We are happily nestled into our “VIP” cabin for our train ride south to the beach side town of Phan Rang. We did have to evict a very small grandma with a very large rice bag into the next cabin before settling in. Now we are jostling and bumping along past the pastoral rice paddies, fields of burial grounds heavy with stone and marble tombs. Many topped with elaborate dragons, phoenixes and serpents. Our window is a little dirty but there are silk tulips in a vase and just a hint of air conditioning. The kids next door have stopped crying so hopefully the next eleven hours will fly past.
I am sad to leave Hoi An’s incense and charcoal scented air. Chris really didn’t love the packed Ancient City teeming with tourists and knickknacks. The roads were perhaps even more insane than Hanoi, where people at least kept to their side of the street while turning. He lamented that it would have been so much better fifteen years ago. And while I agree with that sentiment it also makes me feel something – I don’t know – guilty? Annoyed? The city is how it is because hordes of us have descended on it and the majority of those hordes want easy tchotchke reminders of their time there – so the good people of Hoi An give them what they want. And then snooty people like us deem it “over” or saturated. I don’t love inching along crowded streets fending off hawkers of cheap Chinese goods either but I feel for the people who’s home we are marching through. I fell for the narrow alleyways, the gentle lanterns bobbing on the river boats and, let’s face it, the delicious pancakes. I also tried some truly delicious vegan and vegetarian foods that were modern takes on traditional Vietnamese dishes. Plus the coffee was incredible. I am a little bummed that Sabine got injured so we couldn’t spend time at the beach. But I did manage to take a fabulous cooking class on our last day – and I took it solo which was also amazing. So freeing to just listen and not worry about outbursts, enjoyment and feeding of the animals… I mean the kids.
Originally I signed up for a master class for chefs and unfortunately no one else signed up so I was shunted into the regular stream. After taking a few classes on this journey you get to know the pattern. Market walk or bike ride, cool drink, back to kitchen where everything is prepared and you just kind of easy bake your way through a bunch of dishes, eat what you made and you’re done. So I was a little jaded going in – even though my early morning walk to the class through the streets and alleys was beautiful. I arrived and as I expected there were about a hundred sweaty and pink tourists melting away waiting for the tour to start. We got broken down into smaller groups and off we went. An ear splitting diesel ride on a boat dropped us off at the market. This time our guide spoke great English and was handing out tastes of anything you wanted to try – silk worms?! No thanks but I tasted new fruits and some very different herbs. We watched noodles being made and tried slicing banana flowers. It was great. Then we hopped back onto the diesel boat to the kitchen. We were treated with fresh passion fruit juice (current obsession) and an ice cold towel. The ice cold towel is literally the greatest gift you can get after a sweaty market walk. Did I mention the humidity is around 60%? After a quick cool down we were given a tour of the restaurant – this place made me think of Ottolenghi in London. It’s a monster with beautiful displays and stations manned with cooks pumping out everything from street food to high end hors d’oeuvres, everything is hand made – there was a literal army of noodle makers and dumpling rollers. We got to sample everything – which was amazing. Then we headed upstairs to a modern clean air conditioned school room with our own individual stations – stocked and ready to go. Our instructor at the head of the room with a mirror positioned over her work space so we could see every move she made. As usual we moved very quickly through and the patter was a little stale but the food we made was delicious. I finally got to make the Banh xei rice pancakes that I had fallen in love with as well as some shrimp mousse wrapped in cabbage – way more yummy that you would imagine. When we were done we were given a Vietnamese mandolin was well as all the recipes. Plus we ate like kings. Not bad at all. I took advantage of my alone time by strolling through the ancient streets with fellow tourists stopping for an ice coffee and then picking up some sandals I had made for me. The only thing I missed was a pedicure but it was time to get Sabine to the hospital for her last dressing change. And to get ready for our trip south where we will be sleeping in tents on the beach….. or near the beach. But in tents. Tents that are on platforms. Tents tents tents.