Spending 24 hours with Luke Nguyen in Ho Chi Minh City means going off the beaten track to sample the best traditional dishes the city has on offer.
Ho Chi Minh is a city that almost vibrates. It's humid, hot and humming from the moment it wakes up to the moment it, well, never really goes to sleep. It's a place that's at odds with itself. Buildings in various states of decrepitude are thrown into sharp relief against the gleaming Rodeo Drive-esque facades of Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Prada. Where the frenetic energy of a city is balanced by locals who amble head-on into a sea of motorbikes, taking their own sweet time. And the traffic just moves around those pedestrians like a big, smoggy school of fish. It's a city that chef/author/television star Luke Nguyen is intimately familiar with, and passionate about. This is his heritage, his history. And he's all about preserving the food culture, from the street up.
"I'm going to take you somewhere you would never go," says Luke Nguyen over a Vietnamese coffee – that heart-starting mix of condensed milk and filter coffee that feels like adrenalin and tastes like type 2 diabetes. We're heading to Cau Ong Lanh, the market in Old Saigon where Nguyen's parents first met. Even today, Nguyen has a lot of relatives who still work here. "Every visit is a big family reunion."
The market is a warren of tiny shops, most of them run from the downstairs living areas of apartment buildings where families and extended family live and work simultaneously. Some shops do mixed business – soaps, sandals, detergent, conical straw hats. Many others have very specific stocks in trade. There's the gent who sells at least eight types of dried shrimp, ranging in quality and size. A lady sits in her ground-floor lounge room with three woks in front of her, stir-frying fresh prawns with cured pork and sugar, ready to sell down the road.
Fighting cocks pace under big chicken wire cloches as rangy-looking dogs look on hungrily. Otherwise, it's all produce. Rice bags are piled high, mountains of green herbs – many of which never appear on Vietnamese menus in Australia – are waiting to be sorted and sold.
Sadly, this is also a dying market. The young and upwardly mobile don't really want to shop like this any more – they want convenience. "The attitude amongst next-gen Vietnamese is 'Why sweat eating on the side of the road when you can be shopping in airconditioning?'," says Nguyen, adding that many malls in Saigon offer easy, convenient versions of what you find on the backs of motorcycles and in alleyways like the ones we're visiting today. "They say this will all be gone in the next couple of years."
What would a place like Ho Chi Minh be without street vendors? How would you get your durian if you couldn't stop a woman on the back of a motorcycle to cut it up for you to eat on the spot? What of your broken rice with thin fillets of pork cooked over hot coals on the footpath, finished with a fried egg? Your bread rolls filled with pate, mayonnaise, pork floss and lurid macaroni?
Street-side eating takes place at tiny plastic chairs pulled up to low tables. Photo: Christian Berg
During his time working on MasterChef Vietnam, Nguyen found there was a surprising lack of culinary knowledge and skill being passed down. "Two-minute noodles and fried eggs are about the extent of the repertoire of young Vietnamese kids these days."
So he started Grain, Ho Chi Minh's only professional cooking school. "It's kind of a speakeasy cooking school," he says as we make our way up three flights of stairs in what looks like an abandoned office block. And then all at once, you're in a large, warehouse-style space of polished concrete and wood, where fresh produce is waiting to be made into tasty snacks. The classes here focus on flavour and technique, why dishes work and what they mean. There's even a fish sauce tasting. Because, says Nguyen, "fish sauce is as important to Vietnamese cooking as olive oil is to the Italians".
Nguyen gets stopped on the street a lot. But not, he says, because of MasterChef Vietnam, or SBS's Luke Nguyen's Vietnam or any of the other cooking programs he's starred in. No, he reckons it's because he bears a passing resemblance to his mate Dustin Nguyen – Johnny Depp's sidekick from the original 21 Jump Street. "It happens all the time," he says, as we're stopped by a weasel coffee vendor at the Ben Thanh – a massive indoor market built by French colonialists in 1901 that sells food and trinkets, taxidermy (my kingdom for a framed vampire bat) and tea. At a wet market out the back, buckets of snails, pipis and shellfish are on show alongside live soft-shell crabs blinking away, their soft, leathery carapaces gently bound.
A young Vietnamese man stirs caramel to be made into coconut candies. Photo: Myffy Rigby
Banh Xeo Muoi Xiem bridges the divide between street and restaurant food extremely comfortably. It's still interesting stuff that doesn't require cutlery, but there are also cold 333s on hand, and sweet mercy, seats. Outside, there's a series of burners covered in battered, blackened woks. This is where they make those coconut pancakes, dotted with pieces of roast pork and cooked prawns or mixed mushrooms and hearts of palm. They come to the table all crisped up and lacy edged, served with sawtooth, fish mint, Vietnamese mint, perilla and lettuce and the ubiquitous nuoc cham, for dipping.
Now, while first impulse might be to hole up in a shady, dark bar and escape the heat, there really is something to be said for the unadulterated glitz of Saigon's rooftop bars. It's an acute snapshot of the other side of the city – one where the money flows as free as the bottle service Belvedere. Glow Skybar is a brilliant case in point with some stellar views of the city. But if you want to pretend to be Graham Greene, you'll want the Hotel Majestic, with panoramic views of the Mekong where you can imagine yourself in a rumpled linen suit, a panama hat and a battered Moleskine.
It truly is a city that never stops moving. A midnight feast sees us taking up most of the footpath outside Mai Xuan Canh where Nguyen orders duck tongues two ways – grilled over charcoal and braised in a whole lot of chilli – and chicken feet, flattened out and grilled in a sticky sweet glaze. They're all at once gelatinous and smoky and sweet. While we're sitting outside on those tiny plastic stools that have your knees knocking you in the chin if you're over five feet, Nguyen's wife leans over and buys a serve of boiled quail eggs from a passing street vendor, some green mango from another, and a bag of longans from yet another. "Just a small snack while we're here."
So there really is a take-a-wrong-turn-and-you'll-miss-it side to Saigon that requires some commitment to get to know. Co Giang Street is definitely one of those places. Getting there at 6am guarantees seeing the market at its peak, the sun rising over piles of fresh seafood, raw meats and fruits. A cock fight is happening on the footpath where two guys in nothing but stubbies throw down small notes as the two roosters maul each other. The market is mostly fresh produce. Street food vendors sell Chinese-style doughnuts, Vietnamese sandwiches of roast pork and really good pate, coriander and heaps of chilli and soy on a roll with just the right amount of chew. Little buckets hold fresh fish and crabs. By 7am, it's all sold and packed away like it never happened. And really, that's kind of the beauty of it.
Banh Xeo Muoi Xiem 190 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia
Ben Thanh Intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao avenues and Le Lai Street
Cau Ong Lanh Market Ben Chuong Street, Ben Nghe Canal
Glow Skybar Rooftop, President Place, 93 Nguyen Du
Grain by Luke Cooking Studio, level 3, 71-75 Hai Ba Trung
Hotel Majestic 1 Dong Khoi Street, Ben Nghe Canal
Mai Xuan Canh 57 Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe Canal
Good Food travelled as a guest of APT
Season two of Luke Nguyen's Greater Mekong will air on the Food Network at 7pm weekdays from February 8 to coincide with Lunar New Year.
Book to travel on the 13-day Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights tour, departing July 2016 onwards from $5345 a person twin share and experience a special degustation dinner with matching wine designed by APT Asia ambassador Luke Nguyen. Guests may also choose to join a special cooking class at Nguyen's newly opened Grain cooking school in Saigon. On board the RV AmaLotus, enjoy his welcome dinner or sample his new Indochine private restaurant. Details: APT, phone 1300 196 420, or see aptouring.com.au.