On an Ao Dai High: Part II

Loan's stall

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 measruing my biceps

I am Helga. Hear me roar!

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.

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On an Ao Dai High in Saigon

beautiful woman in Ao Dai

beautiful ao dai woman 1960ishShe was stunning. And, for all practical purposes, I was stalking her. Moving past a lineup of tarnished, stationary yet imposing tanks and helicopters leftover from the Vietnam War, the woman wore a long sleeved neon yellow tunic dress fitted over flowing white trousers that barely revealed the tops of pointy kitten heeled shoes. Although in full 2014 vibrant color, she looked like she came straight from a black and white photo shoot for a 1960s Life magazine pictorial of Saigon.

This was my first up-close sighting of a woman wearing an ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional, elegant high-collared dress with slits up the sides that is typically worn with silk pants.

tank

In the courtyard of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants museum, I first pretended to be examining a tank, US Army 09A78969, and then moved closer to a wall displaying bold primary colored propaganda posters. I scrutinized one featuring Ho Chi Minh as if I was completely literate in Vietnamese. Really, I was just working up the nerve to ask the woman in the ao dai for a photo.

She was standing with a man who wore a polo shirt, khakis and had a camera dangling from his neck. Since we were at a museum, I assumed he was a tourist and the woman was possibly his guide — especially since she gestured toward the tank while she talked to the polo man. In a quiet moment, I finally approached her and asked if she spoke English.

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