"Now this is the real Saigon.” Celebrity chef Luke Nguyen laughs at our agape mouths as a moped resembling a questionably built Jenga tower with its cargo stacked higher than Aladdin’s cave squeezes past us.
As we stand single file in a bustling backstreet of Ho Chi Minh City’s Cau Ong Lanh market, it feels as though the flavours, smells and essence of Vietnamese life have been brought to life right before our eyes – and as we later discover, Nguyen’s own culinary creations do so too.
A thriving market is an inspiration for any top chef, but for the Vietnamese-Australian, who boasts restaurants in Sydney, Brisbane and Hong Kong, it is where his own story began. In these maze-like streets, his parents grew up, met and married – all while working for their families’ grocery businesses.
As we explore, it is evident theirs is a story that Nguyen relishes – he has been educating visitors on Vietnam as part of his brand ambassador role with APT since 2011.
The street tour – which was launched this year – is one of four Luke Nguyen Signature Experiences included on the operator’s 16-day Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam and Mekong River Cruise itinerary.
The chef will personally lead two departures this year and as part of the itinerary he will also join guests onboard the operator’s Mekong river ship, AmaLotus, for the first three days of their week-long sailing, preparing a welcome dinner on the first night and hosting “Get to know Luke Nguyen” sessions.
Nguyen leads us deeper into the neighbourhood, stopping sporadically to chat with locals to ask about their day, their family or what produce they are selling – and each encounter is a memorable one.
“The people here don’t have much, but they have a lot of fun and love meeting new people,” he says.
The warmest comes from Nguyen’s own aunt, Tung, in whose kitchen our the hour-long tour concludes. Through photographs on the family shrine, we learn more about Nguyen’s own heritage and generations past. It’s a personal journey for the chef, who was born in Thailand after his parents fled the Vietnam War and grew up in Cabramatta – Sydney’s Vietnamese quarter.
There, he learned to cook in his parents’ noodle house and now he hosts top-rated TV shows while his cookbooks adorn the shelves of kitchens across Asia and Australia.
“I always think what my life would be like if my parents never left Vietnam? Would I be selling street food, collecting plastic bottles? Begging? I always come here to appreciate what I have and see what I can give back,” he reflects.
As part of that ethos, Nguyen’s own mission is to “elevate” Vietnamese cuisine among its Asian counterparts – and globally, for that matter. With that in mind, at our next stop – a sleek cooking studio – we don our aprons for a masterclass at his cooking school, Grain by Luke Nguyen.
Since 2015 the chef and his team have been welcoming inquisitive tourists to Grain, with all guests on an APT Luxury river cruise of 15 days or longer having the opportunity to
join a class.
Taking us through each dish, Nguyen’s passion is infectious and compels us to create great tasting delights including pho cuon rice paper rolls, tiger prawn salad and pan-seared tuna.
Despite being impressed by my own efforts, the real treat comes the following evening as we pull up a chair at Nguyen’s own restaurant, Vietnam House.
Opened less than a year ago, the stylish, multi-tiered French colonial building in the heart of downtown Ho Chi Minh City has an almost magical feel, but as we enjoy course after course it is clear Nguyen’s mantra for creating menus is more down-to-earth.
“All you need is homemade food and family – it’s how my parents lived and I believe it’s still true now,” Nguyen told us the previous day.
And now, sitting back after our feast, it’s clear he’s not wrong.
Book it: APT’s 16-day Luke Nguyen Vietnam and Mekong River Cruise starts from £5,990pp, based on a twin-share cabin.