Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Old Quarter of Hoi An and Binh Sua

The ancient town of Hoi An is a well-preserved example of a typical South-east Asian trading port that, amazingly, has survived the ravages of more than 300 years of weather and warfare. As one of the major trading centers of Southeast Asia in the 16th century, it still retains the charming traditional architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries — the only town in Vietnam that has done so. Protected by UNESCO, the slow-paced beauty of Hoi An will hopefully be around for subsequent generations to enjoy for another 300 years.

Due to the city's mercantile relationship with China and Japan during it's years as a big trading empire, the Old Quarter of Hoi An has a distinct Chinese atmosphere, and is lined with two-storey Chinese shops, elaborately carved wooden facades and moss-covered tile roofs. 

The Japanese Bridge, or Pagoda Bridge connected Hoi An's original Chinese and Japanese communities, and is the only bridge in the Old Quarter and also one of it's charming and enduring symbols.

Trung Hoa Assembly Hall, built in the 15th century, is one of the oldest assembly halls in Hoi An, and collects rice 4 or 5 times a years to give out to the poor. 

After touring the Old Quarter, we headed out of town and visited a fabulous local organic farm, where over 100 families all help tend acres of beautiful healthy crops, that are encouraged to grow with a base of seaweed harvested from the nearby Thu Bon River. We were given conical hats and worker's smocks to wear, and set to work on a patch of land, which we lay with a base of seaweed, then hoed and raked the red clay saturated earth — preparing the bed and finally planting some small root sprigs of mint. 

After 30 days of sun, the fruits of our labour may well be sold at market in Hoi An! Hungry from our labour, we were taught how to make Binh Suo, or 'rice pancake', a Hoi An speciality. 

The pancake is a mixture of egg, rice flour, turmeric and chives that are whisked together in a small bowl. Diced shrimp and pork are quickly sautéed in a small frying pan, then a cupful of the eggy mixture is added and cooked over high heat for two minutes. The pancake is then tossed high in the air and hopefully caught on it's return, back into the frying pan. Some bean sprouts are added, the pancake is folded and then served wrapped with rice paper and fresh mint. 

A small decorative wrapped shrimp and herb salad is served alongside the Binh Suo, artfully tied with a band of fresh chive. Even in the country, the care and attention that goes into the simplest preparation, continues to astound me.