Back from hiatus! We just returned from a 10-day Thanksgiving trip home to the US, which was full of running around, sinus infections, restocking on American items, and time spent with tons of family and friends. And eating our faces off. Which brings me to my next (recurring?) blog topic.
*Warning: this post contains some graphic images of animal parts and meat products, but I promise not to gross you out too much.*
Food tours have become a staple of our travels everywhere we go, but Vietnamese food is so delectable that we couldn’t pass up doing a second tour, this time in Hoi An. The one we chose, The Taste of Hoi An, is highly recommended on TripAdvisor, but even more influential was the super recommendation from our friends Erica and Jason, who raved about Neville, the Australian expat who runs the tour.
They were not wrong to rave about him: Neville is a whirlwind of a character. This guy has a huge heart; he exudes passion for Hoi An and food, and also strives to support the poorer Vietnamese community in Hoi An. This was evident from the get-go, as Neville employs a veteran of the South Vietnamese army as his “greeting crew” at the beginning of each tour. He is assigned to shake everyone’s hand and then poses for a photo with everyone. Hokey, I know, super hokey.
Still, many of the tour-goers give him a small amount of money to help him afford food. As a veteran of the South’s army as opposed to the Viet Cong, he receives no social security from the Vietnamese government. Additionally, given his age and the fact that he lost a leg in the war, it’s difficult for him to support himself through traditional work. Employing him is admirable gesture on Neville’s part but it makes me wonder how many other SVA veterans there are in Hoi An (and throughout Vietnam for that matter) there are and what kind of options they have for support.
Anyhow, as the tour started, we sat down for our first indulgence and to introduce ourselves. We tried a delicious fresh fruit smoothie that had all kinds of good ingredients that I can’t remember. As we sipped the first concoction, Neville gave us an overview of the tour and explained that most things we would try were believed to have health benefits, and how food plays an important medicinal role in Vietnamese culture. Assuming that some tourists would be concerned about consuming things like ice, unbottled water or uncooked fruits and vegetables, he also explained how it is rare to get food poisoning in Vietnam, as they are very conscientious about food preparation and what they eat.
Knowing more than your average person about foodborne illness, I really wasn’t sure how to feel about all that; however, it was immediately evident that there was something to what Neville was saying. Our first stop on the walking portion of the tour was a local market selling produce, meat, seafood and more. Shockingly, the market had no scent at all. Seriously, you couldn’t smell a thing. Even in the fish and raw meat sections, where you saw things like this:
That’s cow tongue, by the way. A lot of it.
The market was really incredible, we have certainly not been in any as clean as this one. The set up was similar to many others we have seen but I would honestly have no problem shopping here on a regular basis.
After the market, we explored several street-food stands, from coconut popsicles (on my favorites list) to black sesame paste (kind of like hot peanut butter? …more delicious than it looks), and some warm silken tofu (also more delicious than it sounds).
Another thing I should mention that was made evident by this tour is the matriarchal society in Vietnam. Most all of the businesses are owned and run by women. Even our tour was entirely coordinated by Neville’s right-hand woman, Sen. Furthermore, as Neville explained, grandmothers commonly direct daily operations at restaurants, market stalls and tailor shops. Women also take a central role in the home – cooking, providing for children, and directing work around the house. Of course, as with most modern cultures, men tend to have more power in politics and formal society, but the central role that women play in the structure of Vietnamese communities is, in my eyes, way cool.
Check out this woman who makes banh xeo in the market every day, a type of Vietnamese “pancake”. Neville urged the photographers in the group to take a shot from a particular spot in front of her stall and make it black and white. So of course, I did.
Next up: not your average pho. If you have had Vietnamese food before, it’s likely your exposure is limited to spring rolls and the classic dish pho, which is a noodle soup containing your preferred choice of meat. Of course, one stop on the tour was for pho, but it was a delicious dish unlike any other I’ve tried before. You are served some meat and broth, which Neville indicated had taken at least 24 hours to brew using special bones. After the broth arrives, you dump in your plate of vegetable accoutrements and add your preferred amount of spice/hot sauce. In two (alliterated) words, super scrumptious.
The one other familiar Vietnamese dish for many culinary adventurers is Banh Mi, a French-influenced Vietnamese sandwich. When colonizing Vietnam, the French brought over the ever-tasty baguette, and the Vietnamese created their own breed out of rice flour. They then proceeded to make one of the most delicious sandwiches on earth, pork (or other meat) with pate and vegetables, loaded with a fried egg and sauces. It’s really all determined by the chef creating your meal. Hoi An has a ‘Banh Mi Queen’ who has been making said sandwich nearly her whole life. More on her in a coming post.
The Banh Mi was accompanied by several other Vietnamese samplings provided at a restaurant across the street from the Queen’s food stand. This particular restaurant is in the business of training young Vietnamese men and women, in their teen years or just a bit older, in how to work in the food service industry, providing job training and as such, the opportunity at a better life. We tried Vietnamese “nachos” (fried rice chips with local salsa), a few different soup-type dishes (some good, some less delicious) and some local beer.
We then took another walk through back streets of Hoi An, spotting more produce including green oranges (yes, those are oranges), furry friends, and drying rice noodles outside many homes.
We ended at a local restaurant, where many more samplings were prepared and our palettes exhausted. It was a fantastic tour! By the time we finished, we had tried some 50-odd Vietnamise culinary delicacies, and we weren’t even sorry we ate too much.
Neville spent the last few minutes handing out recommendations and business cards for every single kind of business in town you could possibly need – from jewelers and tailors to spas and restaurants, and even a place that could make you custom eye glasses! This, plus exposure to all the great food items, is why I’d recommend taking this tour as early in your trip as possible!
After a long conversation following the tour, we are now part of Neville’s “family” he has accumulated from his his tours. He was so genuinely interested in learning about both J-Mar’s and my work as well as our life in Korea. He gave us some good travel advice as well. Perhaps the best part was the next day when he saw us in his favorite jewelry shop and stopped his bike to come in and have a conversation with us. What an awesome guy. Another fantastic reason to visit Hoi An!