Tailor Me This: Getting Custom-Made Clothes in Hoi An

by | Jan 12, 2019 | 0 comments

Vietnamese cloth lanterns

Note: This post recounts my personal tailoring experience while in Vietnam. For tips on getting your own clothes made, read my other post.

Deciding I Needed a Skirt

When we first decided to come to Asia, I read about the benefit of having a long skirt or other way to cover one’s knees while visiting temples and monasteries. I’ve never really been a skirt type of woman though, and as the sun dress I packed sits above the knees, I figured I’d just wear my leggings or jeans on the days more modest attire was required. Fast forward to two weeks into our journey, during our first temple visit, and I quickly realized how foolish I was. Having underestimated the humidity in this region, tight leg coverings just led to insane sweat and overheating. It was in that moment I decided to get a skirt.

As someone with long legs and wide hips, I was skeptical of finding a well fitting skirt in Asia. Thankfully my decision couldn’t have come at a more perfect time as our next stop was Hoi An, a town known for its tailoring. This meant I could spoil myself with a custom fitted design, acting as both a unique souvenir yet practical purchase for our months to come, which is critical considering how limited our pack space is.

Temple with reflecting pool in Hoi An Vietnam

Although Hoi An is currently known for its tailoring, this wasn’t always the case. Between the 15th to 19th centuries the seaside town played an important role as a small port for trading across Asia and other parts of the known world. As such, the old town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) is a great example of the urban architecture of its time and a quaint backdrop for shopping, with storefronts sporting the wares of the local tailors and leather workers.

Wandering the old town. This is early morning, before the shops opened for the day.

First Tailor Visit

My first encounter with the tailors happened on a day when I hadn’t even planned to do much shopping. Tom and I were out for some general sightseeing when we were approached by a nice Vietnamese lady. She began by asking us where we’re from, how long we had been in town, and where we were headed. Shortly after that initial exchange, what I had hoped was a conversation for her to practice English turned into a sales pitch. Quickly she touted the benefits of her tailor shop over the others in the area, and asked if we’d be interested in seeing what they had to offer. While I knew I’d shop around before placing an order with someone, I didn’t really have a plan of attack on where to begin, so figured this opportunity was as good start as any. Confirming Tom was okay taking a detour as well, we agreed to check things out and soon found ourselves being escorted down the street.

During the walk our guide kept telling us how beautiful our white skin was, and that we “must have good jobs”. In many cultures throughout Asia (especially those that were colonized by western civilizations) skin color became associated with social class, with lighter skin equating to higher status. This mentality still persists today as evidenced by the many skincare products advertising whitener as an ingredient, or seeing people fully covered in the extreme heat to keep from tanning. Because of this, even if her comments were just meant as a compliment, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were being targeted just because of our potential wealth.

Fruit seller and longboats in Hoi An

Man sitting near flower in Hoi An's Old Town

After getting a feel for the types of materials her shop stocked, design capabilities and tailoring quality, I told her I’d think about it and left. There was much to consider in terms of what I actually wanted, and so I spent the rest of the day mulling over the details. In the end I decided to go with a basic A-line, ankle length design. The material would need to be breathable to work with the heat, while also nice enough that it could be dressed up or down depending on the top I chose from my wardrobe. Versatility is key for most everything I’ve packed, and so I needed to ensure I’d be happy wearing the skirt no matter what happened to be clean that day.

Riverfront view along Hoi An Old Town

Finding THE Tailor

After getting a feel for the types of materials her shop stocked, design capabilities and tailoring quality, I told her I’d think about it and left. There was much to consider in terms of what I actually wanted, and so I spent the rest of the day mulling over the details. In the end I decided to go with a basic A-line, ankle length design. The material would need to be breathable to work with the heat, while also nice enough that it could be dressed up or down depending on the top I chose from my wardrobe. Versatility is key for most everything I’ve packed, and so I needed to ensure I’d be happy wearing the skirt no matter what happened to be clean that day.

Gaining both a high and low budget cap to work within, I visited a handful of other shops looking for the perfect match. The shop I chose was called Pink Lotus. The reason I went with them is they had well made outfits on display, did the work themselves (some shops outsource their work), and the material was higher quality than some of the shops I visited. I also got a good vibe from the salespeople when talking with them, which is important considering I’d be working with them closely to complete my order.

Hoi An Japanese Bridge
The iconic Japanese Bridge in the Old Town.

Covered walkway inside the Hoi An Japanese bridge.
Inside walkway of the bridge.

Having selected my tailor, next came the challenge of negotiating a price. The original salesperson I spoke with quoted $40 for the job, but when it came time to finalize the deal her superior jumped in to assist and quoted me $45, saying I misunderstood the original price that was given. They said they’d be able to go lower though if I purchased more than one item or changed to a lesser material. Since I wasn’t willing to do either, I finally convinced them to honor the original $40. Although I had hoped to get them down to $30-35, I knew $40 was still a good deal compared to what I’d pay in the US, making it a win for both of us.

From Order to Completion

With an agreement struck, they took my measurements and wrote up the order. This is where things went differently than I anticipated. Having worked in custom manufacturing myself, I fully expected to put down a deposit before leaving the shop. They, however, asked for the payment in full. I was visibly shocked by the request. There was no way in hell I was going to pay the full amount without having prior experience with their shop; I had read horror stories of shenanigans happening with tourists at other shops and while I didn’t think the place I picked was disreputable by any means, there’d still be nothing stopping them from denying to do any alterations once they had the full payment in hand. So, although I had the full amount on me, I feigned not being able to ante up, carefully making a show of digging through my wallet trying to count up enough funds. With a frown on my face I asked if the full amount was required. With a bit of reluctance they said they’d also accept 50%, at which point I handed over the money and received a receipt to use for paying the balance later.

Riverfront view of Hoi An

Since many visitors to Hoi An have only a few days in town, the tailors are great at turning around orders quickly. As such, by the following morning it was time to go in for my first fitting. I was nervous for what I’d find. Even though I was confident in my tailor’s abilities, I had fears that things would be too tight, or that I’d have forgotten to communicate a critical detail during my consultation the day before.

Stepping into the fitting room, I pulled out the skirt and took a quick inspection of the stitching. Everything looked pristine and at the quality I was expecting. So far so good. Sliding on the skirt it went easily over the hips. Concern two dispelled. Zipping it up and stepping out to the mirror I felt good, but was amazed at how well it actually fit. The waist was perfect, even though they measured me through my jeans, which surprised me. The only change I saw was taking up the hemline slightly so it wouldn’t drag on the ground. Expressing my desired adjustments, they took a few more measurements and said to come back that afternoon for the final fitting.

Fitting two went quickly. The hemline was perfect height and I was ready to take things home. Whipping out my receipt from the day before, I handed over money for the remaining balance and left with new garment in hand. Although the process was a bit long and stressful at times, all in all I was very pleased with the outcome and would do it again next time I’m in town.

Woman in custom-made skirt Hoi An
The final product!

Don’t forget to read our Top 10 Tips when shopping for clothes in Hoi An.

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