I could barely see – the rain lashed my face as we pedalled past rice fields, away from the local market and toward the small rural enclave that housed the family-run Coconut Hat Restaurant; our cooking class venue for the afternoon. Hoa, a woman in her early thirties, had picked us up at lunch time from Ms Tri’s House, our homestay in Vietnam’s beach town, Hoi An. After half an hour of walking through the local market together, Hoa pointing out different herbs, vegetables and cooking ingredients, we had mounted our bicycles (on loan from Ms Tri), slipped into our bright yellow ponchos and headed out of town. The air was nice out here – clean and fresh from the rain. The temperature sat at a pleasant 24 degrees. We cycled past rice paddies, small farms, a cemetery and across bridges over canals in which water coconuts grew. We even saw a lone buffalo swimming in a waterhole! Scenic, authentic, adventurous – ‘this is why I love travelling’, I thought, as our bike tyres rolled over bumpy roads and the wind blew the raindrops into my eyes.
It was our second full day in Vietnam. We’d arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) two nights earlier after a long day of travelling, and been greeted by rats scurrying along the alleyways as we walked to our first Air BnB accommodation. Thong had waited up for us although it was quite late, and showed us to our room on the 2nd storey, which consisted of a mattress on the floor and a bathroom across the hallway. We didn’t mind – the room was clean and the shower warm; all we wanted to do was sleep.
Early the next morning, we were on our way back to the airport again, on our way to Hoi An for a few days of R&R in this renowned tourist haven. We were greeted by Ms Tri with a huge smile and words of gratitude for choosing to stay in her home, and were given bicycles and suggestions of places to visit around the town. After a morning of cycling to the beach and eating fresh and absolutely delicious seafood, we meandered through the Old Town in the afternoon and tried to avoid getting ripped off by locals making use of the ‘three tiered pricing system’ – local price, expat price and tourist price (apparently, double each one and you’ll just about have it).
Today, we were to experience our first Vietnamese cooking class. Hoa, a friend of Ms Tri’s from high school, had opened up a restaurant with her husband four years earlier which served as a rest stop for people cycling through the farming areas surrounding Hoi An town. Today, Hoa’s husband takes tourists out onto the river in traditional, round basket boats to show them the unusual water coconut plantations, and then brings them back to the restaurant for the cooking class (and foot massage, if you book the whole tour). His wife Hoa, also mother to a seven-year-old girl and three-year-old boy, used to be a chef (‘not main chef’, as she enforced) and has now devoted her energies to raising her young family and teaching foreigners how to prepare some of the dishes Vietnam is famous for.
In a number of hours, we prepared spring rolls, green papaya salad, rice pancakes with shrimp, whole fish in banana leaf and banana pancakes. Hoa was a good teacher, even letting us drink beer as we cooked, and explaining everything in good English. The whole class was completely tailored – Tyson and I were the only students, and we could eat each dish as soon as we prepared it.
As we finished the class it got dark, and we were thankful for the small lamps on our bicycles as we made our way back past the rice paddies to Ms Tri’s house. With full stomachs and happy hearts at having met so many lovely locals already, we were excited about what lay ahead for us on our three week Vietnam adventure. Tomorrow, we would be off to Hanoi, Vietnam’s thriving capital, for a few days of street food tasting and a new year’s eve celebration on board a traditional junk boat in UNESCO World Heritage Listed Ha Long Bay.