Helen and Summer Le are the unofficial representatives of Vietnamese cuisine in Da Nang. Through their food website danangcuisine.com, a successful YouTube channel, and their ‘Funtastic Da Nang’ food tours, cookery lessons and hostel, these women are helping to put their city, and their country’s dishes, on the map. Elijah Ferrian sat down with Helen in her hometown to discuss how the sisters got started. Photo by danangcuisine.com
How did you both get involved with creating all this content about food? What are your backgrounds?
It’s kind of a mystery! My sister and I both studied abroad. We both did our bachelors in different countries, and eventually I studied for my masters in Germany and worked in the marketing field. We both studied international business. I don’t know that we ever imagined spending this much time writing and talking about food.
What roles do you and your sister take on?
So, we kind of started out splitting up the type of work we do. We both have our ‘specialties’; I handle the cooking side of things, I do a lot of the YouTube channel content, recipes, showing people different techniques. I also try to give as much of the historical background behind each dish so that there’s an engaging story. I don’t want to just show people how to cook, I want to make people excited about the food in general. My sister (Summer) handles the reviews side. She’s the one going to restaurants, trying a lot of different food and compiling these great guides on where to eat for people that are unfamiliar with Da Nang.
Why did you decide to start the website?
I was living and studying in Germany and my sister was doing the same in Australia. We were both constantly getting asked by all of our friends about what to eat in Vietnam, why they should go to Da Nang, etc. After while we realised that there wasn’t a whole lot of authentic information on the internet, especially if you don’t speak Vietnamese. So we decided that, instead of individually answering all of these questions, we should just compile all of this great insider info about Vietnam into one website. We wanted to be able to expose people to our home (Da Nang), because we truly feel that it is one of the greatest cities to live and eat in. It became more and more apparent that many people have visited Da Nang in the past, and have never really thought to come back because there just wasn’t a lot here, even just six years ago. There has been so much change, and there is so much history to tell through food and exploration that the website and channel have turned into a lot more than just your average cooking segment or restaurant review.
When you talk about this change in Da Nang, what do you want people to know about?
That my city may have previously been a place that travellers would only quickly stop by to visit My Son, or to brush up on their American War history, but now there is so much more to do here. There are phenomenal restaurants here, authentic Hue cuisine, Thai, American, almost anything you can think of. There’s a giant amusement park, there’s the beach, a great relaxed cafe culture, and so much history to explore on a motorbike ride into the mountains in either direction. I could go on, but my sister does a great job at providing the opportunity to experience the true culture of the city in her Funtastic Da Nang Food Tours. She also runs a hostel in the oldest part of the city.
What was your goal initially for the website and the channel? Obviously you wanted it to take off and become a popular source of information for people traveling Vietnam, and Da Nang specifically. I’m sure you had no idea that it would become what it is currently.
Of course when you are promoting something you want it to become popular and we definitely wished for this to happen. It requires a lot of passion and persistence on both of our parts, but we love doing it. The more I make all of these different dishes and record the recipes, the more I rekindle my love with the whole process of cooking. Over 250 dishes, and a lot of these are recipes I never would have taken on if I didn’t have people to share them with, whether online or at home with friends and family. Like the Vietnamese baguette – making it from scratch, why would you do that when you can buy one for really cheap? I did it, though! It was hard too! Everyone that makes baguette has their own secret recipe, and they are usually very guarded about the details. I make all of these very specific things. It’s such a learning experience. I want to give people an overall view of Vietnamese cuisine. I want people to see all of the aspects of tons of different dishes, and it challenges me. It’s always good to be challenged.
Would you say that there are some misconceptions about Vietnamese food?
Yes! Obviously everyone knows pho and banh mi, but these should, in my opinion, not be the measurements of Vietnamese cuisine. The true Vietnamese dish is bun. I rarely eat pho, but I eat bun like twice a day. I tell every foreigner that asks me about food in Vietnam that if you haven’t been to Hue, then you haven’t had the best dishes this country has to offer. There is historical proof of why this is the case as well. Back when Hue was the home of the king, the best cooks would hone and perfect their signature dishes to impress him. This created a concentration of authentic, highly executed, delicious meals. Bun has a richer, deeper history than pho, and I like to highlight these historical aspects as much as possible in our content. This is also why I love to cook for my friends that aren’t from here. I make them a dish that they’ve never had before, and if they love it, it generally encourages them to be a bit more adventurous, to try things that are unfamiliar.
What are your goals for the future?
Well, this all began because of our passion for food and pride in our culture. I think initially we just really wanted to get the word out about the place we grew up in and how amazing it can be. It’s not like the website or channel is making us rich [laughs]. We do it because we love it, and fortunately it has allowed us to really carve our niche in being ambassadors for Da Nang and Vietnamese cuisine. For me, that is precisely what I would love to be. I want to be a media representative for Vietnamese food and culture, and to cross over to TV. There is such a strong cultural attachment to food and hospitality in Da Nang, and Vietnam as a whole. I think that it’s just been a development of learning how to showcase it properly. When I watch cooking shows from the West, oftentimes it feels that the presenter is, kind of, disconnected from the culture of the food because they are not a local. It’s not possible for them to be immersed in all of the history, ingredients, and dishes every day. Many people come to Vietnam to experience the food that they’ve heard about, but I think travellers need to understand that Da Nang is a great representation of a destination with many ‘hidden gems’ that unfortunately don’t get as much coverage as they should.