Prepare for an attack on your senses.
The relentless barping of horns from the chaotic roads, the jostle for footpath space, the determined hollering of the street vendors trying to make a sale, and the sheer terror of stepping out to cross the street.
And then there's the food. The silky rice noodles in a delicately balanced broth littered with fresh herbs, the pungency of fish sauce dips and the excellent coffee – it's strong and sweet, and the depth of flavour adds a slight chocolately taste. The local beer is fantastic, too. Vietnam is a foodie paradise, and the best path there is to follow some cooking courses.
Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by everyone except city officials, is home of the Vietnam Cookery Centre. We kicked off early with our chef Bao taking us through the Van Thanh food markets.
With temperatures in the high 30s and not much refrigeration or air conditioning, it's common for home cooks and restaurateurs to visit the markets several times a day.
It's hot work gathering the produce for our morning of cooking and it can be unsettling – all the preparation is done in front of you, whether it's slabs of meat sliced and diced, fish filleted or chickens slaughtered. But I had to turn away as the plump frogs were bashed on the concrete, beheaded and skinned in slick movements by squatting women with scissors and knifes.
I'd expected the markets to reek with so much seafood, meat and offal around, but it smelled only of fresh produce and heady herbs and spices.
The cooking course wasn't as hands-on as I would have liked, and neither the chef nor the staff spoke much English.
The food, however, was a delicious introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. But I found out what I'd been missing at the Morning Glory Cooking School in Hoi An.
This school is run by Trinh Diem Vy, or Madam Vy as most people call her. She's a third-generation cook, passionate about Vietnamese food, its origins, its health properties and sharing her experience in getting the yin and yang just right in every dish. She tells us, for example, that a spicy meal is balanced with something sour, and that a seafood dish is warmed up with ginger.
The five key elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet are accompanied by textures: crunchy, crispy, chewy, soft and silky.
Rice, vegetables and seafood are the main ingredients. Vietnamese only eat about 150 grams of meat a week – about what we eat in one meat-and-three-veg meal.
The herbs and spices are essential to add flavour to a dish that's light on meat.
You've got to be a keen cook to choose to spend four hours in a kitchen on a scorcher of a day when the others have gone to the beach, but it's well worth it. Assisted by a room full of attentive staff, Madame Vy set about demonstrating each dish before we copied. Each presentation was peppered with anecdotes and health tips.
My heart did drop at the thought of making cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth. Cabbage is not my favourite vegetable – too many childhood memories of it boiled for half an hour. But it turned out to be a superb dish of delicate fishy dumplings wrapped in soft cabbage and served in a light broth with coriander leaves and a few drops of sesame oil.
My other favourite dish was the barbecued chicken and lime leaves, which I have since replicated at home many times with great ease.
I took my mates back to Madame Vy's restaurant that night, desperate for them to share some of magic I had experienced during the day.
The third cooking venue was Red Bridge Cooking School, also in Hoi An. Another tour of the markets was followed by a boat ride to the school on the banks of the Hoi An River.
It's a beautiful setting for an action-packed half day. Making fresh rice paper was a highlight, although it required a level of dexterity beyond most of the pupils.
The Hoi An Pancakes were pretty special – made with rice batter laced with turmeric and filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables. You fry them till they're crispy then dip them in the most irresistible garlicky peanut sauce.
The chef was a bit of a showman and his jokes wore a bit thin by the end of the session, but his pupils didn't seem to mind, and the food made up for the minor irritation.
Tip: Unless you have a cast-iron constitution, get some drugs from your doctor in case you get stomach trouble. Of my 12 mates on this trip, all had dodgy tums at some stage. We drank only boiled water and though the food was fantastic, it does take your body time to adjust.
Barbecued Chicken And Lime Leaf
This recipe is courtesy of Trinh Diem Vy from the Morning Glory Cooking School and Restaurant in Hoi An. Don't be put off by the list of ingredients. Most of them are probably in your pantry.
800g boneless chicken thighs (no skin)
1 Tbsp of ground turmeric
1/3 cup pounded lemongrass
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp five spice
4 lime leaves sliced thinly
2 Tbsp crushed garlic
2 Tbsp shallots
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tsp of sesame oil
1 Tbsp fish sauce
8 wooden skewers (soaked in water 1 hour)
Cut thighs into pieces. Place in bowl with salt, sugar, black pepper and five spice. Mix well. Add turmeric, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, chilli, lime leaves, sesame oil and fish sauce. Mix well. Marinate 30 minutes. Thread on to skewers. Grill 5 minutes each side or until cooked.
Pho Nhanh (Quick Pho)
This recipe is courtesy of Mindi Clews, who runs the Vietnamese cooking classes at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.
Ingredients for broth
2 star anise
2 gloves garlic
2cm ginger (bruised to release the flavour)
600ml chicken stock
1 Tbsp fish sauce
finely sliced small onion
1/4 tsp white peppercorns
1/3 cup water
200g chicken thighs
Ingredients for assembly
150g cooked rice sticks
sliced spring onion
finely diced red chilli
1 Tbsp of finely chopped coriander
1 lime or lemon cut into wedges
Lightly toast star anise, garlic and bruised ginger in hot dry frying pan. Add remaining ingredients except chicken.
Bring to the boil. Add chicken and simmer until cooked. Remove chicken and shred finely before placing in bowl.
Cover with broth and add ingredients for assembly.
- © Fairfax NZ News