“To travel is to live” – H.C.Andersen
There are many reasons I consider myself to be extremely fortunate. This week, aside from the usual – sufficient funds to feed myself and keep a roof over my head, good health and a loving and supportive partner – I’m counting my blessings that, from time to time, my strangely precarious job takes me on some wonderful adventures. From Bali to Ethiopia to Panama, I’ve been lucky enough to work on conferences the world over, and what’s more, to be able to take these opportunities to explore places I might never otherwise have imagined visiting.
This week, it’s Viet Nam.
It’s actually my second visit to Viet Nam, and as well as discovering places I didn’t see on my first trip, I decided to revisit my favourite. There’s always an element of doubt in returning to somewhere you’ve loved in the past that it will somehow not be the same. What if the memories have grown more magical with nostalgia and it’s nothing but sinking disappointment when reality whips off your rose-tinted specs?
Not so, Hoi An.
Sitting centrally on Viet Nam’s east coast, Hoi An was once the largest trading port in South East Asia. Its trade history dates back as far as the 9th Century, when it was a strategic point in the ceramics route between China and Persia, later becoming central to the silk and spice routes, hosting trading vessels from all over Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Centuries of international hustle and bustle have shaped Hoi An into a beautiful – if somewhat confusing to the geographically-challenged tourist – labyrinth of narrow, winding streets. Ancient Chinese, Japanese and French Colonial houses jostle together, each trying to upstage the next. The old town is bursting at the seams with multicoloured architectural gems: temples, houses, rickety little bridges and old patisseries all vie for your attention. It’s no great wonder that this has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nigh on two decades.
Hoi An’s silk trade is still very much alive, those ancient streets are lined with tailor’s shops, all hoping to lure in tourists eager to have their wardrobes revamped with made-to-measure delights, whipped up at the drop of a hat by an army of Vietnamese seamstresses. I’ll admit I indulged in a purchase or two. And why not? There is nothing more luxurious than clothes that are custom-designed to fit, and this is not usually a luxury in which I can afford to indulge!
Clothing aside, it’s impossible to mention Hoi An’s silk without talking about lanterns. Bulbous, ruby, sapphire and golden globes of shining joy – like giant boiled sweets – hang from every available house and tree and are strung from lamp post to lamp post, lighting up the town as soon as dusk approaches. And – even better- on the night of the full moon, Hoi An’s street lights are switched off and the town is lit by lanterns alone. They are glorious. All handmade by local artisans, they are iconic of Hoi An’s past and a symbol of its present. I loved them. I could not get enough of them. Goodness knows how many photos I took of them. But not one artificially captured image could ever do them justice.
Hoi An’s traditions don’t end there. It also happens to be Viet Nam’s foodie capital, which is hardly surprising given the surrounding lush, green countryside fit for growing all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs, the passage of spices through the port, and the culinary influences of the colonial powers. These days, the town is positively packed with mouth-watering delicacies ready to tempt you at every turn. From street vendors camped out on the pavement to smart restaurants with modern decor and impeccable service, there’s something in Hoi An to tickle everyone’s tastebuds.
A morning at cookery school was enough to teach me that the key principle to Vietnamese cuisine, and Hoi An cuisine in particular, is the subtle balance of textures and flavours. Each dish must include five flavour types: hot, spicy, sweet, salty and sharp, and a mix of soft and crispy textures. With all these elements balanced correctly you can pretty much guarantee that every mouthful will blow your mind in a contradictory, yet delicious, crunchy, soft, hot, cold, spicily refreshing taste explosion.
Hoi An has three particular specialities. “Cao Lau” noodles are made by only a handful of rural families around Hoi An in an extremely labour intensive process passed down between generations. Two unique ingredients make Cao Lau impossible to recreate authentically anywhere else: water from a particular local well, claimed to be over 1000 years old (and evidently not yet considered past its “use by” date) and a top secret type of charcoal, used in the steaming process, which infuses the noodles with a slightly sulphurous flavour. These sticky yellow worms are blanched, together with a handful of beansprouts, and served with slices of pork marinated in chilli, lemongrass, five spice, sugar, salt, garlic and soy sauce. The dish is garnished with a good handful of mixed fresh herbs, crispy noodle croutons and rice crackers, and doused with rich, warm, spicy sauce made from the pork marinade. Mmmmmmm….
The second, and perhaps most famous, of Hoi An’s culinary delights, “Banh Xeo”, is a small, crispy pancake made from a rice and beansprout batter, fried with prawns, pork, and spring onions, coaxed into a rice paper roll with crunchy raw beansprouts and fresh green herbs, dipped in spicy, sweet, salty dipping sauce and wolfed down on a warm evening accompanied by a cold Larue beer. Oh yes.
And last but not least, the most delicate and mysterious dish of all: “white rose dumplings”. Steamed, plump little white flowers stuffed with shrimp paté. Only one family in the whole of Hoi An has the key to these succulent mouthfuls of loveliness. The recipe for the silken white dumpling dough is, apparently, classified information. Call me a cynic, but I have my suspicions. There must surely be fake dumplings on the market. Because how could one family (no matter how many second cousins three times removed are roped into the production line) possibly produce enough tiny, delicate dumplings to feed the several million tourists who flock to Hoi An each year?
Perhaps one day I’ll go back and find out…