Everybody has good things to say about Hoi An. Despite the tourists, it's still worth the trip, is what I heard most often, and that didn't sound too bad to me. Plenty of tourists also carries the promise of decent Western food, which I was entirely looking forward to after a month and a half of deep-fried tofu, pancakes and oily vegetables. Vietnam is renowned for having one of the world's best cuisines, which may be the case if you eat meat, but is certainly not the case if you don't. Deep-fried tofu or double-fried eggs is often the main option for vegetarians, and the alternatives are usually fried noodles, fried morning glory (spinach), various vegetables in oil, with deep-fried banana fritters for dessert. Hoi An, in addition to having some highly praised restaurants, is also a popular place for cooking classes. After almost a week in the town, taking in the sights of the pretty lantern-strung streets lined with the original Japanese merchant houses and mix of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese heritage architecture, tailor shops, lantern shops, restaurants and cafes, I decided to find out if there was more to the cooking than turning on the deep fryer.
Before I decided on the cooking, I had spent a considerable amount of time attempting to get things tailored. Hoi An has become one of Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations over the past 20 odd years, on the grounds of it being a picturesque historical seaport town, with buildings hundreds of years old (remarkably, the town was protected from bombing by agreement from both sides during the war). It's such a shining example of heritage architecture that the ASEAN 5th annual Quang Nam Heritage Festival was being held in the town during my visit, the first time for Vietnam as a host to Asian countries including Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Korea, among others.
In its more recent history, Hoi An was apparently known for having a few good tailor shops. These being popular with the tourists, there became more of them, and now there are roughly over 250, more even than the lantern shops, and not all of them good. Visitors go to Hoi An and go crazy for the tailoring, raving over $100 suits and exact replicas of any kind of clothing from home. My two Norwegian homestay trek companions from Sapa had shipped over 15 kilos of suits, dresses, handmade shoes and bags back to Norway from there.
I had been given the name of a recommended tailor from my travel guide friend Charles in Japan and had been building up my anticipation from about that time. I didn't bother looking around the other 249 and went straight to the recommended tailor shop, with a few last minute clothing ideas in my head, because despite the anticipation, I wasn't really sure what I really needed to have made, or needed enough to have to ship halfway around the world. Perhaps fortunately, my visit didn't end up convincing me to relinquish my travel funds for a new wardrobe. As with past tragic attempts in Nigerian tailoring involving trying to make Western designs with not quite suitable fabric, my lacy short-sleeved top went through a few design modifications and came out as a cheap-looking over-priced t-shirt, albeit one that fits pretty well. I shopped around a few more places with a different design after that but the excitement was lost. Reminding myself not to try to design clothes again, I decided to cut my losses and buy lanterns instead.
It was with no great expectations that I approached the next top tourist activity for Hoi An, the cooking class. Despite my lack of fondness for Vietnamese, or Asian food in general, I had decided I should try learning more about it, plus I felt a refresher might be in order, as I hadn't done any actual cooking in closing in on three months. There were vegetarian options and a boat ride involved, so I got an early morning pick up and headed to the market with our guide, who pointed out fake cow intestines, cunningly constructed out of rice flour. These were to form the decorative exterior of my vegetarian spring roll, and I think popped up again in my vegetarian pho. My soup broth was made out of a surprisingly assortment of pineapple, tomato and mushrooms, with some fake meat thrown in later for substance. It was a filling four course morning, with fried rice pancake, where many attempts had me get a borderline pass mark for the flipping-in-the-pan component, and the piece de resistance, the artfully arranged veggie vermicelli, completed, as with the rest, with fake meat. I would have preferred finding replacement vegetarian options that didn't include fake pork, but it was still a departure from most of the cuisine I'd sampled thus far. The fact that Hoi An also had a decent bakery/restaurant with the best pain au chocolat and brownies on my trip to date made it likely the best food stop in Vietnam. And who needs well tailored clothes when you're busy eating brownies?