Posted by: JLG | 4 August 2017

Hoi An

As soon as we started to plan our Vietnam trip, people who had been unanimously told us that we must spend the lion’s share of our time in the country in the small town of Hoi An, about an hour’s drive south of Hue, and, well, who were we to argue? We had very few preconceived notions of what to do during a two-week visit to the country, so we figured why not devote three nights to this village of around 100,000 people? After we decided that Hue simply did not have enough for us to do to warrant our spending four nights there, we even added a night to our stay in Hoi An, so strong was our conviction that we would enjoy this town enormously.

We had arranged for a car to take us from Hue to Hoi An with stops along the way at a beach that was once popular with American troops stationed nearby; a bunker that had been used by the Vietnamese, then the French, and finally the Americans to control traffic moving up and down the coast road between Danang and the DMZ; and the Marble Mountains, a site about which we knew nothing, but that all the cars seem to stop at. The beach was indeed very attractive (if you like beaches) and I can imagine that US troops would have loved taking it easy here. jg-20170730-Canon EOS 5D Mark IV-5155.jpg

The road from Hue to Hoi An now has a tunnel that cuts out having to take the pass over the mountains that separate the area to the north from the areas to the south, but that would have meant we’d miss seeing the bunker, which was worth seeing, though it’s in a terrible state of disrepair. But the Marble Mountain was nothing but an opportunity for the car company to seek a commission on any purchase we might have made there, and there was nothing about it that appealed to us. While the craftsmanship is pretty good, the style is not for us at all, and the marble they carve is not even from here any longer.

We also managed to make a stop or two in the Danang area, which truly surprised me. Danang in my imagination was a small town with a beach made famous by the Vietnam War (“China Beach” is here). In fact, it’s the third largest city in Vietnam, and growing fast, with a reputation as a bit of a Silicon Valley for the country. The beach is obviously undergoing tremendous development, with block after block surrounding with hoardings promoting the new hotels that are to be built there. The beach is beautiful, too, though I’m not sure I’d flock here for a beach holiday just yet.

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We got into Hoi An in the early afternoon and checked into the Ha An Hotel, a charming old villa-style building surrounding a courtyard with a pool. Our room is lovely, too, with–and this is key–a really good air conditioner. The air temperature was really close to 40C (98F) and it’s humid as hell. No sooner did we get in the room than we braved the heat to seek out lunch, determining that we’d head for Bánh Mì Phuong, a place that had been recommended to us. Fortunately, it was not too far from our hotel, and we more or less stumbled across it, and the sandwich was pretty good, though it did not knock our socks off the way we had hoped it would considering its exorbitant price compared with other banh mi we have had in Vietnam (here it cost an astronomical VND 25,000, compared with the going rate of VND 20,000 in most places; bear in mind that the current exchange rate is USD 1 = VND 22,000).

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This is what a $1.14 banh mi looks like.

The town is much more attractive than Hue, and reminds me very much of places like Lijiang or Yangshuo in China. Part of the reason for that is that Hoi An was largely built by merchants who set up shop in Hoi An from China and Japan back in the 17th Century, and the town has long had a strong influence from those countries, as well as from Portugal and France.

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But the heat was a bit too much for us, and we decided to retreat to the hotel until the sun began to go down. When it did, we started our search for dinner at the central market, conveniently located just two blocks from our hotel, where we had a pretty good couple of dishes at prices that made our banh mi seem reasonable–they charged a whopping VND 100,000 for each of our dishes, a squid stuffed with pork and shrimp and served with a bit of a salad, and a huge mound of barbecued pork (for the math-averse, that’s US$4.50 for each of those dishes). We had heard there was a night market, too, so we headed that way and did a bit of grazing, enjoying a grilled rice cracker dish that was sort of like a Vietnamese taco (far more reasonable at VND 10,000, or 45 cents) and a dish of fried spring rolls for the same price.

The next morning I woke up extra early (4:30am) to participate in a morning photo excursion to a nearby fishing village with a French photographer who moved to Vietnam 10 years ago and who now organises these types of outing. The morning was perfect for photography, initially at least, since the sun was not yet scorching and the skies were clear. We were there to see the boats come in from their night of fishing, and as they brought the catch in to shore where people bought, traded, fought, joked, and otherwise behaved in photogenic ways. Our tour also included a stop at a nearby fish sauce factory (very very pungent, especially before breakfast) and a visit to a dry dock to see them mending the boats, and I was still back at the hotel by 8am, in time to go with J2 for breakfast in town for a bowl of noodles.

Our few days in town were mostly spent with us going out for breakfast, wandering around a bit until the heat became unbearable, retreating until lunch, having an air-conditioned siesta in the room until beer o’clock, and then seeking out dinner once the sun has descended. There was time for us to do some shopping (we found some really nice bowls that we’ll use for dinners at the lodge) and some out-of-town tourism (we hired a car to visit the ruins of the Cham civilisation in nearby My Son), and we signed up for a morning food tour that started at 7am (obscenely early for J2) and that had us wander a suburban market while sampling 44 different dishes from vendors, restaurants (including another one that we had accidentally discovered for a meal the night before) and at the home of the Australian expat who organises the tours. All in all, it was a much more relaxing couple of days than our other stops so far in the country.

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Cham relic

On the last day we were in Hoi An, though, I had arranged to take a cooking class through a restaurant where we had had lunch earlier in our stay. The restaurant had a neat concept–it offers a somewhat sanitised version of the street food scene, with the whole gamut of Hoi An-style dishes cooked at stations along the perimeter and a dining area in the centre. The meal we had there was very good, though it came at quite a premium over regular places in town. Still, when I took a look at the cooking classes they had on offer, a few of them seemed pretty enticing, and their pricing seemed pretty fair. The course I opted for involved bicycling from the restaurant out of town toward a local market where we’d learn a bit about the ingredients on offer, then bike further to a vegetable farm where we’d meet the farmer and learn about the vegetables he grows, then visit a bean sprout farmer (ditto) and finally return to the restaurant to sample the dishes they make and then learn to prepare four dishes that we would then have for lunch.

J2 decided to stay behind while I took the class, so I left the hotel at 7am to grab breakfast on the street before the class, which began at 8am. The day was already pretty hot at 8am, so I can’t say I was especially excited about biking as the day would only get hotter, but it turned out to be more or less ok. Sure, the eight of us on the class sweated like pigs throughout, but we were all in it together.

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Cooking Class at Vegetable Farm

The market we visited was the same one our food tour visited the previous day, the so-called “Tiger Market” (named after a nearby temple), and the rice farms we rode through were the same ones I biked out to a few evenings before to get some sunset photos, but this time there was a lot more activity to see. The farmers we visited were a delightful elderly couple who have been married for more than 70 years; the husband had been in the war for 10 years, wound up in prison (perhaps re-education) and now has a successful vegetable farm where he raises all sorts of produce for the local market. They have a nice house, five kids, and the sweetest smiles you ever saw. The wife was especially concerned that we all have adequate sun protection while out in her fields, and gave several of our group conical hats to wear during our visit.

 

Back at the restaurant, they offered us tastes of everything they make, which includes a section they call “weird and wonderful”. J2 and I had noticed those things on the menu when we came for lunch, but did not dare to order things like pig brains with Hoi An pepper; fertilised duck egg (“balut”); pig ear salad; or frogs in chilli sauce, but when they’re being offered to you for free, I figured why not try them all! I have to admit, all of them were actually pretty good, especially the pig brain and the frogs, but I’d even now be able to stomach the balut if I should ever decide to become a contestant on Survivor.

 

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Balut

We moved on into the teaching kitchens on top of the restaurant for our lesson, during which we learned to make fresh spring rolls; crispy rice pancake with bean sprouts (“bánh xèo”); “White Rose” dumplings (open-faced steamed dumplings with shrimp); steamed vegetable-filled dumplings; and cau lao noodles (special Hoi An noodles with braised pork), all of which turned out really well, and some of which we’ll surely make again and perhaps even serve guests.

 

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Bánh xèo

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Bánh xèo (finished)

When the course was just about over, J2 arrived in the car that would take us to the airport in Danang for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City and the last stop on our trip!

 

 

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Responses

  1. What a colorful country! Your pictures are stunning.


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