Tag Archives: Hoi An

Back to school – cooking school

We were up bright and (relatively) early this morning to go on a guided tour of one of Hoi An’s large markets. Our guide was a chef at a local cooking school where we would be taken to learn how to cook a few simple Vietnamese dishes. We’d be seeing where our ingredients came from – but what we’d be using in our cooking class had already been selected.

In countries like Vietnam and Cambodia the market is the equivalent of our supermarkets – except there are no fridges and no shopping trolleys. You can probably think of a few other differences yourself. People go to the markets twice a day to pick up items they haven’t grown at home. Meat isn’t presented in Styrofoam trays neatly sliced and covered in plastic. Pigs, cattle, and poultry are all slaughtered and butchered before dawn. You’ll see piles of meat on counters. Intestines, hearts, liver, a few pigs’ heads in a corner. Women plucking duck carcasses, others scaling and gutting fish. And rows and rows of vegetables, herbs, and fruit. By the way, there were no offensive odours, presumably because everything was fresh.

Lovely fresh vegies


Freshly butchered meat

The meat lane – any cut you want

This morning’s catch

Crabs with their claws tied. I suspect in Oz we’d have to throw a lot of those back

Tiny little fishes

You can buy more than food here

Our group of ten was divided into one group of four and one of six, each with its own guide. Ten was too many in a busy, crowded space. Even here we had to be aware of motorbikes driven by people doing their shopping. Our guide, Lihn, told us if you wanted the best produce you came to the market early. If you wanted the cheapest, you came late. Because there are no refrigerators, produce like meat isn’t kept overnight. It’s used for other purposes, such as feed for the fish farm. There were a lot of live fish and other seafood kept in tanks. They would be on sale tomorrow.

Apart from naming produce and showing us how to pick the best, Lihn told us a few of the tricks vendors used to trap the unwary. She compared two clever kitchen knives commonly used in preparing Vietnamese food. One was better quality than the other, if a bit more expensive. She showed us packets of coffee where the packaging made it easy to palm off the second-grade material as the first grade.

The market is situated on the river bank. When we’d finished our visit, we boarded a boat for the short trip to Red Bridge Cooking School for our cooking lesson. It’s a lovely location with several covered areas in beautiful tropical gardens set up to teach visitors like us how to cook – although there’s a limit to what you can learn in a couple of hours.

Our market guide, Lihn, was in fact a senior chef at the school and she conducted our lessons. Each of us had our own workspace with a small burner and each dish was demonstrated for us to copy. Our first creation was rice pancakes which would be made into fresh spring rolls. I confess I’ve always had a fairly limited view of Asian (Chinese) food. I expect a big bowl of steamed or fried rice accompanied by dishes like chicken and cashews and beef in black bean sauce. It’s the same sort of mindset that expects all Italian food to involve pasta. In Vietnam, steamed rice seemed to be an extra. They used the rice in the same way we use wheat – make it into rice flour which is then used to make noodles, pancakes and the like. I’ve included the recipe we were given to make pancakes because it’s fascinating. It’s quite a lot of work. Of course, you can buy rice paper pancakes at supermarkets for a pittance. Just add moisture to soften. Lihn said to put them between lettuce or palm leaves for a couple of hours to make then pliable.

All of us managed to create edible spring rolls and fresh rice noodles with chicken. It was lots of fun.

Lihn’s spring rolls

My spring rolls. Not bad if you ask me

We were also taught how to make fruit and vegetable decorations. Presentation is a big part of any dish. We all did a fair job – although not as good as the chef’s.

Lihn’s tomato rose and rice noodles on a palm leave. To keep the noodles fresh you wrap them in the palm leaf until you use them.

The ten of us

The afternoon was ours to enjoy. Some went back to Hoi An old town to see the place in daylight. I’d developed a sore throat so we kept ourselves to ourselves.

Coming back from a short walk in the town we came across a number of saffron-robed monks in the lobby performing a ceremony involving chanting and incense. I thought it would be rude to take a picture. This was a Buddhist blessing which happened regularly in the hotel.

That evening we had dinner in the hotel. We’d noticed the restaurant manager was the same man who’d been manager at breakfast and took a chance to chat with him, the place not being very busy. He was a married man with two young children and he worked extra shifts when he could to earn more money. Although he was a manager his pay barely covered rent and living expenses. What he really wanted to do was get to Europe or Australia and work there for a few years. I felt sorry for him. This was a young man with skills, who spoke very good English – not an easy language for anyone to learn.

It was our last night in Hoi An. Tomorrow we’d head back to Da Nang and then further up the coast.


A wonderful day in Hoi An

Situated on the Thu Bon River. Hoi An was a trading port, at its height between the 15th and 19th centuries. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site and you can read all about that here. The city lost prominence when trade moved to the nearby city of Da Nang but because of that Hoi An remained intact.

After landing at Da Nang airport we were taken in a large bus to the outskirts of the old town of Hoi An before transferring to the hotel in smaller buses. My main memory of the drive was the clothing shops with dressed dummies showing off their wares. Apart from the historical importance of the town, Hoi An is noted for its clothing industry and for making lanterns. But that evening, we booked in to the hotel and had dinner.

The next morning, we set off on a fascinating journey learning about how the ordinary people live. A bus took us to the outskirts of town where the houses were interspersed with rice paddies and vegetable plots. We transferred to a cart drawn by a water buffalo and ambled along down a lane between the fields. Nobody has a European-style garden. Any arable space is given over to rows of well-tended herbs and vegetables. Geese and ducks paddled in the rice paddies and often we’d see women turning over the soil with hoes, preparing the land for the next crop.

We noticed what appeared to be grave markers in many vegetable plots. If I got it right, that was what they were. Vietnamese bury their dead twice. After a death the body is interred near the family home, where it stays for three years. Then the body is removed and the bones carefully collected and placed in an urn in the family plot, also close to all the family homes. Buddhists believe in reincarnation so it’s important to collect ALL the bones.

The family altar

Next we went to the home of a poor farmer, to whom we were introduced. The main room at the front of the house is only used by men, another reminder that this is a strongly paternalistic society. Pride of place in the main room was an altar to the ancestors. We were invited to take pictures. I felt uncomfortable about that, but Pete took a picture. Furnishings were simple, with hard floors. In this climate, mould has to be an issue, as it is in Queensland. A covered area at the back of the house is where they ate meals. Also very Queensland.

At this property we were taken for a walk through the gardens while our guide pointed out and named the herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees. Our host demonstrated how the gardens were watered in the past – two watering cans on a yoke worn across the neck. Pat did a great job.

Farmers are poor and they supplement their income with fish. We boarded a boat to see how that’s done. Some farmers build floating platforms using drums to support a net, and construct a simple shed which they use when they tend the fish in the net. I expect the Vietnamese barramundi we buy (if we don’t mind muddy fish) is raised in places like this. Out on the river it was clear fishing was a big deal. We saw many boats and several villages along the banks of the delta.

Tracts of what appeared to be coconut palms grew in the water. I thought at first they had to be mangroves but they weren’t. Our guide called them water coconuts or mangrove palms. They do have a small fruit – which, like everything else in this country, is eaten.

Further out in the river an elderly couple in a small boat demonstrated how they cast a drop net to catch fish. The lady handled the boat while the man dragged in the weighted net and cast it. Tony and Mark accepted the offer to give it a go.

If we caught these in Oz we’d be fined.

Another fishing technique was to place a net in the water and leave it for a time, then lift it using a simple pulley. Peter and Mark had a go at that. It proved to be hard work and as soon as the net began to rise, the herons joined in, leaving the boys with one fish to show for their trouble.

As our boat sailed closer to one of the villages we noticed lots of small, round coracles, each containing three people, clearly having a whale of a time. Several of the little boats were joined together and music was playing. I asked our guide what was going on. He grinned. “They’re Koreans. Crazy. That’s a karaoke machine.” They were certainly having a wonderful time. Apparently Vietnam is a cheap holiday destination for Koreans. They stay in Da Nang and make day trips to Hoi An. This must be a pretty lucrative side trade for the people in the fishing villages. Like the farmers, they’re down the bottom of the pecking order and it seems everybody know how to propel these little boats in a straight line.

Then it was our turn to hop into the basket boats. It’s a good name for them, woven out of young bamboo. This fascinating article will tell you all about them. It’s so appropriate – the French taxed boats, so the Vietnamese used ‘baskets’ instead. One person in the boat with one oar propels the boat. Two other people sit across the central seat. Our guide demonstrated the technique for getting in, which ended up being easier than you might think, and we were off.

The boat went past the village and then our lady took us into the little channels between the stands of mangrove palm. During the typhoons which hit these areas regularly the fishermen hide their large boats in these channels to keep them safe.

We drifted past a group of Koreans surrounding one basket boat that put on a show. One of the two passengers disembarked. The oarsman stood up and used the oar to whip the boat into a wild circle. The audience loved it – but I’m not sure if the remaining passenger was all that thrilled. It must have been like a carnival ride.

Our pace was a lot more sedate.

Back at the hotel we were left to our own devices and warned that a ‘light lunch’ was advisable because we’d be going to a restaurant for a special dinner. Our main concern was laundry. Anyone who has travelled knows that mounting pile of dirty clothes is always an issue. In our last hotel we received a special offer – one full laundry bag (not very big) for only one million dong! (That’s about AU$62) But our APT guide told us the laundry over the road from this hotel in Hoi An charged a fraction of that price. However, he warned us not to use the laundry bags in our hotel room. This hotel was very happy for guests to souvenir anything in the room – duvet, pillows, robes, slippers, laundry bags – but there was a charge for everything. We had our own laundry bags so it wasn’t an issue. We organised our laundry and headed over to Mrs Anh’s. She weighed the bags, told us it would be 180,000 dong (about 11 bucks) and we could pick it up tomorrow. I’m sure she did a roaring trade.

The covered Japanese bridge in old Hoi An

That evening we were to have a lovely dinner at a restaurant in Hoi An old city. When night falls the town turns into a fairy land of lights and lanterns, with boats on the river and busy tourist shops along the waterfront. This was one of the few times in our trip that it rained and the reflections off the wet pavement added to the spectacle. We took our chances walking to the restaurant, but the rain set in and Long went off to buy as all disposable ponchos for the walk back to the hotel. We gave ours to Mrs Anh when we picked up our laundry.

Plastic ponchos like the two people are wearing. Not elegant.

Not an elegant look at all. But practical.