It was only 8 a.m., but the narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter were churning with motorbikes and bicycles, the sidewalks crowded with people eating rice-noodle soup. As my friend Amy and I made our way down Hang Gai Street, we were tempted by stuffed banana leaves, longans, and dragon fruits. But we had set out that morning to satisfy our wardrobes, not our palates.
This was my first trip to Asia, and I intended to follow the advice of a friend from New York: "Start your trip at the tailor's." Seduced by the vibrant colors of Maggie Cheung's glamorous wardrobe in Wong Kar-Wai's movie In the Mood for Love, I wanted a fitted cheongsam of my own. I'd brought magazine clippings of modern Suzy Wong—style dresses and also several pieces of clothing I planned on having copied.
Anyone who had visited Vietnam raved about the workmanship and quality of clothing they'd found there. "The dresses that sell for hundreds of dollars in SoHo boutiques look like the lining of the ones I get custom-made in Vietnam," said Ellen Kaplowitz, a travel photographer.
Amy and I hired a guide to take us shopping—a common practice in Asia—and to show us around Hanoi. Assuming that we, like many of his other clients, were looking for a Western shopping experience, he led us to Khaisilk, a large store catering to foreign visitors. We'd been hoping to find a family-run workshop filled with handmade clothing. Instead, we were besieged by robotic saleswomen who steered us toward ready-to-wear items.
Still, I liked the store's samples of handsewn cheongsams, so I decided to have one made there. During my fitting, I began to understand the lure of tailoring. I felt transformed, as though I'd slipped into someone else's shoes—someone with a much bigger budget than mine. Meanwhile, Amy wandered down the street, trying to find someone to copy a $450 Mayle handbag she had coveted back home, a flat rectangular fabric bag that would have been simple enough to duplicate had she brought one with her to show. This was how she stumbled upon Thuy Ky, a shop packed with bolts of fabric in brilliant hues. Ao dais (tunics with loose-fitting silk pants) and hand-stitched silk shirts with mandarin collars and frog closures hung on the walls.