As soon as Luke Nguyen was old enough to travel to the land of his forebears, he did. And the Cabramatta-born chef has been regularly travelling back to Vietnam ever since. "My parents taught me to be very proud of my heritage," he says. "I'm Australian but the culture was ingrained in me from a very young age and for me to keep that was to go to Vietnam when I was a teenager and then whenever I could."
His fascination with and love of the region has seen the creator of Sydney's famed Red Lantern restaurants and cookbooks and regular presenter on SBS relishing his role of cultural ambassador for APT for the past four years, which he says was a logical extension of his loves of food, travel, storytelling and sharing. "When I started cooking, it was about sharing food and culture to Australians. And then writing the book was sharing the recipes even further beyond the restaurant, then doing the TV shows to show people the colours, the food, the people and so the next part of that was taking people myself. And to partner with APT has been great, because they're really about that unique, unforgettable experience. And they give me freedom: 'Luke, what do you want to do? Where do you want to take them?'"
Nguyen's involvement in APT's roster of Vietnam and Cambodia experiences includes the creation of a signature banquet served on board the RV AmaLotus, as well as scheduling into all itineraries in the region, some personally picked culinary experiences. Then there are the special tours led by Nguyen himself. As much as he's travelled in the region, he experiences something new each tour. "I get so much from it," he says. "They're all foodies, all well travelled and they want to have a bit of an adventure. I don't take them to big commercial restaurants or eat at the hotels.
"We walk though the streets of Hanoi, for instance, to a small laneway where we meet a street vendor who's been making that dish for 50 years. It's meeting her, hearing her stories, meeting her family, going into the family home, going deeper into the lives of the Vietnamese people. It's my own insight into Vietnam, but I in turn get to see it through their eyes as well."
Nguyen isn't done exploring new avenues to spread the good word of Vietnamese cuisine. He's now running a cooking school in Ho Chi Min City, GRAIN by Luke Nguyen. Nor is he done exploring the region. He's planning on seeing more of Myanmar soon.
"I haven't been to Bagan and Mandalay. I love Burmese food. Like Vietnamese it's really diverse, with its Indian, Chinese influences. Not a lot of people know about it and I really want to learn more about their ingredients and cooking techniques."
And in his downtime, he'll continue to return to his favourite place in Vietnam, Phu Quoc island, "...which is like the most beautiful island in Thailand but 30 years ago before the big developments. I go there to escape and they produce the best fish sauce in the world and the best peppercorns. The seafood is incredibly fresh and I go to the night markets and eat the best chargrilled seafood you can get."
Book the 12-day Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights from $4395 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 Ho Chi Minh City.
Phone APT on 1300 196 420, see www.aptouring.com.au .