Vietnamese Cooking

Monday, April 27th, 2009

After a very entertaining Thai Cooking class, I was eager to compare it with Vietnamese cooking in Hoi An. Our guide Huy set up our group with a dinnertime class, which was nice it that it took care of dinner and left the day free for the beach and clothes shopping.

This class was “family style” at Gioan, where all of us sat around the table chopping ingredients and then cooked one batch together. Our teacher Vinam was very sweet and energetic; she gave us all vegetable names (I was “Lemongrass”) and jokingly threatened to put us in the corner if we didn’t pay attention. (I was too tired and sunburnt that night to go crazy with my camera, so I stayed in her good graces.)

The ingredients were similar to the Thai dishes, though with less intensive preparation. The one exception were some ingredients that had to be wrung out or juiced by the “big strong men”: Barn “Green Papaya”, Matt “Aubergine”, Chris “Cucumber”, and myself.

We learned how to roll and fry the spring rolls we’d been enjoying all week, as well as make a surprising green papaya salad, and fish wrapped in banana leaves. Vinam was flexible with all the recipes, making vegetarian substitutions for Jenn (”Baby Onion”), and suggesting less exotic ingredients we might be able to find at home.

With 5 dishes, several rounds of drinks, and an impromptu fashion show of some of our new clothes , it was a long but enjoyable night learning some new recipes.

Custom Clothes in Hoi An

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Besides being a picturesque former trading town near the beach, Hoi An in Vietnam is known for its many tailors. You can’t go 50 feet without hitting a clothing shop, all of which can make just about anything you can dream up.

Many of us had been planning to get clothes made, and decided to make dinner quick our first night to get to the tailors. We didn’t even have to finish dinner; the small restaurant across from our hotel was next to a clothing shop, whose owner came over with her toddler to say hi and invite us in for a look. It might’ve been clever marketing, but their samples and fabrics looked good, and Matt & Anna reported similar findings at another nearby shop, so we had found our store!

That turned out to be the easy part, as their table was stacked with thick catalogs of styles, and the walls piled high with enough fabrics and silk to satisfy my mom and grandma! We had a fun scramble through catalog pages and fabric bolts, which was certainly more fun as a group. Jenn and Chris provided a good sounding board for my choices, and the final tally was astonishingly low for so many custom pieces.

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The Overnight Train

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

One feature of this trip was an overnight train ride from Hue to Hanoi, which sounded a bit charming. Even if being bunked 4 to a cabin wasn’t Orient Express level luxury, I figured it would be on par with the 2 star hotels w’ve stayed in - simple but clean.

Instead, we got more worn, drab-green cabins whose only real charm was getting a good “roughing it” experience. After a beer or two to ease the jolt (a Gorillapod can be twisted into¬†a cupholder, by the way), the stewards brought around schedule cards with pictures of much nicer cabins. Chris and Matt set out to find these mythical cabins, with clean, already made beds and walls paneled with fake wood instead of real grime. Having honed their negotiating skills after two weeks of beating down local hawkers, they came back with an offer to upgrade all 3 cabins for our group for half price, or about $8 a person. With 12 hours to go, we all jumped in and moved on up.

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In The Viet Cong Tunnels

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Outside of Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi region, whose people fiercely defended their homeland during the Vietnam War (or American invasion as it’s often referred to here). As the old, black and white propaganda film explains, they responded to the “American demon’s” bombs and tanks by digging a complex network of tunnels to live, work, and fight from.

The region is dense jungle, crawling with centipedes and snails and quite loud once the other biomass starts talking. It’s tough to imagine finding or fighting anyone here, even without the tunnels. With tunnels, traps, and bombs everywhere, victory seems impossibile.

A tunnel entrance, invisible under a covering of leaves, is a tiny 18 x 10 inches - just enough to admit a skinny person’s torso with their arms held up. A few of us dropped in with headlamps and began a doubled-over duck walk through tunnels no more than 3 feet high and 2 feet wide. After the first bend, all outside light and air disappears and the heat and claustrophobia hit me quickly. Then it feels like a urgent scramble to get out, and looking at the surface distance our crawl through the tunnel seems much longer.

The remainder of the tour shows - above ground - how the villagers prepared weapons and nasty spiked traps, made sandals from tires (which lasted for 5 years), and fed themselves with rice paper and rice wine. Craters from the many B-52 delivered bombs dot the landscape, and it one a formidable bundle of bamboo has grown dead center. The most striking part of the experience was crawling through the tunnels, though - it took some very tough people to live and fight in them for weeks at a time.