Celebrity chef Luke Nguyen is in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), one of Asia’s most electrifying cities, showing us his former backyard. Many of his relatives still live in the crowded backstreets of Cau Ong Lanh market in District One of Old Saigon.
“My Dad’s family used to run a wholesale fruit stall here, and he has 12 siblings,” says Nguyen. “My mum’s family also ran a stall here and she has 13 siblings. “So I address my aunts and uncles as Aunty No.4 on my father’s side, or Uncle No.6 on my mother’s side – it’s much easier and less confusing.”
Nguyen is a passionate advocate for the simplicity, authenticity and history of traditional Vietnamese food. He is right at home here among the market people and he can’t mask his passion. An APT ambassador, Nguyen is showing us the delights of eating not only in top-notch restaurants, but at the city’s street food stalls where exotic fragrances, aromatic spices, boiling broth and fresh herbs served in hot, humid conditions combine for a unique experience.
“The most important ingredient in Vietnamese cooking is fish sauce made from fermented anchovy,’’ he says. “Vietnamese fish sauce has the highest protein content – unlike Thai fish sauce which is made from squid. I cook everything with fish sauce in place of salt. I make my dipping sauce with fish sauce and coconut water to lessen the use of sugar. I then add some vinegar, a bit of sugar, some chopped garlic and squeeze in some lime juice – this is how I make it and it is exactly how my mum does it. The same dipping sauce can also be used as salad dressing.’’
Nguyen’s insights contribute to making an APT AmaLotus cruise along the Mekong River so enjoyable. He will be on two more 14-day AmaLotus sailings this year (July 29 and December 2) cooking degustation meals for the new restaurant, Indochine, with seating for just 16. There is an open-plan kitchen, which he helped design. He will also hold private “Getting to know Luke” Q&A session with guests and accompany them on a walking tour to watch how locals cook at street stalls.
Guests can learn how to cook Nguyen’s favourite Vietnamese dishes – including stuffed zucchini flowers and marinated sea bass wrapped in banana leaf, served with a green mango salad – during a lesson at his Grain cooking school in HCMC.
Nguyen loves the thrill of tasting whatever takes his fancy. We begin early on a Saturday morning after a small cup of potent Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk. We spot a woman fruit vendor selling durians – Asia’s polarising king of fruits, which smells like hell but tastes like heaven. I try some and think it’s divine – the consistency of the fruit reminds of custard and cream. But we appreciate it may not be to every taste.
We walk through a wet market where smiling vendors sell soft-shell crabs neatly displayed in rows in huge trays.
You can buy fine teas made of dried rosebuds or sweet-smelling chamomile flowers. “Smell the spice in the air, it’s so intoxicating,’’ says our enthusiastic guide. And he’s right. It’s a heady mix of spices and mint, basil, fresh coconuts, green mangoes and the famous banh mi (bread rolls filled with pate or pork terrine, mayonnaise, preserved vegetables and fresh salad).
Nguyen opened his Grain cooking school late last year. It has its own fresh market pantry where you can pick your ingredients and a boutique selling anything from lanterns to Vietnamese coffee. We cook four dishes:
* Fried zucchini flowers stuffed with fresh prawns mixed with dill
* Chicken breast and cabbage salad with jellyfish served with nuoc cham dressing.
* Steamed marinated sea bass wrapped in banana leaf, served with a green mango salad.
* Coconut cream caramel with diced red dragon fruit.
After class we take a cab to one of Nguyen’s eating haunts to try banh xeo – thin, tumeric pancakes filled with prawns, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, eaten with fresh salad and a dipping sauce.
Ho Chi Minh locals love to eat supper at street stalls. So after Nguyen and his wife, Lin, join us at one of the city’s coolest drinking haunts, Glow Skybar, we walk to a dimly lit street to taste some local food. We try duck’s tongue in spicy sauce, braised chicken feet, heart and gizzard, fried chicken wings and glass-noodle pho. As exotic as the menu sounds, fingers quickly replace chopsticks as everyone tucks in.
Next day, before our cruise on AmaLotus begins, we take a motorcycle ride to see some of the historical sights of HCMC. Vietnam’s motorcycles are legendary. Everyone who has visited knows you wade across a road, parting a sea of cycles as you go. But clinging on for dear life as a local driver on a 50cc Honda darts in and out of the city’s 5.8 million two-wheeled commuters is a whole new experience.
We stop at Notre Dame, the city’s biggest cathedral and spot a young bride and groom having their wedding photos taken. We call at Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown and a wholesale market that sells all manner of tat at eye-poppingly low prices.
We are taken by coach from our hotel to My Tho port, where AmaLotus is berthed. It is an elegant ship with dark wooden interiors. The top deck is spacious, with deck chairs and a small swimming pool. The dining room is large enough to accommodate all 108 guests and serves a good selection of Western and Vietnamese cuisine. There’s also a lounge with a bar at one end for pre-dinner cocktails.
My 27sqm Sadec balcony suite is comfortable, with enough cupboard space for hanging clothes and a dressing-cum-writing table. There’s a good library of DVDs as TV reception is limited and at times non-existent.
In the evening, we enjoy a Luke Nguyen inspired dinner and set sail for Cai Be. As we are cruising on the Mekong, it’s advisable to spray mosquito repellent before enjoying a pre-dinner drink on the sub deck. Always err on the side of caution.
Cai Be is a colourful port with colonial buildings and an imposing French Gothic cathedral. We visit a local factory that makes the popular Vietnamese rice paper and coconut candy – all labour intensive with young girls cutting and wrapping the candy in edible rice paper.
A pleasant lunch is had aboard the ship before it cruises to the quaint town of Sa Dec, known for the passionate love affair between a 15-year-old French schoolgirl, Marguerite Duras, and her Chinese lover, Huynh Thuy Le, son of a wealthy rice merchant. Duras went on to write a best-selling novel about her affair, The Lover, which was adapted into a movie. That evening, I borrow the DVD starring Jane Marsh and Tony Leung – it turns out to be a slow-burning and doomed love story.
The joy about cruising on the AmaLotus is the gentle pace that allows you to observe life on the Mekong Delta and the many fishing boats that ply the river.
Tan Chau is a tiny rural town and we take a ride on a local cyclo called a xe loi. It’s almost a race as a convoy dashes down the narrow roads and deposits us at a local silk factory.
As the ship heads into Cambodia, we watch a documentary on Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. On our final day in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, there’s an excursion to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s a sombre note on which to end our journey.
Most of the other passengers continue their voyage, with the wonders of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat ahead of them.