Marketing Inspiration from the Streets of Hoi An

by Sonja van den Bosch

Marketing Inspiration from the Streets of Hoi An

Vietnam is one of my favourite countries in the world. It is a beautiful country with a great atmosphere, mouth-watering food, but most of all I get drawn back to this part of the world because of the amazing people. They are extremely friendly, welcoming, always eager to learn new things and very inventive.

The first person that comes to mind when I think about my experiences in Vietnam is Emma and the 3 encounters I had with her over the period of 10 years. Although Emma doesn’t have a marketing degree, she exactly knows how to practice inspirational marketing.

Emma's shop in Hoi An

In July 2001, Arjen and I arrived at the market square in Hoi An after having been on a night bus. We were backpacking around the world and were traveling the cheapest possible way. One of the first persons we met when we got of the bus was Emma who asked us if we wanted to come to her clothes shop. Hoi An is a beautiful old town right on the river and is famous for it’s many tailors. Our first priority was to find a hotel. Emma immediately asked one of her daughters to take Arjen around town on her motorbike to find a hotel for us. At that time we paid between 5 and 7 US dollars per night and Arjen was determined to find a hotel for 5 US dollars. No need to say that it took them quite a while driving all over town.

Emma and I in 2001

In the meantime I was being entertained by the rest of the family in their clothes shop. After Arjen finally arrived back, we were quite hungry and when Emma heard this she immediately grabbed me by the hand and took us to a little side street, where she treated us to a beautiful traditional Vietnamese lunch. Although we tried very hard, we were not allowed to pay for any of this. After lunch one of her daughters walked us back to the hotel, where we had a bit of a rest and when we walked out of the hotel a few hours later, the daughter was still waiting for us. We were not planning to get any clothes made, but because Emma and her family had been so welcoming to us, we decided to go and have something small made at their shop as a token of appreciation. We went into the shop and got them to copy a pair of pants and a bikini.

Dinner at Emma's house in 2001

The next day when we picked up these things, with very low expectations, we were blown away by how well made they were. We walked through town and met about 15 other travellers, who we had met and kind of became friends with during our travels. As they all just arrived in Hoi An we told them that they had to go to Emma, as in our opinion she was the best tailor in town. Honestly I have no idea if she is or is not the best tailor in town, but she definitely gave us a great experience. All those friends then went to Emma’s shop and as a few of them were nearing the end of their travels, bought lots and lots and lots of clothes. Emma couldn’t believe her luck, in one week she made more money than she normally did in 6 months. Arjen and I were treated like royalty and we spent a lot of time in her shop talking to her family (mostly in broken English). As Emma was so happy with us, she invited us to her house for dinner. She cooked the most amazing meal for us and although she was sitting with us and constantly putting food on our plates, she wasn’t eating with us. It is one of the most memorable nights I’ve had in Vietnam, being invited to someone’s home is a very special experience.

Dinner at Emma's house in 2001

Emma had a book with testimonials of people who had bought clothes from her and we also wrote a nice story for her and put our picture in there as well. When it was time for us to leave Hoi An, Emma came to wave goodbye and brought us a big bunch of flowers and food for in the bus. We felt spoilt by her from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. No need to say that we told every other traveller we encountered about our great experience with Emma and told everyone to go and look her up when they were travelling to Hoi An.

About 6 years later, when I was working as the marketing director for Travel Indochina I went back to Hoi An and this time I was staying at the nicest hotel in town and was accompanied by a private guide. As we did our city tour, I told my guide about Emma and when I walked onto the market square I saw her. Emma recognised me straight away and she came running to me and gave me a big hug. Straight away she opened up her book with the testimonials and pointed very proudly to the page with my text and photo from 6 years ago. Unfortunately that night the cyclone hit Hoi An and the town flooded and I was stuck in my hotel and then had to leave without being able to visit Emma again.

Emma with my parents in 2010

However in 2011 I went back to Vietnam, this time with my parents, my brother and his wife, my aunt, Arjen and our then 2 year old twin boys Jordi & Dylan. My parents were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and I told them that I would be happy to arrange the holiday for them, as long as they wanted to go to Vietnam. No need to say that it was the trip of their lives. In Hoi An we were determined to find Emma again, but unfortunately her shop was gone when we arrived at the market square. We started asking around for her and found out that her shop had moved around the corner. When we walked there, we saw Emma standing in the street. She immediately recognised Arjen and came running to him and hugged him like a long lost son. She immediately adopted Jordi & Dylan and my parents were blown away by her warmth. The whole family went crazy and ordered lots of clothes. Although we didn’t really need a lot, we all wanted to have the experience. Emma again invited us to her home for an amazing dinner. My parents couldn’t believe their luck and loved the whole experience. Every time my dad calls me he tells that the holiday to Vietnam was the best holiday he ever had.

My boys being spoilt at Emma's house in 2010

I love telling the story about Emma when I am talking about travel experiences, as to me it is such a truthful and warm story and it makes me smile every time I think about it. This to me is inspirational marketing. Emma certainly didn’t have a marketing plan or a marketing budget, but she knew exactly how to touch people and make people talk about her to increase her sales in a very competitive environment with many, many of the same businesses around. Emma didn’t just deliver the product that we wanted, but she gave us one of our most memorable travel experiences. Although the clothes are gone, this memory will stay with us forever and will be told many more times.


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Inspirational marketing is about being true to yourself, being aligned with your core values and doing something you truly believe in and are passionate about. It is about creating meaningful relationships with everyone you encounter. It is about thoughts from the heart.

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