Saturday, November 24, 2007

Colorful Finds in Hanoi

This week saw me making yet another pilgrimage to Hanoi for a couple of weeks of work ahead. But this time was different – I had procrastinated on making my hotel reservation and found myself suddenly in trouble when my laziness collided head-on with the start of high tourist season. Not only was my usual place booked solid – but almost all of the other hotels in the Old Quarter are completely packed solid. Or at least no rooms are available for the two solid weeks that I will need – both in and out of my price range.

Then, to add inconvenience to bad luck, the driver that brought me down to Hanoi refused to take me to the remote hotel buried deep in the traffic-choked claustrophobic lanes of the shop-filled tourist streets in the Old Quarter – the one that finally had agreed to give me a room for two weeks. That would have left me bailing at the hotel where my fellow passenger had a room and finding a local taxi to take me through the streets. Fortunately, the hotel that we did stop at first had a last minute opening for one night – and between my fellow passenger and the friendly hotel staff, we managed to negotiate a reasonable price arrangement and I got a perfectly comfortable room for the night.

Still, that left me the dilemma of Saturday with no room. So bright and early Saturday morning I was off on foot scouring neighborhoods for potential hotel rooms. I finally happened upon a Vietnamese hotel in a neighborhood halfway between the tourist district and the area where my hotel is. And what a lucky find it was! For $22 US/night, I scored a large 10th floor room (in a hotel with an elevator), with a bright window opening onto the Hanoi skyline and full of fresh air, two comfortable chairs, a writing desk, large wardrobe and very comfortable bed. The staff warned me sadly that this was their “small” room and they apologized for not having anything larger available. Small?!? This was almost three times the size of the room I had paid $10 more for the night before, and had a big tub and a window allowing fresh air into the room. Only downside? No breakfast included, but then, neither did my former regular hotel.

So, I was left to a Saturday of happy discoveries. After finding the hotel I set out to properly explore the neighborhood. I was several blocks south of the tourist district, and had finally escaped the prices and obsessive vendors. Yet there are a large number of nice shops, restaurants (every other one being Japanese…), coffee and juice shops, and it is near one of the largest markets and largest upscale shopping complex in Hanoi. Walking distance (if you’re a walker like me anyway) to just about everywhere I would want to be. People were friendly and not pushy. Streets are green with trees. And the whole area (my hotel included) is a wireless hotspot, so I can access the internet from almost everywhere – though I must confess to being torn between that and the 30 some-odd English language stations I can watch in my hotel room…

And so – for one of my adventures of the day:

As I said, my new hotel is located in prime Vietnamese shopping area, specifically next to the largest fabric market I have ever seen. The entire top floor of the almost one-city-block area (minus a large open atrium that looks down on the green grocers in the center) is packed tight with fabric stalls. Most of the stalls sell the same standard fare of fabric – cottons, corduroy, poly-mixes and wools for making suits; the lighter-weight shirt and blouse material in solids and prints; rich velvets, heavy knit material for sweaters and even some jersey for sweatshirts. There are a few specialty shops including denim and silks mixed in, and one whole corner devoted to pillows and bedding. Each shop is miniscule – the average being just long enough to lie down in and deep enough to sit upright with legs extended – height is only limited by how high the bolts can be stacked without falling over. Each booth is thigh-deep in layers of bulk fabric.

But what struck me the most was the atmosphere. I visited on a Saturday afternoon – prime shopping time for office workers and students and other people who can’t simply choose the day of week to browse fabrics. I emerged from the dark stairway to find myself ten people deep to the nearest stall – in a space so small that I could have almost reached over those ten people to touch the nearest fabric. For all the Black Friday-esque crowds, it was almost as if the very softness of the cloth was absorbing the energy, breathing out sedatives even as it absorbed the noise of the hundreds of voices.

The vendors, having been exposed to this tranquilizing atmosphere the longest, were the most subdued. Considering the fact that each one of the thousand-plus was selling practically the same stock as their three hundred closest neighbors, there was no rabid salesmanship or mind-numbing competition for attention between the sellers. There were no megaphones advertising half-price deals; no in-your-face shoving to prove that this bolt was indeed far superior to the identical twin next door. The opium of the fabric acted so strongly that even haggling seemed to be at a bare minimum and many were stretched out fast asleep on top of their inventory.

This picture I randomly found on Flickr captures the atmosphere well - great shot three-b.

The customers, still high on the intoxicating effect of the whirl of colors, were more vigorous, but the sellers calmly offered each interested party a seat on the child’s footstools that are so popular here, effectively blocking the two-foot-wide walkways with sitting human bodies. They proceeded to calmly introduce different colors and styles, easing each potential buyer into a languid consideration of the benefits of each texture and weight.

Even as a foreigner I attracted relatively little attention beyond the passing remark. I was allowed to browse each stall and examine the stacks for what I was interested in. I was addressed in polite Vietnamese, asking what I was looking for with none of the cutthroat tourist-quarter language showing how good-good something you would never want anyway was; there wasn’t even the same aggressiveness that I had encountered in the kitchen and housewares area in the lower level of the same building. When I asked prices, they gave me a reasonable quote – the same they were giving to all the other Vietnamese shopping beside me.

And thus, I was lured. I happily purchased two different corduroy colors and wove and shoved and dodged my way through the stalls until I found a denim dealer. Average price was about $3.50/meter – perhaps still a little high, but priceless if I can get custom-fitted pants in a land of size zeros. I saw as much as I could see – but now want to go back and look for flannels for making winter sheets for my bed. Then there’s the idea of looking for ribbed cotton or jersey to have turtlenecks made. And then, as winter passes I should think of a spring and summer wardrobe. Ah! The potential is endless!

Obviously the Vietnamese agree with me, so I am happy to say that the tailors of Vietnam are not going out of business any time soon. And when you can make people as comfortable buying something as the laid-back fabric sellers in Vietnam, why not go back for more?

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