Saigon is chock-full of cheap, fresh and easy dining options.
It's no surprise that most expats living here feel little need to cook. Even those with the best intentions find crowded markets daunting: little is labeled in English, haggling is a necessity, and buying enough for a single meal may entail scouring a maze of cluttered stalls.
Over the years, a number of cooking programs have sprung up in Saigon, present-day Ho Chi Minh City, to help the willing yet overwhelmed foreigner learn how to cook Vietnamese food an invaluable souvenir from their time abroad.
The Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc, is taught in Saigon's old Opium Refinery. The restaurant has been offering hands-on classes in English and French for a year and a half. The program's three chefs have been working at Hoa Tuc since it opened three years ago, and boast extensive experience with Vietnamese cuisine. A morning shopping trip to Ben Thanh Market with one of the chefs is recommended.
The class menu changes daily, but students can expect to create traditional dishes, such as pho bo (beef noodle soup) or cha gio (fried spring rolls). More contemporary dishes, such as goi bo nuong sa voi tac va ca san (char-grilled beef with kumquat, mustard sprout, lemongrass and white baby eggplant) are possible too. To end on a sweet note, students will be served a surprise seasonal dessert.
After the dishes have been cooked and enjoyed, students will receive a folder complete with detailed recipes to take home.
"We have welcomed chefs such as Ms. Anna from Zanzibar Saigon, food journalists (such as the well-known Jane Lovett) and foodies," said creator and managing director at Saigon Cooking Class, Ilda Briosca. "We've also taught total beginners who want to understand what they eat in Vietnam, and discover more about Vietnamese culture."
Saigon Cooking Class's sessions run from Tuesday to Sunday, with a morning or afternoon option each day. Adults pay US$39 each, while kids up to 14 pay $25. Small classes of 1-8 students ensure a very intimate learning environment.
Exotissimo Travel's gastronomic journey begins with a home pick-up, and involves a morning market tour where students receive an explanation of local staples.
Students are then returned to Exotissimo's cooking center or to a typical Saigonese family home. The home experience "is great fun," says Maeve Nolan, product manager at Exotissimo Travel.
"Instructors are professional chefs or (for the home cooking classes) housewives making great home cooked meals!" Some of the home-cooked meals include ca dieu hong chung hanh gung (steamed fish with spring onion and ginger).
Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc
Address: Hoa Tuc Restaurant, The Courtyard, 74/7 Hai Ba Trung Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3 825 8485
Address: 80-82 Phan Xich Long Street, Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City (Exotissimo's head office)
Tel: (08) 3 995 9898
Address: 19 Lam Son Square, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3 823 4999, ext 27100
Vietnam Cookery Center
Address: M1 Cu Xa Tan Cang, 362/8 Ung Van Khiem Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3 512 1491
Exotissimo's rates are reasonable, in larger numbers. A single person might dish out $101, while 15 or more students pay $49 each. Perks include access to an English or French-speaking local guide, and transportation in private air-conditioned vehicles.
The center has been offering its classes for 15 years.
The ultra-luxurious Caravelle Hotel has been providing cooking lessons for the past three years in English or Vietnamese.
"The [full-day] program starts at 8 a.m. with departure on Vietnamese Cyclos from the Caravelle Hotel to the Ben Thanh Market," says Nguyen Trinh Diem An, marketing communications manager at the Caravelle. "Our Vietnamese chef handpicks the ingredients and returns to the kitchen for a truly "˜hands-on' experience, followed by a relaxing lunch at [our restaurant]."
The course is run, upon request, for groups of 10 persons (minimum) to 15 (maximum). The cooking class package costs $45 per person.
The Vietnam Cookery Center was established in 1999 and offers daily morning or afternoon classes in English and French. Before the class begins in a colonial-style villa, the program includes a visit to the Ben Thanh Market in District 1.
Standard courses are designed for absolute beginners. A Standard morning class with a market trip is $40, while a Standard afternoon class excludes the market trip and is $35. Solo classes can be organized, Monday through Friday mornings. Afternoon and Saturday classes require a minimum of two persons. On Sundays, the minimum requirement is four persons per class.
The extended course ($190) is ideal for expats living in the city on a long-term basis, while the one-on-one in-depth course ($120) is more geared toward professional cooks or chefs looking to open their own restaurant.
The center's experienced instructors teach students to concoct dishes from all three regions in Vietnam the north, central andsouth including: banh xeo tom thit (Vietnamese crepes with pork and shrimp) and bun bo Hue (Hue style beef noodle soup).
Khanh Linh from the center's sales and marketing department says that the class is about much more than cooking and eating. Students will learn about Vietnamese dining etiquette as well as the Yin Yang balance as it pertains to the nation's cuisine.
The classes also explore the history of Vietnamese cuisine from its roots in the Hue Imperial Citadel to foreign influences from East and West. After each lesson, students are presented with a small gift, a certificate of completion and, of course, a packet of recipes.