My hosts at the homestay knew I was vegetarian, and presented me early next morning with a big bowl of fruit, toast and eggs. I’m not a big breakfast person, but managed to do some justice to the meal. After that, I set out, but not into Hoi An, opting to head the otherway and investigate the beach.
It was still early, and cool, as I pedalled through the rice fields towards the coast. It wasn’t far, the scenery was pleasantly rural, and I felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep. On the way I passed a man driving his cattle, a fisherman stalking his prey through the checkerboard of paths, and that peculiarity of Vietnam, large cemetaries filled with ornate tombs in the middle of the paddies. Then there was the beach.
I have to admit it wasn’t the best of days for the diamond seas of tourist brochures and websites. It was deserted, the hour still being early, and the swimmer support bars and cafés were still clearing the detritus of the day before. The sea was, while not angry, was at least a mildly annoyed. The wind whipped it into the shore, and added sand to the general malaise. There was a family having fun in the water, but the consensus amongst the few in the beach was to wait and watch. I wandered up the beach for a while, then decided a coffee, a leisurely trip around town followed by the cycling/cooking event was a better prospect than staying. Besides, I’d dropped the camera into the man at the camera shop, who was confident of fixing it, and was promised to be ready around 11. He’d leant me a camera to use, which was kind of him. So, I headed back
On the way back I saw a classic example of the meeting of the traditional and the new: a man was driving his cattle presumably to a new pasture, using a motorbike as the primary means of herding. It looked a good photo opportunity, but, and I admit much might have been to do with my failure to become familiar with the camera, either the photos were out of focus, but those cattle led me a merry dance. They moved just as I took the shutter, or turned round, or simply stopped and refused to come closer. Not wanting to annoy the herdsman, I gave up, took one last photo, the one here where you can just make out the cattle in the distance, and continued on my way.
Back in town, I wandered aroung the mix of architectural styles, found a nice coffee spot and saw a cultural show put on gratis by the tourist association. I also passed lines of shops sell everything the tourist needs – you know, those little things that briefly remind you of a time or place, then find their way to the back of cupboards where they live quietly until joyfully rediscovered, when the cycle starts again. At this time od day – it was still before nine, the shops were empty, and the staff either gazing into the distance or finding something to do on their mobile phones.
I liked Hoi An. Yes, it was full of all those things the snobbish tourist eschews, but there was no denying the friendliness of the people, the striking architecture in the Main Street, the river and the boats. As I wondered up and down the Main Street, down to the river and some way along its bank, I began to feel at ease in this tourist town. Like Seam Reap, it managed to retain what made it a tourist spot in the first place. Even in the market, which sold everything from fake watches through t shirts to local produce, this was the case. Yes, it was filled with happy-snappy tourists like myself, but there was no doubt most of its function was to serve the local population.
My camera was pronounced dead, so I thanked the man, whose name sadly I have forgotten, returned the loan camera and went back into the wide world armed only with the camera in my iPhone. It was a brave move.
The main feature of the day was due to commence, so I headed back to the homestay, and waited for the minivan to pick me up, which it duly did. I wasn’t the only one having chosen the tour, so the bus headed into town to collect the rest of the party, which consisted of four Dutch girls. “Trust the Dutch to opt for the bike tour”, I thought. I was a little taken aback when we we arrived at the central market, but our tour guide explained it was to find and explain the ingredients we’d been using, which was reasonable enough. However, thanks to the internet cooking has gone global, so when she stopped, pointed at an item, and asked what it was, most of us knew. The mushrooms floored me, not the turmeric or lemongrass. Still, it was fun, and the girls managed to buy some delicacies which looked to contain predominantly sugar.
Behind the central market lies the river, and it was to here we headed next. I was still expecting to see bikes, and, when we were ushered aboard a large if tired boat, I looked around to see them. There were none. I ruminated as we headed downstream, actually heading towards where I’d been in the morning. If there was cycling to be done, time said it would not be enough for more than a couple of hundred metres, so I asked the obvious question.
“What bicycles?” The guide seemed genuinely puzzled. I pulled out the brochure and gave it to her. She studied it for a second, then shook her head and said excitedly: “No bicycles on this tour, we’re going to take coracles instead !”
If you’re in a boat in the middle of a river, there’s not much you can do. Besides, I’d never been in a coracle before, and the idea of winding in leisurely fashion through the rice paddies in one was not unattractive, so I smiled, and the conversation turned to other things.
If I remember correctly the Welsh were frequent users of these small round boats, using them to traverse marshes, streams and what-have-you. I’d not been aware they were in use in other countries, and, since there is no record of the
Welsh having colonised anywhere in SE Asia, one has to assume that these small, lighweight boats have evolved independently. That they were a feature of most cooking and river-based tours in Hoi An came as a great surprise. I’d heard the music, that bass-heavy sound one hears everywhere these days, but was not prpared fir its context. We rounded a corner, and there they were, a fleet of coracles bouncing around in the water to the sound of Gangnam. I looked inquiringly at our guide. “They’re a Korean group going on a picnic” she said helpfully. All I can say is that the Koreans know how to have fun in these tiny, unstable vessels. They were dancing, singing along, downing beers and so on, led by their tour leader who was literally jumping up and down in his solo coracle. It looked fun, and we stayed for a while watching, until the guide announced our own coracles had arrived. I turned and looked. There were now several boats like ours, each with groups of coracles heading towards them. Our three coracles stood out, not because they were different from the others, but because they were being rowed by comfortable-looking middle-aged mothers, rather than the young and fit of the others. Still, on the bright side there’d be no karaoke with our group, and indeed there wasn’t.
I’d done one of these one-day cooking courses before, in Thailand, so had an idea what to expect. Not being that familiar with Vietnamese cuisine, I was looking forward to learning something that is popular in France, and understanding the tastes which are far away from the Thai love of all things hot.
We were greeted by the chef, whose name sadly I have forgotten. She was petite, bouncy, spoke perfect English and had patience with some of the duffers on the course, such as myself. She had also gone out of her way to provide me with a good variety of things to make, which was thoughtful. Having the patience of a saint probably helped, but the Vietnamese are nothing if not polite.
Subsequently, on my return and further exploration of the cuisine, I realised just how good that lady was, and how much we were shown of some classic recipes in what was little more than an afternoon. I still remember those pancakes, which are a staple of restaurants in both Vietnam and France. Hindsight says I should go bck and learn some more, and, perhaps, one day I will.