After an uneventful overnight train from Hanoi, we arrived the next morning in Hue (pronounced “Hway,” not “Huey”). We checked into a guesthouse and were off to explore the Citadel – a compilation of war monuments, relics, and government buildings from the former imperial city. We neglected to bring a guidebook or to research much about the Citadel so the extent of what we can share about the experience is the few photos below. The next day, we rented motorbikes to see the outlying sites around the city. This was Andy’s first time on a motorbike and he was a natural! We devised our own motorbike route and passed a village that made incense on our way to our first stop. We dismounted our hogs at the Tomb of Tu Doc. Tu Doc was an emperor from the 1860s who had 104 wives but no children (lucky or unlucky?)! It was interesting walking around the grounds, but it was so hot and humid outside that we decided to forego our next stop at another tomb to enjoy riding around the backcountry on our motorbikes (by far the best part of the day).Our last and favorite stop was Ho Quyen, an old combat arena used to fight elephants against tigers. The elephant is a sacred symbol in Asia so the tiger’s claws and teeth were often removed to guarantee the elephant’s victory. The pictures we took aren’t great because we could only look at the arena through the closed gates so you’ll just have to use your imagination of what a fight would have looked like back then. Our guesthouse was in close vicinity to some of the coldest beer (less than 25 cents a glass) and the most delicious pho bo we’ve had in Vietnam. The beef noodle soup was so fresh and served with hot doughnut-like pastries. So so good!
After two nights in Hue, we took a hot and mosquito-ridden bus to Hoi An. The plus side was the pretty scenery along the way.Hoi An is HOT so we splurged on a fancy guesthouse with a swimming pool on the outskirts of town for $10 per person a night. The pool, free bicycles, breakfast buffet, swanky marble bathroom and freezing air-con made it well worth it for the next four days.
Hoi An beams with vibrant colors of daily life. Local markets, street hawkers, custom tailor shops and restaurants line the streets. The downtown area is so quaint and pretty you can’t help but fall in love with the small riverside city. Even at night, Hoi An sparkles. Lanterns in the trees, along the bridges, streets and even in the waterway light up to make the town glow.Hoi An is also where we’ve found the cheapest bia hoi to date – 3,000 Vietnamese dong buys you a fresh glass of beer. The exchange rate is about 21,000 dong to 1 USD so one beer would set us back less than 15 cents. Almost every day we stayed in Hoi An, we’d take the free bikes from our guesthouse and ride down the street through fields of rice paddies to the local beach. The ocean water from the South China Sea was warm and perfect for swimming. Aside from the faint mountains in the background and cute circular fishing boats, it seemed to resemble the beaches in North Carolina, especially Carolina Beach. On our last day in Hoi An, we were picked up from our guesthouse by Secret Garden Cooking School for a private Vietnamese cooking class. Our guide, Loan, took us to the daily market to teach us about local Vietnamese fruit, spices and to tour the chaotic fish market. We took in our surroundings and watched as live snails and crabs tried to escape while eels swam in shallow bowls of water. Squid, shrimp and fish of all shapes and sizes were available for sale. We walked back to the Secret Garden restaurant where our class was held and met our chef, Cuc, who has worked at Secret Garden for more than 10 years. Loan and Chef Cuc explained all of the vegetables, herbs, spices and ingredients we would be using. We sliced and diced garlic, shallots, shrimp, pork, lemon grass, carrots, lime leaves, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes into very fine pieces to bring out their individual flavors. The first dish we started was a marinade for the chicken we would grill. The marinade was made of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and tumeric. We set it aside to marinate while we worked on the other three dishes. We moved on to the fish in banana leaf dish. We started with whole pieces of mackerel and Andy added the same spices used in the chicken marinade as well as fresh chilis and wood ear mushrooms. The tumeric turned everything a neon yellow color but it smelled so good! Chris helped wrap the concoction up in a fresh banana leaf for grilling. Next, we worked on braised eggplant in claypot. I fried each piece of eggplant as we added the spices, herbs, fish sauce, oyster sauce, tomatoes, onions and basil.The last and our favorite dish to make were the fresh spring rolls. We started with the spring roll filling which was comprised of pork, shrimp, wood-ear mushrooms, carrots, shallots and spices. The best and most interesting part was making the rice paper from scratch. The process starts with boiling a pot of water. On top of the pot is a stretched layer of silk. The liquid rice paper is ladled on top of the silk and spread into the shape of a circle. You put the lid on to steam the liquid for just a few seconds before peeling the thin layer of now solid rice paper off with a wooden instrument resembling a large hooked chopstick. We placed the fresh rice paper roll on a lightly oiled plate before adding the meat and veggie filling and proceeded to roll them up like mini burritos. We each had a turn at this process and each of ours turned out a little different. We added a bit of sauce for dipping, fried onions, fresh mint and lettuce before digging in. They were absolutely delicious! One of the best and most fresh spring rolls we’ve ever had. Chef Cuc and Loan fired up the charcoal grill for us to put the fish and chicken on. It’s been so long since we’ve enjoyed food off the grill – the anticipation was killing us.We were taken to our table for drinks and they brought the dishes we created hot off the grill. It was all so good and tasted so much better because we made it ourselves. The Secret Garden Cooking School was a great way to end our time in Hoi An. We left with happy bellies, new cooking skills and a new appreciation for Vietnamese food. Our instructor and chef were incredibly kind and enthusiastic about teaching us. We would have liked a little more interaction with each dish but overall, it was a great experience. If you are ever in Hoi An, see if you can book a cooking class with Secret Garden or stop in to eat at their restaurant. It’s in such a beautiful location and the food is delicious!We enjoyed one last swim at our guesthouse before our transfer took us 30 minutes away to Da Nang, the next town over. From there, we caught an overnight train to Nha Trang for some more beach time!
Disclosure: We received complimentary cooking classes in exchange for sharing our experience at Secret Garden Cooking School. These views and opinions are completely our own.