A bridge to Vietnamese cuisine

One way for visitors to understand Vietnamese culture is to take a cooking class.

"Ladies and gentlemen, to your stations!" Those words, spoken with great flair by Chef Hai, made me smile and wonder if he was an aficionado of TV cooking shows.

Earlier that day, our class of 21 foreign visitors had gathered at Hai Scout Café in Hoi An, Vietnam, a riverside town about 18-1/2 miles south of Da Nang. We chatted and got acquainted as we sipped fresh juice, cappuccino, latte, or Vietnamese filtered coffee.

Several of us were American – one couple was bicycling through Vietnam – but the majority were Australian. Most were under 30, but the class also had attracted a few retired couples, which is representative of tourism in Vietnam.

First we would visit Hoi An's large central market. Then we would take a boat ride down the Hoi An River to the Red Bridge Restaurant, the site of the cooking school where we would be taking a half-day class.

Rain didn't dampen our spirits as we unfurled umbrellas and gingerly sidestepped puddles on our way to the market, which offered everything from fresh fish to kitchen equipment.

At the fruit stand, Thanh, our guide, introduced the exotic dragon fruit. It's smooth-skinned, with scales that hint at the cactus that it is. Thanh said that the cactus "stems" (think of a Christmas cactus) can grow up to 20 feet long.

He moved on to show us knobby, yellowish-green custard apples. Inside are creamy-white, custardlike segments. Each segment surrounds a hard brown seed, which we picked out and discarded. Then we sampled the segments. Mmm, good.

In the vegetable section of the market, Thanh chose what looked like a cucumber with ridges. "This is bitter melon, used often in soup," he told us. "It's very good for you, and you must try it 10 times before you decide you don't like it!"

Pausing at a rice stall, we learned that rice paper can be softened by soaking it for a second in tepid water or by wrapping it in a banana leaf for up to 10 hours.

We passed on "the best coffee from Dalat, at 50,000 dong [about $3] a kilo," but most of us bought small metal vegetable graters with tiny loops at one end used for making the slivers of carrot found in the national sauce, nuoc mam. Many of us also purchased tiny three-part gizmos for making drip coffee.

At the fish market, we learned that the fish sold in stalls inside the market are from the sea, while vendors in the outside stalls by the river are selling river fish. Thanh lingered by a huge mound of squid. "The flesh of a fresh squid should be hard and white," he explained.

The rain had changed into a fine mist as we got into a wooden boat that would putt-putt us down the Hoi An River for a 25-minute tour.

As we glided by riverside restaurants, we made notes of Thanh's recommendations to guide us to good places to eat during coming days in the area.

The tuition for this cooking class was just $15, and by that point, I had already had $15 worth of fun – and the cooking hadn't even started. But disembarking at the dock of the Red Bridge Restaurant, which is nestled beneath tall palms, I felt that another round of surprises was in store.

From the dining area of the open-air restaurant, we followed Thanh through a tropical garden to a raised herb garden, where most of us saw lemon grass growing for the first time. We also learned that basil can be used to make a fragrant hair rinse.

After washing our hands, we gathered in the adjacent pavilion, which was definitely worthy of a TV cooking show.

For the next hour, we would be chopping, slicing, peeling, and sautéing, as Chef Hai and his two assistants – all of whom spoke excellent English – demonstrated cooking techniques under a large, angled mirror.

After the demonstrations, we whipped into action at two long tables set up with supplies, including individual gas burners. We would prepare four dishes and tackle edible decorations such as Vietnamese cucumber fans.

The first dish was a simple, straightforward stir-fry – a warm squid salad beautifully presented in a half pineapple.

Next came Asian eggplant in a clay pot. Chef Hai had eliminated most of the oil so it was basically a flavorful boiled dish.

Surprisingly, everyone in the class learned to make a credible cucumber fan and a tomato rose, a lovely garnish for the shrimp rice paper rolls that we created.

I was skeptical about making from scratch the impossibly thin rice paper wrappers that when I'm at home, I buy on Clement Street in San Francisco. But armed with a flexible bamboo sliver about eight inches long, we spread the runny rice batter over a cloth "lid" that was tied over a pan of boiling water. Our spring rolls looked a little ragged but were nonetheless delicious. We couldn't quite say we had mastered the art, but we had all gained more respect for its many deft practitioners that we encountered all over Vietnam.

We also prepared banh xeo, a crepe made with rice flour sprinkled with tiny shrimp, bits of pork, green onions, and bean sprouts. After the cooked crepe is folded over sprigs of mint and basil, small portions are wrapped in lettuce leaves and then dipped in fish sauce. It's one of my favorite dishes back home, and I found that making these Vietnamese "pancakes" is quick and easy – when someone else collects the many ingredients.

After we finished, we had lunch in the adjacent restaurant. It included not only our own culinary efforts, but snapper steamed in banana leaves and ocean fish on a bed of vegetables. Dessert was fresh fruit, artfully presented: rambutan (a reddish, spiny tropical fruit), pineapple spears, and banana slices.

As I sat there, satisfied by the results of my morning at the cooking school, I decided that it had been such fun, so informative, and such a perfect activity for a solo traveler, I should sign up for the night class at Hai Scout Café. And so I did.

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Half-day cooking classes

• Red Bridge Cooking School, Thon 4, Cam Thanh, Hoi An, Vietnam. Telephone (from the US): 011-84 510 933222 or 011-84 091 3457029. Website: www.visithoian.com/redbridge.html. E-mail: info@visithoian.com.

• The Red Bridge Restaurant is open daily for lunch and also for dinner on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.

• Those attending the cooking school meet at Hai Scout Café, 98 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street/111 Tran Phu Street, in Old Town Hoi An. Telephone (from the US) 011-84 510 863210.

• Cost, including the market visit, round-trip boat ride, and lunch is $15.

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