Sometimes, GPS fails you. Surprisingly often, it seems to think a tiny dirt road through a field is a real road, which results in a lot of ‘Really?! Really?!!’ sort of moments, looking down at that blue track on my phone, looking up at the unpaved path cut through the bushes before me. But that’s what I get for setting off with a vague idea of where I’m going and a blind trust in technology.
The destination was Ninh Hiep, a small village in Gia Lam district, about 20km north of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It’s a somewhat straight shot north across Chuong Duong Bridge through sprawling Long Bien and then, in our case, a quick jaunt through some farmland. Now famous for its fabric market, the village has a long history in medicinal herbs and weaving. According to legend, it was founded by an herbalist named Ly Nuong, whom the locals still honour at Kieu Temple, one of Ninh Hiep’s many pagodas.
We entered the village via a backroad (thanks but no thanks, Google Maps), dropping us straight from the dusty countryside into the chaos of a street market. We inched along with the traffic, through an ancient stone gate almost hidden by the stylish garb that hung around it, and made a desperate beeline down an alleyway to escape the turmoil. With no app to drop a pin on the map for us, we resorted to plan B — drive around and ask. After a few requests of “Cho vai?”, we were pointed in the direction of the fabric market.
The Aladdin’s Cave
Each stall in this dim, covered bazaar is overflowing with colours and textures. Something about the fabric market turns me into a hyperactive child, intent on touching absolutely everything in sight. “I want that one, and that one!” we exclaimed, running our hands over jersey, fleece, velour, silk and even fake bearskin.
This place has everything, so it’s advisable to have some concept of what you want to make with your fabrics before you arrive, and a vague idea of the materials and colours you’re looking for. Forget about organisation; this is a tactile experience, and you’ll have to inspect everything by hand to find what you want. Fabric can be bought by the metre or the kilo, and the more you buy, the cheaper you can barter the price down. Word on the street says you can find designer fabrics hidden in the mess, leftovers from Chinese factories, if you know what you’re looking for. You can also find buttons, lace, iron-on patches and even fake Chanel appliqués, so you can DIY your own knock-offs.
After touching almost every fabric I could reach, I settled on a practical cotton jersey knit with brown-on-brown stripes, a pair of comfy tailor-made harem pants dancing in my head. At first, the seller wanted VND70,000 per metre, but I haggled a bit until we settled on two metres for VND100,000. I suspect it could have been cheaper (I’ve heard of metres going as low as VND30,000), but I had my heart set on that particular fabric, and she could see it in my eyes. Bartering 101; feigning your apathy is key. It’s a skill I have yet to master, but a few more trips to Ninh Hiep should help me polish my technique.
Go north across the Chuong Duong bridge. Stay straight until you cross a second bridge, and the road becomes Ha Huy Tap. Turn right onto Ninh Hiep. Roadside fabric stalls will come into view — ask where the market is.