Le Ha Uyen wanted to share her passion for her native cuisine with her international friends, and in doing so she discovered the subtleties that made Vietnamese cuisine so diverse, Luong Thu Huong reports.
Le Ha Uyen was a student of the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan and Australian National University, majoring in Business Administration. Her bilingual website, focusing on Da Nang's specialties has been a useful and favourite source of information to many foreign visitors discovering the coastal land. Uyen has recently appeared in The New York Times, the prestigious international newspaper, as a young Vietnamese who has special fondness for the cuisine of her hometown.
Inner Sanctum: How did you come up with the idea of the website danangcuisine.com?
During my five years studying in Australia and Japan, many of my friends there were curious about Viet Nam and often asked me what they would eat if they visited my hometown. I searched on the Internet, but five years ago there were almost no English websites writing about Da Nang's cuisine, and the pictures were even more uncommon.
Like many other overseas students who often miss the traditional food of their country, I used to cook and introduce some of my specialties, like My Quang (Quang noodles) and Banh xeo (Vietnamese crepes), to my international friends. Surprisingly, they enjoyed the food that I cooked a lot, especially Quang noodles. Then, around that time, the idea of building a website introducing all the delicious dishes of my hometown popped into my head.
Inner Sacntum: Are you interested in cooking and do you consider yourself a good cook? What is your most favourite dish?
I'm keen on cooking, especially European and Asian dishes. However, I don't have to cook regularly, and consider cooking as a challenge to myself.
My favourite dish is bun mam nem (Vermicelli salad with anchovy sauce). This dish is made of vermicelli, boiled or roasted pork, vegetables, unripe jackfruits, roasted peanuts and, of course, anchovies-in-brine sauce. To me, bun mam is the simplest, yet most addictive dish of Da Nang. It's a taste that haunted me during my four years in Japan. It is also what I ate every morning every time I came back to Viet Nam on university vacations.
As the name suggests, the exquisiteness of this dish depends mostly on its anchovy fish sauce. Originally, bun mam is accompanied by boiled pork, and other alternatives include roasted pork (my favourite) or nem chua (fermented pork roll). Of course it can't go without the special chilli jam which is a trademark of the central region. It is very easy to make a bowl of bun mam, but not so easy to make a good one. However, I still hesitate when introducing my favourite dish to foreigners, because not all of them can eat the anchovy sauce. But as soon as you enjoy its taste, you are likely to be addicted to this "hate it or love it" dish.
Inner Sanctum: How have you studied Da Nang's food and for how long? During that time, have you seen changes in the local food?
Born and raised in Da Nang, I have gained basic knowledge about the traditional food of my hometown thanks to the numerous occasions when my friends and I dined outside. After that, I used to learn and cook the local food while I was studying abroad for five years, from 2006 to 2011. I also adopted a habit of researching on the Internet about unfamiliar or new dishes.
At present, many restaurants of cuisine from around the world, like Italy, India, Japan or South Korea, have been mushrooming in Da Nang, but the taste of the local traditional food still remains unchanged. What I have seen changing is the awareness of people who enjoy the food. When Vietnamese food is mentioned, people used to talk a lot about typical northern or southern dishes like pho (noodles) or bun oc (vermicelli and snail soup), while those from the central of Viet Nam, which can be considered the cradle of Vietnamese cuisine, were still unpopular among visitors.
On establishing the website, I aim to introduce as much information about the cuisine of central Viet Nam in general and of Da Nang in particular to visitors, especially foreigners. More and more visitors have learned and cared more about Da Nang's specialties. Moreover, many have copied and printed out the information from my website so that they can try all the dishes on reaching my hometown.
Inner Sanctum: What are the interesting facts about local cuisine you have discovered?
I have a habit of comparing Vietnamese cuisine with that of other countries, and I have realised that Vietnamese cuisine can have large diversity. The idea for each dish is similar in each region, but the way of cooking varies. For example, Vietnamese crepe is popular in both central and southern Viet Nam; however, if it is enjoyed with sweet fish sauce in the south, the crepe is accompanied with sweet soya sauce in Da Nang. The different ways in which dishes are made have created the rich cuisine of Viet Nam, unlike that of Japan, which is pretty conservative and respects originality.
I have also discovered many other interesting facts. For example, Da Nang has lots of rolled food and various varieties of sauces, and different dishes go with different varieties of sauces and vegetables. For example, Vietnamese crepe is eaten with lettuce, basil, green banana, etc, together with soya sauce made from ground pig liver and peanuts.
Inner Sanctum: What do you intend to do to upgrade the quality of the website and Food Tour?
These two projects have actually succeeded beyond my expectations.
When I first launched the website danangcuisine.com, I just considered it a convenient handbook for visitors who were searching for local cuisine. I did not expect it to draw so much attention from both domestic and international newspapers, and that such delicious dishes of my hometown like mit tron (Young jackfruit salad) and bun mam (vermicelli with anchovy sauce) have been introduced into the world in such a natural and proud way.
My website was initially just a free blog, but I have recently purchased the domain and had an IT specialist re-design and update its interface as well as contents. I have also created my own channel on Youtube reviewing the most prominent dishes of the lands I have set foot on. Though I have not invested much time in it, I have already had over 3,000 subscribers with over 500,000 views, which I hope to increase more and more in the future. I think that embedding those Youtube short clips to the website in addition to still photos will make it more appealing and catch up with the modern trend.
With regard to the food tour (official name: "Funtastic Danang Food Tour") which I just started in April 2014, I am currently working on promoting it on different travel channels so that it will reach a bigger audience, especially foreign tourists visiting Da Nang. I believe that with my five years of food blogging experience, I am able to take my guests on the most scrumptious food journeys with valuable local insights, bringing Da Nang cuisine closer to the world. — VNS