It took us 45 minutes to decide where we were going to eat our dinner. Gareth had been riding at the front, giving my friend Marie a lift on the back of his rented bicycle. I was peddling to the rear. My stomach was howling with hunger but with so many options to choose from, the task of picking a restaurant had become almost impossible.
Eventually, a bold waitress made the decision for us by standing in the road, forcing Gareth to stop. Her place was called Seafood Garden Restaurant, and would be the backdrop to an enchanted encounter.
We sat outside, overlooking the river. Across the other side was the old town of Hoi An; an historic Southeast Asian trading port in Central Vietnam, the yellow façade and dark-wood buildings stood dignified. Paper lanterns were dropped from a nearby footbridge and floated down the slow river, bobbing from the slight waves formed by small fishing boats moving through the pitch black. The deep waters reflected the town’s centuries old ghosts.
The food arrived and soon after so did an older man in his late 40’s who had been sitting a few tables away. He moved next to Gareth and began talking to him. Gareth, as polite as always, engaged him, whilst I chatted with Marie. I heard the man mention tours and then he hurried into the restaurant. I sighed. He returned, placing a couple of red notebooks and a small pile of letters on our table. Out of curiosity I picked up one of the notebooks. Dating back to 2012, every single page was filled with handwritten reviews about this man’s tours. On page one I read the most perfect introduction to the man who I would know later as Mr Trung:
“You might be wondering who this guy is who came to your table and won’t leave you alone… Mr Trung is a very lovely and genuine man… he will take you on a tour of his fishing village a couple of kilometres outside of Hoi An…”
As I flicked through the notebooks, I was humbled. I hadn’t given Mr Trung a chance. I was too quick to jump to conclusions.
I saw that the price of the trip included a sunhat, a pick up from our homestay, bottled water, a visit to a fishing village and a pottery village, fishing by boat on the river, and a cooking class at Mr Trung’s home with his family. It was $17 per person for a 5 hour tour. Possibly a little steep, we had no idea, but we’ve always preferred to give directly to the community. A small deposit was paid for myself and Gareth – Marie was moving on the next day – and we booked in for two days’ time.
At 8:30am sharp, a smiling Mr Trung arrived on his electric pushbike outside the gate. We followed behind him, cycling along the recently harvested rice paddies that bordered our homestay then onward down the quiet main road for the 4km to his fishing village; Thanh Ha.
We secured our bikes on a patch of overgrown grass lying hidden down a pathway off the main road, which ran alongside the Thu Bon River. Dozens of family-sized fishing boats rocked in the light wind as Mr Trung gave us a brief history of the area.
We wandered a little down the river bank. The air was warming. Old fishermen and their wives leaned against the steel rail smoking cigarettes, watching our movements with inquisitive stares.
We took the path to the pottery village. Two women; an older lady and a younger girl worked the pottery wheel; the girl kicked the wheel, spinning it with her foot while the lady shaped and molded the clay into teapots and bowls. We were allowed to have a go ourselves but both mine and Gareth’s attempts looked like the handiwork of an over-excited toddler.
After we paid $20 for a pale green tea set, sold to us as made by the hands – and feet – of these women themselves and thought to be a bargain coming from the so-called manufacturer (the same one ended up being much cheaper in town), we moved on to our next stop; a fishing boat. Four of us; Mr Trung, Gareth, me and a fisherman, sat low, paddling through the shallow stream. We came to an enclave and spread out a net by hand, zigzagging as the boat drifted with the current.
By order of Mr Trung, we banged our paddles against the boat with a relentless fervour to scare the fish towards the net. Pulling the fish into the boat was a two-person job. Our fledgling arms ached. The fisherman beamed. He could rest today.
Back on dry land we pushed on to Mr Trung’s home where we met his gentle wife and two children. A table for two was set up, waiting to be dined upon. Mr Trung brought out a cleaned and gutted medium-sized fish. He laid a bowl on the table filled with a selection of spices alongside lemongrass, ginger, onion and garlic, all ground up ready to mix with a pinch of sugar, salt and vegetable oil. We smoothed the savoury paste over the fish, inside and out, wrapped it in a banana leaf and some tinfoil and cooked it over a hot charcoal fire for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, we prepared our own fried pork spring-rolls, and a simple dish of fried noodles with vegetables. The meal was finished with a glass of caphe sua; coffee with sweet condensed milk.
Lunch was more than delicious; a blissful satisfaction swathed us. We needed a nap after all that food, so we said a gracious goodbye, climbed back onto the saddle and hoped that we would never forget how it felt to be this whole again.
You can book a tour with Mr Trung at Viet Space Travel, 625 Hai Ba Trung Street, Hoi An or Seafood Garden Restaurant, 27 Nguyen Phuc Chu, Hoi An where he is available every night of the week.