Chef Dat picked me up from my hotel on the morning I was returning to Saigon from Nha Trang. He had plans to take me to the local markets and countryside and then a cooking experience at his country house. Talking to Chef Dat, you immediately realise he is not in this for the money. It’s all about great passion and a calling to help those less fortunate. Chef Dat has worked in Nha Trang tourism since 1994, he has fantastic English and owns a local cafe, Same Same But Different Cafe. He often hosts home-stay guests who assist him to educate local village children who cannot afford education. I immediately connected with him and looked forward to an amazing day.
Over and over again Chef Dat told me, the real Vietnam is at the back, not at the front. He was referring to the tourist centers that sit at the front of the cities where you can get lost just in that world. The truth is though, if you explore more outwards you will start to see the real Vietnam. And it certainly is a sight and experience to behold.
First of all we stopped on the roadside and we went to the local bakery and Chef Dat explained about the French influence and the Chinese influence on Vietnamese food. Wheat is still not grown in Vietnam, only rice, all wheat is still imported. The bakery was incredible – a very old wood fired oven surrounded by trays of dough. A man sprays the dough with colour then places the dough (banh mi shape) on the board. He grabs a stick from behind his ear and quickly draws a line through the middle on the top for that classic Vietnamese roll look. He shoves the board into the hole in the wall to get it in the oven. Not too long later he pulls out another tray and they all fall in the basket. The smell is delicious, if you weren’t hungry yet, you would be now.
Next stop, a local roadside produce stall where Chef Dat explains to me all the herbs, fruit & vegetables and what they’re good for both cooking & health wise. For instance, 200g bitter melon is good for Type 2 diabetes as it absorbs sugar in the stomach and purple mint is great for coughs. We purchase some items for our meal.
Right next door is pork, killed at 4am that morning, very fresh. Chef Dat chooses some pieces for our pho.
Up the road we go, we choose some chicken and beef.
We drive past a group of men, sitting facing each other, with birds hanging in mini aviaries above them in the middle. Dat explains it’s a bird cafe! The Vietnamese men’s hobby is birds and they are very proud so bring them to the cafes to show them off. I wish I took a photo!!
Chef Dat took me to the bustling local markets where they sell everything from fresh produce to clothing and rice cookers. On the way in a lovely Vietnamese lady let me try her special silken tofu. She poured some sugar syrup with ginger over it to sweeten. It was so incredibly smooth and dissolved in my mouth. The sweetener and honey made it just right. A beautiful taste.
We sought out some more produce, some prawns and some spring roll papers from Chef Dat’s regular vendors. They all know him and call out.
Chef Dat took me to his local village and showed me their temple. He explained that Vietnamese is the only Asian language with a Latin influence. He showed me the cemetery and how their faith believes that when they die they go to the permanent life. This is why they have lotus flowers on their headstones. It might be a cooking tour but you learn much more than just about food.
A local produce farm was next door, I smelt all different kinds of basil & mint and watched the Vietnamese working the fields. Just like in the pictures.
The next stop is Chef Dat’s House. A beautiful big house with the cooking area beautifully set up outside. We are joined by five others while I enjoy a beer and help Chef Dat prepare the ingredients and explore his organic garden.
The spring roll ingredients are all cut (by yours truly and the others) and placed separately on the plate. These colours and separation indicate the elements and you’ll notice many Vietnamese cooks and recipes place emphasis on this. Dishes in Vietnam appeal to gastronomes via five senses: food arrangement attracts eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, five spices are detected on the tongue, aromatic ingredients coming mainly from herbs stimulate the nose, and some meals, especially finger food, can be perceived by touching.
We get the broth boiling for the pho, the spices flaming and the smells wafting over are mouth watering! We all take turns chopping, mixing, grinding and char-grilling and frying. It’s very interactive, fun and friendly.
Here comes the heart breaker, I had to leave BEFORE the dishes were finished! No fault but my own, I had booked the tour full knowing that I would have to leave early and miss out, however I didn’t want to miss out on this experience and I am so, so, so glad that I made the effort to go and meet Chef Dat and the wonderful tour and environment he has created.
I had been writing everything down so I could recreate the recipes at home, however it turns out they are on the website! I am going to make everything we created together. You can check out the spring rolls, pho and chicken with chilli & lemongrass recipes too.
Word of warning: many other tour sites sell this trip as their own at a much higher price. Book with Nha Trang Cooking Class for the best deal.
*While this tour was complimentary, this review is completely authentic and true! I admire Chef Dat and the work he does in the community.