Tailoring in Hoi An: Miss Forget Me NotEmma - 12 January 2017
Hoi An is renowned for its tailoring. You would struggle to visit and miss this fact. Every other shop is a tailor and you’re constantly approached by touts on the street asking if you want a dress or suit. Mike was very sceptical about the whole thing, but I was more than willing to take on the challenge of navigating the hazardous waters of tailoring in Hoi An!
The problem with tailoring in Hoi An is that it has become such a tourist draw that the majority of 'tailors' aren’t actually tailors. They’ll take your measurements and fabric choices and send the order to a sweatshop used by many different tailors. The problem is the quality of your final product doesn’t matter to the unseen, low-paid garment industry worker who has to put it together in the early hours of the morning in order to have it finished in time for you to leave Hoi An. What’s more, the specific nuances of your order can easily be lost when it’s just passed down a chain, and you risk ending up with something generic that you may as well have bought off the rack.
At the opposite end of the price spectrum are the big names in Hoi An tailoring. We’re talking Be Be, Yaly Couture, and A Dong Silk. Here you can trust that you’ll end up with a quality product, but you’ll certainly be paying for it! Admittedly it will still be a fraction of the price of something tailor made in England, but it’s going to be in the region of $100 or more for a suit jacket, and yet more if you want trousers to match.
Another pothole you fall into is the endless flow of commission going on in the background. Everyone is on the payroll, and you have to treat with suspicion any tailor recommendations you get from your hotel, tour companies, people on the street, and even other travellers. Constantly paying people to put a good word in for them bumps the price of the clothes you’re having made, and you’re effectively paying the wages of the most annoying, insistent people in Hoi An!
So, with all this in mind, our attempts to find a suitable tailor fell a bit flat. We were overly suspicious, and a bit disappointed in the high prices quoted. Eventually we collapsed, frustrated, into the nearest cafe and turned to our constant saviour: the Internet! Mike looked through a few travel blogs and came across Miss Forget Me Not. On TripAdvisor she had lots of 5* reviews and lots of 1* reviews, and not much in between. The general impression seemed to be that she was brusque, rude, and unwelcoming, but exceptional with a needle and thread. We agreed that we could put up with a little Vietnamese brusqueness and set off to find her.
We went to the shop front, kicked off our shoes and had taken one step in the door when she emerged from within like a hurricane.
“No. No! I’m too busy, I’m too busy!”
We stood in the doorway, feeling nonplussed. Every other tailor couldn’t wait to drag us in their front door.
“Erm, can we come back later?” We tentatively asked
“How about tomorrow?”
“Okay, okay, tomorrow morning at eleven” She acquiesced, and then disappeared back into the shop.
We turned up just before 11am, eager not to be late. Continuing with the fairly awful customer service, we were told to come back in an hour as she was washing her floor. This sounds a lot like the old ‘I can’t, I’m washing my hair’ excuse, and we contemplated giving up at this point, but decided to give it one more go.
We turned up at midday, and were finally allowed inside the shop. She disinterestedly asked what I wanted, and before discussing anything we had to pay a 100,000 Dong ‘consulting fee’. Feeling more than a little scared of this curt, imperious woman, I squeaked out a description of the jacket I wanted. I picked out fabrics from those she had available, feeling very rushed by her impatience. Questions I asked her about whether the fabric would be warm enough were met with ‘how should I know if it’ll be warm enough for England’. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d made a bad decision in coming.
Once she had all the information for the jacket, she quoted me $65 for it. Unusually, she demands full payment up front, whereas every other tailor in town expects 50% payment initially and the remaining 50% once your fittings are complete and you confirm you're satisfied. Yet another reason to be nervous.
On the other hand, her quote was substantially cheaper than others (apart from one suspiciously low offer of $30!) and I decided to trust the reviews online. I handed over my credit card with a sense of trepidation. Once payment was taken she refunded the 100,000 Dong consultancy fee, efficiently took my measurements, then told us to come back in six hours to try on the jacket.
Incredibly, by 7pm that evening, a jacket was lying on Miss Forget Me Not’s table, looking almost ready to wear out the door. Impressive. It looked much better than I’d imagined. She marked it up a little with some chalk to get the fit perfect. She seemed pleased I was happy with it, and warmed up considerably! Encouraged, I ordered a dress and a blouse, and she confidently told me I could come by the following day to try them on.
The jacket had been adjusted and now had button holes, although Miss Forget Me Not had evidently taken umbrage with the colour of the thread used and was unpicking them all. The blouse I’d ordered the day before was lovely and crisp, and fitted first time without any adjustments. The dress was another matter…
It was a gorgeous burgundy sheath dress, which fitted rather too well. It had been tipping it down with rain, so I was a bit damp and sticky, which made getting into the dress an absolute mission. An ad hoc curtain had been drawn across my corner of the shop, and all Mike could see from the other side were my flailing arms as I tried to wriggle my way in. Reinforcements came in, and I was left stood there in regrettably small pants while two Vietnamese women tried to force the dress down over my behind. Not my proudest moment. Eventually everyone agreed that the dress probably needed to be a bit bigger, and we were told to come back again the next morning. I made a note to wear bigger pants.
Having been assured by Miss Forget Me Not that this would be the last fitting we had packed our bags and checked out of our hotel room before turning up to the fitting. I was taken behind a curtain again, and tried the dress on. If anything it was even tighter! This time I had three ladies trying to help me in, which is obviously not practical for everyday dressing! They conceded defeat and to my relief allowed me to get dressed. I came out to find Miss Forget Me Not arguing with the three women, refusing to believe that it didn’t fit, and insisting on me trying it on again. After watching me writhe around trying to get into the dress (at this point I was starting to feel like an on-demand comedy act) she eventually believed the others. It was evident that she was worried it wouldn’t be ready in time for our departure. She took the dress and gestured me to follow her out of the shop. I shrugged at Mike, who was still sat in the shop looking bemused. Obediently, I climbed onto the back of her waiting motorbike and was whisked off into the rainy streets.
Visit 7 - Behind the Scenes in Hoi An
The journey was only a few minutes, but they were nerve-wracking as we weaved through throngs of tourists wielding umbrellas and selfie-sticks like weapons. We pulled up behind the fabric market at a little hole in the wall. The room couldn't have been more than 3m by 4m, but it contained four aged, industrial-looking sewing machines. Two off them were whirring away, lit by a fluorescent strip light. It was open to the street and looked fairly austere, but once we stepped inside the evident camaraderie between Miss Forget Me Not and the two women inside made the place seem homey. Yet again, the woman who was handed the dress didn’t believe it didn’t fit me, so I had to strip off for the third time and go through the pantomime of trying to squeeze myself into the dress that so clearly didn't fit. A scrap of fabric was held up as a semi-effective curtain between me and the people walking past on the street.
Having convinced everyone of my enormous size comparative to the dress, I stood there semi-naked and wrapped in my makeshift curtain while they ripped the dress apart at the seams with practised movements. They all chatted away in Vietnamese, laughing and joking, and friends and kids occasionally popped their heads in, barely blinking an eye at the peculiar, semi-clothed Westerner hovering awkwardly in the corner.
It was impressive watching them rework the dress, and I began to understand how they could have finished everything so quickly. Their movements were lightening fast, confident and precise. They put the dress together again, it still wasn’t a perfect fit, so they ripped it apart again and reworked it once more. Finally, it slipped over my hips and I was finally, blissfully, clothed! I couldn’t see it in a mirror, but the tailors seemed satisfied with it and I was just glad to get it on. The street outside had turned into a river in the 45 minutes I’d been inside (Hoi An often floods in November / December) so we waded out to the motorbike and sped back to the tailor shop.
The only thing left to do was arrange postage home, as I would have no use for a crisp white blouse, smart dress, and warm herringbone jacket while on the road in Asia. Often tailoring shops will arrange this for you, but Miss Forget Me Not’s approach is to call out a postal worker, who comes to the shop, weighs, packages, and takes your parcel from you. Simple and transparent!
Postage was always going to be the silent killer when it came to budgeting for tailoring in Hoi An, as you have no idea how much it will cost until everything is made and can be weighed. We ended up posting the three items by airmail and it cost 835,000 Dong / £29 / $35.
We had originally planned to send it by sea mail since we are away for so long that delivery time doesn't matter, but it transpired that there were several extra costs associated with this. The priciest of these was insurance, which is mandatory as anything sent by sea mail is much more likely to get lost or damaged. Once we did the maths we figured that we may as well send it by air.
Tailoring in Hoi An - Total Spend
Peter Pan collar blouse, with buttons up the back $30
Sheath dress, with lining and hidden zip $35
Herringbone Jacket with lining $65
Tailoring in Hoi An: Miss Forget Me Not
Miss Forget Me Not is an absolute star, but she’s not for the faint hearted. You need to be a bit thick-skinned and determined, but you can be sure you’re getting the authentic Vietnam tailoring experience! A few tips for surviving Miss Forget Me Not:
- Don’t be discouraged by her initially unwelcoming approach - she cares a lot about her work and will do everything she can to make the clothes perfect, but wastes no time pussyfooting around you!
- Know that she’ll ask you to pay a consultancy fee of 100,000 Dong before she’ll even discuss what you want
- Paying for everything up front is non-negotiable
- The reason she charges less than everyone else isn’t the quality of work, it's because she doesn’t have to pay everyone and their dog commission for your custom. This is very rare in Hoi An, and it sounds like other shops give her a tough time as a result
- Whatever you do make sure you don’t forget to take your shoes off before coming inside, else you’ll feel her wrath!
I’ll pop up some pictures of the dress, blouse and jacket once we’re back home, providing I can still squeeze into everything after all these fried noodles and sweet milk coffees!
Have you had clothes tailored in Hoi An? If so, let us know your experiences in the comments section below.