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Food tour and cooking class in Nha Trang Vietnam: Learning from a local

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Participating in a cooking class is something we love to do when we travel.  It’s the perfect way to understand more about local culture and cuisine. We also love the learning aspect that comes with being taught by a professional chef, or a local.  They have their own special ways and are always happy to impart their knowledge on a group of willing participants.  Cooking classes attract all types.  Those looking for something fun to do in a new country or city, those who love cooking and people like us who come here to cook, learn and then re-create it back home. 

I’m usually the one taking copious notes, usually covered with some food.  As often as I can,  I sneak a moment here or there to write down a special tip.  I can’t tell you how many times this has saved us when we’ve come back home to make it, without the tuition of the chef.

Never before have we done one in the backyard of a person’s home, however, and never have we done a cooking class with such strong ties to building a local community.  Let me take you on a tour with Chef Dat Quoc Phan, in his hometown of Nha Trang.  It’s one hell of a story. It’s one of the most unique things to do in Nha Trang, a place that is typically known for beach resorts.

We’ve done cooking classes in some amazing locations too.  From learning how to make classic croissants and millefeuille in Paris, to Banh Xeo on a luxury boat on the Mekong Delta. We’ve been in hotels, in basement kitchens, private kitchens and in commercial cooking areas.  

banh xeo with extra salad and nuoc cham

Pro tip: book a half day private tour of Nha Trang City.

Nha Trang Cooking School food and cooking class

Travelling in Vietnam is such a wonderful experience, but it’s the things you see in the back streets that add all the colour to any travel experience.  The people of Vietnam are particularly friendly and they will welcome you into their small villages, to watch and see what life is really like, away from the bright and shiny world of the major tourist locations.  

As we left our hotel with Chef Dat, bound for all of his favourite local places, we knew we were in for a treat.  He concurred with my thoughts above by saying “the real Vietnam is out the back not the front”.

Chef Dat is a born and bred Nha Trang resident with a love for people, learning and his country.  Born in 1976,  he made his way through school and then studied English at university.  This followed a challenging childhood following the end of the Vietnam War.  The country and its ability to produce food had been significantly impacted.  For many years, Chef Dat, his three siblings and parents lived off rice and green bananas.  They had no running water nor electricity. 

Once he was old enough, he would go into the mountains and cut two metre long pieces of timber that he would sell to a farmer.  He sold green beans.  He was a labourer for construction companies.  All of this whilst attending school.  It’s hard to imagine at times, especially since my school life, by comparison, was so much different.  It created a resilient, resolute character in Chef Dat, becoming a tourist guide, travelling all over Vietnam and establishing a charity to ensure that other kids have the opportunity to attend and finish school.

A food tour in Nha Trang

Bakery – Vietnamese baguettes

This cooking class, run since 2011,  is combined with a food tour and several stops at important food areas en route to the local markets to buy the ingredients for the class.  On a dusty street, we stop to visit an old bakery.  It’s not working at full capacity when we arrive, but out of nowhere, the baker turns up on his motorbike to pop a few baguettes in the oven.  Here at this small shop, fronted by chain wire and with various woven baskets scattered about, 1,500 baguettes are made each morning with a further 1,000 coming fresh out of the oven every evening. 

We watch as he takes a couple of pre-shaped loaves and sprays them with a coloured mixture.  As he pops them into the wood-fired oven, adding a couple of extra bits of wood, he lights a cigarette, puffing on it whilst waiting for the bread to cook.  It’s another moment when you realise that you are in truly authentic company and makes me smile when I think of what would happen at home if he did this!

The bread comes out before long, and we can’t wait to rip into this bread with the crunchy exterior and the light, airy interior.  The texture of the bread is due to the combination of wheat and rice flour, making it less “bready” than a French baguette.  Vietnam does not grow any wheat, importing around 42% of it from Australia.  Amazing that the price of these staple food items is still so cheap.

vietnamese baguette

Fresh produce stalls

A little further down the road, we visit a fresh produce stall, where the herbs, produce, flies and roadside dust all co-habit gleefully together.  There’s no point getting fidgety about this here as you won’t see it any different anywhere else.  As the stall holder watches on, legs crossed perfectly in amongst the fresh produce, we are treated to a lesson on Vietnamese natural remedies.

stall holder fresh produce

Chef Dat picks out a variety of herbs, green leaves, chillis and anything else he can lay his hands on really, to show us how all of this food is so much more than a means of satisfying hunger.  Purple mint for colds, bitter melon for diabetes and a myriad of other natural remedies for curing everything from a common cold, stomach cramps and the ageing process.

Chef Dat showing us the herbs and discussing their medicinal properties
We make a purchase of a few items to go with our upcoming cooking class and lunch.

Grass mat weaving

Next, we visit the home of two ladies who make and sell grass mats.  Whilst this has absolutely nothing to do with food per se, it’s extremely interesting.  Everyone is treated to a Vietnamese coffee, served cold whilst we watched the women.

vietnamese coffee
Vietnamese coffee

Watching these two ladies sweat it out in extremely humid conditions, their legs crossed and sitting on a hard floor for hours at a time, once again highlights the differences in culture.  This is how they make their living and they are very proud to be able to do so.  

At no point do I feel pressured to buy something from them, which is a real issue on Vietnamese tours in particular (in my personal experience).  I would have actually loved to have bought a few things from here, but alas, our customs processes back home in Australia prevented me from doing so. 

Nha Trang Markets

Time is marching on, so we head to the markets, the most important stop on the tour before we start to cook.  The Chợ Vĩnh Ngọc markets are full of activity and most importantly, full of locals.  Apart from us, there’s not a visitor to be found.  This is how I like it and how you get to savour everything that is fantastic, and smelly, about the markets. 

outside the nha trang market

We walk on wet paths, the water coming from the washing of fresh seafood and other produce, saying hi to everyone that greets us with a big smile. 

lady at market smiling

We watch as a lady chops chilli, ever so finely, with the largest of knives.  Another woman nearby shreds lemongrass and chops potatoes.  Jobs that we might consider mundane are their livelihood.  The smell permeates the market, this time in a good way.  By the time we leave, we’ve got fresh chicken, pork, seafood, lemongrass, chillies, ginger and a host of Asian greens.  It looked like we were going to cook up a feast!

Noodle factory in Nha Trang

There’s one last place to stop, and it’s not far from the market.  I remember watching ricepaper being made in a family factory in the Mekong, so it was great to see it being made here in Nha Trang also.  In the tiniest of spaces, in the hottest of conditions, they earn a living making, drying and processing rice paper from the bottom floor of their home.

Cooking Class in Nha Trang

Our next journey takes us into the backroads behind Chef Dat’s house.  Like everything in his life, there’s a story involved and his house is all part of his life’s rich fabric.  Many years ago, Chef Dat met a Swiss man and his wife.  Long story short, they became friends and the Swiss man wanted to own a house in Vietnam, but couldn’t due to foreign ownership laws.  Together, they built a house, on his land.  Chef Dat’s family live in one house, and the Swiss family in another.

We walk down a path, beside a yard full of chickens and dogs, arriving at a superb cooking class location.  A custom-built outdoor area comprised of kitchen, cooking stations and eating area really raises the bar.  In such a beautiful location, why wouldn’t you want to celebrate being outdoors?  It sure beats cooking in a bland air-conditioned commercial cooking space.  Although, in hindsight, the air-con might have been a nice addition.  But, when in Vietnam what’s cooking without the sweating? 

On the bus, Chef Dat had asked us about what we would like to cook, another unique aspect of this tour and class.  Usually, most cooking schools are specific about the food to be cooked.  Chef Dat prefers to let it flow a little more dynamically and ensure that the participants remain as active as possible throughout the day.

We chose to make a morning glory salad with chicken, a favourite of ours from The Anam Resort.  Everyone was keen to replicate it.  Then there was a traditional Vietnamese lemongrass chicken dish that was my favourite for the day.  With another pork dish and Bánh xèo Vietnamese pancakes also part of the meal, we had plenty to do and even more to eat. 

You can watch the video and learn hour to make Vietnamese lemon chicken here

As we take a tour of Chef Dat’s house and garden,  his team clean and prepare all of the food we will cook with.

It’s a great afternoon of fun as we all take turns to prepare different things.  

Finally, after cooking rice on a charcoal cooker, crushing ingredients in a mortar and pestle to make Nuoc Cham, the swishing of pancake batter and a whole lot of sizzle, we had a feast fit for a king. 

dat watching the charcoal pot
Rice cooking on a charcoal burner

Washed down with a local Saigon beer, it was the perfect end to a perfect cooking class in Nha Trang.

Where can you do a cooking class in Nha Trang?

The Nha Trang Cooking School is run by Chef Dat Quoc Phan, who also operates the ‘Same Same but Different Cafe’ in Nha Trang.  Food tours and cooking classes are run at various times during the day. Check out their website for courses and availability.  Money from all courses and tours directly contributes to Chef Dat’s charity and his ongoing love and support of local disadvantaged children. 

Having been blessed with the ability to be able to attend (and finish) both school and university, Chef Dat’s wish is to make this possible for others.  By sponsoring children who may not be able to make it to school as a result of financial or social disadvantage, he is helping to create a better local community and a better future for these kids.  You can read more about his charity here.  

Where is Nha Trang Cooking School located?

The Nha Trang Cooking School operates at Viet Garden, 14 Vinh Diem Thuong Ward, Vinh Hiep Commune, Nha Trang.  It’s about 20 mins outside Nha Trang.  Transport is included as part of the tour.

Where to stay in Nha Trang

Chef Dat offers a homestay option which is also provided free of charge to those who volunteer for his charity.

We stayed at The Anam in nearby Cam Ranh who organised this food tour for us.  A minivan provided by Nha Trang Cooking School was our transport for the day. The hotel is located 30 minutes outside of Nha Trang.  If you don’t want to stay in a busy location like Nha Trang, this is perfect.

Read my review of The Anam

For Nha Trang hotels and resorts you can search on  Trip Advisor.

How to get to Nha Trang

Cam Ranh International Airport is the closest commercial operating airport to Nha Trang.  A variety of airlines fly here including the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines.  We flew with AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  The flight takes around one hour from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  From Hanoi, the flight time is one and a half hours.  

Nha Trang is approximately 30 kilometres from the airport.  Taking a taxi to Nha Trang is probably the easiest but be sure to get a fixed fare cab.  The current rates for fixed fares to Nha Trang can be found on signboards at the airport.  For further information, check the airport website.  Many resorts also have their own shuttles.

Alternatively, private transfers from the airport are also very inexpensive.  You can book a private transfer here.

Food brings people together

According to Chef Dat, “Food is very important to the Vietnamese.  It brings people together”.  After a day that revolved completely around their cuisine and their customs, I couldn’t agree more.  Now I just have to make more of it.

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