Hoi An: land of fine fabrics and beautifully tailored clothing

Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Central Vietnam, was once a major port on the Silk Route and still continues to thrive as a place where tailors custom make excellent quality clothing at bargain prices.

I bought a navy silk dress with magenta flowers as well as a full length winter coat, even though I had explicitly told myself I wouldn’t spend any money. Once I posted my items to Canada, I left town for fear of buying more.

This pretty town, with its canals and bridges, multi-coloured paper lanterns and more than 800 preserved historical buildings, also has hundreds of fabric shops and stalls lining the streets and alleys. Thousands of tailors stitch, sew and cut fabrics to create replicas or custom pieces in as little as 24 hours.

I visited a shop that employs over 320 tailors in three different locations and has been crafting clothing for over 20 years. They had a large selection of high quality silks, cotton blends, wool and leather, as well as stacks of American fashion magazines for clothing ideas.

The atmosphere in the shop was electric and buzzing with energy, at least 15 sales ladies were busy with clients, either helping people pick fabric or taking measurements. I was told that the clothing was made precisely to suit my body because not only were my measurements taken, but I also had a 3D scan of my body.

My measurements were taken at 9 pm and my first and only fitting was the following day at noon. I was so impressed with the accuracy of the measurements. A few minor alterations were made and the dress was ready by 4 pm. As I was waiting for my dress, I noticed some lovely wool fabric for a nice coat, so I had a one made, also with only one fitting and less than 24 hours.

There was so much beautiful fabric. If I had room in my bag, I would have ordered 5 linen shirts in various colours, linen pants, the red silk dress I’ve always wanted, the perfect trench coat and some work dresses, I have visions of flying to Hoi An next year and getting tailor made clothing for all four seasons.

I asked for a tour of the facilities and I was brought up to the attic to meet the master tailors, all women, about 70 of them. The rooms were airy and many of the women smiled and we’re happy to show me what they were doing. When asked discreetly, a few told me they were well paid, despite the very long hours.

There really is something to be said for having your clothes made in front of you by an experienced artisan, as opposed to buying cheaply made clothing from a sweatshop somewhere.

This is a shopping experience like no other:  everything made with speed, precision and professionalism, truly the most memorable shopping experience of my life.

 

 

Wedding photography: Vietnamese style

I’ve been in Vietnam for almost four weeks and I’ve seen at least 40 couples being photographed in wedding clothes, either in traditional Vietnamese outfits, the popular white gown and tuxedo, and even brides in bright pink sequin dresses. They  can be seen in the city streets, in the countryside and even on rooftops.

The other day, in the countryside just outside Danang, I saw a bride and groom posing for photographs on top of a large boulder, which required a ladder to reach. It was an extremely cold and windy day and the bride’s dress and veil were billowing around her. The couple were striking crazy poses: pretending to shoot each other, maniacally waving hands in the air,  and making silly faces

But then – and sadly I didn’t get any photos – a gust of wind blew the bride’s dress over her head. She was a cyclone of white with bony legs and white panties. At that moment, I was so grateful she was wearing underwear. Before I could whip my camera out, the bride slipped and her head landed in the groom’s crotch. I could not stop laughing.

Soon enough, a crowd of about 20 people came to take a closer look and started taking their own photos. Several minutes went by where the bride and groom held on to each other, for fear of being blown away. The bride’s hair was ruined and at one point, the groom took off his jacket to cover his bride’s private bits.

I figured at that point the photographer would call it a day. He didn’t. Instead, he had the couple sit on the boulder and the bride’s dress was kept down with rocks to stay in place. He continued to take photos of the couple: making sappy faces at each other, arranging their fingers to create a heart and another pose where it looked like they were smelling each other. It was freezing the entire time.

But here’s the interesting part: a local told me that none of these couples pose for photos on their wedding day. The photos are taken up to four months prior to the wedding date. Various outfits are worn over the course of several days of photography and then a video is created to show guests at the wedding.

The actual wedding day consists of an engagement ceremony, an engagement party, the wedding ceremony and the wedding reception, so there really is no time for photographs.

The photography venue is dictated by how much the couple can afford. At the top end, couples fly to Europe to pose for photos. Others are photographed in the city or at a park near their homes. Those who do not have much money are photographed in a studio, with different options for a backdrop: on the moon, in a different galaxy or in the jungle.

Weddings are big business in Vietnam. There are so many wedding shops all over The country. In Old Hanoi, an entire street is devoted to wedding shops. The one-stop shop offers everything required for the wedding: the invitations (simple or gold-leafed), the gowns (rented or purchased), the cake, decor and flowers, the food, (prepared by a local or Michelin starred chef), the photographer (on his own or with an entourage of assistants), and everything in between.

 

 

 

No one told me I had to be a mountain goat to hike in Sapa

Whenever I visit a country, I love to take part in a local activity: riding a camel in India, sleeping in the desert in Morocco and visiting a hamam in Turkey. Each time, though, I find that the experience isn’t as thrilling as I thought it would be.

Hiking in Sapa was one of those experiences.

Sapa is a hill station in Northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. On a clear day, the views are spectacular, with vivid green rice terraces, plunging valleys and mountains towering above on all sides. The views are spectacular, even when thick mists roll across the peaks. Sapa, and the tiny villages surrounding it, are also filled with brightly dressed hill tribe locals.

One of my “must do” items in Vietnam was to hike through the valleys of Sapa to see these spectacular rice terraces, meet the local indigenous people, spend time in quiet nature, all while getting some exercise.

But no one told me I had to be a mountain goat to get from one village to the other.

Climbing up and down hills is one thing, but making your way through very steep, rocky and muddy terrain was extremely difficult, especially since it rained a few times and we had to avoid getting our feet too deep in mud. For the majority of the time, there were no marked paths. We even had to step along stones to get to the other side of a few rivers along the way. Sometimes, the terrain was so deep, we were told to move sideways.

This is not how I imagined it would be.

The group consisted of myself, two 20-something Swiss girls and our local guide.

The Swiss girls were always far ahead of me but I never worried about getting lost because I constantly had an entourage of local villagers who followed us: women selling souvenirs, young girls who should have been in school but were selling bracelets, and grandmothers who carried grandchildren on their backs.

On the first day, I fell at least 11 times: on my back, on my face, rolling down a hill, slipping into water buffalo poo and seriously banging my right knee. The locals were very keen on holding my hands so that I wouldn’t fall, but once I hit the ground, no one helped me up. Instead, they would all laugh and cackle. To their credit, I think it would have been impossible for 4 foot tall women to bend down and help the fat, white girl get up. I may very well have taken them down with me. If I was unable to get up, my guide or one of the Swiss girls would come to my rescue. It was all so embarrassing and I quickly became discouraged.

To make matters worse, the local women were constantly trying to get me to buy something along the way.

Every single time, I said, “No, thank you.”

What I really wanted to say was, “Are you f*ing for real? I can barely keep my ass off the ground and you want me to buy a f*ing wall hanging. Get out of my f*ing face NOW.”

My local guide also lied to me on many occasions. Whenever I asked her how much longer it would take, she would respond either with “five more minutes” (it was NEVER five more minutes) or “first we go up a little bit, then down a little bit, then straight, then up.” WTF!

All of this happened on the first day. And because of the rain, fog covered most of our views. Very few photos were taken.

By the end of the day, my knee was in intense pain. I didn’t have any Advil on me but my guide assured me she could get some “medicine” from a local villager.

“What kind of medicine?” I asked.

“Opium” she whispered.

When she saw the look of terror on my face, she said, “Don’t worry, you rub it, not smoke it.”

The cream worked nicely. My knee is back to normal.

On the second day, most of the hike was on marked paths, but I was exhausted from the day before and could barely walk in a straight line. When my guide asked me if I preferred being driven by a motorbike, I could have jumped for joy, if I was able to.

I was so happy to get on that bike, even though I could hardly get on due to my sore body.

Another unexpected turn: motorcycles go really, really fast. They take narrow turns and you can’t really see what’s in front of you because of the winding roads. Neither the driver nor I wear helmets. Thanks to baby Jesus, we arrived in one piece.

The third and final day was also difficult but because I knew the end was in sight, I was able to plow on. My guide would regularly stop to ask me if I was alright.

Each time, as I gasped for air, I would reply with a meek, “yes”.

What I really wanted to say was, “Are you f*ing for real? Seriously? I’ve got shit in my fingernails, my pants are soaked in mud through my underwear, I can barely breath and you’re asking me if I’m f*ing fine?”

One final complaint: I noticed the scenery was not as vivid green as shown in the postcards. I was told the colours are much more dramatic in the autumn. Seriously. Fortunately, I was able to play with the settings on my camera and most of the images were captured in vivid green. No one needs to know.

Now that it’s all over, it really does make for a great story. While it wasn’t the leisurely experience that I thought it would be, I’m happy I was able to push past the pain and doubts and I am reminded once again that anything is possible if you believe in yourself.

 

 

Giving up to a higher power: crossing the streets of Hanoi

When I told people I would be visiting  Hanoi, those who had been there told me to be very careful when crossing the street. Even my travel doctor warned me that the number one cause of death for tourists in Hanoi is getting hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street.

Needless to say, I was terrified.

There is an art to crossing the streets without getting yourself killed. You need nerves of steel and lots of self confidence, neither of which I have most of the time.

On my first day, I naively waited for a gap between the so called sidewalk and the first few feet on the road. I waited a long time. Traffic doesn’t stop in Hanoi, it goes around you.

I finally decided to heed the advice of my friends Becky and Darlene, even though it felt like I was going on a suicide mission:  walk straight ahead, keeping your eyes in front of you and walking at the same steady predictable pace. Do not run across the street.

The first time I tried it, I kept mumbling the words, Holy @&$, Holy @&$, until I got to the other side of the road. This didn’t feel right because I realized I needed help from a higher power and swearing like a sailor would not help my cause.

I tried holding my breath a few times, but by the time I reached the other side, I felt dizzy and ready to pass out. Another time, I thought of videotaping my experience so that my family could see the last steps I took before I died. I even tried breathing exercises but when that didn’t work either, I decided to pray to anyone who could hear me, pleading for my life. I’m not ready to die yet. I still have quite a bit of travelling to do.

The streets are constantly full of chaos and an incredible amount of motorbikes, some carrying heavy cargo: TV sets, crates of chickens, a large sheep across the driver’s shoulders.

There were a few close calls:  I felt a motorbiker’s arm brush up against mine. On another occasion, I got so close to the driver that I could see her blue eyeshadow.

With a few days in Hanoi under my belt, I have become better at faking self confidence. Most of the time, I can now cross the street, head and chest held high like many of the roosters strutting throughout the city. Like everything, it gets easier with time.

And when nothing seems to work, it always helps to pray.

 

 

 

 

The senses of Hanoi

I’ve only been in Hanoi for 24 hours and yet my senses are in overload. Since I haven’t taken many photos yet, I hope the below conveys a bit of what I am experiencing.

TASTE: sweet condensed milk in cold coffee, crunchy and savoury fried noodles, the sugary goodness of deep fried dough balls, flavourful chicken broth with translucent vermicelli noodles, intensely sweet pineapple, cool crispness of freshly made vegetarian spring rolls, crusty buns with a soft, chewy interior, fresh basil on cold papaya salad, crunchy peanuts on soft noodles.

SMELL: incense sticks being lit in the temples, motorcycle fumes, rice paper rolls being fried on the streets, wafts of coconut, sautéed garlic, cilantro and fish sauce, fresh flowers from a vendor on a bicycle, smoke from garbage burning in the gutters, damp, wet air smell, similar to wet dog.

HEAR: street traffic all day, every day, roosters crowing, foreign languages, vendors encouraging people to buy, bells ringing at the temples, ceaseless buzzing of energy, loud conversations, birds in cages chirping

SEE: street food: meat skewers, Vietnamese soup, baguettes with meat and vegetables, locals sitting in front of store fronts: eating, talking, drinking, streets filled with motorcycles, those same motorcycles carrying up to six people, or a gaggle of geese, or even a few pigs or chickens, people offering food in the temples, so many storefronts, stray dogs, various Asians posing in weird ways for the photographer, men in military uniforms, women performing a balancing act, carrying food items for sale.

TOUCH: crowds of people rubbing up against each other. Let’s face it, I’m not touching anything.

 

And so it begins

After 31 hours of flying time, I arrived in Hanoi.

The journey was exceptional: Business Class throughout. Because I had enough Aeroplan points – 75,000 – I was able to travel in luxury. The total price: $61.36.

The entire experience was surreal: one of my meals was rack of lamb with ratatouille, chocolate mousse cake and fresh fruit.

The Air Canada Lounge was lovely. While I’m not used to eating free food, I did gobble up some gourmet cookies while many around me were stuffing their faces with pasta and beer.

Everything changed when I arrived at the Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul. Oh. My. Word.

I spent 9 hours there. The entire complex had a library, a movie theatre, massage and showers, a library and a pool table. I took advantage of all of the buffet food stations throughout the lounge.

I ate freshly made kebab, an abundance of great salads, every type of baklava imaginable, Turkish coffee, Turkish tea, more kebabs, pide, grape leaves, apple strudel and Turkish Delight. The quality of the food was some of the best I’ve had, better than at some weddings.

There were many times when I felt guilty about being treated so well. It was odd having the airline hostess tuck me in with a blanket and wishing me sweet dreams. The chef – yes, with a chef hat and everything! – was constantly asking me if I wanted anything to eat. He even offered me a second dessert – I said yes! On the last leg of my journey, I also received a gift: a black Furla leather travel pouch!

Because of the flat beds, I was able to sleep for the majority of the time. This was the biggest perk and really helped with the jet lag.

Next: my first day in Hanoi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making dreams come true

A week ago, a friend asked me what I hoped to accomplish by running away to the other side of the world.

I was taken aback and muttered something about going on vacation and getting some much needed rest. It was a lame answer.

Since then, I’ve given it much thought.

I’m running away from life in the office, from commuting and weekend errands and appointments.

I’m running to the other side of the world to visit exotic places, connect with travellers and accidental teachers, eat my way through various cities and experience the world outside my comfort zone. I am running towards what I’ve only dreamed of doing for so long.

This is not about how many Visas I will accumulate or how many countries I’ll visit. It’s about living my life as the greatest adventure of all. It’s about taking a risk and turning it into an opportunity.

What do I hope to accomplish?

Aside from the adventure of navigating through the streets of Hanoi, haggling in an Indian market or paragliding in Pokhara, I’m hoping this trip will ease the transition into the next stage in my life. I’m in between jobs and hope to do some serious reflecting on where I’ve been, where I’m going and where I want to be.

I want to learn about different cultures through food, how to prepare it, savour it and appreciate it with the locals.

I love to tell a good story. I hope to use this blog as a forum for my experiences.

The time has finally come. I’ve imagined it, dreamed about it, started planning, booking and in a few days, I will be off. I’m making my dreams come true.