“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected" ― Roman Payne, Cities & Countries
After Hue, I headed over the mountain pass, towards to sea and to the small city of Hoi An. I am in love. Hoi An is a magical place. It is the reigning culinary capital of Vietnam, an old Chinese merchant town - a mecca for fabric and food.
Hoi An lies along the Hoia river and during the 16th and 17th centuries was a major merchant town for the Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Indian traders - somehow remaining untouched during any of the wars. The old town is a 15 block area that architecturally is both European and Asian…tree lined streets, row houses, Chinese assembly halls (temples dedicated to various clans), a Japanese wooden bridge, and so much more. The entire area is a heritage site, so there is no unwanted development, and even better, there are no motorized vehicles allowed in the city center, only bikes and foot traffic.
I knew I wanted to learn to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An. The location of the city makes it a melting pot of both northern and southern cooking styles. I found a cooking school run by a Vietnamese woman chef named Mrs. Vy. She is a force of nature - an advocate for preservation of Vietnamese street food, the use of local, fresh ingredients and the owner of four restaurants. I was incredibly lucky to be in a small group (again, no Americans), but a Canadian chef, and two people from the UK.
Our day started with a trip by boat to the local market. All of the local restaurants and hotels shop at this outdoor market twice a day to guarantee the freshest ingredients. I learned how to tell if a papaya is ripe, watched a woman tie crabs with banana leaves, tasted herbs (one leaf that tasted exactly like an anchovy), and the difference between the several varieties of garlic available. After the boat trip, we headed back to the kitchen and got to try our hand at making several Vietnamese staples, rice paper wrappers, noodles (much harder than it looks) and tasted some local delicacies (including frog with lemongrass and chili, which I tried, and fried silk worms, which I did not).
After that we set to work making some traditional vietnamese street food, crispy rice pancakes, mango salad, barbecue, cabbage soup…while this sounded simple, each dish was a complex mix of flavors and textures - sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, soft. Not to mention everything had to be presented in a manner pleasing to the eye. I’m not sure I will ever remember how to make it all, or be able to get the ingredients, but I will remember the tastes.
Hoi An comes alive in the evenings, after the sun has set and the weather has cooled. The chinese lanterns that line the street are lit, the shop owners put out their goods and the street side tables fill with diners. I walked the old town for a few hours, spent a few dollars and am sad knowing that tomorrow I will leave this place, but so glad to have found a city that speaks my language.