Alum leads tours into the heart of Vietnamese cuisine
Vietnamese dishes are increasingly working their way into the American food scene. If you’ve ever sipped rice noodles from a fresh bowl of pho or taken a bite of a Vietnamese sandwich — Bánh mì — you’ve had a taste of Vietnam.
Tan Pham, ’87, suggests not only getting a taste — but a flavor-filled experience of the Southeast Asian country. Pham leads a cuisine tour of two major cities in Vietnam, as well as many small villages, back roads and family dinner tables along the way.
With help from his business co-owner and wife, Alumna Susan Niedzwiecki-Pham, ’88 & ’11, and a UWL international alumnus from Vietnam Huy Le, they coordinate not only a cuisine tour, but also a cultural experience.
Le, ’06 and ’08, is the general manager of Cuisine Adventure Tours. He is responsible for planning the activities, excursion, hotels, flights and transportation within Vietnam. The business relationship developed from a friendship that grew while Le studied abroad at UW-La Crosse. Tan, Susan and their two kids became “like family” during Le’s time at UWL.
“We developed this relationship that will be for the rest of our lives,” explains Tan.
Into the back alleys
Le and Tan and Susan share an excitement for introducing people to Vietnamese culture and its cuisine.
“The reason we started Cuisine Adventure Tours was to give people the opportunity to experience the local life in Vietnam — get out of tourist areas and get into the back streets to see how people live,” says Tan.
For instance, during a cooking class on the tour, participants not only prepare a dish, but also learn enough about Vietnamese currency and language to take those skills to the local market to negotiate and purchase their own ingredients — something the Vietnamese do daily.
“Vietnamese believe in fresh food, so they are picking up the shrimp while it is still jumping,” explains Tan.
While exploring two of the countries largest cities — Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon) — participants take a motorcycle ride through back alleys where clothes lines drape, children play and food cooks over an open flame. With professional drivers carrying each participant, Tan says many are still initially nervous at the prospect of maneuvering through a city of millions on bike. Yet, by the tour end, it is one of the most popular experiences among participants.
During the week-long tour, they see museums and historic sites such as the oldest university in Hanoi and the presidential palace in Ho Chi Minh City. But participants also get out of the tourist spots and into villages — even taking a seat at family dinner tables to enjoy a Vietnamese meal with locals.
Growing international connections in retirement
Tan, who earned a degree in computer science, held a career as a computer programmer and salesperson before retiring a few years ago and transitioning into creating a tour business. “The university gave me the opportunity to be a well-rounded student and that has allowed me to explore different paths,” he explains.
Also, his long-term friendship with Le turned into a wonderful business partnership.
“Tan is a true entrepreneur,” explains Le. “He has a lot of business ideas and we always wanted to do business together.”
Le, who is also a human resources manager for Nokia Solutions and Network in Vietnam, describes Tan’s family as “the nicest people that I know.” As a UWL student, they helped him work through many decisions while he studied abroad from where to buy food to what career path to take.
“What I appreciate the most was not the fact that they helped me so much, but it was that they treated me like family,” says Le.
Being involved in the tours gives Le an opportunity to connect his “two homes” — the U.S. and Vietnam. It also connects him more with Tan and Susan. Whenever Le visits the U.S., he stays with Tan and Susan and when Tan visits Vietnam for the tours, he stays a few extra days with Le’s family — something highly anticipated by his children.
“My oldest son, who can do math now, counts down the weeks until Tan’s next visits,” says Le. “That’s how close we are.”
Tan and Susan have developed many relationships abroad, which lends to the experience they bring tour participants.
“Whenever we travel abroad — for me — what I love is the food,” says Tan. “And its great to end up in someone’s home for dinner.”
Learn more about Cuisine Adventure Tours
Try one of Tan Pham’s favorite Vietnamese dishes?
Lemongrass Grilled Beef Noodles
Dish Description: From North Vietnam to South Vietnam, the Lemongrass Grilled Beef Noodles is a classic Vietnamese dish. The fusion of lemongrass into the beef gives the dish a distinct flavor. Of course, the sauce will tie all the ingredients in the bowl together. On hot summer days, this is a delicious and refreshing dish because of the large amount of mixed vegetables.
Serving: 4 people
- Rice stick noodles (1 package)
- 2 pounds of beef (thinly sliced)
- 10, 12-inch bamboo skewers
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of pepper
- 1 yellow onion (wedged cut)
- Lemon grass (4 fresh stalks)
- 4 garlic cloves (crushed)
- Fish sauce (3 tablespoons)
- 1 fresh red chili (chopped)
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 2 limes (squeezed the juice into a medium size bowl)
- 1 head of lettuce (shredded)
- Cilantro (1 bunch, diced)
- Mints (1 handful)
- 1 cucumber (shredded)
- 1 bag of bean sprouts
- 1 cup of crushed salted peanuts
Noodles Preparation: Bring the water to boil, cook rice the stick noodles for two minutes, drain the noodles into a colander, run cold water over the noodles for one minute, and set the noodle aside to drain the rest of the water out.
Beef Preparation: Using a small food processor, grind the young lemongrass stalks into a moist powder. Using a mixing bowl, place the thinly sliced beef, the moist lemon grass powder, salt, pepper, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and wedged cut yellow onion together. Mix all the items together and let it marinate for half an hour. Skew the meat and the onion and grill for 10 minutes.
Sauce Preparation: Using a medium size bowl, add 2 cups of boiling water, chopped chili, sugar, crushed garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, and stir.
Serving Preparation: Place a handful amount of noodles into a serving bowl, spread a small amount of the grilled meat on top of the noodles, sprinkle the crushed peanuts, cilantro, shredded cucumber, lettuce, mint, bean sprouts, and lastly add the sauce on top of everything.
Using chopsticks, you are now ready to mix everything together. Bon appétit!