The Road Taken from Hội An to Huế.

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.

Basket boats near Danang
Basket boats near Danang
More coracles.
More coracles.

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 the foreground, 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.

Views looking back to Danang from Hải Vân Pass
Views looking back to Danang from Hải Vân Pass

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.

Lang Co beach huts
Lang Co beach huts
Hot and Hungry at Lang Co, Vietnam.
Hot and Hungry at Lang Co, Vietnam.

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Amazing Grace in Hội An, Vietnam

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.gr2-001

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Resilient Vietnam

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?

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Elderly gentleman guards his wares, HoiAn.
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Bridal couple choose the Citadel at Hue.
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Night time diners and card players, HoiAn.
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Night time coconut milk seller, HoiAn

Central Market, Hội An, Vietnam

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.

Fish for sale, Hội An Central Market, Vietnam
Fish for sale, Hội An Central Market, Vietnam

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.

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Good Morning Vietnam. Chào Buổi Sáng

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?

Last night this corner of Hoi An was packed with tourists.
Last night this corner of Hoi An was packed with tourists.

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.

Women arriving in Hoi An for the day.
Women arrive from villages out along the Thu Bon River, anticipating a good day of business.
Morning boats along the Thu Bon, including a round Thing Chai boat, similar to a Coracle.
Morning boats along the Thu Bon River, including a round Thung Chai, similar to a Coracle.

 

Guide to Cooking Schools in Asia

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.

Market stall buffet, Hoi An
Market stall buffet, Hoi An, Vietnam

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

    Market lady making fresh Bánh phở noodles.
    Market lady making fresh Bánh phở noodles.

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.

Hoi An market stall.
Another Hoi An market stall.

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.

Small fish stall at Hoi An market. Mackeral is the best option in Asia
Small fish stall at Hoi An market. Mackerel is the best fish option in Asia.

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.
    A vegetarian soup made from tow stocks- one a vegetable stock, the other a deep mushroom stock. The soup contains rice noodles, vegetraian wontons, mushrooms, fried tofu and rau ( a kind of green vegetable) and Vietnamese mint. It is deeply satisfying. ( Minh Hiein Restaurant, Hoi An, Vietnam
    Above. A vegetarian soup made from two stocks- one a vegetable stock, the other a deep mushroom stock. The soup contains rice noodles, vegetarian wonton, mushrooms, fried tofu, rau ( a kind of green vegetable) and Vietnamese mint. It is deeply satisfying. Minh Hien Restaurant, Hoi An, Vietnam. The recipes at this restaurant are complex and full of flavour and were passed down to Nhiem, the chef, from his grandmother.

    Cao lầu noodles from Hoi An. These special local noodles are made with water sourced from an ancient well on Cham Island.
    Cao lầu noodles from Hoi An. These special local noodles are made with water sourced from an ancient Cham well. They turn up in most local restaurants in Hoi An but once you leave that town, they are not the same. Vietnamese food is very regional.

In My Kitchen, August 2016

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.

Great little grater. I want one. Better than the Thai version.
Great little grater. I want one. Better than the Thai version.
Staff member using the great grater.
Staff member using the great grater.

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 importance of Mise en place.
The importance of mise en place in Vietnamese cooking.

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.

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Mr T learns better technique.
Draining fried food without paper towels.
Draining fried food without paper towels.

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.

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.

Nhien and Mr T discuss technique in a Vietnamese Kictehn
Nhien and Mr T discuss technique in a Vietnamese Kitchen.

Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant

50 Trần Cao Vân, tp. Hội An, Vietnam

In Need of a Good Jacket?

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.

That red and black one looks fetching.
That red and black one looks fetching.

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

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.

A jackets for VCAT lawyers?
A suit for a VCAT lawyer?

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 in Hội An, Vietnam

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.

Another narrow lane, Hoi An, Vietnam
Another narrow lane, Hoi An, Vietnam

 

Yellow is the Colour of Hội An, Vietnam

I was considering calling this post ‘Mellow Yellow’ but the yellow walls of Hoi An are far too bold and daring, especially in the heat of the morning, when the colour seems to glow.  Colour has a huge effect on my outlook: I love walking around the old town of Hoi An when the party revellers and night-time vendors are still asleep and the yellow washes over me and gives me energy.

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Yellow intersection, Hoi An, Vietnam.
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Going to school through yellow Hoi An
Morning slow starts, Hoi An
Morning slow starts, Hoi An
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Yellow Lane, Hoi An, Vietnam
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One faded yellow wall, yellow lanterns and black shutters. A perfect colour scheme.

Hoi An is the only town in Vietnam to have escaped the American War entirely unscathed. Today the old town, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, is a proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site, with many restored houses open to visitors.

Beautiful Hội An girl.
Beautiful Hội An girl in Yellow Au Dai

From now on, I will always associate the colour yellow with Hoi An, Vietnam.

For my dear friend Di G, who loves this bold colour too and knows how to use it.