Shop till you drop
What we say:
An absolutely ridiculous number of shops are scattered throughout town, with most of them concentrated in the area between Hai Ba Trung, Phan Chu Trinh, Hoang Dieu and the riverside. Competition keeps the prices down, but also means that tourists are subjected to the constant badgering of touts and salespeople -- after a few days of this, you may be ready to flee.
You'll want to know which of the myriad cobblers and cutters is the best. The truth is, excellent quality is provided by very few places when judged by Western standards and there are plenty of scams to be wary of. Still, it's all good fun so long as you aren't expecting Saville Row tailoring at rock bottom prices. We find a good rule of thumb is to visit a lot of shops before buying, and go with your gut. If they are trying to rush you and give you the hard sell, smile and move on.
In among the mercenary merchants are plenty of decent folks who take pride in their work -- it isn't so hard to sort them out. The biggest mistake is to get overwhelmed by the limitless choices and go hog-wild at one shop on the first day. Try getting one piece made before commit to a larger order. Most will have the piece ready for trying on by the end of the day, which will give you a chance to assess the quality of work and integrity of the staff before you commit to being fitted for a whole new wardrobe. Do bear in mind that it's unusual for a garment to be perfect on the first fitting, with some tailors taking several attempts to achieve a good fit; tailoring can really eat into your time in Hoi An, so be wary of this if you only have a few days to explore.
The leather industry is still fairly new to Hoi An, and the quality of craftsmanship and materials are still very hit and miss -- prices are high compared to what you can get off the peg back home. If you have problems getting shoes to fit back home, cross it off your list entirely, as you're very unlikely to find a cobbler in town who can address issues with problem feet. If you can't resist, look at other customers' finished orders to check quality and ask them for their feedback before placing an order.
Another new addition to the shopping scene in Hoi An is the opticians. Again, in our experience, we've found technology and equipment decades behind, so get prescriptions done at home. If you need a curved lense or anything complicated, it's unlikely they will have the apparatus to do a good job; it's also unlikely they will tell you this before you've put down a deposit. Another thing to be wary of are the frames -- most are exactly the same as the ones being sold by mobile vendors for $5, the only difference being the expensive display case and an $80 price tag.
If having something made to measure is high on your list of priorities, you might be better off getting a piece of jewellery commissioned instead. The silversmiths in Quang Nam are some of the best in Asia. Materials such as gemstones are easily sourced and most items can be turned around in a day or two. Do be vigilant, as sometimes the quality of materials on offer are not quite what the retailer claims them to be -- if the price seems too good to be true, it usually is. As with tailors, shop around and don't settle for the cheapest.
In addition to the clothes, Hoi An is truly a goldmine for unique handmade pottery, jewellery, statuary, furniture, quilts, embroidered sheets -- the list goes on and on. It's a great place to pick up astonishingly good local artwork, too -- galleries showcasing some of Vietnam's greatests have started to pop up on the outskirts of town, and it's even possible to get artwork commissioned to order in a couple of days. The best place to look is on Nguyen Minh Khai Street, just over the Japanese Bridge. Most places will arrange international shipping for you, so you don't have to lug all that stuff around until the end of your trip; or go to the post office, which is used to tourists turning up with massive packages. Most services get there in the end but if you want a trusted service, UPS now has branches throughout town – look out for their sign.
There is also a new boutique shopping scene blossoming in Hoi An and it's possible to buy off-the-peg fashion from a number of small designers based in the old town.
Specific shops you may want to check out include Hot Chili, which has two shops that specialise in beach and casual fashionwear, including great quality swimwear and a small men's range. They also have a small homewares section, with handpainted prints. Prices start at around $15. Both shops are in beautifully restored ancient houses.
Metiseko is an 'eco chic lifestyle' homeware and fashion shop that has won awards for its environmental work. Designs are based around travel, in prints on organic cottons and silks. Product lines include a clothing range for women and children, along with handmade quilts and cushion covers. They have two boutiques.
avAna, an expat-run boutique, offers original accessories, clothes, shoes, childrenswear and a small homewares selection. Designs are made by local craftspeople and materials and are fair trade. They also recently trained and outsourced work to a hilltribe (Ca Tu) in the Central Highlands, aiming to give them a sustainable, fair income.
Papaya T-shirts have branches throughout Vietnam selling cotton printed T-shirts – they created the famous and much copied iPho tee. They invest some profits into supporting underpriviliged families in Hoi An. They're at 1 Nguyen Minh Khai (by the Japanese Bridge), 627 Hai Ba Trung, 164 Nguyen Thai Hoc and 353 Nguyen Duy Hieu Streets.
Jade Rabbit Emporium is a treasure chest of souvenirs, novelties, homeware, teas and culinary fare including blended spices, seeds and some great blended salts (the fish sauce one is surprisingly good), all based around local and naturally sourced ingredients.
For a jeweller, you can't go wrong with Lotus Jewellery, one of the original shops in the old town. They guarantee all their materials and have a great off-the-peg selection, which is widely copied throughout the multitude of other jewellery shops in town. They have some great locally inspired designs like conical hat pendants, sampan river boat earrings plus classic designs as well.
We'd suggest holding off spending all your money until you've seen at least three other places: Hoa Nhap Handicrafts, which employs a staff of disabled craftspeople that does some truly excellent work, the Lifestart Foundation, a grassroots non-profit that helps disadvantaged Vietnamese families become self sufficient has some very cool one-off gift and craft items and the Handicrafts Shop, where we found an incredible variety of items at prices that seemed pretty darn reasonable to us. Both Lifestart and Reaching Out also offer craft workshops where staff teach you the intricacies of local craft techniques like lantern making and painting. They are by far the best workshops in town and taking a class will give you the chance to meet the people who benefit from the charities in person. A visit to Reaching Out's 'silent' teahouse on 131 Tran Phu is highly recommended.
AvAna: 57 Le loi St, Hoi An. T: (0510) 3911 611. http://www.hoian-design.com
Handicrafts Workshop: 9 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An.
Hot Chili: 67 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and 43 Trieu La St, Hoi An. T: (0510) 3929 553. http://www.hotchilifashion.com
Jade Rabbit Emporium: 9 Nguyen Phuc Chu Street, An Hoi, Hoi An. http://www.jaderabbitemporium.com
Lifestart Foundation Workshop: 77 Phan Chau Trinh, Hoi An. T: (0167) 355 9447. http://www.lifestartfoundation.org.au
Lotus Jewellery: 53A Le Loi and 82 Tran Phu Sts, Hoi An. T: (0510) 3917 889. http://www.lotusjewellery-hoian.com
Metiseko: 3 Chau Thuong Van and 86 Nguyen Thai Hoc Sts, Hoi An. T: (0510) 3929 278. http://www.metiseko.com
Papaya T-Shirts: 627 Hai Bat Rung St, 164 Nguyen Thai Hoc and 353 Nguyen Duy Hieu Sts, Hoi An. http://www.papaya-tshirt.com
Reaching Out (Hoa Nhap) Handicrafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc (next to Tan Ky House), Hoi An. T: (0510) 391 0168, 386 2460 http://www.reachingoutvietnam.com
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