As you explore Vietnam you are bound to notice a lot of women dressed in a gown and trousers. This unique style of dress is called an Ao Dai. ‘Ao’, meaning clothing and ‘Dai’, meaning long. The Ao Dai, is a symbolic dress representative of the deep history and culture of Vietnam. It has gone through a vast transformation over the years, to get to where it is today.
If you’re excited to be a part of this rich history and dive into culture and tradition, you may even want get your own Ao Dai while you are in Hoi An. In this article, Hidden provides you with a brief history of this beautiful garment, along with where you can get your very own Ao Dai custom-made in Hoi An. We touch on the differences between pre-made garments and tailored ones and throw in a couple of our own “Hidden Hints” on where the best spots in Hoi An are for your perfect Ao Dai photo.
History of the Ao Dai
Creation of the Ao Dai dates back to before the 15th century, when Vietnam was under Chinese rule. Since this time, the Ao Dai has been under the same scrutiny of politics as the country itself. From being made to underexpose the shape of the body in the 17th century, through to winning an international beauty contest in Japan in the 1990’s; the Ao Dai has had quite a journey! When you dig deeper into the history of the Ao Dai, you can see that nearly every ruling country, leader, and popular designer has had an influence on its design in some way, shape or form. Historically, politically, and fashionably this dress is a masterpiece of its own breed.
How to Buy an Ao Dai in Hoi An
Pre-Made vs. Custom-Made Ao Dai
Before buying an Ao Dai you need to know the differences in what’s on offer. In short – there’s two choices, pre-made or custom-made. Both options are good for different reasons, it just depends on what you’re seeking. Let’s have a look at both.
The pre-made option is for those who want just a couple of photos and aren’t too concerned about the originality factor. Pre-made Ao Dai’s come at a relatively fair price, sometimes shops will offer to fit the pre-made suits to your body – but for an additional fee. The quality of these dresses are not “top tier”, they just get the job done – to some degree. Most of the tourists that you’ll see, will be wearing these versions and if you pay attention, all the designs will be the same or similar.
Custom-made Ao Dai’s are the more attractive choice, as opposed to their distant, pre-made cousins. If you go down this route, you can get a truly unique design, made of quality fabrics, fitted perfectly to your body. It’s the ultimate go-to option for those seeking a truly enriching, cultural experience. In comparison, a pre-made Ao Dai off the shelf, begins to look and feel like somewhat of a cheap costume version of the real thing.
So what’s the best option for you? Well, if you’re looking to spend the least amount of money, go for pre-made Ao Dai’s. However, if quality and originality is something that is important to you, head to a tailor and get yourself something custom-made. From experiencing both options, we can honestly say that spending the extra money at a tailor is 100% worth it.
Where to Buy an Ao Dai in Hoi An
There are many places to choose from when buying an Ao Dai. If you do decide to go with a pre-made version, check out the fabric market in the Old Town. Here, you will find many shops offering competitive prices ranging from 345,000 VND (15 USD) to 460,000 (20 USD). You’ll find the best prices here, however be prepared that it can be a little overwhelming! All the shop owners will surround you as you enter the market, with the intent of enticing you into their store. It’s even more unsettling when you see all the same items being sold for different prices. However, if negotiation is up your alley, this could make for a fun experience. If arguing over dollars isn’t your cup of tea, head on through to shop Number 7 within the market. It is located to the left of the first set of stairs, on the first floor. Number 7, has a wider selection of colours and patterns and is seemingly one of the cheaper options.
You can even find tailors inside the fabric market, next to the pre-mades. The quality of fabrics and craftsmanship is not the greatest, which kind of defeats the purpose of getting a tailored dress. However, if you’re set on the idea of the market, head to Number 41. This tailor shop offers the best selection within the market and the fabric quality seems to be decent. Your dress can be ready in as little as three hours for around 920,000 VND (40 USD)
When seeking quality tailors in Hoi An, you’ll need to venture away from the fabric market. There are many small tailor shops throughout town, and choosing one can be quite difficult. Our choice of tailor was based on the variety of designs, quality of fabric, and our customer satisfaction during the whole process. The tailor shop that stood out on all three bases was, Bebe. Our personal experience with Bebe is detailed below so you can see how much fun getting a tailored Ao Dai can be.
The Experience at Bebe
Widely know as Hoi An’s Most Trusted Tailor – Bebe is a top-tier tailoring shop with three different locations throughout Hoi An. Walking into any one of their locations, you will see how vastly different they are in comparison to their competitors. Everything is elegant and organised and there are plenty of very friendly staff members who are more than happy to give you assistance.
We were greeted by a Bebe team member who guided us through the entire process and offered professional advice throughout. We began by choosing the fabric and pattern for the Ao Dai. Admittedly, this was not an easy task! There were just so many great, quality choices to go through. Luckily, we had a few reference photos to look at and the lady who was helping us gave us some expert advice to point us in the right direction.
Hidden Hint: Leave nothing to chance – bring a few reference photos so your tailor has a visual image of your garment
We were then presented with sample books of different coloured fabrics, to help us choose the colour of the pants and collar. Luckily there were so many different tones of each colour, it was easy to match them perfectly to our previously chosen fabric. It’s so important to highlight how having the right colour match can bring your Ao Dai from bland to perfection – a strength of Bebe’s due to the large variety of fabric that they have on offer.
After we’d decided on patterns and colours, it was time to discuss the style. There were many customisable features such as; neckline design and height, sleeve length, shoulder design and basically any other special features you would like to include. Before this experience we had no idea that all these variations were even possible! It seems that an Ao Dai can be a very creatively expressive article of clothing.
After all of our design requests, the Bebe staff member then drew up an example of what the Ao Dai would look like.
Hidden Hint: After seeing your design start to come to life on paper it’s a good time to request any changes or additions that may come to mind.
We were then measured from head to toe, in more than ten different areas. Bebe really ensure that your shape fits into your clothing perfectly. At this time, make sure your body is relaxed as the measurements are so precise. This will ensure that the final product is a comfortable fit. The measurements were completed and transferred onto the sketch and then were were free to go. Even at this point if you do have any changes you’d like to make, the person helping you will be more than happy to make your requests – even if it’s a complete 180 of the original plan. Do not be shy, this is your Ao Dai! We were happy with our choices and (after another walk through the Bebe store planning future garments), were told to come back the next day to pick up our creation.
Arriving the next day, we were greeted by the same woman who had helped us yesterday. Thankfully there was no messy handover or tiring re-explaining – for want of a better word – the process was seamless. We were simply brought to the air-conditioned fitting rooms and tried on the Ao Dai for the first time. We had high expectations, but what we got was something even more amazing. The waist was a tad loose (maybe because of the Banh Mi we’d had before the first fitting!), but that was not an issue. It was promptly taken in at the back, and with Bebe’s in-house tailors, was adjusted within ten minutes (again something you don’t find everywhere and a huge benefit for those minor tweaks). After this small adjustment it fit exquisitely and we really couldn’t have been happier about the entire process and end result.
Previous blogs we’ve read had highlighted multiple issues with Ao Dai’s – so we analysed everything extremely closely. Some people had said that the Ao Dai they had made in Da Nang’s Han Market or the local fabric market in Hoi An were stitched poorly. Horror stories of people saying that after just one day of use, the bottom stitching of theirs had completely come apart in the middle of the Old Town. Others mentioned finding unsightly chalk marks and that the garments were ill-fitting and in some cases completely wrong. After multiple uses and taking an extra close look, it’s safe to tell you that Bebe really hit a home run with this. Everything was exceptional and the craftsmanship that went into our Ao Dai goes un-matched.
Where to Get the Best Photo in Your Ao Dai
It can sometimes seem that the Old Town is just one big photo studio, as wedding couples, families and fruit print clad holidaymakers, all vie for the best photo spots. Hoi An’s Old Town is clearly an ideal place to create the perfect Instagram worthy photos of your new outfit. Its ancient houses, alleyways, lights and lanterns all make for wonderful backdrops, but these are a few of our favourites.
The Riverfront Yellow Wall
This spot has been made famous by Rehahn, the Frenchman behind the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum, and Hoi An’s best-known photographer. His image of a girl in an Ao Dai walking past this wall is one of Hoi An’s most recognisable images, gracing hotel walls all over town. To create your own version of this iconic image, follow Bach Dang Street along the Old Town waterfront to the back exit of The Old House of Tan Ky. Here you will find a large expanse of ochre coloured wall to use as your backdrop. As with most photography, the best time to take photos here would be early morning or late afternoon. The image below was taken on a sunny afternoon.
Faifo Coffee Rooftop
A location for many formal and informal fashion shoots, the rooftop of Faifo Coffee, at 130 Tran Phu Street, provides one of the best vantage points of Hoi An’s Old Town. Order a coffee and head up the steep stairs to the top floor, where you may well have to wait your turn for the best spot. Here you can pose overlooking Hoi An’s rooftops and with careful framing, your photograph will include Tran Phu street as well.
Most people buying an Ao Dai will find themselves walking around markets, haggling over the same or similar patterns. We found that it was much more satisfying to soak up the full Hoi An experience and have an original Ao Dai custom-made. Hidden recommends that for the best experience in getting a tailored Ao Dai in Hoi An, you avoid the hassle and extensive research (we’ve already done that for you!) and head straight to Bebe.
In your custom-made Ao Dai, wandering the streets of the Old Town, you’ll certainly draw extra attention for all the right reasons. We got so many compliments and even had people wanting to have a picture with us in one of the photo locales! Not only did we have the perfect Ao Dai, but the experience of getting it tailor made was an unexpected highlight that we’d highly recommend.