This story is a continuation of “On an Ao Dai High in Saigon,” and some of the information is repeated for clarity in the new version.
Hoi An, Vietnam, May 2014
In a frilly, white top, tight jeans and slip-on kitten heels, Loan hoisted her tiny self up on to a worn wooden shelving unit in her tailoring stall, No. 7 “Cloth Shop.” Like a librarian on a sliding ladder, searching a dusty floor-to-ceiling bookcase, her hands moved from shelf to shelf pulling various reams of silk and cotton fabrics. After lowering herself down like a gymnast, she showed me the selections for closer inspection. Easily a few feet taller than Loan, I felt oafish — like a 1980s burly and brutish East German swimmer named Helga. I doubted whether her Vietnamese measuring tape would even have enough units to assess my broad shoulders.
Loan whipped out her measuring tape and, surely, released more of the white tailoring strip than was usually necessary. While lifting my arms straight out, I scanned the interior of the Hoi An marketplace, which was crammed with tailoring stalls like Loan’s, a food court and several souvenir stands with lanterns, fans, conical hats, trinkets and inflatable toys. Bored shopkeepers sat on plastic stools, playing cards. Their laughing children instigated a game of tag in the tight confines. A grungy backpacker couple in the tailoring stall next to Loan’s spoke to each other in German while holding a rather shapeless linen dress. The German man, in a grimy, ripped tank top, haggled in English with the Vietnamese tailor over the price of the linen garment.
Meanwhile, Loan gently wrapped the measuring tape around my damp neck, which glistened with a permanent necklace of perspiration. The day had been heinously humid, and I wondered how Vietnamese women could even bear to wear an ao dai, the beautiful traditional high collared, fitted tunic dress with side slits that is sported over silk trousers. The heat, however, would not deter me. I had come to Loan specifically for an ao dai.
But, somehow, I thought a fitting for the elegant dress that symbolized Vietnam and was emblazoned on everything from keychains and magnets to lovely embroidered wall hangings would be more…glamorous. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting.
Was I supposed to be in a well-lit New York Cityish loft, sitting on a white satin couch, enjoying a highly efficient air conditioning system, sipping champagne and eating spring rolls while beautiful Vietnamese women twirled and modeled their ao dais on a streamlined catwalk?
Loan moved the tape around my chest. “Can you make me have big boobs in the ao dai?” I asked her.
She nodded. “If you are bigger here,” she cupped my breast, “Then not so much here,” she maintained, patting my stomach. Taken aback, I was glad, at least, that Loan understood the problem of a having a little extra lining around the tummy.
“Do you think,” I paused, “that I will look good in an ao dai?
“Yes, you have the right shape for ao dai.”
“Do you think I will I offend anyone? Will it be weird that I’m wearing it?” I wondered if by walking around in an outfit so clearly not part of my own culture, I would be considered a “poseur,” like a colonial wannabe Saigon siren or worse, like the equivalent of a gringo adorned with an oversized sombrero in Mexico.
“No, no.” Loan placed her hand on my bare bicep, which looked like a steroid infused muscle next to her small hand. “Why do you ask? You will be beautiful. You must trust Loan.”
What I really wanted was for Loan to transform me into an image that had stuck with me since I was eleven. I first saw it in the 1979 World Book Encyclopedia’s Ci-Cz volume, which showcased a 27-page section devoted to clothing, and part of the spread included illustrations of global garb. Regularly paging through the fascinating feature almost every day after school, I became somewhat obsessed with the Asian attire. Attractive Indian, Japanese, Burmese, Indonesian people, just to name a few, wore flowing saris, elegant kimonos, regal longyis and batik sarongs.
While all the foreign frocks appealed to me, the Vietnamese ao dai illustration was the clear standout. A beguiling young woman with lustrous, long black hair, who seemed to be swaying on the page — even sashaying — wore a striking red ao dai over the standard white trousers. A conical hat completed her look.
To me, at eleven, that picture not only represented Vietnam, beauty, and class, but also, more importantly, an ingenious way to meet a particular dress code requirement.
Every other day, my mom made me wear a dress to school. I hated wearing them, especially since their coverage was so unreliable when one hung upside down on the monkey bars. An ao dai seemed to be the perfect compromise: a dress with pants. Ultimately, I had to settle for wearing shorts under my skirts, but I never forgot about the ao dai. Thirty-five years later, I stood with Loan, asking her to fashion one for me with the added bonus of the silk and dart version of silicon.
“Do you have an ao dai?” I asked Loan as she wrote down my final measurements in a rather battered spiral notebook.
“Yes, of course,” she said. “But I do not wear it often. Only special occasions.”
Since arriving in Vietnam, it seemed to me as if the only women who regularly wore the ao dai were in the tourism industry. Hotel staff, tour guides, museum docents, gift store operators all looked like they beamed straight out of a 1963 LIFE magazine pictorial of Saigon by noted photographer John Dominis. Spotting these women in ao dais, despite the fact that, essentially, they were clad in uniforms, thrilled me every time.
Appropriately, my first outing in Saigon was a motorscooter excursion with Ao Dai Tours. Ivy, an effusive college student and part-time tour guide, had revved up on a motorscooter to meet me outside my hotel. She wore a red ao dai and black silk pants.
It was almost as if the World Book Woman had arrived to pick me up except that Ivy wore a helmet rather than a conical hat and a denim jacket covered much of her gown. The decision to don denim seemed insane, mostly, because the heat was so heavy. While Ivy fitted me with a helmet, I noticed faint sweat spots on the front of her frock.
“They are hot,” Ivy said later when I asked her how she liked wearing an ao dai as we sat on small red plastic chairs and drank iced Vietnamese coffees on a Saigon sidewalk.
“I read that an ao dai festival was held in March,” I continued, trying to get some insights on the outfit’s current status. “The article said that fashion designers are making newer and more modern versions of the ao dai.
“Yes, but it was not successful,” Ivy shrugged her denim clad shoulders and took another sip of her coffee with a straw.
“Really?” I was shocked since I couldn’t think of a lovelier look, and again, in my opinion, you could never overrate the benefit of incorporating pants into any ensemble. “What about school girls? Do they still wear white ao dais? Aren’t they considered to be high school and university uniforms or graduation gowns?”
“Yes, but university students do not want to wear them anymore.”
It seemed as if many women didn’t really want to wear the ao dai when it was part of a dress code. I was concerned when two ao dai attired gift shop employees from Ho Chi Minh City’s Reunification Palace sat down on the curb of a walkway in a park across from the building complex. One of the clerks, dressed in a Pepto Bismal pink hued ao dai, kicked off her jewel encrusted shoes and began texting. The other woman, who inexplicably wore a bulky sweatshirt over her powder blue tunic, laid an opened Styrofoam box heaped full of takeout food in her lap. The park, well-manicured and maintained, had plenty of benches. It stressed me out that they sat on the dirty curb in their beautiful, albeit Easter egg colored pastel, ao dais.
I thought perhaps this indifferent approach was more part of a big city attitude. But in the charming low-key town, Hoi An, it was the same. The women who worked at my hotel agreed that ao dais are not compatible with Vietnam’s vicious dew points. And it seemed like the minute one of the women was off duty, she changed into skinny jeans and a top with blingy embellishments that looked like it came straight off the rack of a Miley Cyrus collection.
Were ao dais obsolete — a vision of the past? Perhaps the idea of an iconic outfit now relegated mainly to tourism campaigns was what made me nervous to go back to Loan’s shop for the actual fitting of my ao dai. Was I going to look like the Vietnamese version of a cheesy outdated Elvis in Vegas? Yikes, I’d even be wearing a high collared tunic with white trousers that billowed like bell-bottoms straight from the 1970s.
When I arrived at No. 7, Loan beamed and brought out my purple silk tunic and white trousers. I smiled back, but the funny feeling continued as I looked for a dressing room area.
“You can change here,” Loan motioned to the space right in front of her. I glanced over and spotted her husband shelving fabrics. Catching my eye, Loan said something to her husband in shrill Vietnamese and shooed him away with her hand.
Putting the purple silk tunic on like a contortionist ready for a straight jacket, metal chains and a large tank of water, I tried to reach one arm around and crank the other to the side to work the many snaps. Rushing over to inspect, Loan put her measurement notebook down and swiftly buttoned me up.
The white trousers, which were so smooth on the outside, stuck slightly to my sweaty skin on the inside. The tighter fit of the chest area of the tunic immediately corrected my posture. I lowered my head and eyed the shelf of my bodacious chest. Loan nodded, clasped her hands and then kicked off her slip-on kitten heels.
“Put these on,” she commanded and then walked barefoot over to one of the souvenir shops. As I attempted to cram my feet into her slip-ons, she came back with a conical hat, and an almost-full-length mirror.
I was not the World Book Woman. In fact, with my “white” hair pulled back, erect posture and new bosom, I did, indeed, look a bit like a French colonial ma ‘dame. However, the ao dai was beautiful. The orchid purple vied with the glimmering color of a dusky Hoi An evening sky reflected in the Thu Bồn River. And just like the river reflection punctuated with pinkish clouds and shiny city lights, my electric purple gown shimmered with the same tones as I moved.
Loan paraded me around the vicinity, and I scrutinized the reaction of some of the shopkeepers. It was nearing the end of the day, and two women sat on low stools, counting money and recording figures on a legal pad. They looked up and stared for a minute before returning their attention to the day’s bookkeeping.
Damn. They clearly were not impressed. These shopkeepers and tailors probably saw hundreds of women like me trying to live out an Asian persuasion fantasy. Originally, wanting to leave the market in the ao dai, I wasn’t quite ready for more indifferent expressions. Fortunately, Loan needed to hem the trousers, so l exited the market in my tank top and skirt. The ao dai, wrapped neatly in brown paper, arrived later that night at my hotel. As an excuse for not venturing out in the newly hemmed ao dai, I told myself I needed to pack for my departure to Hue the next day.
Early the next morning, I put on my ao dai. I had one more chance. Opening the door to my hotel room, I peeked out to see if anyone was in the hallway. My hair, still wet from the shower, dripped on the high mandarin collar. I learned early on that trying to dry, straighten, curl, gel even brush my hair in Vietnam was a complete waste of time. The humidity would have its way with me no matter what.
I took the staircase rather than the elevator, since I didn’t want to be confined in a small, awkward space with anyone. Descending the spiral staircase, I held up the sides of the tunic and watched the white pants sway and move as my flip-flopped feet met each step. At times, from my vantage point, the pants looked fluid — like cream streaming from a pitcher. Sweat began to soak into the silk under my arms. Five floors — perhaps awkward silence in an elevator would have been better.
As I arrived in the lobby, some of the hotel staff looked up from the front desk. Ngoc, a cute and somewhat sassy young woman with a chic asymmetrical haircut, called out, “You got an ao dai! Come, let us see it!”
“Is it weird that I’m wearing this?” I asked as I moved over to the front desk. More sweat absorbed into the silk.
“No. Why?” Ngoc scrunched her nose and looked at me quizzically. I was already thinking that I probably reminded her of a grandmother to whom she needed to show respect and remain evasive about questions regarding appearance.
“You look wonderful! You must have pictures taken.” Ngoc maintained.
Jinh, who answered the hotel phones, wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail and donned a scoop necked red chiffon ao dai over yellow trousers. She came out from behind the front desk and over to inspect my brand new version of Vietnamese vintage.
“Both of you sit down,” Ngoc directed as she came over to set up an impromptu photo shoot. She suggested we sit on an ornate, lacquered teak wooden bench that looked like a dragon’s body and about as comfortable as the concrete floor. I sat down first. Ngoc and Jinh draped one side of the purple fabric over the bench’s arm just like the train of a royal gown. Settling down on the bench, Jinh arranged her own dress, and then Ngoc snapped away with my iPhone. Despite making goofy faces and hugging Jinh for the photos, I still felt like I was closer to being an out-of-place, washed-up Vegas lounge act than the World Book Woman.
The hotel’s phone rang and a deliveryman arrived, so Ngoc and Jinh went back to their stations. Rising from the bench, I decided to make a more public debut out on the streets. I left the lobby of the hotel and crossed the peaceful street to a small café and convenient store where I frequently purchased bottled water and an occasional beer. Indeed, I needed water for the road trip to Hue. And, at that moment, despite it being morning, a beer sounded like a good idea to dial down my nerves.
While selecting a water from the portable cooler, I heard someone ask, “Are you Steph?” I wondered who would possibly know me here.
“Yes,” I answered and turned toward a man who was dressed in a button down shirt that was tucked neatly into grey knit pants. He wore a lavaliere with a tour guide ID on the end of the blue cord. He introduced himself as “Ha” and told me he would be showing me around Hue for the day. It turns out, Ha had been waiting at the cafe because he had arrived earlier than expected.
“May I buy you a coffee?” Ha asked.
“Yes, thank you, that would be very nice. I love Vietnamese coffee.”
Ha smiled and went to one of the plastic tables, pulling a chair out for me to sit down.
I indicated that I would be right over, but first I sorted through the dong bills that I had finally learned to recognize by color. I paid for the large water, which I already wanted to guzzle down, since I, probably, had sweat out at least half of my body’s composition.
While I waited for change, I felt hands on me. They moved down my shoulders to my back, gently smoothing the silk aoi dai fabric. While the action wasn’t quite creepy, it startled me. I turned around and discovered a short, sturdy older woman in a conical hat. She grinned, revealing black coated teeth that had been all the rage in Vietnam in the earlier twentieth century.
I smiled back at her and bowed with my hands pressed together. As she patted my shoulder again, I felt like she was blessing me. Although she didn’t say anything, I said “cảm ơn” thank you. She approved of me and my look. I bowed again and then watched her shuffle down the quiet Hoi An street.
Joining Ha for coffee, I believe I even sashayed over to the table. We sat and talked about the weather and how my visit was going. A man at a table nearby looked up from his newspaper at me briefly and nodded with a faint smile. Back to his paper, he turned the crinkly pages and read the morning headlines. Meanwhile, I enjoyed conversation and sipped iced Vietnamese coffee in my ao dai.
• Women walking on a catwalk:
• Graduating students in ao dais:
• Elvis in Las Vegas:
• Iced Vietnamese coffee