After dark the old town of Hoi An lights up over the river

It’s my son’s big overseas experience. He stops off at Vietnam on his way from New Zealand to London, where a job awaits him. He is buoyed up by the prospect of life overseas, and raring to go, has but one problem. He is weighted down by far too much baggage. I’ve told him time and time again that travelling light is the only way to go, but then whoever listens to the advice of their oldies?

 

“Never mind, you can offload a suitcaseful of your stuff with me here in Vung Tau,” I tell him.

 

He duly jettisons a sleeping bag, binoculars, battery recharger, alarm clock, suitcase, and a ton of clothes, surrendering them to my tender care. He has allocated 10 days for his visit to Vietnam, and, along with three of his mates who are travelling with him, to see a bit more of the country before their flight to the UK.

 

“Well, let’s see… Hanoi’s worth a look, Halong Bay’s a blast, Hue’s interesting, and whatever you do don’t miss Hoi An. It’s a little humdinger of a town, the best in Vietnam in my opinion.”

Hoi An is not just a place to get clothes made. It also has pagodas and pagodas on bridges 

The Trap

 

He arrives back at my place eight days later. He has one arm behind his back and a silly grin on his face.

 

“What have you got there?”

 

He sheepishly withdraws his arm to reveal a spruce new business suit.

 

“You stupid pillock! I thought you wanted to reduce your luggage, not add to it.”

 

“Yeah, but it was so bloody cheap, and so fast, and so… irresistible. All my mates bought one too,” he added, as if this somehow made his purchase more justifiable.

 

My son had, like countless travellers before him, succumbed to Hoi An’s famed tourist trap: 24-hour tailor-made clothing.

 

I can’t say I blame him; I too had splurged on handmade clothes and shoes during my visit there several years previously. The temptation is overpowering. The prices are low, the service fast, and the smiling sales ladies persuasive. Business is booming. Their shops are filled with fabrics of every description piled ceiling-high. The windows display glamorous mannequins garbed in all the latest fashions. Out the back there’s the sound of whirring sewing machines.

 

“OK, so can you make me a pair of trousers, a shirt — no, make that two shirts — and do you do shoes as well? Yes? Alright, I’ll have...”

 

Once you’ve ordered your clothes, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the riverside town. In Hoi An everything worth seeing is within walking distance. The old quarter is closed to traffic, making it an ideal place for a walkabout. And the attractions are many; museums, pagodas, temples, artisans’ workshops, boat rides on the river, and shops selling paintings, wood carvings, pottery, newly made antiques, and lanterns.

 

Hoi An has retained its sense of history. UNESCO has proclaimed it a World Heritage Site, so the tear-it-down-and-build-anew mindset that plagues many Asian cities doesn’t apply here. Building restrictions ensure that old buildings are preserved in their original form, and things like modernisation and high-rises are strictly a no-no.

Resorts such as Victoria Hoi An provide a beach experience to add to the charm 

What They Say

 

The people at Lonely Planet are obviously as enamoured of Hoi An as I am. They write: “The riverside town oozes charm and culture from every corner. Emphatically the most charming place along the coast, this is one spot worth lingering at.”

 

Not everyone is as enthused though. Contributors to the increasingly popular TripAdvisor website are mostly fulsome in their praise of the town (“highlight of our visit”, “Vietnam’s best kept secret”, “a gem of a place”), but there are some critics too.

 

One indignant contributor urges people to boycott the place because of the US$6 fee charged to enter the old city. Another calls it “a classic example of cultural degradation as a result of pandering to tourism”. One complains that the people of Hoi An “will do absolutely anything to milk a buck out of you”. There have been reports of slipshod tailoring, gaping holes appearing in dresses after a couple of wearings, and overly pushy salespeople.

 

But 95 percent of the reports I’ve heard have been positive, and in many cases have been euphoric in their praise. In my book that’s a good enough thumbs-up for me. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but I’m not averse to getting trapped once in a while.

 

Born in New Zealand, Don Wills lives in Vung Tau. He’s been writing his way round the region for decades

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