Don’t say ‘yum’ in Vietnam: A Hoi An cooking class adventure

‘When foreign people come to the Hoi An market, they say ‘mmm this is delicious’ and ‘mmmm yum’, says our petite Vietnamese guide who will later metamorphose into a chef for our cooking class. ‘But you shouldn’t say yum in Vietnam’, she continues, smiling a big smile. ‘Do you know why?’ I look at her, puzzled. ‘If a man goes to the market full of women and starts saying ‘yum, yum’, all the women will run away. Why? Because ‘yum’ means ‘horny’ in Vietnamese.’

The market walk

Having been warned to mind our language during our exploration of the Hoi An market, our guide proceeds to walk us through and explain the different culinary uses of a selection of strange fruits and vegetables at the market. Since it’s afternoon and most of the buying and selling has already been done (Vietnamese housewives will visit the market early in the morning), the area is enjoying a quiet period. Stall owners, mostly women, nap besides their left over fruit and vegetables. Squid turns a gentle purple colour as it freshness fades away. Most of the fish was sold hours earlier, when our guide/chef secured the mackerel for our class, except for some live crabs, kept motionless by securing their claws with thick rope.


The way to the cooking school

Cruising gently along a river under a slightly overcast sky, then watching as your boat snakes through narrow water paths flanked by lush vegetation until you reach a private little wooden dock must be the most relaxing and peaceful way of reaching a cooking school…ever. The boat driver navigates the waters slowly because the water level is particularly low. In the rainy season, the river running along Hoi An swells up, and floods, sometimes even of two metres, hit the old homes which line the waterfront.  But for now, the river is calm.

The cooking class

The cooking class and subsequent dinner are held in a series of very sleek modern buildings which you wouldn’t really expect in this rural corner of Vietnam , but the specialities which I get to cook are quintessentially Vietnamese, with some Hoi An specialities thrown in.

We start with a seafood salad made with shrimp and squid bought from the Hoi An market that morning, and cooked with shallots, peanuts, turmeric, salt, pepper, lime and ginger, to be placed into a hollowed out pineapple decoration.



Then we’re introduced to the art of fresh rice paper making, which involves time and patience. Our chef explains how a cup of plain white rice needs to be soaked for 7 hours, then rinsed three times until the water with which the rice is washed comes out clear. The rice has to then be blended into a smooth mix with 2 cups of water, until ‘rice butter’ is produced, which then needs to rest for a further 1 hour. The butter is then used to make fresh rice paper. 2 rows of pots filled with boiling water await us, with a piece of white cotton placed and tide on top of each with some elastic. Using a small ladle we put about 2 tablespoons of rice butter on the cotton and even it out into a circle, then cover it for 1 minute with a lid which is slightly larger than the pot itself. Finally, taking a flat wooden stick previously wetted in hot water, we gently lift the finished rice paper off the cotton, flip it wet side up onto a plate, and proceed to stuff with fresh spring roll goodness: grated green papaya, cucumber, carrot, ginger, lettuce leaves, fresh Vietnamese herbs and cooked shrimp.


Probably my favourite dish out of the cooking class was the Hoi An pancake, an amazing delicate snack which we make with a rice flour batter and a very small pan. We heat a little bit of oil, cook a small ladle of batter plus a small piece of cooked pork and shrimp, flip the pancake then drain the oil. Using a piece of cotton cloth, we remove more of the excess oil before stuffing the pancake with fresh herbs and bean sprouts and rolling it in rice paper.

And finally, the chef throws into the lesson an aubergine winter warmer cooked in a pot for around seven minutes with a wonderful and rich garlic, chili and spice paste. And after a couple of hours of being bossed around by our very demanding though tiny Vietnamese chef, we get to sit down and enjoy our aubergine pot, steamed mackerel and fresh fruit in an outdoor restaurant which hugs the curves of the peaceful river. Wonderful.

This cooking class was made possible by Buffalo Tours, which operates customised, guided private tours in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.  18 years’ experience and 250 employees in ten offices worldwide (including eight in south-east Asia) offer local expertise and destination insight to create bespoke holidays including accommodation, transfers, flights, cruises, day trips and excursions. Buffalo Tours is a Vietnamese travel company, which means that the profits made stay in Vietnam and the local region.

Editor’s note: Buffalo Tours sponsored my cooking class, but as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis All rights reserved.


31 thoughts on “Don’t say ‘yum’ in Vietnam: A Hoi An cooking class adventure”

    1. Yes…but I do love organised things sometimes, you know, occasions where I just follow someone who knows what he’s doing and then just enjoy the whole things!

  1. What a fun post! I had no idea rice paper was so easy to prepare. Though I have to be honest, the aubergine dish is the most appealing of the bunch, it sounds absolutely delicious!

    1. Hi Elisa,

      The aubergine dish was absolutely lovely thanks to the paste we added (made with quite a few ingredients which I have written somewhere…if you need it let me know and I can send you the full recipe)
      Not being a fan of dry rice paper, I loved using fresh, slightly rubbery rice paper to prepare fresh spring rolls…delicious.

    1. Hi Mary,

      This was my first cooking class, but I really loved it as I find Asian food too complicated to try and cook myself. Now, at least I’ve done it once!

  2. That looks like so much fun and such a great way to learn more about the culture of a country you are visiting! My younger daughter loves to cook and this type of experience would be incredible for her but I expect it’s hard to find cooking classes that will take children. I really must look in to it the next time we are traveling.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      How old is your daughter? There was no chopping or cutting involved in this class, so unless she’s super young I suppose you could do it together :)

  3. How fun! How cool that you got to pick up the food yourself at the market before the class itself. And how can you not day “yum”? Especially once you know what it means :) I’m a teenager inside :)

  4. Good to know not to say Yum when in Vietnam! Awesome cooking class though and great to be tour of the market too. Would LOVE to do taht if i was there. Lovely photos as well :)

  5. Fun! It seems like a cooking class would be an excellent way to get the most out of a market visit and learning about the local food. I love aubergine, so that dish sounds delicious.

  6. Did they teach you to cook with rhinoceros horns?

    Vietnam is the main importer of rhinoceros horns: they believe it has medicinal value. Did you know that 170 rhinoceroses were killed in South Africa these last 3 months, and that those animals are now on the verge of extinction?

    If you could teach a few Vietnamese that rhino horn has zero medicinal value (it’s made of keratin), you would do this magnificent animal a great favor, and help us preserve our world wilderness heritage.

    1. Dear Phil,

      You seem to be really angry at Vietnam. Then I also advise you to be angry at many, many other countries since I can’t think of one where horrible things haven’t happened/aren’t happening. Just a thought.

  7. Hi, I just made a search about the world ” yum yum” and your post appears as a result. I’m Vietnamese, I’m living in the South, Hochiminh City, and honestly, the world “yum” does not mean anything to most of the Vietnamese people! I heard somewhere that it has a meaning with Cambodian or people living near the bother between Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos, and the meaning of “yum yum” is blowjob while “bum bum” means “f***” . In conclusion, I just want to let you know that even if you said “yum” or “yummy” to most of the Vietnamese people, they will understand it as ” delicious”. You can ask more Vietnamese people for this, but Im sure that not much people knows about this.

    1. Hi Thu,

      Thanks so much for letting me know this….for some reason, our Vietnamese guide in Hoi An told us this. Maybe it’s connected to the local dialect?

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