I first visited the Vietnamese seaside town of Nha Trang in 1990 with chef Binh Duong, while we were researching our book "Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking." Binh had saved his hometown for our last stop before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City, and I remember how excited I was to see it as we drove down the hair-raising mountain switchbacks from Dalat to the South China Sea. At the time, there wasn't much along Tran Phu Boulevard, the shore drive—just desolate lots that gave way to groves of shade trees and abandoned government properties. The only sound was the waves crashing. Each afternoon we were there, Binh's mother cooked us lunch, delicious meals that made me understand how Binh had become such a good cook. Afterward, Binh's brother-in-law would come on his scooter to take me swimming. The beaches were gorgeous, but at the time Vietnam had been open to tourism for only a few months, and they were almost deserted except for us.
The passing years pulled Binh and me in different directions, but my curiosity about Nha Trang had only grown as I heard repeatedly about how it had become one of the most popular beach destinations in Asia. Finally, I decided to go back. I would track down some new recipes, I thought, and in the process see what changes 15 years had brought to sleepy Nha Trang.
On the drive in from the airport I found the new Nha Trang almost overwhelming: the throngs of people strolling along the boulevard, the big, overly ornate hotels on the beach, the shore drive buzzing with traffic. Yet the beaches were still beautiful. From the shore it was still possible to gaze at the green mountains rising dramatically across the water and the oddly shaped, strange little islands poking up from the sea in front.