Hoi An do I love thee, let me count the ways

April 13, 2011 - Ha Noi, Vietnam

[Bear with me on this long entry- I've got alot to catch up on!]

I've always had a corner of my heart reserved for Hoi-An, since it seems to encompass everything that I love in life- the beach, old buildings and history, shopping, and fine cuisine.

Like all good adventures, mine started with an overnight train. I travelled to Danang, and would take the bus to Hoi-An, where I would meet Maria, another Oxford medic, and Corinne, a Masters student, both working in Ho Chih Minh. I had visions of a filthy bunk affair, with me huddled in the corner, wide awake all night, hugging my luggage close, and clutching my personal safety alarm... It was therefore an enormous relief when I was greeted by the familiar twang of Aussies as soon as I boarded. The entire carriage was full of them. My cabin had a Vietnamese couple with their gorgeous, giggly 4-year old girl, and a security guard patrolled all night, so I felt safe. I arrived at Danang midmorning and decided to wait for the girls. I met a tall, lanky Austrian ("I came here to find God"), who sat with me while I waited. I felt like a weight had been lifted when I saw Maria; I hadn't realised how much I missed Oxford until I saw her familiar face. Corinne was a bubbly Philadelphian, and we clicked instantly; it's always nice to meet someone who talks as much as you do...

After an average meal of Cao Lau (a Hoi-Anese fried noodle dish) and Com ga (Hoi-An Chicken rice), we found our hotel, showered and hit the shops. There was entire streets lined by tailor shops; how on earth were we supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff? There were dazzling ranges of colours and designs, and the tailoresses bombarded us with offers. I was fixated on getting the ultimate red dress, but then a bright sunflower yellow material caught my eye and I was utterly seduced; it had to be mine. I say tailoress, since all the shops were run by women; in fact, all the work in Vietnam appears to be done by women- work in the fields, food stalls, shops, banks, everything. All the men sit in cafes drinking beer and coffee and playing backgammon, while a few tout their motorbikes (those fateful motorbike taxis) and taxis. The feminist in me felt her hackles rising, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt; I'm sure they must do something worthwhile at some point in the day...!

It's a fact of life that once a woman starts shopping, and she hits her stride, very little can stop her. Any idea of moderation becomes ludicrous- you are only alive once, she tells herself. You'd pay four times this much in the UK, she wheadles. It's just too pretty to resist, she gibbers. Several pearl necklaces and dress fittings later, dazed and all shopped out, our thoughts turned to food. Dinner was a fantastic meal of fresh seafood at the Mermaid restaurant, with banana flambe pancakes to finish. I had the claypot fish in caramel sauce, and Maria has squid stuffed with pork and Corinne fish with lemongrass.

The next day, after an early big breakfast of fruit and odd-tasting pastries (remnants of their French heritage), we set off for more shopp- I mean sightseeing. We paid a visit to the traditional market, an exciting place full of fresh produce and animals. Little old women in conical hats crouched over mountains of unfamiliar looking greenery and misshapen root vegetables, and people charged about with handfuls of squawking, honking chickens and ducks upside down by their ankles. The fish was so fresh most of it was still alive, and slithering about on the marble counters. We even saw piles of jellyfish wobbling about in the sun. We had lunch in the market, which was a big buffet selection that set us back a whole 66p.

Hoi-An is a beautifully preserved, picturesque old town, with cobbled streets, and old wooden houses. It had several restored ancestral family homes (with the families still living there), assembly halls and temples which you could visit on a multiple-sight ticket. It was much quieter than Hanoi, with bicycles squeaking down the tiny lanes, reminding me of Oxford. Unlike places such as Venice or Udaipur, which have become sanitised and almost exist purely to cater for tourists, there was still a large local population co-existing with the tourist industry. Barges would transport big loads of school children with their bicycles across the river, and clearly the market was mainly for the locals, since what would a tourist do with 2 kilos of pig's trotters?

The next day we rented bicycles to go to the beach. The bikes were antiquated, held together with rust, spit and a bit of faith. Wobbling slightly, the intrepid explorers set off on the roads riddled with potholes and casual moped drivers ("Right side of the road in Vietnam, Maylin. Right. THE RIGHT SIDE!"), and we made it to the coast, stopping off briefly for me to buy a bikini ("Miss, this IS the biggest size."). The beach was relatively deserted this early, and the sun was already sweltering, so we slapped on the suncream and I scampered into the waves. They were large and boisterous and I felt like I was 9 years old again, chasing them back and forth. We drank coconut juice from huge coconuts in the shade of palm trees and scooped out the flesh with spoons. This wasn't quite how I imagined this elective to go, sitting here in this corner of paradise.

Salt-encrusted and slightly overdone on our shoulders and the tips of our noses, we made our way back into town. After another afternoon of shopping (Such a hard life), we decided to treat ourselves to a slap-up meal at the Mango Rooms, a top-notch restaurant in Hoi-An, which has boasted customers like Mick Jagger, overlooking the river. The food here was quite amazing- I had some of the best fried spring rolls ("Rocking rolls") I've had this trip, whilst Maria was wowed by the fresh ones. I had duck for the main course ("Flight of the Phoenix"), whilst the others had scallops and prawns ("Pearl of the Orient"), and chicken ("Asian Sin"). The other 2 had deepfried fruit wontons (Wow. Just wow.) for dessert whilst I had bananas flambed in rum with coconut sauce, sprinkled with roasted peanuts (ingredients I've never mixed but it was a triumph) In keeping with the mad food titles, the restaurant was a kooky mix of Mediterranean decor with South American soundtrack. There was a festival occurring; the riverside was lined with colourful lanterns, and tiny lanterns floated across the water, around large paper animals bobbing in the water, an elegant effect that was slightly marred by the earwax-melting live music blaring out of loudspeakers.

Early the next morning, we had our last breakfast together, and after a fond farewell (the other two were doing a bike trek around the Cham ruins at MySon), I made my way (after a few false starts down random alleyways, damn my hopeless navigation skills) to the Morning Glory Cooking School for a cookery course. I was the youngest person in the group, which consisted entirely of friendly retired Australian couples, and who laughed at me because I had brought my notepad to take notes. Clearly medschool is a hard habit to break. We were taken to the market and introduced to all the new herbs, vegetables and spices that I had seen throughout my time here, and given a brief education on the uses of various ingredients in various Vietnamese dishes. All of them seemed to be geared towards women's health, health of her uterus, or ensuring that she was attractive enough to the opposite sex. Being the only pre-menopausal female this meant I had a few winks and nudges headed my way. They even called me a "Pommie", which is a first for me.

We had a cooking session from the owner of the school, a fiercely beautiful woman who by the age of 40 already owned 4 restaurants and 2 hotels. Awesome and competent, she made every dish look easy. We on the other hand muddled and fudged our way through cabbage-leaf wrapped shrimp parcels in a clear cabbage soup, fresh spring rolls, crispy pancakes, and finally marinaded chicken, served with green mango salad. All fresh tasting, all delicious. Every dish had its own story and reason for its construction being just so, a balance of flavour and texture. She talked about ingredients being not "good or bad", but of balancing "ying and yang", and made a big thing of comparing Western problems with high cholesterol with their naturally low cholesterol, due to lack of dairy in the diet, despite the fatty meat used. There was of course the spiel about how being a good cook was vital to a Vietnamese lady so that she could convince her mother-in-law that she could feed her precious son adequately. The feminist in me ground her teeth together. At the end we were all given envelopes containing the recipes of the food we'd cooked, and a lethal looking mango peeler. Full and happy, I rolled back to the hotel to be driven to the station.

When the train reached Hue I was joined by a party of Philipino students on holiday. I know nothing about the Philipines so it was an interesting few hours as they told me all about their culture, language and their food, which all appear to be fluid concepts, due to influences from so many other cultures, which they full heartedly embraced. The train rolled into Hanoi at 5am, painfully early, and I made my way back to the hotel.


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