Sunday, 17 March 2013

(Spring) Roll With It

This morning we are met at our hotel by a gentleman who's gong to teach us how to cook some local specialities. His name is Phouc and he bundles us into a taxi bound for the market in the middle of Hoi An while he follows behind on his scooter. Once inside the market he takes a few minutes to talk us through some of the foodstuffs on sale and picks up a few ingredients as he goes along. The market is fairly chaotic and noisy and you have to be careful not to step on someone whilst they're gutting a fish or cutting up durian fruit (possibly the most revolting smelling fruit in the world, described by some as smelling of raw sewage and gym socks, and explicitly banned by many hotels, including the one we'll be staying at in Saigon).

Once the ingredients have been purchased we leave the market and Phouc instructs us to jump onto bicycles, which he's obviously just hired, and follow him. This is totally unexpected - sure the traffic here is nothing like what we experienced in Hanoi, but its still Vietnam...they're still mental! However, we've very little choice as Phouc is already half way up the street, so we hop on, and pedal furiously after him. It doesn't take long before we're perfectly at home and are cycling along the very flat roads while people work in the paddy fields and the sun shines down.  Eventually we arrive at Phouc's house, by the river and next door to his family's market garden.

Before we can start cooking we're given bamboo conical hats and little brown tunics to put on, then we're taken next door to the garden where we're going to be expected to do some more work (he must have heard about our excellent efforts at the rice farm in Laos). He gets us helping his brother-in-law with a spot of digging and we mix a pile of nutritious seaweed in to the soil. Then we both get the opportunity to step knee deep into a water trough with a couple of massive watering cans hanging off a yoke on our shoulders, before stepping out and swinging the (now full and very heavy) watering cans over newly planted seeds, like some human sprinkler system. This proves hugely entertaining to a group of American tourists who've just arrived and I now feature on a good number of home movies, behaving like some kind of performing "limey" monkey!

Satisfied with our work in the fields, it's now time to go back to Phouc's house where he's lined up little bowls containing all the ingredients necessary to learn our first dish - deep fried pork spring rolls. It's just like a TV cookery show, as he talks us through the ingredients demonstrates how to mix everything up, fold the rice paper wrapping, roll everything up and then it's our turn. I simply copy what he just did, roll up my spring roll and I'm done - it wasn't difficult, but Phouc seems to think I'm some kind of genius and praises me to the heavens, while Jus (who as far as I can tell has done exactly the same as I have) gets told that hers isn't quite straight, or is not quite the right size. I'm clearly the golden boy and go on to produce some fabulous food which continues to gain rave reviews (he even brings his mate out from the back to show him what I've done). I feel bad for Justine, but maybe I am super-talented and just too modest to be able to see it myself.

Then two more guests arrive, but they've just come to eat, not to learn. In fact I think they'll be eating what we've just made. Wow, I'm a top chef who's conjuring up incredible delicacies in this makeshift restaurant for actual diners, paying customers! I'm Gordon Ramsey... No, I'm Heston Blumenthal (with hair... sort of). This is fantastic, maybe this is my new calling in life? Then the punters say hello. This just gets better and better. They're French! I'll show them a thing or two about so-called haute cuisine...have a taste of this "mes amis", good eh, you won't laugh at Le cuisine d'Anglaise in future will you?

Sorry, went off on one a bit there. As it turned out we ate the food we'd prepared and the other couple had the stuff that Phouc had done, though honestly, it wouldn't have mattered, ours was delicious and you really couldn't tell the difference.

After we'd eaten, we were all treated to an unexpected foot massage by a couple of ladies who's just turned up on scooters, which was a bit bizarre, and slightly alarming when my toes made a weird popping sound that made me think they were being removed from the rest of my foot. Fortunately they were still intact, which was good as we needed to pedal all the way back to town. I bet Heston Blumenthal doesn't get a foot massage at the end of his shift!

Hoi Ho, Hoi Ho, It's Off To Hoi An We Go

We're leaving Hanoi with its crazy noisy traffic and its crazy noisy propaganda speakers and its crazy little plastic dining chairs and its wonderful tai chi-ing pensioners and its inhabitants who approach you and ask if they can practice speaking English with you.

I'd forgotten to mention that, but Justine spent a good 20 minutes talking to a young girl who had wandered up. It seems that it's quite common for students to ask British or American (though quite how they could assist I can't imagine) tourists to spare a few minutes to chat - being able to speak English is a real boost to your earning potential here - it turns out that this girl was an attorney, which sounded pretty impressive to me, but without good English it seems her career choices are limited. So she wanted to practice with people what did speek good inglish, but in there abcess, she had to settul for us.

We were asked questions such as "what do you like about Vietnam" and "what is the weather like in England" and "what is your favourite colour" (it was like an interview with Smash Hits magazine - showing my age there). Jus patiently fielded these questions, (even making up a favourite colour) but found there were certain sounds that the Vietnamese find really difficult such as the "dr" in "drizzle". They don't have that sound in their language and I had to walk away and pretend to take photographs while Jus and her new friend slowly rehearsed the individual sounds and mouth shapes that are necessary to say "drizzle". And drizzle is a word they need - we'd read that the weather in Hanoi was comparable to a spring day in Europe, but we assumed that meant Siena or Seville, not Stockport! As a result we got pretty wet on day one as we hadn't bothered to pack anything waterproof.

Anyway back to our impromptu English school... I was able to provide some input when the interview turned to football, as (I think) she wanted to discuss Nani's red card against Real Madrid a few days earlier. This was a topic which I was able to speak about with great authority even though I'd not seen the game! At least I hope that's what we were discussing, otherwise I probably really confused her and set the poor girl's grasp of English back a good few years! It won't surprise anyone to hear that, despite my efforts to promote cup finalists Bradford City here, the Vietnamese are largely unfamiliar with teams lower down the football ladder such as The Bantams, Bradford Park Avenue or Manchester City.

So we leave Hanoi behind and fly to Hoi An (I assume most places in Vietnam are just anagrams of each other - must be a Communist thing) which is very small in comparison to Hanoi. It also gives us another stamp in the "Simon and Justine's UNESCO World Heritage Site Spotters Book". Eventually UNESCO are going to have to come up with a way of protecting those increasingly rare and endangered places on the planet which are NOT World Heritage Sites.