Vietnam Day 5: Cooking

Today is Pam’s bday! And today we’re going on a cooking class to cook Vietnamese food. Only it’s pouring down rain by the bucket and we’re now not sure we’ll be going or not. We talked to the front desk and they told us they’ll go even if there was flooding, they always go, so don’t worry.

We had our breakfast, which is pretty simple at our hotel, and as we finished they came in with a birthday cake! Like Oriental Suites in Hanoi, they had read our passports and put two and two together. It was a beautiful cake with merengue flowers. We hadn’t planned on cake so we only managed half of it. A Swedish family was seated next to us so we passed the cake on to them and they had a little.

We had to check out before we left for the day because we wouldn’t be back until later in the day. Luckily we were allowed to keep one of the three rooms until we had to leave for the airport. How nice! That gives us a chance to shower before we fly which will be nice because it’s hot and sticky. By now the rain had stopped and the sun was poking through.

When our tour was ready for us the front desk called, and the Swedes also came out, how funny! But how big is this tour going to be? Chuck wanting to go to town is joining us on the bus until we stop for the market. He doesn’t really have a plan for the day, but he’ll find something that interests him more than cooking.

I’m definitely getting sick, my throat is sore and I’m a tad congested.

Our first stop is for our ingredients. Hon our chef, teacher and guide is leading us through the market with an assistant introducing different ingredients to us up close. Each of the different spices he shows us and has us smell. Cinnamon basil, turmeric, shallots, etc. And even some we wouldn’t be using like silk worms and fish grass. He often asks us to taste the ingredients too, cutting an unripe cumquat in half for us to small and taste. We go through the meat section where ladies are cutting up different parts of fresh beef and pork. Everything is bagged, but the bags often set right on top of the raw meat. Most everything was butchered just an hour or so ago, and the ladies running the stall are in the process of chopping it into different cuts. And then we headed across the street to the seafood area where crabs, shrimp, fish and squid can be found, much of it still alive. We pick out some live shrimp for our spring rolls as a catfish escapes its bucket and tries to make it for the water.

Hon’s assistant collects all of our baskets and we are lead us to one of the many boats along the riverbank. The boat took us down river and bit and deposited us at a small dock on one of the islands out in the river. We walked a muddy path for a bit and then got to another dock where someone in a paddle boat picked us up to take us to another part of the island where we would be doing our cooking.

Our cooking area was right next to the river with chickens clucking around. It’s covered from the rain and has 4 sets of cooking stations in 2 rows facing each other. Everything is super clean with bottles of purified water at our cooking stations along with hand sanitizer. Part of the advertising for this class is the “endless passionfruit juice” and they really do keep it coming.

The first thing we start is the broth for our last dish, Pho Bo. Pho being the type of noodles, and Bo meaning beef. We sauté some garlic, shallot, and different spices like star anise and cinnamon. These go in hot water with beef bones and boil for about 2 hours.

Next we made spring rolls. The hardest part is getting the rice paper just the right amount of wet so that it doesn’t tear, but bends without breaking. If you take too long filling in your roll, then it sticks to the cutting board and is hard to peel off as you roll. I got mine fairly well, but pam’s got too stuck and tore. It really wasn’t as hard to make as I expected and I could see myself doing these in the future at home. We also made a peanut dipping sauce to go with it.

Then we made Vietnamese Rice Pancakes, and they will be much harder to replicate at home. These are made with coconut cream and rice milk (the milk having been just made on site) with green onion all mixed together. Then some shrimp and pork bits are put into the pan and the batter is poured in and fried for a good 10 minutes before flipping, and then flipping again before stuffing, folding, and wrapping in a different kind of rice paper, eaten with a fresh fish sauce we also made at our stations.

Then we made a beef noodle salad which was probably the easiest to make, mainly consisting of a bed of veggies, a pile of vermicelli noodles, and topped with fried garlic, shallots, and sautéed beef.

Our last was also pretty easy with the broth finally done enough, we took a strainer with some noodles and bean sprouts that we dipped briefly in boiling water before putting in a bowl with some raw thinly sliced beef which we then poured broth over to cook.

All of the food was really great, and Pam was having a blast. She’s since said this was her favorite day of the trip, which was great since it was her birthday!

We then were lead to a van that took us back to our hotel over bridges from the island, kind of ruining the illusion that we were really that far from town.

At our hotel we showered in our room quickly and cleared out as soon as we could so they could have it back. We then sat in the reception while our car was called for us to go back to Da Nang Airport and out to Cambodia. The receptionist is the daughter of the owner of the hotel and spoke English well. She showed us pictures from 3 days before we’d arrived when a storm that would eventually turn into a typhoon headed to the Philippines had flooded Hoi An. It’s surprising how underwater the town had been, and how little sign of it there was when we’d arrived, we hadn’t even known!

She also tells us that Cargo Club, Mermaid, and Morning Glory are all owned by the same woman. And her success has allowed her to buy 3 hotels in town. All of her properties are listed in trip advisor. We asked why we didn’t see her in trip advisor, and she tells us Lonely Planet charges to be mentioned in the guide. My trust in the publication is suddenly undermined. Talk about a conflict of interest, how can you give advice on where to stay if the places you list are paying you? And then it all sorta clicks together, the hotel in Caron we almost stayed at in the Philippines was shitty but it had an Editor’s Pick next to it and that was why we had gone there in the first place. Luckily we were able to get out of reservation. But was it there just because they paid Lonely Planet? Did they pay more to be an Editor’s Pick? I’ve noticed for a while now that places listed in the guide don’t usually end up very high on Trip Advisor, and at the time I’d chalked it up as just different audiences. But now I’m pretty sure it’s just who paid to be there, and nothing to do with merit. Guide books are still useful for figuring out what you want to do, and where you want to go generally, but I don’t think I’d trust their hotel or restaurant recommendations anymore.

Our time in Vietnam was now at an end, and we enjoyed it more than I expected we would. Everyone was super friendly the entire way, and we were never made to feel out of place. We were never really looked at with the eyes of prey or predator, just like we were anyone else. Which was nice. The food was wonderful, and it was fun to try other Vietnamese food than Bahn Mi or Pho, about the only things that I have semi-regularly in Los Angeles. I think I’d like to come back one day, though it probably would be some time far into the future. Next time I’d like to be here during spring, like March or April and spend most of the time out in the countryside going slow.

From here we transferred on to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I’d done the visas ahead of time, but I’m kicking myself now. It had cost me $45, and in the end we get just a stamp in our book, but if you do it on arrival, you get a full page and it’s just $35. It doesn’t take much longer to get on arrival than luggage unloading. In fact because the unloading luggage has to have space on the belt, and everyone and their mother is doing visa on arrival, our bags got stuck waiting until near the end anyway so we didn’t even save any time! Chuck did his best to rearrange bags to make room, but then one got stuck and stopped the whole belt!

We had a transfer setup for us free of charge from our hotel Bunwin Residence. They do this because the place is pretty far out of town and this is one of the concessions to get people to come. It takes a good 30 minutes by car to get out there. We wind down some dirt roads near the end and I’m getting a bit nervous that it’s not going to be that nice, but when we arrive we find a little oasis in the rice fields with beautiful grounds and a pool.

My new emergency credit card is waiting for me in a UPS envelope. Apparently it was pressed here in Cambodia. Hopefully now my credit card woes are over.

I was feeling pretty damn sick by now. It’d been a long day. Everyone was equally worn down. I had made a reservation at a nice restaurant thinking it’d still be affordable without having checked the price, but in the end it didn’t matter. I asked reception when we checked in to cancel the reservation. She called and had to apologize profusely on our behalf which made me feel the need to apologize profusely, but at least we weren’t just a no show. And I couldn’t make it through dinner.

I had arranged at tour for tomorrow, but at some point I think we realized we wouldn’t have a guide so much as just a driver dropping us off at different sites, which was disappointing. I think it was when they asked if the car was ok, and we had just barely fit ourselves without room for a guide, and our driver spoke little English. Pam wanted our input and I was just so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open. I said something snappish about not caring and just wanting to sleep I regretted immediately and she walked out of the door to our room. Jenn went to apologize for me while I slipped away to sleep. I feel really bad about that too, and it really isn’t the end to her birthday she deserved. Pam fought the good fight and tried to arrange a guide but apparently they’re all booked full at this point. She did at least get us a van instead of a saloon car.

In all my planning I’d failed to really get us a guide. We’ve spent all the time, energy and money getting ourselves to one of the wonders of the world, and I faltered making that last step to make it as worthwhile as it could be.

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