Thursday 16 April 2015
I eventually land in Da Nang airport almost 1 hour late in the end from Nha Trang. I had arranged for a transfer to the Golden Bell Homestay in Hoi An, which was about 30 minutes away from Da Nang airport so was happy I made that choice, as my pick up driver arrived in a Kia. The driver looked like my grandad which brought back some nice sentimental feelings. The drive itself was a lot more of a faster pace where we even hit 80 kph!! Less frantic than Saigon and Cambodia, it was nonetheless still a familiar traffic feeling that I had gotten use to over the past 20 days travelling.
Back to the Kia car. I’d never been in one of these, so I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable it was. I arrived at the homestay which is similar to a B&B back in the UK and check in went as smooth it can go. The owner was quite confused as to how I could only be staying for 1 night in Hoi An. Anyway, I was then out on one of their “free to rent” bicycles, not really paying a lot of attention to the route I took, as I later got lost coming home. I put it down to being seduced by the landscape along with being on a bike for the time in Vietnam and not fully concentrating.
2km later, the sun had already set, so I missed that. Instead, I paid a little visit to the 400 Year Old Japanese covered bridge. Some previous guest was kind enough to leave their unused entry tickets at the homestay and the owner was even more kind enough to pass this onto me, which I had to use in order to cross the bridge. Built in the early 17th century as a way of connecting the Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese people to trade with each other, it was not much else I can write about it. It did look lovely lit up at night though.
Reaching the short 18m to the other side, there was the usual mix of T-Shirt, shirts and paintings on sale in the many shops. You have to be in the mood to deal with these shops and spend time browsing, which I wasn’t really at that point. The beautiful thing whilst strolling down the street was looking up and down the at the lanterns all lit up making a “zig-zig” pattern above my head. That and dodging the bats that came whizzing past my ear.
I then took my bike over the river to find a rest stop. Whilst meandering over to the other side, the river was adorned with candles floating down stream and couples dressed in black tie and gowns drifting on long sampan boats getting their professional shots done. Very pretty to spectate, as I constantly brush away the hawkers trying to flog me a candle of my own to float down river for $1. Bit of a tourist con I think, as I later saw several of them scooping the candles back out of the water to resell. You have to praise them for entrepreneurship!!
So, once reaching the other side, I picked a place based on their happy hour selection and price where I was getting Saigon Green Beer for 10,000 VND (36p) from a restaurant I have no clue what it’s called! I needed to have a few beers in order to toast to my mother as it would have been her birthday today.
Friday 17 April 2015
You guessed it, another early start today! I thought that travelling would afford me some lovely lie ins, but the truth is, there is so much to see and do whilst away from home that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Breakfast in the Golden Bell Homestay was a basic affair but well done. The usual toast and continental selection was available along with freshly cooked banana pancakes and omelette prepared by the owner.
After digesting a light breakfast, I was picked up by a guide at 8:20am prompt from the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Tour that I had previous booked on the internet when I was in Saigon for 680,000 VND per person (£24.28). A brief taxi ride to pick up another couple, we were then dropped off in the centre of town in Hoi An to join a group of 20 people in total. Split into two groups, my tour guide was called Jan who then lead ten of us around the markets to buy fruit, vegetables, herbs and meat for the dishes we’d all be cooking later in the day to eat.
Armed with my wicker shopping basket, the market was everything I’d imagine it would be. Hustle, bustle, smells, the vibrant clash of colours of the peppers, green herbs and flowers. Mopeds, trying to squeeze past the narrowest of gaps amongst the people browsing the various food stalls and cyclist weaving and wobbling as the crowds begin to fill. The tour was very informative learning all about the different types of mint, basil, shallots and root vegetables and what the Vietnamese people cook and garnish with. Jan would be constantly crushing a bunch of herbs in her hand and letting people smell them.
Once the herbs, fruit and vegetables were purchased, we all moved to the indoor meat market to pick up fresh beef and pork but not before a brief introduction to the different types of noodles and rice paper outside.
At the end of the market tour, we each handed in our laden shopping baskets to the first guide that met me at the hotel, who was going to ship all the ingredients to the place where we’d all be cooking later. I wasn’t expecting it, but there was a bit of cross selling going on as the drop off point for our ingredients was conveniently in front of a stall selling peelers and knives. A demonstration and medium hard sell completed, I think a few people bought a vegetable peeler from her. They were only $1 and would hardly break the bank but sometimes it’s the principle in my eyes. Doing a few tours recently, I begin to understand that a lot of up-selling and cross-selling needs to happen in order for people to make a living. Sometimes it blatant hard and pushy selling, sometimes it’s gentle. I take it as it comes now.
Eventually, all ten of us were lead away back up through the market where we then boarded a boat to take us to the island to do our cooking. The ride itself lasted about 45 minutes as we chugged along. With the gentle sway of the boat, cool breeze and rhythmic judder of the engine, I was drifting in and out of dozing in my seat. The boat finally came to a stop by some mangroves and palm leaves which the skipper ingeniously used them as rope to anchor his boat. Two smaller gondola boats appeared from around the corner to take us to the island as the water was too shallow for the bigger boat. All successfully decanted into the boats, we gentle paddled to our cooking class.
In total, I cooked four dishes. The first thing I had to do was get the beef broth on the go for the Pho Bo or “Beef Noodles” which required one and a half hours to cook. Pho (pronouced as “fur”) means a type of soup and Bo is obviously beef. Shallots, ginger, cinnamon stick, star anise and beef bones in the cooking pot, water was added to cover the concoction and left to boil.
The first dish was fresh spring rolls with pork and shrimp. Our actual chef guiding us through the cooking couldn’t actually speak any English, so it was up to Jan to interpret for her. Nonetheless, her old cheeky smile and personality came through despite the language barrier. Step by step, I replicated her layering and rolling and produced quite a tasty starter along with a peanut dipping sauce.
The second dish was a crispy prawn and pork pancakes or “Bánh xèo” made from rice milled earlier in the day. Describing this as a crispy taco with beansprouts and herbs in the middle wrapped in rice paper, it actually tasted beautiful and had a lovely crunch texture to it. A lot of the ingredients were prepared for me so the actual cooking only took about 10 minutes in total for this dish.
The third dish was a beef noodle salad or “Bun Bo Nam Bo”. Using my creative freedom, I decided to decorate my plate before layering up the salad just as our chef had shown me. This was actually quite filling that I forgot I had the Pho Bo to follow.
The Pho Bo was just as delicious as all the previous dishes. I have noticed that this particular dish is eaten at breakfast by the locals.
Adequately full up with food, I was then dropped off back in Hoi An town where I wandered around for a couple of hours before heading back to the homestay. I had arranged for a transfer for 4:30pm to take me to my next destination. In the Kia, the owners son drove me out of town….