Most things on a backpacker's must do list make sense.
Canyoning in Da Lat? Yeah, we are risk takers. Nyhaven in Copenhagen? Yeah, we love a good picture. Egg coffee in Hanoi? Sure, serve us a cultural delicacy. Buying expensive and bulky hand tailored clothes in Vietnam? Well.. that one doesn't exactly fit the bill.
Yet, that is "the thing" traveler do in the ancient town of Hoi An, Vietnam.
Getting clothing made is just what you do in Hoi An.
Hoi An's reputation as a tailor town started out at genuine. The city was known for the trade, and Vietnam's low costs allowed it to be a place where foreigners could get good quality custom clothing for impressibly low prices.
Then there was a massive influx of tourists to the country.... and locals saw the moneymaking potential. Suddenly, everyone was a tailor.
There are now over 600 tailor shops in the city of Hoi An. This is a number that has increased 600% in the past decade.
Every street in Hoi An is tailor after tailor after tailor. As a shopper, it is hard to know where to go.
Obviously, you want the best value, but with 600 shops, you can't exactly stop into every one to compare prices. Additionally, most of the big discounts come after a fair amount of negotiation, something that happens after you've spent a bit of time chatting with the owner.
The icing on top of this issue is the fact that every single tailor wants your business, badly, and they are not coy about it.
As you walk down the street ,women shout at you from store fronts, and approach you with measuring tapes.
Hostels, tour guides, easy riders, and pretty much any Vietnamese person you interact with in Hoi An will direct you to "their shop," hoping to make commission from your purchase.
"Direct you" is a kind way of putting it, as my easy rider literally dropped me off in front of a tailor shop even though I specifically said I wanted to go to my hostel.
With this much competition, the tailor environment in Hoi An is hostile at best, and dangerous at worst. Art of Adventuring wrote a great piece on the dark side of tailors in Hoi An that you should read here.
TOP TIPS FOR GETTING CLOTHING TAILORED IN HOI AN, VIETNAM:
1. KNOW: They will hit the ground running as soon as you enter, trying to sell you as much clothing as possible.
It is very overwhelming, and very easy to get sucked up in the whirlwind.
"How many dresses do you need? 4 or 5? Do you have a black dress? You need a jacket to go over it."
I have heard stories of people who say they have almost blacked out in the store, and purchased way more clothing than they ever intended. Because of this, it is important to know what is going to happen when you walk through the door.
2. Be careful when picking a shop...
Oh jeez. Most people trust trip advisor, but I do not. A lot of stores give customers discounts for good reviews.
As you travel through Vietnam, and meet people who have been to Hoi An, ask if they got clothes tailored. Did they like their shop? Was it high quality? Were the prices fair? Ask people in your hostel. Ask your hostel if they know a shop that is fair and high quality.
When you enter the shop (any shop), it will probably be crowded. If you think you can just slip in unnoticed and start pursuing the fabrics, think again. No matter the crowd, as soon as you walk in, they notice, and demand you sit down. You are immediately paired with an associate who will pull over books and laptops of designs for you to pick.
3. Have an idea what you want before you walk in.
...unless money is really no concern for you. On my third trip into my shop for alterations I heard a group of girls commenting that they, "had no clue what they wanted... did the store have any ideas?"
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Do not open the flood gates like that.
It is best to come in with your own pictures - I brought in a few from pinterest.
The tailor is going to suggest you get at least 3 or 4 more things. Anything. They don't care. Be prepared for this. Hear them out to be fair - sometimes their suggestions are stellar.
4. Be prepared to say no
...and say it more then once. The sales associates will not take no for an answer the first, second, or third time. They keep insisting that you need this, or you need that. If you convince them otherwise, they will think of something else that you need.
5. When it comes time to pick a price, BE READY to negotiate.
They are open to it, but they like to move slowly, only dropping the price a few dollars at a time. I was able to drop my original price $50, but it took a while.
The strategy that I used: Start by naming a price much lower than the one they said. Go back and forth, and when they refuse meet it, insist they remove the most involved piece of clothing from your order. The one that required the most measurements. Say you can't afford it, and you don't want it anymore.
That will catch their attention, especially after they spent so much time designing and measuring you.
After the measurement and payment are complete, they will tell you to stop through the next day, or the day, after to see your design.
6. You don't pickup the next day - it will need more alterations
I thought when I returned the next day, they would hand me my dress and it would be done. Nope. My dress, though lovely, and roughly my size, still needed several days of alterations.
I ended up visiting the shop two more days to get everythihng fixed.. All in all, I visited the store 4 days in a row to get the dress to my exact specifications.
This was the part I was most unaware of, and I think most people are.
7. Speak up! Insist on alterations if you don't like something. You paid for them!
Speak now or forever be disappointed!
Unsurprisingly, every time you return to the shop they will try to sell you more things, so be prepared. I actually enjoyed this because I built a rapport with my associate. When I did finally think of something else that I wanted, I felt comfortable saying exactly what I wanted, and "nothing else!"
When it is finally time to take your item home, you should be thrilled with it. That is what they want, and that is what you paid for.
Final comment: The shops can be a bit.... handsy... when taking your measurements or helping you try things on... or just walk in on you while your naked. I asked at my hostel about it and they said this was probably a cultural difference. Just a warning so you are prepared.... also, of course, if you ever feel uncomfortable, speak up!