At Ben Thanh market in Saigon (even locals don't call it Ho Chi Minh City), saleswomen perch atop piles of fabrics that they sell inexpensively by the meter. Customers are encouraged to take their purchases to nearby tailors, who charge as little as $6 for a pair of pants. As with everything in life, you get what you pay for: hems fall and zippers break. If you want to have clothing custom made in Saigon, these six shops are a better bet.
Tricia & Verona
Opened a year ago by sisters Tuyen Tran and Vy Tran (who anglicized their names to Tricia and Verona to convey their Western sense of style), the store's crisp white walls, low lacquer tables, and contemporary light fixtures make it feel more like a boutique than a workshop. Specialties include wool coats (from $80), slacks (from $30), and muslin tops (from $17). There's also a selection of off-the-rack items that can be copied, fitted, or adapted. The average turnaround time is two days, including fittings. 39 Dong Du St., D1, 011-84/8-824-4556.
With its tight bodice, side slits, and flowing pants, it's no wonder the flattering ao dai (pronounced "ow yai") is traditional dress for Vietnamese women. Saigon is crowded with shops that sell cheap versions to tourists, but locals go to Si Hoang, where the costume is taken so seriously that historical samples are displayed in glass cases. A plain silk ao dai costs $65 and is made in a day; ones fashioned with heavier fabric (hand-painted silk, beaded velvet) start at $150 and need a week or more. A free fashion show and tea salon--with music and singing--takes place every night but Tuesday at 8 p.m. 36-38 Ly Tu Trong St., D1, 011-84/8-822-3100.
Fashion designer Minh Khoa, who's married to one of the country's top models, looks to his dreams for inspiration. "I fantasize about a modern, strong woman, and then I create a spectrum of looks to dress her up," he says. His formal wear--which ranges from sequined ao dai to silk wedding gowns--has been spotted at fancy parties across Asia. The racks hold one of each of his current designs, but he'll also work with customers to create something unique. A silk shift runs $110 and requires two days; elaborate dresses start at $700 and take several weeks. 39 Dong Khoi St., D1, 011-84/8-823-2302.
Ignore the bare walls, tile floors, and open shelves crammed full of books and material: When it comes to getting quality men's apparel made in Saigon, there's nowhere better than Nhut. The suits, shirts, tuxedos, and overcoats are made with the finest cashmere-wool blends and Italian cottons. Suits cost $140 or more (depending on the fabric and finishing details) and require one week; shirts start at $40. 108 Ly Tu Trong St., D1, 011-84/8-824-9437.
Silk shops abound in Vietnam, churning out purses and pajamas for the masses. But Kenly Silk matches great service and workmanship with a dizzying array of styles. The narrow store's first floor displays ready-to-wear items as well as accessories like silk scarves, slippers, and ties. Upstairs are the floor-to-ceiling bolts of fabric--taffetas, chiffons, muslins, raw silks, and linens--necessary to create a custom look. Kenly is particularly popular for hand-embroidered blouses ($29, five days), mandarin-collar tops ($27, one day), and lacy sleepwear ($59 for a kimono and negligee, 7 to 10 days). 132 Le Thanh Ton St., D1, 011-84/8-829-3847.
Minh Hanh's embroidery has garnered international recognition. She's now fostering a new generation of talent as head of Saigon's Fashion Design Institute. Her dresses and ao dai, dotted with delicate lotus flowers or lilacs, start at $100; velvet jackets edged with the geometric patterns of Vietnam's ethnic tribes cost upward of $125. Most items take a week to complete. 114B Nguyen Hue St., D1, 011-84/8-823-5367.
Getting It Done Right
Go in prepared: Clip pictures from magazines of styles you like, or bring along something that fits just right. Virtually anything can be copied.
Do a test run: If you have the time, get one item made to check workmanship before putting in an entire order.
Know the facts: Talk money, time, and store policies in advance. Many tailors won't charge if you're unsatisfied with the finished product, and most offer shipping if you run out of time or suitcase space.
Be realistic: Between finding a design, picking fabrics, and attending fittings, getting clothes custom-made is time-consuming. Order selectively.
Speak up: The Vietnamese are tough customers. If you're not happy, say so. Be persistent and firm, but don't get visibly angry--it won't get you anywhere.