Monday, March 11, 2013

Hoi An - Beautiful City of Laterns and Culinary Delights

Beautiful Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An on Friday. We had pre-booked a hotel that was in the city center and walking distance from the bus station. When we arrived, we were greeted by the motorbikes and taxis soliciting us. We have learned there is always someone ready to give you a ride. We asked the direction of our hotel and were told that the hotel was far and would take 30-45 minutes to walk the distance. We knew that wasn't true. We declined the offers, put on our backpacks and started walking. I laughed as the price went from 100,000 Dong ($5 USD) to 40,000 Dong as we walked a block. We declined and continued the 15 minute walk to our hotel. Once again, another beautiful hotel for $15/night and it included free breakfast.

Hoi An is a charming riverside town in central Vietnam. It was once a major shipping center for central Vietnam but as shipping was moved north, Hoi An became a tourist stop. Luckily, it was not bombed in the "American Aggression War" (Vietnam War) so it has retained its charm. I instantly loved the city for its walkability and the architecture. The streets are lined with ancient homes, souvenir shops, tailor shops and restaurants. The pace is slow and quiet as tourists wander the streets of the old town. The center of town is a cycling and pedestrian only center which adds to the ambiance. The lanterns lining the shops and streets add a beautiful ambiance. I loved this city!

The town was filled with tourists and locals celebrating International Woman's day. Flowers were for sale on every street corner and beautiful red and yellow flower lanterns were hung in the intersections to celebrate women. As the sunset and the lanterns were lit it, the lanterns set a beautiful glow on the city. We spent the day wandering the streets and enjoyed the ambience.
After enjoying a delicious meal in town, we knew we had to find a cooking class. We took the advice of our hotel and signed up for the Thuan Tinh Island cooking school. We were off at 8 am to meet the guide and start our shopping in the market. We were each handed a shopping basket and the guide and chef explained how to pick the freshest ingredients. We bought fresh ingredients to make four dishes:
1. Goi Con Nuoc Leo- Vietnamese Spring  Rolls with Peanut Hoisin Sauce
2. Banh Xeo - Sizzling Vietnamese Crepes with Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
3. Bun Bo Nam Bo - Southern style Beef Vermicelli Salad
4. Pho Bo Ha Noi - Hanoi Style Rice Noodle Soup with Beef

I loved the mint, morning glory, watercress,  lemon basil and Thai Basil but wanted nothing to do with the cilantro (icky!) and had no plans of using it in my cooking. Then it was on to the wet market for the seafood. Our guide showed us how to pick fresh shrimp versus day old shrimp.

Our next stop was to buy fresh beef and chicken. Whew! No killing of the animals in the market. And the last stop was the fresh rice noodles for the Pho and Beef Vermicelli salad. We finished our shopping and we were off to the island to start the class. Yes, by boat which meant we got to wear the lady hats again! 

Our first stop was a village where we made fresh rice milk. It was a lot of work. We ground the rice to remove the husks, separated the husks, soak the rice and then turn it on a stone to grind and press the rice milk.
Finally we were off to start cooking.

The Goi Cuon with Nuoc Leo was fabulous. This was the most delicious spring roll I have had the entire trip.
Goi Con Nuoc Leo- Vietnamese Spring  Rolls with Peanut Hoisin Sauce
Then it was on to my favorite dish, the Bahn Xeo. This is a pancake with shrimp and chicken. The pancake was made from the rice milk and rice meal and then added turmeric, black pepper, salt and coconut milk. We cooked rice and shrimp and then added the pancake mixture. The hardest part was flipping the pancake.  I tossed it into the air and caught it in the pan! Success! What makes this really delicious is the addition of green onions, bean sprouts, lettuce, watercress and mint. You press it all together, kind of like a taco, and add the dipping sauce (garlic, red chili peppers, sugar, kumquat juice and fish sauce).
Banh Xeo with Nuoc Cham Sauce...wish you could taste it!
On to the third course, a Beef Vermicelli salad. The salad consisted of greens (lettuce, watercress, mint, lemon basil, morning glory), fried shallots, fried garlic, cucumbers, carrots, red chili slices, bean sprouts, beef, peanuts and fresh vermicelli noodles. Then drizzled with a sauce. 

Beef Vermicelli salad

One of the things I have appreciated about Vietnamese cooking is the small amounts of meats that are used in the meal. The meats in these meals are for flavoring and not huge portions like we are use to in the USA. All of the meals were delicious. I was so full by the end of this course, I forgot to take a picture of the Pho. It was good too! Trust me! We finished eating and were returned to the city to walk and work off the meal.

On my final morning in Hoi An, I woke up at 5AM and decided to walk through the city to get some early morning photos. It was just me and the early morning exercisers! I found the walkers and the women in the park.
Early morning workout
I walked for three hours. Through the market as the women set-up there stalls, down by the river as the fishermen arrived with the fresh catch of the day and through town before any of the tourists were up and moving. It was beautiful and allowed me time to reflect on my visit to Hoi An. I love the quiet in the early morning, as the city first comes to life. Hoi An only has one issue. The tourists have made a negative impact on the city. The people in Hoi An have been taught that they should expect money from tourists if you take a picture of them. As soon as you take your camera out everyone is asking for $1. It becomes very overwhelming as you wander the city. I found myself taking group photos from a distance so I could capture the real life. Once again, I realized I need to make conscious decisions and travel responsibly. 
Banana delivery to the market

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