A 15-minute bicycle ride outside of town, sits this beautiful organic farming community “Tra Que Water Wheel”. We stumbled upon it during our hostel’s guided bicycle tour getting acquainted with the town of Hoi An on our first day. Arriving here, Paul and I immediately booked a full day cooking class for the following day. I almost couldn’t sleep I was so excited.
The day started early around 7:30am as we hopped on our motorbike to head to the farm… after about 30mins of getting lost due to roads not allowing motorbikes, we turned around and waited at our hostel for someone to come get us ☺ … Which turned out great as we headed straight to the market to shop for fresh ingredients for our class. Helen, our guide (and entertainment!) started by showing us how to tell if a fish is fresh… 1. It doesn’t smell like fish 2. Its eyes are not foggy 3. The meat is sticky to touch and 4. The gills are red inside, not white. She quizzed us up throughout the day on small learning’s as such… I kicked Paul’s butt in points. Always a competition between us two, we’re seriously brother and sister (much to Helen’s dislike as she wanted us to be in love). The market was full of fresh meats, dozens of different kinds of eggs, mountains of vegetables and herbs, variations of handmade rice noodles, and spices galore.
We headed back to the plot to get our farming on. We first went around to each plant and taste tested what was growing… cilantro/coriander, green onion, mustard leaf, spinach, mint, basil, all tasted out of this world… veggies I’d eaten my whole life, were on flavor steroids here. Following a road behind the farmhouse led to a rice water field where a few water buffalo were sunbathing. We each took turns riding on the water buffalo (with help from a local, of course!), and the yogi in me just had to try to bust out a pose.. Tree pose was all I could accomplish; balancing on top of an animal is harder than it looks! Thankfully the big fella we rode didn’t try to submerge himself, although I know it crossed his mind! One activity after another, we headed on a quick walk to the river to test out a little basket boat and gather algae to fertilize the ground we would soon plant on. We paddled around for a half hour or so, I fought motion sickness as Paul and our captain thought it would be funny to make it spin like tea cups at the fair, I’m literally nauseas thinking about it again! Loading up our algae in a wheelbarrow and hanging baskets, we trekked back to do some digging.
Helen’s uncle thought us how to use the tools to dig rows the right depth, tilling the soil for our sprouts. We laid down the algae collected and Helen made us use our feet to stomp it into the ground, while singing and dancing of course. Of all the songs we could have picked, twinkle twinkle little star was the winner. Just as heat exhaustion was about to set in, we headed inside to take herbal foot baths thanking our feet for the work they did that day. Helen heated up a stove made from clay and brick, while we ground rice to make rice water (which looked more like milk) for making rice paper. It was HARD arm muscle work… many Vietnamese women will do this for hours to prep in the making of noodles, rice paper, and so on… I was so impressed.
And finally the cooking phase was here! We made rice paper over the stove with a piece of stretched cloth, cooking it like a crepe. Once cooled, we filled up the rice paper with shaved pork, mixed greens, onion and carrots. There was a garlic chili oil sauce to dip… BEST SPRING ROLLL I’D EVER HAD. We could have made and just eaten that and I would have been completely satisfied. But it was only the beginning! Helen laid out a tray of spices and taught us when to use, on what, and how much. Sea salt, cane sugar, turmeric, curry, garlic and shallots to name a few. We went on to make little appetizers with marinated shrimp and pork, Vietnamese pancakes (Paul was a pro at flipping in the skillet… I was failed miserably, point for Paul).
We sat down to enjoy our hard work, Helen brought over tomato mackerel, green papaya salad, rice, and fresh mango to top it off. Seriously, so, stuffed. Ready for a nap, we headed back to the hostel with newfound knowledge to apply in the kitchen and a huge appreciation for the time and care that goes into food preparations in Vietnam.
Experience of a lifetime.