The last leg: Hoi An to Ho Chi Minch City

The evening after ‘the incident’ in Hoi An, we had a cooking class booked which I was really looking forward to so it was a good thing that I was actually feeling ok by that time. The school we went to was called Gioan and it was fantastic. On our walk to the school we went to the local market and were taught about the different fruit, vegetables and herbs that the locals here use. I saw a banana flower for the first time in my life (first pic on the left below)  and was amazed that they find a use for this- usually in salads. The Vietnamese don’t like anything from plants to go to waste which is something I really admire. Here are some snaps from the market (the lady cutting pineapple was so skilled!).

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Our teacher was Hanh who is a real character and kept us entertained throughout the class. She would turn every step in the recipe into a song (we’ve seen this a lot in Vietnam, people singing while they work to make the time pass quicker) and remembered all of our names at first before referring to us as the condiment/ingredient we were holding. Poor Mr Fishy and Miss Oily lucked out.

The great thing about Hanh was that she had grown up learning these skills as part of a family tradition so she knew some incredible techniques. She told us how they used to make fish sauce and it was fascinating.  The original process involved layering anchovies and salt on top of each other (one layer of anchovies followed by salt and so on, finishing with a layer of salt on the top to eradicate smell) inside a large ceramic pot. The one Hanh showed us looked like a large ornamental pot that you might see in someone’s garden in New Zealand. Apparently there is something in the ceramic which reduces the smell. Then after the layering was done, a piece of cloth would be laid on top and the mixture would be left to ferment… for a year! The colour of the sauce is checked at the three month point, red = good and black = throw it out. The colour can’t be checked by an unmarried woman in the household or it’s said that the sauce will go black and have to be thrown out. Once the year is up and the sauce is the right colour, the mixture is drained through a cloth and voila – fish sauce! Nowadays machines do all the work in about three days but Hanh reckons that you can definitely taste the difference.

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We cooked some incredible dishes including spring rolls Hoi An style. These are like regular spring rolls but the difference is the rice paper used. The round sheets are cross hatched and look like doilies. This means that when they are rolled and fried they look almost prickly and have more crunch.

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Next up was one of my favourite dishes that I’ve tried here, a green papaya salad. Unfortunately we don’t have the large green papaya they use here in New Zealand (as far as I’m aware anyway) so I’ll be sure to be eating/making a lot of it to get my fix. Apparently you could use cucumber or any other long green vegetable but I’m not sure if it would be the same.

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We also made a sweet and sour chicken soup which was as tasty as it sounds. The contrasting flavours of spicy, sweet, sour and salty balanced perfectly – Hanh referred to it as yin and yang in the dish.

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Our main dish was a tuna steak, marinated in delicious herbs and cooked inside a banana leaf. This is such a great way to cook as it keeps the steak juicy while letting the flavours really infuse. You could do the same with baking paper but the great thing about the banana leaf is that it means the presentation work is done for you. We served ours up in the leaf and it looked (and tasted) awesome.

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I really recommend doing something like this as you get to support local businesses and produce markets while learning the tricks of the trade. Everyone gets a recipe book at the end too which is a great little souvenir. Plus, even if you’re not a cook the ladies there will make sure you’re entertained. As we were cooking and waiting for a sauce to boil for one minute, Hanh got a cheeky grin on her face and said “Nek minnut!” before elbowing me in the ribs because she knew I was from New Zealand. She then did some great “Look at moooi” impressions for the Aussies. Funny what people here take from the Australasian culture!

Here’s a pic of Tom squeezing vegetable juice through a cloth (it was a competition between the boys so naturally he had to win):

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That night we had an early one as our flight to the final destination of the tour – Ho Chi Minh City*-  meant the alarm was going to go off at 3.30am. Ugh. We struggled through a few hours of broken sleep – I always have that feeling that I’m going to sleep through my alarm so end up quite restless when I have an early start. Then suddently it was 4am and we were on the bus to the Danang airport, dazed and confused. It was sad leaving Hoi An as we had some great times there. I definitely want to come back at some point as it’s so beautiful and has such a fun holiday vibe.

Danang airport was absolute chaos even at five in the morning. Apparently it’s not usually that bad but because Tet had just finished up, loads of families were flying back to the city after spending time with relatives in the countryside. I noticed a few things about the Vietnamese flying habits. Number one is that they have a LOT of luggage. Number two, that luggage mainly consists of oversize cardboard food boxes that have been taped up (I assume they are taking their own food with them everywhere?) and number three, everyone turns up late. Soon after we found out why  – they late ones are the smart ones.

We arrived for our flight early and were greeted with a never ending snake of a queue that took us over an hour (I think…still jaded at this point) to get through. The most painful part was watching those who got to the airport late, jump the queue entirely and get their bags checked in quickly and easily. It seems that they never really close check in, they just have these voices going over the loud speaker telling everyone that ‘this is the final call for Flight 7401 to Ho Chi Minh”. Then that message is repeated every two minutes for the next half hour at least. As well as this, they send out people with the flight number on a little sign to make doubly sure that they have everyone on board before the plane takes off. This would never happen in New Zealand. If you’re late, you miss your flight. I would complain at the backlog it causes for those who come on time but I’m sure it will serve Tom and I well at some point in the future.

Not surprisingly we slept most of the hour long flight. Once we landed and were all waiting to get off the plane this cute little girl caught my eye. She must have been staring at Tom and I for a while as when I looked at her she laughed and said shyly “Hello!” She then quickly hid behind her mum’s legs before peeking out again to make sure that we were really there. Children here often have this reaction towards us and quite often want to reach out and touch you because you look so funny to them. This happened a lot in Hoi An and there was one incident where a young girl ended up slapping me on my arm quite hard. I thought she was angry with me for something but turns out that she had wanted to touch me as I went past and underestimated her strength- we looked behind and saw her looking quite embarrassed and giggling. It makes you a bit paranoid at first (wondering if there is something on your face) but we’re getting used to it now. The thing to do is catch them out and reply “Xin Chao” to their “Hello” – guarantees a good reaction.

Much more to come on Ho Chi Minh- the city we will be calling home for the next wee while (exciting times!).

*I’ve realised that every place we went on this tour started with an ‘H’. There are a lot of places here that start with that letter and I’m not sure if there’s any significance or whether it’s just coincidence. Would love to know.  

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