Hoi An Bike Tour & Cooking Class!

Wednesday August 2, 2017

Today we had planned to do a 7:30am bike tour. Although this initially sounded like an extremely early start, we quickly realized and appreciated it was to beat the midday heat. As our homestay usually only serves breakfast from 7-10am, we had arranged yesterday to be able to eat at 6:30am so we could eat and get to the bike office on time. We all ordered iced coffees, which helped with the 6am wake up. Too hot to have pho soup before cycling, I decided to try the Quang noodles today. A specialty dish in Hoi An, we had also seen many restaurants advertising this dish when walking around town yesterday. The noodles were served room temperature in a peanuty sauce, topped with green onions, peanuts shrimp, pork, and two quail eggs. It also came with a side dish of lettuce and herbs and was tasty.


We set off for Hoi An Fun Bike Tour’s office in town just after 7am. We arrived on time and were greeted by our guide Nancy and joined by one other traveller from Singapore. After a quick briefing and sizing our bikes, we began our bike tour with 10 minutes of cycling through Hoi An’s city roads. Luckily, they were flat and far less busy than in Hanoi. Somehow we all managed to stick together and avoid getting hit by a motorcycle or car. We then turned onto a farm road and followed it to the Tra Que Farms. 


Tra Que Farm is an organic farm that fertilize their plants with algae they take from the ocean. We walked through the neatest little rows of basil, green onions, morning glory, lemongrass basil, spinach, and sweet potato. Even early in the morning, it was over 30 degrees. Never have I had such an urge to run through sprinklers! Nancy told us how the farmers used to have to walk to the nearby lake at 4am to collect water for their fields before the watering were systems installed. They walked over 30km per day with large watering cans on either end of a bamboo pole on their back. Because of the organic produce and daily exercise, the average age of the Tra Que farmers is over 80 years old. The oldest couple still working on the farm are 93 years old!


Continuing on, we cycled through quiet farm roads to Ms. Hoa’s home, a lady who is known for making rice paper and rice crackers. After a quick demonstration, we were given a chance to try our hand at making rice crackers. The rice batter was already made and had a mix of rice flour, water, sesame, garlic, black pepper, and brown sugar. First, you poured a scoop of batter onto the steamer and spread it out until it formed an even circle. After covering with a lid and steaming for 10-15 seconds, steam came out the sides to signal that it was done. Then you lifted the circle off with a thin wooden stick and lay it on the mat to dry. 


The circles are then normally taken to dry in the sun for 4-5 hours. 


To speed up the process, they gave us pre dried ones to grill over a red hot charcoal grill. It was so hot standing two feet away the grill, let alone crouched over top. But grilling was fun and getting to eat the finished product was even better. The cracker was so crispy it almost seemed deep fried! It had a good peppery flavour and was very tasty. 


A short bike ride later, we arrived at a second Ms. Hoa’s home. Upon arriving, we were sat at a picnic table and treated to a glass of lemongrass basil juice. We were shown how the farmer harvests the tiny lemongrass basil seeds from the plant and told how they behave similarly to chia seeds, absorbing liquids and becoming jelly like. The juice was flavoured with honey and ginger and was so refreshing and delicious. 


As we were sitting and chatting with Nancy, an elderly man cycled past with a cooler on the back of his bike and a programmed announcement calling out an advertisement in Vietnamese. Nancy told us that it was announcing local homemade coconut ice cream and rushed up from the table to purchase us some. 


I got an original coconut milk flavoured one and it was so, so good. It was almost fluffy in texture, like frozen whipped cream, and was soft, creamy, and not too sweet. I think it was the best ice cream I’ve had this trip!


We then headed out to Ms. Hoa’s farm and tried our hand at farming. We dug a plant bed, gathered, placed, and stomped on algae at the bottom of it, covered it with dirt, gathered and planted plants, and then watered them. It was actually really fun for the ~20 minutes we were ‘farming’, but I can’t imagine doing it all day. It was hot and sweaty work. 


After a cup of herbal tea, we were back on our bikes and cycled back through the farm roads to the city. Just before 11am, we arrived at Quan Chay An Nhu, a vegetarian restaurant that gets all of its fresh produce from the Tra Que farms. We were served bowls of vegetarian pho with fried tofu. The broth was surprisingly so flavourful despite not being made as it is traditionally with beef. Instead, Nancy told us it was made using mushroom, pineapple, tomato, and a family secret mix of other ingredients. It was probably one of the best broths I have ever had, and definitely the best vegetarian one. There was a sweetness from the pineapple that made it so fresh and light and the noodles were nice and chewy. Overall it was a great bowl of pho. 


Although not a part of the regular tour, our last stop was Hoa Champa Cafe & Tea Market. During one of our conversations in the morning, we asked Nancy where she would recommend we buy coffee from. We had seen many coffee shops in town, but were not sure where to get good quality beans from. Nancy offered to take us to the coffee shop where her family buys their beans from. She also called ahead and arranged for the café to prepare iced coffees for us. They were made from the Culi Special bean, Nancy’s family favourite, and were delicious. I bought 1kg of whole beans for 500,000 VND ($27.78). 

Ps. For those who are interested, that is what the real kopi luwak coffee looks like! (Most expensive coffee in the world)

We cycled back to Hoi An Fun Bike Tour’s by noon and said good bye to Nancy. The tour only cost 250,000 VND ($13.89) each, including all the food we were served. In addition to being very good value, it was also a great way to tour the city, try different activities and foods, and interact with locals. I had a great time and would probably say it was one of my favourite activities of this entire trip! Hoi An is such a charming city and the people are so friendly, I wish we were staying longer. 


After the bike tour, we took a taxi back to our homestay to shower before our tailor fittings (didn’t wanna get our new clothes dirty!). We taxied back out to our first fitting at Kimmy’s at 2pm. We were all relatively happy with the basic patterns/ skeletons of the clothes we had ordered, and the workers were very receptive to the changes we wanted to make. After a half hour or so, we finished Kimmy’s and walked ~25 minutes to Luna’s for our other fitting. There we took almost an hour. In addition to Luna being the only one helping us, compared to the army of workers at Kimmy’s, the clothes seemed to need more correcting. Time will tell if it was worth spending more than double at Kimmy’s, but so far it seems like you get what you pay for. Rushing to finish at Luna’s, we had to catch a taxi back to Kimmy’s where we had arranged to be picked up at 4pm by one of the employee’s husband who runs The Tropics Garden Cooking Class. While we waited for five others to join us, we were treated to iced coffees from the vendor on the corner. 


Soon, three very tall vegan boys from Holland and a couple from Belgium joined us and we were walked 5-10 minutes to a small local market. There the chef, Mr. Hung, showed us produce that is commonly used Vietnamese cooking. He was an interesting character and pointed out even the common items everyone knows such as tomatoes and limes… While we waited for him to purchase fresh fruit, he bought us sugarcane juice from a vendor. I especially liked it because the lady also juice in a kumquat, which added a nice citrus note. After the market we walked ~10 minutes to the cooking class. First we made Banh Xeo (Vietnamese crepe). By adding enough oil, it was easy to get it nice and crispy, but it was nowhere near as thick and fluffy as the ones we had at Bale Well Garden. 


Next we made fried vegetable spring rolls. Freshly fried spring rolls are always delicious, but I preferred the ones we made in our cooking class in Thailand as they were thicker and seemed to have more flavour. 


For our main course, we marinated and wrapped mackerel in banana leaves to put on the grill. While they were grilling, we made a chicken and green papaya salad. The fish was served with steamed rice and eggplant cooked in a claypot. The salad was served with a crispy rice pancake, where you were supposed to put the salad on the pancake as a topping. The pancake added a nice crunch. 


Perhaps we were jaded because we had a great time at our cooking class in Thailand, but we left The Tropics Garden Cooking Class a little underwhelmed. While Chef Hung demonstrated all of the steps for each dish, we did not get to do as much hands on cooking as in Thailand. For example, all of the produce was pre chopped, the dishes were rather simple to put together, and the eggplant dish was even cooked for us. The food didn’t taste bad, but it wasn’t anywhere near as delicious or satisfying as the dishes we cooked in Thailand. Luckily our night was saved by the people we met. The three boys from Holland were great fun to talk to and swaps travel stories with. 


 Leaving our cooking class just before 8pm, we decided to go finish checking out the night market. 


It was smaller than we had thought and we finished walking around its entirety in an hour. However, the lights and lanterns on the streets and water were so beautiful I truly could have wandered around all night. 


Just after 9pm, we found ourselves bargaining the price of massages. We managed to bargain down the price of 60 minute full body massages from 3,800,000 VND to 200,000 VND ($11.11). Although they were not as strong as Thai massages, they used oil which felt nice on our suntanned skin. Feeling the relaxing effects of our massages, we taxied back to our homestay around 11pm, showered, and fell asleep. 

Budget:

500,000 VND ($27.78) – coffee

250,000 VND ($13.89) – bike tour 

15,000 VND ($0.83) – coke

550,000 VND ($30.56) – cooking class

2,500,000 VND ($138.89) – remainder of bill at Luna’s

200,000 VND ($11.11) – massage 

Total = 4,015,000 VND ($223.06)

Running total = $1851.97

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