Once you see past the tailors you might just notice that Hoi An is a food lover’s paradise and once you’ve pigged out at a few of the restaurants and stalls the next thing on your list should be a cooking class. Not only will you be able to bore your friends back home with photos of old ladies in conical hats, but you can make a whole themed evening out of it with a spread of ye olde Hoi An dishes to really get them in the mood.
I’ll come clean here: I love everything about preparing a meal in my home in Hoi An. Absolutely everything, from the giggling ladies at the meat market who greet me with cries of “Heo!” (which is actually pork, but I got muddled on my first visit and heo sounds an awful lot like hello with a Vietnamese accent — the meat ladies have a very long memory it would seem), to attempting a full roast dinner on a two-ring camping hob. Because of this love of cooking I have either done or spied on rather a lot of cooking classes in town. I have enough recipe sheets to write a book and yet I have still never cooked Vietnamese at home because it’s much cheaper to eat on the street and I have a couple of beef oxo cubes left smuggled in from one of my aid worker friends back home. Shame on me!
For your starter I’m going to give you a brief outline of what to expect. Generally your class is mapped out so that you can choose whether or not you want to trek through the market. I’d say pay the extra $5 and do it, even if it’s not the greatest tour the market is incredibly good fun and this is your opportunity to question everything about it — while you’re at it ask why there are no men there and if you get an honest answer (and you are female) it will fill you with joy.
You will almost certainly be taken to the central market which this year was ‘cleansed’; I’m not sure how I feel about this as there was something rather cool about bending double under the low blue tarpaulin and wading through murky water in your flip flops with giant river rats flanking both ankles, but maybe in the rainy season it will all be back.
For mains: you cook and will almost certainly learn the art of sculpting a tomato, cucumber or carrot – which you will never, ever be able to do again without a trip to your local hospital. Then you’ll eat. Sometimes you will even be expected to sample other class member’s food and them yours. (I’m really competitive and they never warn you in advance of this — I wish someone had advised me of this before my limp and badly packed spring rolls were displayed in front of everyone).
For dessert: you get recipe sheets and sometimes a small utensil.
Perhaps the class I learnt the most from was the Morning Glory Street Food class, but I was fortunate enough to be taught by Ms Vy herself, who is as charismatic as the sky is blue. The whole class was held in her spell and it’s no wonder her classes top the list on any forum you can find. She’s a magician with food, and so passionate about it that she wants to know every last detail about an item, from how it was grown to whether you can get it back home. She’s old enough to have learned from the shortages during the war and knows the health benefits of each and every ingredient she uses. Her staff are excellent, but I urge you to ask for a class with her upon booking. Be warned that there will be a lot of people attending the class, but she is set up for this and my class was as professional as a Jamie Oliver one I did back in the UK.
For a boutique experience you just have to do Red Bridge. Everything about it oozes class. They will send you off on a boat to the market, have their own herb gardens on site and have the coolest teachers, with a choice of locations for each class. Once you have slaved over a hot, personal work station you get to sit down for a civilised meal with your fellow classmates with an international standard wine list on offer to match to each dish should you choose. Take your swimmers, as they have a fabulous pool on site to work off your overindulgence and go on, sample a few poolside cocktails. The great thing is that it really is not that expensive — it’s on par with Morning Glory, unless you hit the wine list.
In the same price bracket you also have the stunning riverside restaurant Sakura, who disappointingly like Maggi products so much they make you don the apron, Green Chili who expect you to write down your own instructions between courses and Tuan Thinh island cookery school which is set on a by the hour… resort? Popular with married Vietnamese men wooing their unmarried girlfriends, it does have a boat trip and a village tour where you see rice milk being made as dare I say – extras.
For a cheaper and more homey experiences you can’t go wrong with Green Bamboo, a small class held in your instructor Ms Van’s own kitchen. She’s great and if you have kids she is exceptional — in fact the only other class that would keep your kids entertained is the Tra Que Vegetable Garden class, which tires them out planting crops the Vietnamese way while you get a herbal foot massage, which is fun too, but not quite so personal. Green Bamboo is held in a real family home where you are instantly embraced as a treasured relative.
Lower the baton a bit, and you can pretty much ask any restaurant to teach you at a price and if you have enjoyed a dish there there is no harm in asking for a lesson in recreating it. My advice here is not to do the Cafe 43 thing, where you have your first meal there, then book a class and never dine anywhere else during your 10-day stay. Eat around, choose wisely.
I watched a Cafe 43 class the other day; I’ve found the food here awful plus the classes are silent, but it’s cheap backpacker territory and very popular, which is a shame as so many better options are available at the same or cheaper prices.
The cheese board! If you don’t want to cook but love eating, book yourself into one of the Taste of Hoi An street food tours where foodie (he loves his food) Australian Neville Dean takes you to all his favourite haunts and gets you to sample the best bits of Hoi An street food without the chore of having to cook it yourself. This is a great option if time is not on your side and Neville is a good guide, patiently explaining each dish and ordering for you.
106 Nguyen Thai Hoc St
T: (84) 0510 2241 556
Thon 4, Cam Thanh
T: (84) 0510 3933 222
Near Cua Dai Beach
T: (84) 0905 815 600
Taste of Hoi An
109 Nguyen Thai Hoc St
T: (84) 0905 382 783
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.