Not so long ago, my sisters and I went on a short getaway to the gorgeously scenic Hoi An in Vietnam.
Hoi An’s Ancient Town is a historic district recognised as a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating back to the 15th century. The town has a lot of influences, some of which are immediately recognisable – you’ll see traces of Japanese, French and Chinese in the architecture, food and attire.
The ancient city, which bustles with tourists and shoppers during the day, becomes a magnificent sight at night when what seems like thousands of lanterns are lit up everywhere. The rivers and canals that run through the town are also packed with boats that take tourists on short rides. It’s heaven for today’s Instagram-loving tourist.
Every blog or travel website will also tell you that you absolutely must go to a tailor while you’re there. Tailoring shops abound, and the true challenge is not in finding one but finding one that suits your budget and convenience – TripAdvisor has loads of reviews that you can wade through in order to make a wise choice. The incredible thing about this is that you can get a custom-made outfit sewn and ready for delivery in 24 hours.
There’s plenty of shopping and eating to do here as well, and while you’re at it, stop for a delicious cup of Vietnamese coffee. You can also ride a bike (many hotels offer free use of their bicycles) or motorbike almost everywhere, go on a rickshaw ride, wear sun hats and play on the beach, go to a vegetable farm, pamper yourself silly with massages … there’s much to keep you entertained for sure.
What the three of us enjoyed most (and I guess I must reveal that we are all 50 and above), was the cooking tour we signed up for at the last minute through our hotel.
The Bay Mau Eco Cooking Tour is a great way to get an overview of life in Hoi An. It comes complete with a four-course Vietnamese cooking class, a motorboat ride, a basket boat ride, a trip to the wet market to buy groceries, a little bit of history, you make some new friends and, at the end of the class, you eat up all your yummy food!
Our guide, Vui, was a friendly chatty young lady who had, no doubt, done this a million times. She was excellent in her presentation and knowledge, and was able to field all our questions with confidence. The Western foreigners seemed a little more intrigued by the wet market than the Asians in our group of 10, as we waded through throngs of people and loud vendors as well as scooters and motorbikes that would race through the tiniest of places.
After picking up 10 little bags (each one of us got a bag) of fresh vegetables, meat, prawns and sauces, we boarded a motorboat for a 30-45 minute journey on the Thu Bon river to the Bay Mau Coconut Forest in CamThanh, which apparently is an official ecological zone.
When we arrived at the forest, we transferred from the big boat into little basket boats (two people to a boat, with a boatman to steer) and we began hunting for crabs among the palm trees. It was a lesson in patience and I proved useless at catching those crabs.
The boats travel downstream to the village where the cooking classes are conducted. It’s very peaceful and when you arrive everything is already set up and ready to go. We were walked through four dishes – Banh Xeo (a crispy Vietnamese crepe with pork and shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion), Mi Xao Hai San (fried noodles), Pho Bo Hanoi (beef rice noodle soup infused with beef bones), and Goi Cuon (fresh rice paper salad rolls with hoisin sauce).
I can’t express how simple it was to follow Vui’s lessons, and how delicious the food tasted at the end! I am possibly the world’s lousiest cook, and the fact that I ate all the veggies in these recipes was further proof that the fresh ingredients of this meal were really scrumptious.
We also got a little behind the scenes lesson on how milk rice paper (banh trang wrappers) is made from scratch – by pounding the rice then grinding it for the rice milk, and then steaming it over a hot stove.
The whole trip takes about six hours, but it is well worth it. And you’ll get picked up and dropped off at your hotel. It’s really an affordable and worthwhile outing to include on your Vietnamese adventure. And you get a little gift pack to take home too – giant chopsticks and all.