Vietnam – The Colour of Money

So, having fallen for Vietnam’s physical attractions, her ability to cook delicious meals, her spirit, her stories and her intellect, the final thing to consider is how does she measure up financially and what is her relationship to the crumpled notes.

Amusingly, when we visited one of the village temples, where we were shared green tea with the four elderly caretakers, we took a picture of the gathering and one of the women said she needed her glasses to see the picture on the screen, her friend joked with her teasing that she didn’t need glasses to see the colour of money.

 Sharing green tea with the locals and chatting about the ‘colour of money’

Ideas of wealth diverge vastly amongst the various living positions in society, in the rural farmlands, a man is considered rich if he has a gas hob rather than burning sticks to boil water. Whereas in sophisticated Saigon, a modest courtyard café (that we were trying to locate as per a recommendation) has recently been replaced with a bling shopping centre, with a stylish Armani Café, with exorbitant prices to match. The new up and coming Hanoi elite enjoys rooftop cocktails and valet service at the ‘Paris Deli’.

Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, however there is massive inflation and the global financial crisis has introduced uncertainty with banks quelling their appetite for risk following the rampant investment and speculation in property. Vietnam has abandoned the state socialism and is embracing free market capitalism. The major investors have ironically been the US, along with Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the EU with global investments of $3.3 billion in 2008 down form $9 billion in 2007. But the country is still mostly agriculture with 25% of the population living in urban areas and 75% rural in 2004.


The majority of tour operators that proliferate street frontage do not realize the value of brand, trust, reputation, relationships and customer focus. Although they wave at you ecstatically to entice you of the street, most fail to follow through on their promises. Although, we did experience some tourist focused businesses that had managed to scale their service and offer consistently good quality, a fair price and transparency. One of these was the ‘Sinh Café’ that has recently re-branded itself as ‘Sinh Tourist’. The other success was the cooking school and restaurants that I mentioned earlier in Hoi An. But there are always opportunities to be ripped off, so one must always be on guard remembering there is absolutely nothing for free and ‘bargains’ have to be worked hard for and sought out with effort.

Street Sellers

The street sellers are savvy businesswoman, although they are earning very little, they know the right things to sell at the right time, balloons on a Saturday for the children before Tet, night snacks for the party revellers and street breakfast for the workers. As a designer, there is so much to learn from how the design and construct their moving restaurants. From the use of materials, ease of transportation, gadgets and adaptability, some contain a charcoal grill, a cooler box, stools and a fruit stall, all slung over their shoulder on a bamboo stick.

Street sellers take the same position on the curb everyday

Tailor-Made (Epic)

Going to Hoi An for the perfectly tailored suit is one the main attractions for tourists, with five hundred tailors with streets lined with these emporiums. So, what can one expect from a custom designed suit? Is the transaction tailor-made for the vendor or the buyer? Having gone through this personalized service, I thought it similar to what the expectations of a holiday romance might be. One has so much hope at beginning, yet the success of the outcome depends entirely on what you want from the transaction and what the seller does.

The experience of tailor-made clothes, sometimes ideas get lost in translation

I wondered should the tailor be honest that they probably won’t be able to fulfil your high expectations, so you both know what you going to get out of the relationship. When you first enter the shop, there is an illusion that you are actually speaking to the tailor. These shops merely function as seduction room with the real work been done in a sweatshop outside of town.

At the beginning you hope to get that perfectly tailored suit, that you’ve always imagined, the tailor on the other hand, sees an opportunity to knock out something quickly before they close for Tet. They sit you down and you look at a Giorgio Armani website, where you see the perfectly fitted black suit (bearing in mind that you have completely ignored that the model is six-foot tall and skinny as a rake with no bosoms). The tailor makes a few scribblely notes and say it’s no problem, it’s possible, you’re excited at the prospect of my new suits and manage to give her an image on a memory stick because, guessing they have a big screen in the tailor shop, where they can see all the details up close.

A few hours after they’d taken my order, I have the first fitting of the top and trousers, the trousers are extremely tight but can be let out, the tops on the other hand are an amoeba flop of material. They say “similar, but not the same, same not possible”, all I could say after several protests “can you just fix it, so it at least flatters me?”

Then came the jackets, only the colour and the neckline were as per the image, everything else was improvised. At this stage I’m feeling exasperated and compromised and I’m regretting getting into this situation, but like all optimistic women, I want a ‘happy ending’ to the story.

We go for dinner, still not fully at ease and on the way back to the hotel, I pop back into the shop, in case there is anything else to try on. The pants fit fine but they’ve run out of the red linen fabric for the jacket and show me a shoddy ‘similar’ material. I say “With five hundred tailor shops and a fabric market in the town, can you not get anything to match?” They say they will look for a matching material and ask us call in at 11am tomorrow morning.

The next day, I call in. The tops have not been changed and they try to pass them off as finished. They say the tailor is very busy, but they will fix it themselves. They still have no fabric for the jacket and a stand-off follows. They eventually give me the option of finding the fabric myself in another shop. I’d say I checked up to twenty shops to find a match, so many ‘similar’ ones that were all claiming to be ‘real’ linens.

I felt like I was at a gambling table now and had wasted so much time, time I could spent working for a ‘real’ Armani suit. The last shop I tried, had a material that looked good, although different. I took a sample and brought it back to my tailor. They inform me that it’s not possible for them to go to that shop to buy material, as they have a bad relationship with the owner, so they send me back and say I should pay no more than $10 a metre. Returning to the other tailor shop, they don’t even acknowledge me, as I only want to buy fabric. They know I need it, so they say $20 a metre for fabric and walk away, they commiserate with me and say that you can buy the cheaper one for $13. I eventually get them down to $16.50, they wish me a happy New Year and intonate that they are sorry for ripping me off. They know when it’s not necessary to negotiate.

It’s 1:30pm now, I bring back the fabric to my tailor and they seem disappointed that they actually need to make the jacket. Their panic is growing, as this is the second last day the shop is open before they close for Tet. At this stage, I have all my chips on the table and I know the odds are against me of them pulling off the designer ‘like’ jacket that I first set out for.

It occurs to me when I eventually sit down for lunch that they said they would bring me to the button shop to pick out special buttons for the jackets. As I am ever the perfectionist, I make sure that this is also considered. They bring me there by moped, so I hop on the back of a sixteen year olds moped that is half my size. As the journey gets longer and longer, I think am I going back to Hanoi to get these buttons. Again, my expectations are that I will arrive at a beautiful emporium for buttons, but we arrive at a corner shop with nothing but plastic buttons behind an inconvenient glass counter. Nobody wants to help, and my sixteen year-old tailor urges me to make a decision straight away. So, I reluctantly pick something. The moped then pulls up outside the ‘sweat shop’ where my jacket has been constructed, bits of fabric are flying everywhere with ten men cramped into a shop front, fervently running through the last of the orders. I initially conceived that there would be big screen projecting pictures of the designs, after seeing the real ‘tailor shop’, I begin to realize how instructions and scribbles could get lost in translation.

My ‘Armani’ imitation jacket was then bundled into a plastic bag and we head back to the shop for what I hoped was the final fitting. They understandably want to rush me through it, keeping me a distance from the mirror, but on closer examination the fabric is puckered at the seams and one sleeve is still longer than the other, measuring revealed the inaccuracy. I felt I was back on a construction site, with sub-contractors trying to distract you from away from their dodgy workmanship.

My ‘tailor made’ suit

On the final day before closure of the shop for ‘Tet’, I return hesitantly with bated breath to put an end to this tailoring epic. Once I had entered the pin for my credit card into the machine, the assistant has disappeared without even a goodbye, leaving the young helper to give me the receipt. Transaction Complete, leaving the shop I barely got a good-bye. I wondered, are these good businesswomen, are they trying to build a brand and reputation and do they understand their customer needs?

As I walked back to the hotel with my suits and amoeba tops in hand, I reflected and wondered what I have learned from the experience. There are so many things to consider when you choose to get a bespoke item made, rather than buying an item of the shelf that has gone through the experience curve and rigorous testing. Consideration of the material is required, what are its properties? How much information do they have on the design? What are the edge finishes, stitching and seams? Does the design flatter your figure and not just the model in the picture? What is the relationship between the person taking the order and the tailor? And items that are out of your control, what kind of day is the tailor having? Is his wife putting him under pressure? Does he have a headache from sitting in a hot sweaty room? And how many other items does he have to finish in the same time frame? Considering all this, if your determined to get that tailor-made experience, it’s probably best to get something copied that already fits you well, rather than reinvent from scratch, remembering that the style and colour may not flatter your figure in the same way as svelte models in the pictures.

About Gemma Ginty

Service Designer // Architect // Strategist // Interested in cities, interactions and the ephemeral
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