In the cooler hours of the morning, before the tourists take over the yellow streets of Hội An, local couples dressed in traditional costumes arrive for a photo shoot. Weddings, anniversaries, engagements or portraits, many couples choose the less commercial end of Nguyễn Thái Học street for its colourful and historic built background. No one seems to mind my presence alongside or behind the professional photographer, though with my simple lens, the glare makes it hard to focus.
The old town near the Hội An’s historic district, is recognised as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to 19th century. Chinese and Japanese influences can be seen in the shop fronts, houses and old businesses in the streets closest to the wharf. It is a city requiring a leisurely week or more of you wish to fathom its charms.
Women often choose to wear theáo dài, the Vietnamese national costume, for these portraits.
Other portraits taken in Hội An, Vietnam, can be viewed here and here.
After a long stay in the beguiling yellow city of Hội An, we decided to go by car to our next stop, Huế, a journey of 145 kilometres. There are two main routes to Huế: the new route, now favoured by trucks and other heavy commuters, which passes through a tunnel, a fast but boring trip, and the scenic route over the top of Hải Vân Pass, which takes a good part of a day, given the various stops along the way. The road taken, the scenic route, provided plenty of distraction, making for an amusing seven hour journey. This route also brings back haunting memories of the American War, with names such as China Beach, Danang and Lang Co indelibly etched in my memory from that era.
You can discuss your itinerary with your driver before you go or just leave it up to him. Our itinerary included a long, hot and fairly tedious stop at Marble Mountain. In hindsight, I would not bother with this stopover. The next stop was along the beach at Danang. By late morning, the intense heat and glare was overwhelming: the colourful basket boats, thung chai, nestled on the sand in theforeground, contrasting so vividly with the concrete skyline of Danang, a modern highrise city by the sea with very little appeal. Then, a quick stop at the top of Hải Vân Pass, (‘ocean cloud pass’) an important stop for historical reasons and providing great views, then down to Lang Co Beach, for a unmemorable lunch in a beach hut, and finally on to beautiful Hue.
If you go, organise a car and driver in Hội An In August, 2016, this cost us around $60 AU. Make sure that your driver has a smattering of English. Most drivers have their own agenda: if you wish to cut out a couple of these stops, the trip would take around 4 hours.
Strolling along the empty streets of Hội An early one morning, I came across this graceful couple. It was 10 am in Nguyễn Duy Hiệu. They were dressed for a wedding perhaps. A photographer nearby recorded the occasion, and so did I. They swanned about the street with not a care in the world. Young, beautiful and happy, they soon disappeared into the yellow cloaked city.
There was a story that went with this post. It appeared for a month and was then removed. I am not sure how this was done. The story, from memory, concerned the amazing resilience of the Vietnamese people. That despite everything, the French colonial period and the American war, which saw the bombing of the Purple City in Hue, the Vietnamese people still welcome foreigners into their country, and are friendly and courteous. I’m posting the removed photos again, along with this brief summary of my original thoughts. Should I be Paranoid?
The Central Market in Hội An is chaotic, hot, crowded, boisterous and, at times, very annoying as young women spruikers hang about, determined to take you to their clothing stalls on the upper levels. Inside the market building, though hot and close, is reasonably well-ordered. Around the perimeter, along the narrow streets between the buildings, women sell fruit and fish laid out along the road as motor bike shoppers weave through pedestrians, determined to buy their goods from the back of their bikes.
Amidst all this pandemonium, enter the renovation team. One man on a motor bike steers an overloaded makeshift trailer through the busy market lane. A woman sits astride a load of wood and tin, shouting loudly to clear the way. Pedestrians, motorbikes and chickens give way. The building load moves through. The market returns to its normal level of chaos.
Around the tourist precinct of Hoî An, mornings are peaceful and slow. It’s a great time to go walking to experience a different pace of life. The frenetic sound of buzzing motorbikes has yet to spoil the peace; only the slow creak of an occasional bicycle breaks the silence. The gentle heat caresses the skin: the incandescent light makes the city seem surreal. Can you hear the splash of the wooden oar in the Thu Bon river?
In contrast, things are hotting up down at the wharf near Hoi An’s central market. Women arrive from out-of-town, bicycles stocked up and loaded onto the boat, ready for another day of business. Fishermen arrive with their catch and business is brisk at 6 AM.
Attending a cooking school in Asia is a satisfying holiday activity. These classes are usually cheap ( somewhere between AU $20- $40 per person ) and last for around three hours or so. You will usually learn 3 – 5 dishes, and in the better schools, will also come away with a greater understanding of the culinary traditions of the country. I have enjoyed cooking schools in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Vietnam. Each one was memorable and each had its highlights. These days, however, I am quite selective about the classes I wish to attend.
The price for a class will often include:
a pick up from your hotel
a trip to the local market to buy ingredients and introduce you to the local produce.
a menu which will invariably include savory fried starters – spring rolls and paper rolls for example, with slight variations from country to country.
a noodle dish
one other meat dish (usually chicken)
separate small cooking stations for participants
Once you have mastered the spring roll/paper roll thing, it’s time to move on. If you have already been to the local market in the town you are visiting, there’s no need to visit again with a cooking school. I prefer to go to the market for a whole morning, to wander through all the stalls slowly, taking lots of photos along the way. The local markets are usually hot, dark and very cramped and although at times I get hassled, I love this total immersion in local food and culture. It is one thing I must do in every Asian town, big or small.
Many cooking schools claim to cater for vegetarians in their menu selections, but this usually means substituting tofu for meat in the same dishes cooked by the other members of the class. In curry dishes in Thailand, they will substitute a few vegetables. In other words, you won’t be learning much about the real vegetarian traditions of that country. Menus offering fish will be far more expensive. Fish is a costly item in Asia so will rarely appear on a cooking class menu.
Consider the following before choosing a school:
if the cooking school is attached to a restaurant, eat there first. Read their menu and get an idea about the quality of the food and its authenticity. Some of these schools tone things down for the Western palate.
check on class sizes. I once attended a famous cooking class in Ubud, Bali, where the class size blew out to 20 or more. Too many people meant very little hands on learning. It was very impersonal and depended entirely on the presentation and personality of the celebrity chef. Ask about the class size and the number of cooking stations. Any number over 8 is too many.
Make sure that the dishes you will be cooking sound appealing. There is no point in learning something that you won’t cook at home.
If you are an experienced cook, consider taking a private class. It will cost you a few more dong,bhat, rupees or rupiah but in the end, you get to make more complex dishes and ask more questions. They usually require two people to attend. Also negotiate the menu before hand. This might be done on the morning of the class.
Make sure that you will be taught by someone who has a good command of English and preferably a cook or chef. In larger classes, young trainers who have learnt a set repertoire will take you through the dishes. This leaves little room for in-depth questions or discussion of culinary traditions.
Have a light breakfast. You will need a healthy appetite to eat everything you make.
Take a pen and notebook. Some schools will give you a little recipe book but making your own notes is more valuable.
Take lots of photos – a great reminder of technique as well as providing inspiration when you get home.
This month, In My Kitchen takes place in a Vietnamese kitchen in Hôi An. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had arranged to do a private cooking class which took place in the back rooms of Minh Hiên Vegetarian Restaurant in Hôi An. What an amazing experience. Here is an excerpt from a future, still evolving post, highlighting some of the gems found in a Vietnamese kitchen.
Cooking classes not only introduce the participant to local recipes and new ingredients, but more importantly, they reinforce good technique, economy and the importance of mise en place. Vietnamese cuisine looks fast and easy to cook, but the flavour comes from careful and exacting preparation and the making of rich stocks beforehand.
The tools and gadgets used on that day were perfect for each task. Long chopsticks are used for cooking, frying and stirring eggs. Turning over tofu slices with long chopsticks stops them from breaking, once you get used to handling slippery tofu in hot oil that is. Scissors are used to cut the green ends of spring onions: this part of the onion is never wasted and is also never cooked. The green part is usually cut into 2 cm pieces while the white onion end is always cooked, and is usually cut vertically.
Using a strainer over a bowl or saucepan is an economical and efficient way to drain fried food, and makes more sense than using paper towels. The strainer placed near the stove before any frying takes place. Above, some Banh Xeò ( crispy rice pancakes) drain before wrapping and eating. The street version of Banh Xeò includes prawn and pork in the filling. This vegetarian version substitutes hand torn oyster mushroom and thinly sliced cooked carrot. These colours resemble the colour and shapes used in the original version. The fun comes in the eating. Cut the Banh Xeò, using scissors, into two, lay it in rice paper, add lettuce, long strips of cucumber and mint, roll and dip in a special sauce made from fermented soya beans. Recipe will be coming soon.
Mr T makes rice pancakes.
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The extras used for Banh Xeo
banh xeo ready to layer in rice paper
rolled, ready to dip and eat Banh Xeo.
ready to eat.
A couple of nice blokes playing in a kitchen is a joy to behold. Here Nhien and Mr T are discussing technique. More on this amazing cooking school in a future post.
There are hundreds of tailors in Hoi An, making made to measure suits and other outfits. This service is popular with tourists who need outfits for special occasions, such as bridal parties as well as young people looking for cheap coats and jackets. Tailors can also make copies of your favourite clothes, assuming you have some, which I don’t.
On the way to our favourite chay (vegetarian) restaurant, a long walk through Hoi An’s busy back streets to the end of Trần Cao Vân, we passed by rows of shops selling clothing and met many touts, usually friendly women on bicycles, urging us to visit their ‘tailor’ shops. This constant intrusion, ‘ Hello, where are you going, where are you from, blah blah, come to my shop, just for a look’ can be bothersome at first. After a day or so, when you have worked on your smiling but insistent ‘no thankyou’, and they have come to know you as visitors who are only interested in eating, relationships improve and you begin to feel like a local. It is important to know that these girls do not own their own shop but work on a commission for tailors: the shop they take you to will not be a tailor either, but a store front for outsourced work. ‘While outsourcing is economical for store fronts as the shop only pays a set price for each item made, many tailor shop owners that outsource have no idea about the construction techniques, the consistency, the interior details such as threads, interlining, canvassing, shoulder pads, buttons etc. The quality that is put out is obviously variable, uncontrolled and as a general rule quite low.’¹
Get this suit for Andrew
Go the bombers
Shiny orange looks suitably legal
The blue one matches your eyes
Mr T has privately expressed some interest in acquiring a new jacket for a serious event. Urged on by discussions about style, cut and colour, I collected some ‘tasteful’ examples from the street. Many of the shop owners were intrigued while some shooed me away.
For those who do wish to take advantage of Hoi An’s famous tailors, it would pay to read the following article first. ¹ http://wikitravel.org/en/Hoi_An. There are some reputable tailors around and the article forms a useful guide to those wishing to source made to measure clothes.
Narrow lanes and waterways, narrow houses and boats, slippery narrow rice noodles and women in Au Dao dresses, accentuating their slender figures, there are many narrow things to admire in Hoi An Vietnam. The people, on the other hand, are open, generous and helpful, not narrow-minded or suspicious of foreigners.