As soon as we check into Hotel Chic on the outskirts of Hô.i An, Vietnam, my sister and I drop our bags and jump into a jeep to head to the city centre in search of fashion, leaving my husband behind to run through the rice paddies.
We know there is much to explore and eat in this whimsical UNESCO world heritage site, but first things first. The town is filled with tailors who turn out custom-made clothing in as little as 24 hours, but we want to ensure time for multiple fittings—after all, this might be our only experience of haute couture and we want to relish it.
After getting dropped on the edge of Ancient Town, in which no cars are allowed, we walk a kilometre in the wrong direction before getting our bearings. There are hundreds of clothing shops here, a tradition tied to Hô.i An's past as a trading port on the silk route. We've done our research and are in search of Yaly Couture and, though we are red-faced and sweaty when we finally find it, we are welcomed warmly by sales ladies clad in elegant áo dài (long tunics over trousers) who whisk us into an almost-overwhelming world of colour and texture.
I have a magazine photo of a suit, and my sister has her heart set on a wrap dress a la Diane von Furstenberg, so we are taken to different parts of the stylish, sprawling two-storey enterprise to choose appropriate fabrics from the thousands neatly piled on shelves lining the walls. While I stick with a classic charcoal wool-blend for the suit, I succumb to bright pink silk for the lining.
My sister and I meet near the fitting rooms, where our measurements are taken. As we wait for the sales ladies to calculate costs, we see a book featuring footwear and end up ordering boots as well. As with fabrics, there is an extensive array of leather from which to choose. We make an appointment for fittings the next day.
My husband is drinking a lychee martini at the White Marble a few blocks away and we order wine and tell him about our afternoon. (He describes the water buffalos he encountered on his run and from then on, we join him each morning. Sprinting through the brilliant green paddy fields is invigorating despite the humidity. (Plus, the hotel has an elevated pool perfect for a cooling dip post run.)
We head to Mango Rooms and score a table on the second-floor balcony overlooking the river. This is one of Tran Thanh Duc's three restaurants; he is a well-known chef who left Vietnam on a boat as a teenager, grew up in Texas, worked in kitchens all over the world and eventually returned home. His food is an inventive play on traditional dishes with Tex-Mex twists. Fresh fruits, flowers and fish figure prominently, and the plating is as pretty as a painting. We particularly enjoy the tuna and mango ceviche and duck quesadillas, washed down with watermelon margs.
The next morning, after a mind-boggling breakfast buffet of bánh tét (rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves) and spring rolls, curries and congee, pho and fried noodles, croissants and crème brulée, tropical fruits galore, and coffee with condensed milk, we cycle an easy two kilometres to the beach.
Then it's back into town to try on our clothes. When my husband sees how much fun we're having and the cost-to-quality ratio (I end up with two suits which fit like proverbial gloves, ankle boots and suede oxfords for $500), he gets fitted for suits and shirts. My sister's dress isn't flowing successfully across the front, and two tailors confer on how best to fix it.
As the day fades, we wander the streets, smitten with how the intermingling international influences play out in the architecture, which spans the 15th to 19th centuries: Chinese shophouses and temples, French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Bridge—the only covered bridge in the world to house a Buddhist temple. It was built in the 1590s as a symbol of goodwill between Chinese and Japanese merchants.
But we're ready for another body-filling feast and head to Brothers Café, where I feel like we've entered a bygone era as we cross a foot bridge into a river-side garden lit only by white lanterns. The menu is traditional, so we focus on Hô.i An specialties like cao lau (chewy rice noodles and pork topped with fresh herbs, bean sprouts and crunchy croutons) and banh bao vac (translucent "white rose" dumplings filled with flavourful ground shrimp).
Over the next few days, we revert back to more casual and creative restos. At Miss Ly's Cafe, the crispy wontons with prawn and pork are our highlight.
Then there are the restos run by Ms. Vy, a Vietnamese culinary icon, several bearing the name morning glory (rau muô´ng)—a water spinach said to be the most important food here after rice. So, of course, we share some stir fried in garlic. It is bright green and tasty, and a nice complement to the curries on offer.
It's a wonder we still fit into our new clothes when we finally pick up the finished products. Our sales women hug us and seem genuinely sad to say goodbye. Then it's one last night, laden with garment bags, to search out culinary delicacies along these age-old streets.