Outside a temple in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, officially): the classic white ao dai.
“So, you’re going to Vietnam? Can you pick up an ‘ao dai’ for me while you’re there?”
If a casual female friend ever says this to you, politely decline. Say you’re sorry; you’ll be too busy. Say anything, but do not agree to do it unless you want to reduce your squad of casual female friends.
Ao dais (pronounced “ow dzai” in the north and “ow yai” in the south) are form-fitted, calf-length shirts worn over blousy pants. High-necked and long-sleeved, the shirt snaps down both sides for ventilation adjustments that can reveal a triangle of midriff at certain God-sent angles. They are usually made from silk or a silky synthetic.
Almost every woman and girl in the south wore them until the Communists from the north took over in 1975. Afterwards they went a little out of fashion as a bourgeois affectation. But happily for their male fans, they’ve made a big comeback. Schoolgirls always wore them, but now they are quite normal dress again.
At lunch hour in Saigon, the downtown streets are clogged with ao-daied cyclists. At night, you’re welcomed into restaurants, cafés and even billiard halls by ao-daied staff.
Perhaps no other article of traditional Asian national dress exposes so little, yet reveals so much. This phenomenon is due to two important features: First, the fabric is translucent in the stark tropical sunlight. Second, the tops appear to be painted on. One size certainly does not fit all.
Surprisingly, women who wear them don’t seem to suffer from restricted movement. They can easily maneuver motor scooters through crowded streets. I even saw one young woman shooting pool in the southern town of Vũng Tàu run a table off the break while wearing a tight ao dai and counting my money. She had close-cropped hair, which is unusual for Vietnamese, and I asked her why she cut it so short.
“Hard enough shooting pool in ao dai without hair in face, too,” she explained, as she potted another ball and counted some more of my money.
Ao dais are comfortable, but sensual. It’s the sensual aspect that causes difficulty in buying one for a casual friend. My crisis started innocently enough during a break between two business meetings.
“Is there anything you’d like to see or do?” my local host Tran asked.
I could have said, “I’d like to take a nap,” or “I’d like to munch a snake bile baguette,” or “I’d like see how long I can stand in the middle of Dong Khoi Street before a motorcycle hits me.” But no. I had to say, “I’d like to buy an ao dai for a friend.”
Vietnamese hosts are nothing if not helpful and efficient, and my buddy Tran was no exception. I had no sooner spoken these ill-conceived words than he was shouting into his mobile phone to his wife for a recommendation.
Of course, a “deluxe, only the best for my American pal” recommendation was given, and off we went.
We shortly arrived at a small shop sandwiched between a noodle stall and a bicycle repair stand. The front of the shop offered simple souvenirs: stuffed cobras, Ho Chi Minh T-shirts, Zippo lighters. Beyond this section, through a curtain, was the ao dai center. My first surprise was that there were no ao dais for sale. I was expecting racks of them – ready to wear. I knew my friend’s height and weight. I thought I could eyeball a fit.
It quickly became apparent, after an extravagant greeting by the owner (who’d been alerted by Madame Tran), that this wasn’t a dress shop. It was a tailor shop. It produced formal, silk-embroidered, “suitable for the Bastille Day Ball at the French Embassy” ao dais.
And that is precisely what they were prepared to do for my unsuspecting, pre-former casual friend. And they were going to do it as a very special order – ready the next morning.
After the obligatory tea ceremony, we got down to the serious business of selecting a style and taking down measurements, with Tran interpreting.
Style was easy. It was all in her order: “plain white top, plain white pants. No birds or flowers in luxuriant pastel stitching. Just plain white.”
Then, the owner produced a drawing of a female form with places to write the measurements of some very personal body parts. Armed only with height and weight and never having seen my friend in anything besides conservative office clothes, I had a problem.
Everyone tried to be helpful, especially Tran, who began to sense my dilemma.
“She’s fairly thin. Maybe a 24-inch waist. I have no idea about her hip size.”
Don’t worry, they assured me, the shirt is open on the sides below the waist. You can make a small mistake on the hip size. It won’t matter. But the bust is crucial. You can’t make any mistake on the bust size or the ao dai will be – well – a bust.
The ensuing conversation between Tran and me went: “But I have no clue.”
“You must make your best guess. Is she big or small?”
“Medium, I suppose.”
Tran translated and then spent some additional time with a quizzical look on his face listening to the women before he turned back to me and reported: “I’m afraid they need to know the actual size of your friend’s breasts.”
In despair and growing frustration that I couldn’t leave and forget the whole, by now, absurd and humiliating scene, I told Tran I had no idea about the particulars of my friend’s torso because I had never seen her naked; she was, after all, just a friend!
Tran put this message into Vietnamese. After a pause to take in this new fact, one woman said something and the rest of them began to grin. The grins turned into those hand-over-the-mouth Asian giggles. The giggles dissolved into those deep belly laughs that render you bent over and teary-eyed and gasping for air when you finally recover.
Tran tried unsuccessfully to remain aloof from the hilarity. He took a moment to calm himself before he turned back, still slightly smiling, and said, “It seems very odd to them. You have never seen this woman’s body. She is not your wife or your lover. So, why on Earth do you want to buy an ao dai for her?”
The women had a point. Fredrick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret sell less intimate apparel. I gave up. I told Tran they’d just have to do their best.
But I wasn’t getting off that easy. The entire staff, including seamstresses, was now being marshaled toward the front of the shop where I was supposed to walk past, like a military inspection, to pick the girl whose shape was the closest match.
Focused on escape, I picked the girl nearest the door, which I immediately jumped through and into Tran’s waiting car.
I returned to the shop the next day in a driving tropical rainstorm. I picked up my package, stuffed it into a drenched backpack, left for the airport and flew home. That was when my problems really started.
If you ever do make the mistake of buying an ao dai for a casual female friend, my further advice is: Do not compound your error by regaling her with the story of a roomful of giggling strangers holding out cupped hands trying to help you guess her chest size. Just give her the sack with the certain knowledge that it won’t fit, apologize in advance and cut your losses.
I didn’t follow this simple tactic. I told her the whole story. I didn’t even leave out the, “Why are you here if you aren’t sleeping with her?” part. She listened in stunned silence, with that classic “I can’t believe I’m hearing this, you moron,” look on her face.
Then, with one of those half-chuckles that could easily turn into a gag reflex, she took the parcel and left.
I haven’t seen her since. But I did have a short one-sided conversation with her to this effect: “I really don’t appreciate you talking about my body. The thing didn’t fit anyway. You picked the wrong model. The material isn’t even real silk. I burned it. It melted. It’s plastic. Goodbye.”