Hoi An, Vietnam is a shopper’s paradise. From all over Southeast Asia westerners flock to the historic old town to have clothing made at bargain prices. Here a hand-sewn suit will run you $200 and a one of a kind dress just $35. The tailors can copy anything, including photographs, and will happily hand you the latest Next catalog to leaf through for ideas. It’s a city that caters to western tourists, more so than any other place in Vietnam probably. And while that is a great convenience (American dollars accepted everywhere), the influx of tourists and dollars has taken its toll on the community.
When you walk down the streets of the old town you are full on assaulted by salespeople. “You want suit?” “You look my shop?” “You buy something!” It’s jarring at first, but we learned to ignore the racket as we bypassed them all and delved deep into the Cloth Market in search of a tiny woman known as Forget-Me-Not.
On a fellow traveler’s advice, we’d come to Miss Forget-Me-Not, who runs a small business at Stall #20 in the cavernous marketplace. We’d heard she was skilled and one of the fairly priced Hoi An tailors. Her store is the size of a large closet, with fabrics of every possible print and material piled high into the air.
We ordered clothes. And then more. A tailored jacket for $20, a dark blue cheongsam for $19, two pairs of men’s shorts at $15 each. The prices were so cheap, and the work so good, that we just kept adding to our order. She is a tiny woman, in her mid-thirties, soft-spoken and unsure of her English, which is actually not bad. We had such fun with Forget-Me-Not we decided to interview her for the blog.
Less than two minutes into the interview Forget-Me-Not broke down in tears.
Business, as it turns out, was not good. Despite having good word of mouth, and great reviews on the internet, Miss Forget-Me-Not was losing customers left and right. Business in Hoi An, it turns out, is terrifyingly cutthroat.
It makes sense when you consider the recent history of Hoi An. Miss Lan of B’lan tailoring, another business we frequented in Hoi An, told me that when she first started her store, 22 years ago, she was the 14th tailor in the area. In 2002 there were 140. Today there are over 630. As tourism to the area increased and enterprising locals say their friends getting rich making clothing, more and more shops sprung up. Never mind that many of these people had zero tailoring experience- if you can speak English, you can front a clothes shop and become one of Hoi An tailors.
These stores vary wildly in quality, from the upmarket Yaly Couture to completely inexperienced startups. There’s speculation that some stores are just the fronts of sweatshops. In short- it’s very hard to know who is making your clothes. Online message boards are full of tales of woe of people who were scammed and ended up with very sub-par clothing.
The problem is very simple: too many Hoi An tailors and not enough foreigners to go around. Rent in a shop in the old town runs to 20 million dong a month, not including taxes or electricity. That’s 1000+ dollars a month, completely astronomical by Vietnamese standards. No wonder everyone seems so desperate to get you into your shop.
In this town, everyone is paying off someone else. The hotels pay the taxi drivers; the tailoring shops pay the hotels. Touts scour the streets trying to lead someone into a shop to earn a bit of commission. These people make sometimes up to 50% commission on the price paid. All of these payouts, of course, mean high costs to the consumer.
Miss Forget-Me-Not doesn’t play by those rules. By staying in the cloth market and not opening a shop front she keeps costs down. She doesn’t work with touts or commission buyers; as a result, she can offer extremely low prices to her customers. Still, she doesn’t compromise in quality- hiring only the best seamstresses and using good materials. This strategy doesn’t appear to have earned her many friends among the Hoi An tailors.
“In Hoi An we have to be friendly with each other,“ she tells me, looking furtively around the market, “but you know to be honest sometimes people are… they smile up front, but in the business, they can be competitive.”
It wasn’t hard to believe. After our second day in town, I began to feel a bit disillusioned by the place. Unlike other places I’d been in Vietnam, I didn’t sense friendly curiosity in people’s eyes. It was pretty plain what was there: greed. Greed and desperation.
The situation Forget-Me-Not describes sounds like a cross between high school Mean Girls and some kind of tailoring mafia: “Business is sometimes like a war. Fighting, very terrible.” Other vendors tell people not to go to her shop, that she is no good. People steal her customers. There is very little way for her to reach out to the customers or get them back.
She tries to be honest, “If someone comes looking for shop #2, I show them where. I don’t take her customers.” She equates it to stealing someone’s husband. Wrong. However, it seems that many of the workers in the cloth market do not have the same integrity.
Her story gets darker: Over the past few months, Forget-Me-Not has become the target of a campaign to break her down. Another store opened in the Cloth Market with the same name. Fellow seamstresses steal her business by saying untrue things and luring customers away. Just last week someone smashed the mirror in her shop and she has faced real threats of violence. She sounds genuinely scared.
It’s a really tough situation. As a tourist, we want to take advantage of the low-cost Hoi An tailors. It’s fun, and it’s a great way to pick up some souvenirs that are actually useful in the long run. But I think that when you get wrapped up in your shopping frenzy, it can be really easy to forget that this is a real and bizarre economy.
Mike was inspired by our visit to Hoi An. Before we arrived there was no comprehensive website with information about the various Hoi An tailors. Aside from word of mouth it’s very hard to tell who is a skilled worker and who is trying to scam you. Mike is working to create a site, Hoi An Tailor Reviews where visitors can review the tailors they’ve used, in the hopes that the cream will rise to the top and the good tailors of Hoi An will get the recognition, and business, they deserve.
Until then, visitors to the Old Town can follow Forget-Me-Not’s advice: decide for yourself where you want to spend your money and “don’t trust anyone.”
Update: TravelFREAK wrote a followup article three years after my visit based on this article. See Getting to Know the Best Tailor in Hoi An: Miss Forget-Me-Not.
Due to high maintenance running Hoi An Tailor Reviews website, I was forced to shut it down.