Tailor made holiday
Bustling Da Nang and Hoi An showcase the best of Vietnam.
WHAT secret have I stumbled upon? What do the shoes mean? Are they a code? Why am I out of the loop?
In my first hour’s strolling I spot five women, all foreigners, hand-carrying expensive-looking high heels. On their feet are flat shoes more suited to exploration of World Heritage-listed Hoi An.
Discreet inquiries solve this mystery: they are heading to experts who copy designer shoes in 24 hours or less. These skilled cobblers remind me of artists I’ve watched in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, brilliantly copying famed artworks.
Hoi An is this Southeast Asian nation’s tailoring capital. Tailors are similarly numerous in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hanoi and everywhere else in the country. But Hoi An, perhaps because it’s unashamedly tourist territory, boasts the most. Its tailors produce dresses, men’s suits and shirts. They work with craftsmen creating bespoke footwear.
Most customers don’t bring favourite items to be copied. Instead, they’re measured for clothes or footwear chosen from pictures.
“It’s quicker and cheaper than Bangkok,” says an Australian woman who reveals that, the previous day, she was measured at 9am, returned for a fitting at 3pm, and found her purchase in her hotel room at 7pm.
Not all workmanship is of the same quality. Frequent Hoi An visitors speak highly of Yaly, a French-colonial villa where many tailors and shoemakers toil.
My only quibble with this frenzied shopping for tailored clothes and shoes is that it means time-poor visitors don’t manage to savour Hoi An’s other charms. This is, after all, one of Vietnam’s prettiest towns, which emerged largely unscathed from the war that scarred much of the rest of the country.
Hoi An demands on-foot exploration. Its best-known landmark is the Japanese Bridge, built four centuries ago by Japanese merchants prominent in local commerce. They bought silk and cinnamon (plus other spices) and intended to transform somnolent Hoi An into a major regional trading centre.
The bustling pedestrian bridge, with Japanese-style roof, incorporates several revered Buddhist shrines and remains a handy link between different parts of town. Several pagodas and historic buildings survive as additional reminders of this Japanese flirtation.
Historic streets near the Japanese Bridge slice between yellowish age-weathered buildings, moss-discoloured monuments to tropical weather. Aromas of incense lure me to ornately decorated temples. A crowd spilling from the Central Market – reputedly one of the country’s best, bulging with fresh produce and sundry consumer goods – prompts investigation of its narrow, crowded aisles.
Salespeople at omnipresent souvenir shops shout invitations to inspect their bargains. And they certainly are bargains because Vietnam is one of Asia’s least expensive destinations.
A few blocks away, a waterway called the Thu Bon River winds through town. Tour boats, moored on its banks, transport visitors on sightseeing cruises, some of which stop at nearby pottery villages.
Hoi An’s streets boast restaurants by the dozen specialising in Vietnamese and western fare. I encounter tourists enjoying cool breaks with ice-cold 333 beer or freshly squeezed fruit juices.
But my quest is for Vietnamese coffee.
Vietnamese-style coffee is something of a delicacy, but be sure to ask for Vietnamese coffee or you’ll inevitably to be served nondescript instant coffee, which visitors are believed to prefer. Vietnamese coffee drips slowly from unique filtering gadgets of aluminium or stainless steel, sitting atop cups until they have yielded their last drops.
Even better than regular Vietnamese brews is a coffee connoisseurs adore: “weasel coffee”. Its popularity has blossomed in recent years. Coffee beans, before being ground, pass through weasels’ digestive systems.
To cut costs, weasels are farmed and fed coffee beans. Nonetheless, it’s the most expensive coffee in Vietnam: $3 or more a cup, compared to about 50 cents for regular coffee.
In Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor – where beans are similarly harvested from faecal matter of civets, weasels and similar creatures – the product is lauded as smoother and less acidic than other coffees. In Vietnam, the weasels’ digestive process is often synthesised, further reducing overheads.
I have come here via Da Nang, Vietnam’s third-largest city, which is a half-hour’s drive north. Vietnam Airlines’ domestic network is efficient and extensive and, with its busy airport, Da Nang brazenly lists Hoi An as one of its own attractions. Hotels and resorts are numerous in both.
Between the two lie the Marble Mountains, five mountains rising like bread loaves from flattish surrounds. They’re named for water, earth, metal, wood and fire. The outcrop honouring water is honeycombed with caves and tunnels. The biggest is a giant subterranean amphitheatre.
Pathways, pagodas and Buddhist temples are features of an exterior avoided by most visitors, who instead opt for a lift to the summit where views of the Da Nang area are extensive.
Craftsmen, fashioning large sculptures as well as small souvenirs, work at the mountains’ base but now bring marble from elsewhere because they’re no longer allowed to quarry at what’s become an important tourist site.
Viet Cong guerrillas used the mountains as a hideout and hospital. It was bombed by the Americans with the unintended consequence of improved access.
While rambling at the Marble Mountains, I overhear a British couple speak glowingly of their visit to Da Nang’s Museum of Cham Sculpture, a facility established by French archaeologists who feared important evidence of this ethnic tribe’s former dominance of this area would be reclaimed by jungle. So they collected important pieces, mostly from the 12th to 15th centuries, now displayed in the museum.
One of Asia’s best beaches – a long and broad white-sand strip known as China Beach, a name bestowed by American forces – is at the edge of Da Nang’s metropolitan area. A beach called My Khe, at the northern end, is believed to have been the real China Beach rather than Non Nuoc, as still widely believed, further south.
Whatever the nomenclature, the 30km seafront is studded with resorts, and more are planned.
Among these is Fusion Maia (fusionmaiadanang.com), where every villa has its own outdoor plunge pool and guests have two daily spa treatments included in their tariffs.
Signs of rapid development are everywhere. With Vietnam’s frenzied industry likely to draw even bigger crowds, enjoy it while it lasts.
Chris Pritchard was a guest of Vietnam Airlines.
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