Being a bit of a foodie meant that a big part of our trip to Vietnam was for the cuisine. Fresh, zingy flavours bursting onto the taste-buds combined with mouth-watering herbs and the warmth of South East Asian spices was such a lure. The Red Bridge Cooking School kept cropping up during our research so we booked ourselves on a half-day cooking class hoping to glean tips to help us recreate those tantalising flavours when we returned home. We were so glad we did – it was a mouth-watering highlight of our week in Hoi An.
Our group met at 11am at Hai Café in the old town where we enjoyed a traditional Hoi An coffee; strong, black and sweetened with condensed milk, before splitting into groups of around 5-6 and walking the short way to market. I could have spent hours wandering around soaking up market life but we had shopping to do and a meal to cook. Anna, our guide us informed us about locally grown produce and some of its unusual properties – ginger is nature’s Viagra apparently and yummy means ‘horny’ in Vietnamese. The market is a wonderful mishmash of vivid colour, alive with chatter, noise and smells – some good, some not so good – a real slice of local Hoi An life. An abundance of vibrantly coloured fruit, herbs, vegetables together with freshly caught fish, meat and live-fowl can all be bought here and, if your recipe calls for it, bottled scorpion. Local people shop, sell, haggle, barter, gossip or just doze amid the melee.
Next to the market is a small jetty where we boarded our boat for a leisurely half hour trip downstream to Red Bridge itself. We passed fishermen casting their nets and lush, tropical vegetation along the banks interspersed with small huts and dwellings. On arrival at Red Bridge we were shown around the herb gardens where we learned more about the herbs we would be using. The distinctive aromas smelt delicious as we rubbed the leaves between our fingers. I’d love to grow these to use at home – Thai Basil, Vietnamese mint and lemon grass.
After washing our hands we all headed for the outdoor pavilion on the river which was set up with individual cooking stations. Head chef Thân Nguyen demonstrated how each dish should be prepared – everyone had a great view of what he was doing with the help of an overhead mirror. A vital ingredient, humour, was added into the mix in large measures resulting in lots of laughter throughout the session. We prepared ‘Fresh Rice Paper Rolls of Shrimp’ which we ate there and then with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Appetite whetted we went on to make hot Hoi An pancakes with shrimp, pork, and herbs rolled in rice paper and dipped in peanut sauce – again savoured on the spot. There are vegetarian options available for those, who in Thân’s words ‘no like meat, no like fish, no like this, no like that’.
We a lot of fun preparing some delectable Vietnamese dishes, although I have to admit mine didn’t always look quite the same as chef’s (left) and I never did master the art of flipping my steamed rice pancakes but everything tasted delicious nonetheless. We dabbled with food decoration deftly transforming a humble tomato into a rosebud – well the others did, mine resembled, well, a peeled tomato.
Back in the restaurant we enjoyed our culinary creations for lunch; Seafood Salad with herbs served in half a pineapple, Vietnamese Eggplant in a Clay Pot with rice and Steamed Ocean fish on a bed of fresh vegetables – the fish dish made for us in the Red Bridge kitchen – all were delicious. We were glad we’d heeded Thân’s advice – ‘you listen well you have good lunch, you don’t – you go home you try again’.
I’d recommend to book in advance – it’s very popular. Cost is $26 per person including lunch. There are various timetables to choose from. Soft drinks are included in the price – beer and wine are extra. This is an enjoyable and fun trip for those that enjoy dabbling in the kitchen but not for those wanting serious instruction.
Red Bridge Cooking School www.visithoian.com