Sometimes the best things in life are things that are not planned. Like the picture, above. We had planned to drive further, but when we realized we could see yellow eyed penguins come ashore for free in Curio Bay, and further realized there was a pretty awesome campground wedged right between Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay, we parked our campervan and stayed put.
In fact, we almost didn’t take the Southern Scenic Route at all, which would have been a shame since, true to name, it was pretty darn scenic. The route snakes along the southern coast of the South Island from Dunedin and cuts north to Queenstown after Invercargill. We did the route in two days (not counting our detour to Te Anau and the Milford Sound), but you easily could spend more time meandering through. The Southern Scenic Route follows the rugged coastline for most of the way, with sandy curved bays popping up now and again, but some of the best parts are the short detours down the often unsealed Heritage Routes. Lighthouses, surprise sea lions on land, yellow eyed penguins waddling ashore, a high density of cows and sheep, remote gas stations which open upon request, college and pick-up rugby and cricket games, and short little hikes just how we like – it’s worth going the long way.
Hoi An is one of those places you kind of love, kind of hate. I don’t usually like to complain that a place is too touristy. After all, I’m there, aren’t I, and why do I think I get to hog a good thing all to myself and not share with other outsiders? But Hoi An takes touristiness over the top. By all accounts, it could be a delightful little city. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site with historic old buildings and shophouses, all painted yellow, many punctuated by colorful flowers out front. The streets are lined by rivers and criss-crossed by bright lanterns. The shophouses are filled with stores selling trinkets to tourists, restaurants, and tailors. Sounds good, right? Well, the problem is that the locals took a good thing and ran out of control with it. Who’s to blame them, really, because the tourists were eating up what was on offer. Hoi An became known as the little town in Vietnam where you could get a custom wardrobe tailor made to your exact measurements for rock bottom prices. Where there was once a few tailors, there is now over 600 tailors, all asking you as you walk by to buy something, come into my shop, you want dress? You want suit? I can make you anything, very cheap! No time? No problem. The Hoi An tailors can turn around a entire men’s suit, with a shirt and tie to match, from scratch in less than 24 hours.
As you can imagine, out of the 600+ tailors, some are very good, some are very bad, and many are average. Sure, there are “couture” like deals to be had, but the reality is, whether you show them a picture or not, most of what they’re churning out is replicas of standard patterns.
Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of clothes and shopping, you’ve been wearing the same four outfits for almost a year, and you’ve got nightmares of job interviews dancing around your subconsciousness, you start thinking it would be kinda fun to get in on the action. So I did.
I had a custom suit tailored at B’Lan, modeled roughly after a JCrew picture I grabbed on the internet the night before. I debated about going to Yaly Couture, the shop in town with the best reputation for suits and with the highest prices, but I fell in love with a grey pinstripe Super 110 wool at B’Lan. The first take was not good. The pants, despite being measured rather extensively, could not even be zipped. And the jacket? Well, let’s just say whoever sewed the jacket must have been watching Star Trek the night before. After I got them to majorly tone down the shoulders and majorly widen the pants, the second take was better. All in all, I probably had seven fittings to get it right.
In the end, there are things I don’t love about the suit. You need to be very precise in what you want, right down to every little pintuck and button. For example, I paid more to have the suit lined. What I ended up with was a lined jacket and unlined pants. The response of the sales representative at B’Lan was that suit pants are always unlined. Since I have lined suit pants at home, I know that’s not true. Maybe in Asia, but not as a general rule. Plus when they offered me the lining option, they never specified it was for the pants. Then again, I never specified it was for both the pants and jacket. So there you go. They begrudgingly offered to remake the pants for a reduced fee, but in the end, I didn’t want to sink any more money into the suit. The pants are also a little straighter than I envisioned, but I realized I probably didn’t communicate what I wanted in a clear enough fashion. The sample suits I saw at Yaly look a little more finished, but overall, the fabric is nice and the suit is cheaper than what I’d pay at JCrew. The real test will be whether it holds up over time. We’ll see – right now it is still enroute from Vietnam to Pittsburgh. Hopefully it will get home in time for job interviews. Oh God I just threw up in my mouth a little.
I also had a casual dress made at a little shop I wandered by. The name of the shop is something like Hieu Vai Gia Dinh Family Cloth Shop. Many of the dresses on display in town are similar and rather flimsy, but I liked the fabric in the window. From a catalog of dress patterns, the tailor and I designed the dress based upon parts of patterns I liked. She whipped it up, with a lining, in something like 12 hours’ time. One set of tweaks, and it was good to go. I really love the dress and it was fun to design something from scratch without making a major investment.
Despite the tailors’ best efforts, Sean never gave into having a suit made, although he wavered once or twice. They were trying to sell to the wrong man; he already has a suit, and he wears the same suit to wedding, funerals, job interviews, and my old firm’s holiday parties. But he did end up having a suit made, albeit of a much different variety. I may have mentioned before Sean is obsessed with keeping our packs light, even to the point of recording our bags’ weights on his Ipod at the airlines’ weigh ins. He is so obsessed, he insisted upon using a pair of his shorts as his swim trunks. This worked fine when we were only visiting beaches now and again, but with a month of straight beach time coming up, he finally caved into wanting separate swim trunks. (But only if he could ditch the shorts, of course).
We saw a pair of swim trunks in the window of a tailor shop in Hoi An, and wouldn’t it be fun to have custom swim trunks made turned into actually having said swim trunks made. There was only three problems. (1) The trunks turned out to be REALLY ugly. I guess we’re bad designers. (2) At $15, the trunks were three times what he could have spent buying one of the thousands of pairs of board shorts sold on the streets. (3) The lining was rather, um, small. So the swim trunks never saw the light of day, and some hotel employee is now the proud owner.
In the end, getting custom clothes made in Hoi An wasn’t all it cracked up to be. It was fun getting something you designed made to your exact measurements, but I don’t think it is worth any major investments. Spreading out your purchases from different tailors definitely helps in case the tailor turns out to be a dud, but it also means you’ll be running all over town to fitting appointments. If I had to do it over again, I would have a fun casual dress made and maybe a going out shirt made from Vietnam’s beautiful silks, but that’s it. I wouldn’t have gotten the suit made. We’ll see how it fares, but I have the sneaking suspicion I’ll wear it a few times and then ditch it for a JCrew suit bought on sale. We’ll see; maybe I’ll be surprised. Or, ideally, I’ll have a job where I won’t have to wear a suit.
Total price: $190 (premium wool pants and jacket + silk/poly blend lining for jacket) + $15 (swim trunks) + $26 (casual cotton dress, lined) + $37 (3-4 month shipping to United States for suit, sandals I sent home, and four Vietnamese lanterns direct from B’Lan).
Dunedin is a little big city on the South Island’s east coast. Home to New Zealand’s largest university, it has a definite college town feel. Maybe because of the couches plunked on the front porches next to empty beer cans? Or maybe because it is full of young people and energy and architecture befitting a university next to stately trees. Whatever it is, Dunedin seems like a cool place to go to school. The town radiates out from the center octagon, filled with trendy shops and a Cadbury chocolate plant. There’s parks and hiking trails right within city limits, and if you go to the outskirts, you find a coastal road snaking out on the Otago Peninsula that is beautiful whether you take the high or low road. My favorite part of Dunedin was its happening little Saturday farmer’s market, located in the parking lot next to its stately train station. Fall (which apparently is an American word, I’m told) in April means you get apples next to hot cross buns. We filled our campervan’s tiny cupboards and fridge to the brim with sweet Pacific Beauty apples, juicy pears, crisp cucumbers, fresh sourdough bread, free range eggs, organic garlic, berry farm jam, crisp lettuce greens, and many more tasty treats (including a real honest to goodness chocolately brownie, a fair trade organic long black espresso drink, and savory pies that may have gotten stuffed into our pieholes before we even hit the road).