It is a truth universally acknowledged that whatever you think it is…it probably isn’t…in Vietnam.
In the land of the flattest stomachs known to mankind, being an overweight jaded, vile old expat is surely not a good thing. My only consolation from the sniggers of the Vietnamese who like to sit on plastic baby chairs while staring at my beer belly is the reality that my shoulders are broader than theirs.
Thankfully I’m just that bit taller than Vietnamese passengers when queuing to board planes, which does give me some kind of perverse satisfaction until I’m sitting next to a helmet wearing motorbike ninja still on the phone (while wearing a face mask) nervously eyeing the emergency exit door. Still, I get to hog the armrests thanks to my girth and jab her in the ribs if she dares to swipe my precious comfort zone. It’s dog eat dog in economy class seating…
Unfortunately, my thinking often leads to disappointment when it comes to shopping for suitably large clothes and shoes in bright, shiny malls where you imagine you can have what you want, (‘I’ll buy all of it, thanks” - with a gleefully superior sneer), and end up sulking in an ice-parlor because all the staff said, “Sorry, no have!” when I ask for a larger size.
The problem is I’m an optical illusion – look at me from the front and I appear reasonably slim and manageable, check me out from the side and it looks like I’m having triplets and urgently need to be rushed to the maturity ward.
In the early days of living here in Hoi An, I used to buy local attire or get it tailored. But after that first year of suffering the indignities of my apparel shriveling up, unravelling or falling away in large iceberg chunks, I surrendered to the game of threads. Further limitations blighted me as local T-shirts seemed to be constructed from Artic survival cotton and there are only so many Polo shirts I can wear off a golf course.
Of course it doesn’t help when my housekeeper of the past nine years murders my garb under the guise of washing it. “Look woman, you’ve killed it! It's stone dead. This laundry is no more! It’s deader than yesterday’s Banh Mi!” …and even up to today, she shyly giggles and says sorry in English with all the sincerity of an airport customs officer. This now requires replenishing my ensemble from the local fashionista mafia outlets.
Surreal moments ensue when I ask for something bigger. “Have you got anything in XXL?” results in being offered things that barely reach across my chest. Maybe giants in Vietnam are midgets? Body language when I’m trying to say I want a larger garment, stretching out my arms from my chest, seems to give the impression that I want breast enhancements.
Colors are fun though. Would you like 60’s style psychedelic dayglow or Hello Kitty underage kitsch? Florals with Satin? Doesn’t anyone sell decent, sensible (oh…that word!) accouterments anymore to people over 30 who have lived outside the Internet bubble and the smartphone stupidity?
The sellers will unwrap dozens of clearly tiny shirts in the desperate hope that I’ll squeeze into something they bought from their cousin in China. I have seen things marked XXXX which are basically raincoats that shrink so fast that I give them to my dog to work his evil on.
Now here’s a strange thing. Vietnam is one of the biggest exporters of shoes in the world yet even though my feet are smallish (I’m too ashamed to reveal more…) I struggle to find footwear that’s wider enough for me. Many of the biggish expats here (I’m too bashful to reveal their names…) have far greater difficulties in getting clodhoppers that fit the bill.
Locally made handmade shoes? Well, that went south when I discovered the locals falling to stitch and glue the under soles of my flashy street mashers as I grandly strolled to the nearest intersection and tripped over just short of the traffic lights.
So how did I overcome this dastardly conspiracy to doom me to wardrobe hell?
Through my mastery of space and time and airline tickets I was eventually saved by shopping overseas on my visa runs. It was an epiphany of form, style and function that hit me right in the waistline, the hemline and my bank account. I do all my shopping now in Cambodia of all places because the Japanese department stores are part of my fantasies…and everything fits.
And as for the skinny Vietnamese? I hope you all get fat so I can find something to wear…nahh!