I am definitely falling victim to the infinite charms of Vietnam. This place is coming close to rivalling India for the sheer number of photogenic opportunities, whether it is farmers plowing rice paddies with huge horned buffaloes, the women in their cone-shaped hats paddling with one oar down the river, or the beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture in the town of Hoi An. The food is wonderful, the history is intriguing, Vietnam has, over the centuries fought off most of the big bad boys of Asia; the Indian Chams, the Khmers, the Chinese, and of course more recently the French and the US. I found this quote in the history section of the guide book that I particularly liked written by Le Loi who rallied the country successfully against the Chinese in 1428:
“Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with its own civilisation. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and these are different from the those of the foreign country to the north…We have sometimes been weak and sometimes powerful, but at no time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”
James and I arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon after a scenic drive through the rice fields and along the sea front through the town of Danang. Hoi An is full of charms, full of restaurants serving white rose (shrimps wrapped in rice paper bundles), hot pot soups of sea food and spice, LaRue beer, cafes, bars, a river front lined with brightly coloured boats- all with ominous white and black eyes painted either side of the prow, markets, old women in pointed hats selling sticky slabs of sugary peanuts, the streets are lined with brightly coloured beautiful houses, palm trees, red and pink flowers creeping over tiled roofs, old ceremonial chambers with Japanese, Chinese, French and Vietnamese architecture all blended together, and most dangerous of all Hoi An boasts an incredible 400 tailor shops.
W e were recommended a tailor shop called Peace by our hotel and we went around on our first morning. I planned to get one dress and maybe get a copy done of the top I brought in Brazil and have worn to death travelling. The women in our tailors are lovely, and the things they make are beautiful and lets just say that this is day three in Hoi An, James has one suit, two trousers and three shirts and I have a total now of one Vietnamese traditional outfit, two tops, one dress, a formal skirt and a winter coat. Whoops. I have told the owner if she talks me into getting anything else I will stop recommending her shop to people!
Apart from popping into the tailor shop (which invariably involves the girls getting me to try some weird fruit or sample a local soy bean drink while we have a chat) we’ve been wandering around the old town, visiting the historical sites, sitting drinking Orangina in cafes, cycling down to Cua Da Beach and vegging out on the soft sands, eating incredibly well in the wonderful restaurants in the evenings and drinking ice cold beers while we play cribbage in the bars (I am still loosing)!
Today I left James and went to have a half day cooking course with the Red Bridge Cooking School in town. We started off with a tour of the local market and I found out what a good deal of the unusual fruits and vegetables were, my favourite being a nobbly wrinkled green fruit which is a bitter melon. Tastes like crap apparently but is very good for the body! Unusually for someone who generally has the domestic leanings of a fruit bat, I ended up buying kitchen utensils! A very funky mutli-purpose blade that slides dices, peels and shreds, it’s actually very cool! After the market we all piled into a colourful wooden boat and travelled down the palm fringed river to the cookery school pausing to watch a local fisherman expertly fan out his net into the water to catch fish. Well actually he wasn’t catching any fish just then, he was showing off for the cameras and then frantically paddled up to ask for some money!
The cooking course was brilliant, and our chef had a very dry sense of humour which is unusual in Asia, he kept saying the most amusing things in a totally dead pan tone:
“For this use lemon grass, or if you don’t have lemon grass use fresh ginger. If you don’t have fresh ginger in your country…move.”
We learnt how to make spring rolls, rice paper, seafood salad, Hoi An pancakes, Aubergine in clay pots and cucumber and tomato carving. We ate all the food we made and then had yet more for a late lunch, we were all stuffed as pot-bellied pigs when we climbed back aboard the boat back to Hoi An.