnamese customers in the place. None of the customers looked twice, but there were some raised eyebrows among the staff. We got back at our friends for their spreads of food, ordering much more than we expected to eat. It took me a few minutes to remember the custom of the host handing out food, but once I started dropping things into their individual bowls, the ice was broken and the eating began. We ate and ate, then the second wave of food arrived and the groans from our friends told us that we’d been successful in hosting a good dinner. They were appalled at the prices, but enjoyed the outing – oh, by the way, at this expensive restaurant, dinner, beer and wine for eight came to about $110.
Day three was L-O-N-G – we took a 200+ kilometer motorbike ride with Hieu’s father, Mr. Quyen of Easy Riders. We were on BIG bikes – Honda 150s – well, OK, they’re big bikes in Vietnam. Tom rode behind Hieu, and I rode behind Mr. Quyen, feeling SO SAFE. He was an amazingly smooth driver on the rough country roads and I quickly learned just to close my eyes in the towns. Driving a motorbike in Vietnam is NOT for the faint of heart or for an American who thinks he should be first in any situation. We rode first on the well-maintained two-lane highway built on what used to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail, learning about the war primarily from the point of view of the North Vietnamese.
We spent another night EATING at Cam Thach and Hieu’s house. After a dish of delicious beef slices wrapped in lettuce and a chicken with potatoes and carrots – nothing exciting there, right? – we were offered a dish of sautéed lizard with onions and carrots. We each ate one piece. OK, not great.
It was the night of the new moon, so each house and place of business had a small table with yellow flowers and incense, along with offerings of each person’s most loved things. We saw cans of Coke and beer, plus cigarettes and fruit. Once the Buddha has received the offering, you may use it. Cam said that she’d placed some cookies at their Buddha’s shrine one day, and later Chien came in with them, saying the Buddha had told him it was OK.
Our friends’ home is small, built on a tiny piece of land given by Hieu’s parents. It fronts onto a tiny (one motorbike wide) lane. But next month? The government is expanding the lane to create a large road about 40’ wide that will take about four feet from the front of their house. No reimbursement for the land or cost of rebuilding the front wall. They were SO proud of this place, but will have to move. The next morning, we left the hotel, transferring the packs to their house on the tiny motorbikes (Tom’s had three people plus his big pack), eating sweet corn and coffee for breakfast and then driving to the railroad station in a hired car. Tears at the station for all of us and many promises to return.
In 2017, we knew we were coming back just to spend time with our favorite Vietnamese family. We took a taxi from the train station to our hotel, knowing that Cam Thach, Hieu and Chien would arrive soon – and they did. Look how big Chien is! The big surprise was that rather than the motor bikes, they drove up in a new red car, a big upgrade in Vietnam. We drove over to the shop (a new rental with living quarters behind) and spent the next two days talking, which was fun because the language barrier was still there. Cam’s English has improved, but Hieu and Chien? Not so much. Hieu is now making silver jewelry and Chien is learning guitar.
We went to the coast and our big party was a trip to Da Nang where Chien was allowed to choose the restaurant. We ended up at an informal seafood restaurant, where Chien bought the biggest lobster I’ve ever seen. After dinner, we crossed the dragon bridge, admired the lights, and played with a Segway. The family would love to come to visit the US, but the difficulties with getting a tourist visa make it almost impossible, even though we’ve willing to provide sponsorship letters to our State Department and buy tickets.
The picture below was taken in 2020. Rose has joined the family – we’re Facebook friends and hope to stay in touch forever.