The Best-Dressed Backpacker in Hoi An

I’ve been struggling a bit over the last few days trying to decide how I should start tackling Vietnam. Do I need to do posts in an order that makes sense chronologically? Or geographically? Should I write about my stops in Vietnam in a way that highlights the progression of my feelings towards the country? And then it hit me: I don’t need to do anything in any particular order — I can start wherever I want. And so I think I’ll start with a place that, despite  being my fifth stop in Vietnam, feels very pertinent right now: Hoi An.

Hoi An (with all apologies for the recent lack of maps on this blog).

Hoi An is a lovely city. It has an awesome beach, a historic old town (which I somehow missed seeing), and some beautiful surrounding countryside. But mostly, it has clothing – a topic that feels awfully germane at the moment. Bear with me here.

Somewhere between Hoi An and Cua Dai beach

As I’ve mentioned before, when you’re backpacking you carry around literally everything you own in one fairly small package. You see all your choices laid out before you neatly (or not so neatly) each day: the same five shirts you’ve been wearing for ages,  rendered unrecognizable in both color and texture after months of profuse sweating and futile washings. The shorts you wore to ride an elephant bare-back, and then turned right around and took out for a night on the town. The flip flops you’ve donned both in the shower and at the ballet. One day, you wake up and realize you’d rather buy a pair of gecko-patterned MC Hammer pants on the street than go through one more afternoon in those items you once thought would be indispensable. You’d give just about anything to slip into something dry cleaned, or to put together an outfit with pieces that actually match rather than throwing on whatever you can make wearable with a few spritzes of Febreze.

One of my typical backpacking outfits. Since taking this picture, a few days after I left Arrowtown, the jeans have been discarded after becoming too hole-ridden and threadbare to wear. The fleece has been used as an umbrella, a picnic blanket, a pillow, and a seat cushion on a sopping-wet bar bench in Laos. The sunglasses have been scratched so badly I’ve thrown them away, as well. And the shirt? I’m wearing it at this very moment.

As terrible as it feels to say this when visiting countries where children often run around without pants or shoes, your limited clothing supply can start feel as if it defines your existence. My current wardrobe, for the record, says: “unemployed,” “running low on funds,” and “a little frayed around the edges.” And Hoi An seemed like a great place to fix that.

Hoi An, you see, is the custom-clothing capital of Vietnam. The city is stuffed with tailors who will make anything from a suit, to a pair of dress shoes, to a wedding gown, to your exact measurements and specifications — all for a pretty reasonable price. Given my ragged clothing and the city’s reputation, I thought a stop at a local tailor’s would be a great way to spend an afternoon. But when I walked into the shop, I probably should have commissioned some new linen shorts. Or a few tank-tops in breathable, sweat-stain-proof fabrics. Instead, what did I ask them to make for me?

A mock Stella McCartney blazer.

A diaphanous pink tulip skirt.

A pair of cropped trousers plucked from the pages of the J. Crew catalog.

A crisp sundress in embroidered cotton-candy pink.

A cashmere-blend little black dress.

Why did I order this stuff, you might ask? I am a backpacker. I don’t know when, in the near future, I thought I’d have occasion to wear any of these pieces. But out of all of them, it’s that little black dress that really got me thinking. Because when the tailor asked me what fabric I wanted it in, these are the exact words that came out of my mouth: “I want something I can wear to work, but then also go out in afterwards.”

Typical work attire at my most recent place of business.

To work at what job? Out in what city? My current lifestyle of choice involves rolling my wrinkled clothing into packing cubes each day and traversing third-world countries by discount sleeper bus. Even after I finish my Asian adventure, I’ll likely be volunteering on a farm in New Zealand, or working at some bakery in the middle of nowhere. And yet my mental autopilot still had me insisting on a dress that would look both tasteful at the office and super-hot for after-work cocktails.

I’m not sure exactly what this means. I don’t know what it says about my momentum to keep going, to be happy with temporary jobs and living situations instead of seeking out one place to live comfortably and a job that requires me to use my brain (and iron my clothes) again. Does my insistence on work-and-outing-appropriate clothing mean I miss my old lifestyle in New York? Or is it just an easy objection to my tired and dingy backpacking wardrobe?

How to photograph incredibly nice clothing in the least-flattering way possible: wait until your camera has developed a waterspot on the inside of the lens. Roll clothing up and stuff inside backpack, then let sit for approximately two weeks. Lay clothing out on top bunk of a dorm room, preferably under fluorescent lighting. For best results, choose a room with green walls.

As I near the end of my Asia trip, I can’t help but think I’m reacting to all these things. When I go back to New Zealand in eight days, I have no idea what I’ll be doing. I don’t know where I’ll work, where I’ll live, or who my friends will be. I’m ending this vacation with a readiness to get back to normal, but no clue what normal actually means for me these days. Maybe my recent shopping spree was just a way of reaching out for something familiar in the face of so much uncertainty.

And now, at least I know one thing for sure: whatever I end up doing after this trip, I’ll definitely be well dressed doing it.

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3 thoughts on “The Best-Dressed Backpacker in Hoi An

  1. Pingback: How I Spent the 4th of July on a Motorcycle in Vietnam « My Year on a Whim

  2. Pingback: 30 Lessons from Life on the Road « My Year on a Whim

  3. Pingback: Sheep Shearing for City Slickers « My Year on a Whim

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