Back in March, when Bordeaux and I went to Hanoi, we briefly considered taking the long train trip down to Hoi An. Thankfully, we stuck around Hanoi-- at the time, we of course didn't know that we would get to return to Vietnam, and have the chance to spend almost a week in Hoi An. While doing a little online research in Hoi An back then, I encountered the Red Bridge Cooking Class. It sounded great- a chance to cook some local Hoi An dishes in an attractive riverside setting. I bookmarked the page, setting aside just in case.
As we prepared to visit Hoi An, the cooking class at Red Bridge was on the top of our must do list. Upon arriving in town, we stopped by Hai Cafe, where the classes are organized. Two classes were offered at Red Bridge- a half day class and a full day class, each with only one menu available. The full day class offered the chance to make pho bo (beef noodle soup), cha ca (grilled fish) with dill, lemongrass shrimp in banana leaves, and chicken and banana flower salad. Though we love all of these dishes, the menu didn't sound right to us- both pho and cha ca with dill are more associated with Hanoi, and we know how to make banana flower salad. Instead, we chose the half-day class, which seemed to focus more on Central Vietnamese cooking, and had some dishes we wanted to know how to make- eggplant cooked in a claypot, seafood and pineapple salad with fresh herbs, rice paper rolls with freshly made rice paper, and banh xeo, 'Happy pancakes.'
We met the other students at the Hai Cafe, in Hoi An's old town. There, we got the first sign of a major difference between other cooking classes we'd taken-- the number of students was much larger. As we waited for the class to depart, more and more people came, and the class quickly grew to around 20 people- massive, compared to the five person average we'd had at other cooking classes. Thankfully, multiple guides appeared, and we broke up into small six-person groups.
Like most cooking classes, this one began with a market tour. Hoi An has a great central market, and the tour took great advantage of it-- introducing us to local flavors and herbs, strange vegetables and fruits, and interesting utensils that revealed local cooking techniques. Our guide was great- informative, engaging, and funny.
She dropped us at the pier, where we boarded the boat to the cooking school. The trip was a definite highlight- a twenty minute float down the muddy river, past fishing traps and under arching palm leavess. Along the way, an old woman in a canoe, smiling between chomps of betel-nut, motioned our boat over. When we got close, she lassoed us, and hitched a lift off us.
We arrived at Red Bridge Restaurant, easily the most attractive setting for any cooking class we'd taken. Set right on the river, the kitchen was surrounded by lush tropical greenery, and decorated with bamboo blinds and white silk lanterns. After a quick tour of the herb gardens, our guides wished us a good class, and departed-- and we were left to merge the mini groups into one massive class.
We took seats in classroom like rows of chairs, and after a twenty minute wait, our cooking teacher emerged. He seemed tired, bored, and a little disinterested in the class-- fair enough, if he has to teach multiple 20 person classes a week. There were some weak jokes in his script, but he seemed so lifeless that they passed by without him changing the tone or speed of his reading. He proceeded to make the first dish, the seafood salad, completely on his own-- simply showing it to us. The dish was whisked away by one of the many assistants, and he proceeded on to the claypot eggplant. For this, we got our first taste of 'cooking'- we were shown to our stations, told to slice the eggplants, plop it in the boiling water, and add a cup of tomato sauce. We then returned to our seats, and the claypot eggplant was taken away by the staff. It proceeded basically like that for the rest of the class- we made fresh rice paper, but not the filling for the rolls; we quickly made the banh xeo, being prodded to hurry up the whole time by roaming cooking assistants. If any students made a mistake (which I, of course, made several) the assistants became vaguely annoyed, and either corrected them sharply, or simply did it themselves.
Having spent about an hour watching a cooking demonstration, and maybe fifteen minutes actually cooking, we were lead to the dining room for a late lunch. The lunch, at least, was fantastic. The seafood salad was tangy and spicy, the claypot eggplant rich and flavorful (made with, I suspect, more than just a cup of tomato sauce), and an extra dish, steamed ocean fish, was fantastic.
So now, some thoughts.
Good: The class was well-organized, and aside from the way too long wait for our chef to show up, ran smoothly. The market tour was informative, the boat trip was enjoyable, and the lunch was spectacular.
Bad: Maybe I'm hard to please, but the class was run too smoothly. It felt a little like a Theme Park of cookery-- fair enough, this is Hoi An, after all. But there was nothing personal, no individual character to much of it. We were rushed along an assembly line, getting to slice a vegetable here, and roll a salad roll there. Our cooking instructor was clearly bored, and it affected the atmosphere of the class. And really, aside from the discussion on the market tour, we learned nothing about Vietnamese cuisine and culture, or about what makes the cooking of Hoi An and Central Vietnam unique.
Verdict: Would I recommend it? It's complicated. As Bordeaux pointed out, this was the least enjoyable cooking class we've taken. At all of the others, we enjoyed a connection with our instructor and felt like we really got to try our hands at making some local dishes. At the best classes- like Hidden Hanoi- we actually learned about the culture through learning about their cooking.
And yet, I get the sense that almost everyone at the class had a great time. It was, all in all, a pretty fun day-- there were certainly more activities than at any of the other cooking classes I've taken. And we got an outstanding lunch in an incredible setting. And the price- $18- means that it was actually incredibly inexpensive.
So I think for a visitor to Hoi An looking for a fun day out, it's actually a great activity. It gets you beyond the old town to see some of the surrounding countryside, and you get a great lunch out of it. But for someone really interested in cooking, and in the cuisine of Central Vietnam- I think it's kind of disappointing. The full day class, I read later, is done in smaller groups, and is more geared towards this category of student- but it's a shame that the menu doesn't focus more on regional dishes, or offer some variety or choice. Numerous restaurants throughout Hoi An offer private cooking classes, where you have the choice of what to make-- and that may be the better option.