it's hard to explain the charm of Hoi An until you've seen it in contrast to the rest of the country. not that other parts of Vietnam aren't charming, too, it's just that life seems to move a little bit differently here. people nod and smile at you as you bicycle or stroll by, shopkeepers bargain with you when it's time to purchase but otherwise leave you alone, and you only hear "hello! motorbike?" about five times a day as opposed to five times in ten minutes. the sun is warm, the food is fantastic, there are silk lanterns everywhere, the river sparkles in the sun, there are kids everywhere, the beach is a 20-minute bike ride away and you can somehow lose hours just wandering around the tiny old town.
the other important realization I've had in Hoi An is that I'm apparently quite a racial conundrum. everyone wants to claim me. in China they all spoke to me in Mandarin first until I explained to them that I was actually Korean. here in Vietnam, they are quick enough to realize the telltale signs of a foreign backpacker (Reef flip flops, mosquito-bitten ankles, backpack and an open copy of Lonely Planet), so the exchange is a little different, but it almost always goes something like this:
Them: "Where you from?"
Me: "I'm Korean, but I live in America."
Them: "Korea! I thought you Chinese, maybe Vietnamese. You look Vietnamese."
Me: "No, I'm Korean."
Them: "I love Korean film. You know [insert name of Korean movie star here]?"
Me: "No, sorry, but I hear Vietnamese people love Korean movies."
Them: "Yes! So romantic! Sentimental!"
[a pause in which I feel bad that I'm not more familiar with Korean movie stars]
Them: "You so pretty/beautiful. You have boyfriend?"
Me, laughing: "Thank you, but no. It's just me."
Them, in shock: "What? How old are you?"
Me: "How old do you think I am?"
[This is where their answers have varied somewhat, but it's usually at this point in the conversation that we realize that the inquiring woman is usually younger with me and has at least one child. The exception to this was my waitress at dinner last night, who was my same age and said she had no boyfriend, so we high-fived each other. apparently the high-five is a universal gesture of celebration.]
I'm not exaggerating when I say I've had some version of this conversation at least ten times in the last few days (the first of which I was pretty much locked away in my hotel room, sick). the consistency of the exchange is nothing short of hilarious. at first I thought it was a bit intrusive but then I got used to it and tried to see it as a compliment.
so yesterday I took an amazing half-day cooking course. we started the course with a welcome drink in the tree-shaded cafe and then ventured to the outdoor food market to begin our tutorial. our guide, Su Su, pointed out all the fresh fruits and vegetables and had the various stall owners crack open a few things so we could try them. I sampled all kinds of bizarre fruit, including fresh tamarind pods right out of the shell and an apple-looking fruit that they call "women's tit" because it's round-shaped and milky inside (I'm so not kidding). our guide was hilarious, making jokes in her accented English that old ladies in Vietnam who chew betel nuts are rich because they don't have to buy lipstick (pointing to one red-lipped old woman as evidence) and that green tea was responsible for half of the babies in Vietnam because people drink it and can't fall asleep at night.
after the market tour, we took a leisurely boat ride down the river to the cooking school and began our lesson with a frosty drink in a thatched hut. our instructor would demonstrate each course in front of us while we sat in chairs, taking notes on the clipboards provided, and then have us try our hand at that course at a row of gas-powered camping stoves. we made fresh spring rolls with homemade rice paper (I know how to do this now!), skillet-fried Hoi An pancakes, and eggplant in clay pot. we even tried to make food decorations like tomato-skin flowers and cucumber-slice hand fans but most of us failed pretty miserably at that. after the class, they took us to their cafe and fed us even more, including papaya salad with seafood in a pineapple half-boat and grilled fish covered with glass noodles. I was full to the point of bursting, but we ate every delectable mouthful.
I keep getting requests for more pictures, and I promise I'll post some soon -- it's hard to get USB access for long periods of time, and sorting through my million pics takes some time. but I will! soon!
I fly to Ho Chi Minh City tonight, so until then...