For all the places we have visited round the world and all the excursions we have signed up to, this was probably the absolute best so far.
I know, I know - it is only a cooking class, but this was more than that. If you are ever in Hoi An and looking for an activity for the day where all the family will feel included and looked after, where the activity has a genuine cultural grounding and where you will actually learn some useful skills - then get in touch with the Hoi An Eco Cooking Class.
I found the recommendation for this particular class on another travelling blog, something we tend to do where we are in the world, and in fact the day we chose to go we had to sneak out of our accommodation as they themselves had their own class which they tried to sell to us - but from what I had read this was the best.
By all accounts our hosts class was cheaper per person, however HAECC offer a discount for under 12 and is free for under 7 - (from what I had read I would have gone with this class even if the kids weren't free)
We had booked to attend a tour of the local wet market, then taken out on the traditional bamboo boats with some crab fishing and then of course the cooking class, where we would learn to prepare and cook some of the Vietnamese key dishes, from scratch.
Obviously, the main attraction is the cooking class, however it was actually a great experience to accompany someone who knows what they are looking for, to a wet market.
For those that have not been to markets like this - it can be quite an intimidating place; the assumption of course is that you are there to buy (and quite frankly if you are not you are just taking up much vied for space) so sellers have little time for tourists just having a nose around.
However, with chef Kien Nguyen who accompanied us and the rest of the group, around 8 (and who buys all his produce from this market) the sellers were keen to demonstrate their produce.
From butchers to fish mongers, fragrant spice sellers and tobacco chewers, fresh vegetables, and rice from the fields.
The kids coped well with the onslaught of smells, and sites that we encountered and were certainly intrigued more than appalled by what they saw.
From here we jumped in the minibus and made a short drive to where we would be cooking, but first hopped straight into the bamboo basket boats at the Cam Thanh fishing village.
Now it may be because of a long time spent in boats, however almost all boat excursions seem mediocre to me - I see the reasons for overly cautious health and safety of course - but I would have much more enjoyed being handed a boat and a fishing net and learnt how to throw the nets out, than just watch our boatmen go crab fishing, in a life vest - but as I say I am, in most cases, the exception and the kids and Emma loved the little trip; and at least I did convince the boatmen to let me row.
Onwards and upwards we were onto the main event - the cooking class.
The class was held in beautiful bamboo structures, directly on the side of the river, with all tables and chairs also built out of bamboo, surprisingly though even when cooking, due to trees and ferns shading the area and a breeze blowing of the river; it was never too hot..
Our menu that we would be learning to cook was:
- Sweet and sour fish sauce
- Steamed rice paper
- Fresh spring roll - using the rice paper we make.
- Banana flower salad
- Crispy pancake (bánh xèo)
- Beef noodle soup (Phở Bò)
- Grilled Aubergine with soya sauce
Beef noodles and banana flower salad and spring rolls had by this point become staples, but we were keen to try everything and of course learn how it was done.
There were a few more people at the cooking part however we were split into two groups and each given an allotted number to ensure that the food we cooked stayed with us and did not get mixed up.
We donned our aprons and caps and went through the very thorough safety briefing.
Our assumption was that the kids being free would mean they would have less of a role to play - however it was clear we were totally wrong, and they would be included in every step of the process.
The class was able to facilitate any kind of dietary requirements too, with couple in the group using different ingredients to the rest.
Hygiene was paramount throughout, and we were asked to wash our hands frequently between shifts.
The cooking process followed a simple pattern of watching the chef perform the tasks then we were watched over as we performed each step, and each stage was broken down to core elements which both kept the class challenging and enjoyable.
The kids, who do like to cook at home, were in their element with both watching the chef intently and then trying their best to repeat it.
One thing reserved totally for the adults however was the flaming pan fried beef which made a fantastic photo.
As well as the cooking we also learnt how to make rice paper right from the grain.
It is unusual to eat rice in Hoi An, it seems that rice noodles and rice paper are consumed far more often.
We were given a crash course on the grinding, sifting, and cooking process of the rice paper (the noodle method is very similar) before using the very same paper to make the spring rolls.
Toward the end of the class, a quick lesson in vegetable sculpting brought our cooking to an end and helped us to decorate our now amazing looking plates of food - this only left of course the eating.
Whether it was the fresh ingredients, the effort that went into it, or the fact that it was made by our own hands - but these plates of food were by far the best we tasted in Vietnam.
As a takeaway from the class we were given a recipe book and vegetable sculpting tool - which was a nice touch.