Random notes from Hoi An

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been holed up in Hoi An. It’s a nice place, quiet and with lots of things to do. Our room was big and cheap so we decided just to let it roll a while.

We ended up getting busy with work – freelancing comes in waves – and have stayed a long time now. We’re not quite sucked in, although we do know the real price of a bowl of noodles and know how to acquire homemade rice wine. We kind of wish we didn’t know that, all things considered.

To break things up, I shoehorned a cooking class into the schedule. I learned how to make pho, and how to fold banana leaves full of shrimp, and shred some salad. We did a tour of the market and a tour of the fields. In the fields we heard horns and drums. Apparently this was funeral music – it’s things like that you only learn from having a local guide. We came across some old palm branches on the ground. They were covering sprouts, and the guide says “It takes three days to grow sprouts. The Chinese have a chemical that makes it grow in 20 minutes. That’s why they die of cancer.”

The Vietnamese, being right beside China, you’d think would have a strong Chinese influence. Indeed, there seems to be some animosity on the part of the Vietnamese towards their northern neighbours. You can’t buy Chinese food, and that quip in the fields wasn’t the first we’ve heard.

What else?

Veg food. Veg food is a lifesaver in Vietnam for several reasons. One, the Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants are honest. They are Buddhist, and they walk the talk. Unlike traditional Vietnamese restaurants, they don’t overcharge white people, they make you feel at home, and they smile genuinely. Great vibe. We’ve found a place around the corner from us that has a veg buffet at lunch, and do vegetarian versions of cao lau and other Hoi An specialties. We’ve gone there almost every day since we’ve been in Hoi An and the lunch buffet is 50 cents up to $1 depending on what you want. The second reason why veg food is great in Vietnam is that it’s tasty. Traditional Vietnamese street food and small local restaurants tend to have limited menus with uninspired foods. Not so with the veg! More depth of flavor, more variety, more fun.

Vietnamese vegetarian is like the Chinese Buddhist vegetarian, in that they don’t rely on tofu and they incorporate a wealth of wheat gluten products made into different “meats.” The Vietnamese do a damn fine job with the “meats.” These offer a rich array of tastes and textures. The organ “meat” tastes so rich they could almost be mistaken for the real thing. Sometimes they will use a stick of lemongrass instead of a bone to boost flavor and offer interesting appearance. These meats often taste and feel a lot better than what they are attempting to imitate. Vegetarian chicken (white meat and drumstick), salmon steak, pork, beef, shrimp, squid, venison, kidney, deli meat, etc are each modeled, colored, seasoned, and textured to appear like those things. If I look hard enough I swear I could track down a veggie balut egg. A lot of people don’t “get” the veg meat thing but I do—it’s about cruelty-free varieties in taste, texture, and appearance. In Vietnam, Buddhists eat veg at least twice a month, on new moon and full but we noticed that the veg restaurants did good business all month long in both Hue and Hoi An. Usually we were the only foreigners.

So cheers to Vietnam for that. The Hoi An food is good stuff, some of it. I like cao lau (pronounced Koh Lau), a bowl full of sprouts, broth, greens, meat, pork cracklings and the eponymous, proprietary noodle. It’s not a soup but comes with a small bit of dark soya-based broth for moisture. Mi quang is another good meal in a bowl, based on a blander white noodle than cao lau. It’s got more broth than cao lau but still without being a soup. Its broth is bright yellow from turmeric and coconut. Josh is a cao lau guy, and Sun is a mi quang girl. Fried wontons are flat fried wontons, spread out and topped with a shrimp and pork mixture.

I’m dreading having to repack my bags. It’s a BIG task. My bag kills porters like beer kills brain cells. Sunshine’s bag glorps out over the pavement like an African bullfrog. We have a lot of stuff. But you’d be amazed what comes in handy. Leaving Germany I wondered what the point of my cold weather clothes was going to be? Try cold nights in Cappadocia, rain storms at the fig house and three weeks of cool, rainy weather in Vietnam.

While most things are permanent fixtures some things are more temporary. Toiletries in particular. Right now we have deodorant from Miami, soap from Turkey, toothpaste from India, shampoo from Germany, mouthwash from Malaysia, shaving cream from Thailand and at the end of my left arm I have Abu Dhabi toilet paper.

Then there’s the street vendors in Vietnam. They have some fantastic sales pitches. “You buy here!” “You buy something in my store!” “You buy this now!”

Awesome. I wonder what it actually says in the Vietnam Handbook of Selling to Westerners that convinces them that they are your customer, not the other way around. Or that commanding someone to buy something actually works.

We are heading south after Hoi An. To Nha Trang, which we’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews on. Will be interesting to see how we like it. We’ve finalized some of our travel plans for the future, including Angkor and Hong Kong. Ramble on!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sunshine says:

    Another random note. Hoi An has a lot of cooking classes on offer, it's a big tourist attraction. Josh took the one at Red Bridge, it's the one most recommended. He took the full-day for $36 but cooking classes can be had for as little as $15. I declined to go because the menus are set and I don't like pho.


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