Pretty Things

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Hello again from Vietnam! My last post left off with us being sore, filthy and thoroughly satisfied, cave-wise. After some rest, heavy doses of antibiotics on my part and patience on Curtis’ part, we re-emerged into the chaos of Vietnam and took the bus to Hoi An. Hoi An has a history of tailoring clothes, and as more tourists arrive, this history is ongoing. In fact I’ve heard that for every other type of shop, there are at least two tailors. As an observation I would also say that for every Vietnamese person here, there are at least two foreigners. As such, this quaint little city is very “white person” friendly. Small streets lined with lanterns that are lit up every night, delicious regional food that is served fresh at one of the million food stalls, shops, markets, easy biking (without fear of death but motorcycles), beautiful UNESCO sites that fill much of the Ancient Town, it’s a real holiday type place. We met some very nice older travelers that come here once a year to get garments made and enjoy the surroundings. On the flip side though, more foreigners means more locals trying to make a living off tourism and tailoring, which means that competition is stiff and the locals can be quite relentless. This can make for an overwhelming, but mostly fun experience! Every guest house or hotel has a tailor recommendation to offer you, which is probably their sister’s or brother’s place. Every tailor tries to find out where you are staying and offers you a price accordingly as there are probably kick-backs going around. Everyone is in on it basically, not that I blame them really. We’re choosing to come and take part, they’re just trying to make a living.

Thus we did research quite a bit to try and find places that a) were hopefully not outsourcing to sweat shops, as the turn-around is so fast there is no way the tailors in the shops could do it all themselves and b) were hopefully not part of any quasi price scamming (again not that I blame them, I just don’t want to take part). I say “hopefully” in all earnestness as I don’t think you can ever really be sure. However, we did find a place we were super happy with and had a really great time! Kimmy Tailor is a venture that is half owned by Canadians and while they do have a factory where they send the garments, at least everyone is employed by the company and gets reasonable working conditions (I hope). Kimmy was also outside the main fabric market, which was fun to walk through but pretty congested with people yelling at you, following you around, and thrusting fabric into your hands. I know a few people who got stuff made here, and were happy enough, but it was just too much stimulus for me! I really enjoyed being about to sit with my water and laptop they provided and sift through all the styles and types of clothing they could make. Curtis had no need for computers mind you. He knew exactly what kinds of suits he wanted and was gleeful as can be as he drew out his designs. The tailors were very patient with both of us and offered really helpful suggestions (That cut is no good, you’ll be needing this type of waist-line to hide your cookie belly etc.). So obviously we blew our budget here, but it was so worth it. In the end I got a few dresses, blouses, a “winter” wool jacket and cigarette high-waisted pants a la Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Curtis got two suits, a smattering of work shirts and a really handsome wool trench coat. Like I said, budget completely blown. Getting fitted for clothes is seriously addictive stuff! And to make matters worse/more awesome, they keep your measurements on file so you can order more items as you like. We’re going to have to stay the same size forever now, it will be a good lifestyle motivation. We got some shoes made as well, by the nicest woman around. She worked in the shoe market, which was just as aggressive as the fabric market, but we went in with a recommendation which was very helpful. “We’re here to find stall no. 241, sorry!” I’m really glad we went with her, though we should have bargained more. We let it get personal! But oh well, she was really skilled and professional and the billion photos of her daughter I looked at were adorable. Which is she of course knows. Don’t be cynical Heather, it ruins the fun!

Yes Hoi An was enjoyable to navigate and I’m crossing my fingers that the shipment we sent home by freight arrives in Calgary roughly around the same time that we do. I’m looking forward to wearing clothes that aren’t stained and torn!

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Salty, Sweet, Spicy, Sour

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“Is that a baby riding on the back of a motorcycle?!”

So begins our arrival Vietnam. Families of five on motorcycles zipping in and out of other motorcycles, paying no interest to the lines on the road, or even the side of the road for that matter. There are no apparent rules, and also no apparent physics to abide by. Honking your horn means “Hello there, Here I am”, and whatever stack of babies you have on the back of your motorcycle better move over in a hurry. Welcome to South East Asia. People here are on the move.

(Motorcycle passenger personal favorites so far include: two men and a giant pane of glass; one man, one woman and an IV pole attached to the man’s arm whilst he is driving; a man and a tree complete with roots and leaves; a woman, two toddlers and a newborn…it is a rubric’s cube of possibilities.)

Vietnam is intoxicating. A kaleidoscope of colours and smells, left-over colonial French architecture surrounded by ramshackle homes stacked on top of each other, glimmering rice paddies and beautiful women in conical straw hats riding push bikes. It made us feel at once alive and exhausted as we navigated our first developing country. Our first stop was in Hanoi, the cradle of Vietnam’s history. It is a great mix of ancient history, colonial remnants and a modern Vietnam that is still finding itself. We spent most of our time just walking around, eating street food on squatty plastic stools and discovering the many wandering bits of the Old Quarter. Street food culture in Vietnam is pretty fantastic, even though it definitely gave me some serious “Asian belly”. You can divide the Vietnamese food regions into thirds: the traditional North, the spicy centre and a sweet South. So while in the North around Hanoi, we mostly enjoyed pho and spring rolls.

We did not enjoy people constantly hawking trinkets or constantly having to barter for everything (like everything, even water), but I guess you could say we just got used to it. I suppose it is part of being a foreigner in a market economy where the market is supersaturated and margins must be razor thin. I can sympathize, I just can’t stand still or make eye contact for too long if I’m not willing to buy.

From Hanoi we headed North still to our first of three UNESCO sites in Vietnam, Halong Bay. It was breathtaking! We slept on a private-ish island in bamboo bungalows, kayaked around all afternoon with new friends, and enjoyed seeing the floating homes scattered about. It was a really nice reprieve from the constant folderol of Hanoi. From here we made our way down to Hue in Central Vietnam on our first SE Asian train experience. Some valuable lessons learned here: 1) Vietnamese people are in a crazy hurry to get on the train! Like bonkers pushy. Why? I couldn’t tell you, there are assigned seats that are constantly being monitored by the train staff. We just had to embrace the elbows and get ours in there too. 2) Don’t assume the train will have toilet paper or soap or drinking water. 3) I will get motion sick, all the time. This is an ongoing lesson that has been the hardest thing in SE Asia for me hands down. But all things considered I did really enjoy the train system, we ended up using it quite a bit. Thanks France and colonialism!

I’ll save our favourite experiences for subsequent posts (CAVES! TAILORS!) because that’s just too much at one time. The rest of our time in Vietnam can mostly be summarized by precarious bike rides in varying levels of heat and traffic; continuing our food journeys from the spicy to the sweet (details can be found here ); antibiotics; searching for hipsterness in Ho Chi Minh City; fine tuning our bartering skills; and constantly trying to explain to curious locals why were weren’t married with tons of babies, ha. And while Vietnam has had a very sad history, and continues to struggle especially in its rural areas, we saw a lot of positive action taking place. I found the Vietnamese to be a resourceful and resilient group of people. I hope the strides they are taking in education, social activism and poverty-reduction continue to improve.