Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Vietnam: Hands-on adventure

Wynne Gray escapes the bustle of the big cities with a delicious escape in Hoi An.

Vietnam is renowned for its food. Picture / Getty Images
Vietnam is renowned for its food. Picture / Getty Images

We were picked up very early. Way too early given that we were on holiday, but we had to buy our produce at the markets before we started our cooking class.

It was all part of a culinary experience in Hoi An, a Vietnamese heritage town that used to be an important trading port on the country's east coast.

Visiting this area is a pleasant counterpoint to the incessant bustle of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, although some of the market sights made a few of our group a little squeamish.

It was all there out in the open air. No refrigeration - and no waste either. There was no smell and no flies, but our guide and cooking guru Van pointed out that prices got cheaper later in the day.

All sorts of meat, fish and poultry was sliced and diced, stacks of vegetables and herbs laid out and a formidable range of eggs shown, from what looked like marbles to ostrich ova. Van hand-picked all the goods before we headed back to her Green Bamboo Cooking School.

The pressure was on. Greta was a Junior Masterchef winner from Perth travelling with her food-mad dad; there was a British couple, a soon-to-be-wed Swiss duo and us.

Soon we were slicing, dicing, grinding, pounding and chopping for our international pride and self-respect as we each assembled our choices.

Our menu consisted of several chicken and prawn dishes, fish cakes, pork skewers and succulent sauces, vegetarian curry and pho soup.

Somehow my concoction got to be sampled first. After shredding the fish, garlic, ginger, chilli, spring onions, lime, fish sauce, coriander and sugar joined it in the mortar for my pounding pestle. The mixture had to be broken down into a paste before my oiled hands formed the fish cakes for cooking in batches. Van's guidance and the nods of approval allowed me to relax as the others endured their culinary tests.

Everyone passed no problem, and we managed to persuade Van to rustle up a few local beers to help us digest our platters until we sat down for the last course, the speciality pho broth Greta had been making. Like tom yum soup, its success lies in the balance of flavours.

None of us knew how difficult it was to create and we were all a little smug by now after surviving our inquisition. Greta was not fazed and with Van's instructions on how to slice and braise the beef and integrate the noodles to the spicy broth, she created the day's masterpiece.

The day had been something different from the usual tourist trail, a hands-on adventure made even more amiable as Van took us into her own kitchen rather than some warehouse.

She works hard at her business, in season operating every day while she runs the house and family with her Swedish husband and chef.

The fish cakes were fine, but I know I should have paid a little more attention to her tips on making the pho. My imitation since has been close, but not quite on the mark.


Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies From Auckland to Hanoi daily, with a stopover in Singapore.

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