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.
When I got to Ana Mandara, the luxurious resort where I would be staying, two women in the lobby were playing ancient Vietnamese instruments: a nhi, a box-type piece with two strings across the top and a t'rung, a bamboo xylophone. A surprisingly cool breeze was blowing through the open windows, and the haunting music rose above the sound of the surf. As I sipped Champagne, I couldn't believe I'd waited this long to return.
A BREAKFAST EPIPHANY
At 4:30 a.m. there are usually few reasons to get out of bed. But some guests at Ana Mandara are willing to venture out that early—and so is David Thai, Ana Mandara's fast-talking Vietnamese dynamo chef, who is also the guide for the resort's market tour of Nha Trang.
A Vietnam War refugee who grew up in France, David had a peripatetic career cooking in top hotels in Paris and the Middle East before settling down in his native country. Today he prepares amazing meals at Ana Mandara, using magnificent ingredients grown exclusively for him in the Nha Trang area and in the mountains around Dalat. A confident, loquacious man, he's a terrific chef, committed to classic Vietnamese dishes, though he often adds his own flourishes. His fried fish cakes, for instance, aren't the tight, chewy balls one often gets. They're incredibly light and fluffy—hand-chopped, delicately blended with herbs and seasonings, and spiked with a jolt of Thai red curry paste.
David is the ideal guide for a trip to Nha Trang's central market, an enormous covered arena that spills out onto Doc Lop Street. Beautiful arrangements of produce contrast sharply with tubs of live skinned frogs, which look like jumping ghosts with bulging black eyes. The enticing smells of mangoes and jasmine flowers are interrupted by the overwhelming pungency of fermented shrimp paste. There's meat waiting to be hacked to order, spices, household necessities—you can buy anything here, it seems, and for a fearless food shopper and cook, it's the most thrilling place in the world. I spotted brilliant pink dragon fruit and dark-purple taro root. I stocked up on white peppercorns, cinnamon bark, ultrathin rice papers and Vietnamese coffee.
After the tour, it was time to visit David's favorite soup lady for breakfast pho. As our group approached, she started setting out bowls, then got to work. Putting together multiple orders of a soup with at least 15 different garnishes (and often more) is difficult, yet this woman did it almost effortlessly. First, she ladled some hot beef broth into a bowl to rinse it out. Next she placed sliced raw beef in a basket, lowered it into the bubbling pot of broth for two seconds, dumped the beef into the waiting bowl, then repeated the process with the rice noodles. In smooth succession she added the other ingredients: fried shallots, sliced chiles, branches of cilantro, rau ram (a pungent, minty herb), scallions, bean sprouts, torn escarole, onion slices, preserved cabbage bits and the final touches of lime wedges, Sriracha sauce (the brand of hot red-pepper sauce popular in all southeast Asian countries), fish sauce, sesame oil and ground white pepper. Breakfast ended with glasses of iced Vietnamese coffee with cream, plus fried crullers for dunking.
MORE AMAZING COOKS IN ACTION
Every Tuesday and Thursday at Ana Mandara, dinner is cooked by a handpicked group of women who typically work at food stalls on the street. Each lady is an expert at one specific dish, and as I watched them set up, their serious concentration struck me as the utmost in professionalism. Side by side, they started fires, mixed batter and prepared the endless garnishes that would embellish their plates. I had great fun watching the tourists approach each lady, ask questions that the woman couldn't really answer, take the plates back to their table looking confused, then eat what they'd been served—and swoon.
Watching the market ladies cook reminded me of the extraordinary meals Binh's mother had prepared for me during my first trip here, and I asked David to point me toward some home cooks I could observe. He suggested visiting a woman named Tram Thi Phai, who lives next door to a home rice-noodle factory.
Phai turned out to be a no-nonsense person, with the sort of brashness that old age allows. She would prepare us lunch, she announced, once we had walked to the tiny market down the road to see what was there. She picked out some pieces of pork, a gorgeous purple taro root, herbs, chiles, cucumbers and fruit. Then, back at her house, she hacked up the pork on a cutting board she'd set on the ground in her backyard. As she rinsed off the board, she splashed some water at the chickens pecking nearby to keep them at bay.
Inside her house, she started a small fire and began making her stew, pounding shallots, garlic and chiles together in a mortar she'd set on the floor. Almost all home cooking in Vietnam takes place on the floor, which is usually made of earth, worn hard by years of tread. Women squat over their cutting boards with their one large knife, and this knife does everything: skins taro root, slices cucumbers, scales fish, hacks bones.
Phai put a pot of water on the fire and added the pork meat, slices of taro, the shallot mixture, salt and cilantro. When the stew was done, a small group of neighbors came over to watch us eat. On the table was a classic Vietnamese salad of herbs, cucumbers, bean sprouts and lettuce and the beautiful stew, topped with its slices of bright purple taro and garlic chives. Phai served it with broken rice, which is pleasantly nubbly and much more affordable than jasmine rice, a luxury in most of Vietnam.
The next day we visited another culinary team, Vo Thi May, who goes by her nickname, Xuan, and her sister-in-law, Bui Thi Nuoc. Inside their lovely old wooden house in the countryside, I watched Xuan light a small alcohol lamp to start her two small ceramic stoves, rather than using charcoal as they did in town.
To prepare the fried fish we would be having for lunch, Xuan needed to render some fat first, so into the pan went cubes of the most creamy white pork fat I have ever seen, which quickly melted down to a thick liquid. Squatting over a mortar on the floor, Nuoc pounded cilantro, garlic and shallots to make a dipping sauce. When there was enough fat for frying, Xuan signaled to Nuoc to get the fish ready, and, as she added more wood to the fire, the fat started popping. Xuan put a lid over the skillet and held it toward Nuoc: "Nhanh, nhanh!" Hurry, hurry! Nuoc threw in about eight small squirming fish, followed by a few shallots to flavor the oil.
Once the fish were gloriously crispy all over, we devoured them. The tails, completely crunchy, were gone first, then the meat from each side, dunked in sauce. I was about to start on the heads, but my driver grabbed my arm: "Don't eat the heads, they might have hooks in their mouths." Each time I finished a fish, Xuan immediately put another on my plate, watching me intently and with a little smile.
She hadn't let me pay for anything (nor had Phai), and I wanted to thank her, but the only language we shared was spoken with pots and pans, and shallots and taro. Besides, as my driver later explained, "Americans are always saying thank you. In Vietnam, when you are very close to someone, you never say thank you. It is assumed. To say it would mean you and I were strangers."