Inspiration Explore Vietnam with MasterChef Australia's Gary Mehigan

Vietnam with MasterChef Australia's Gary Mehigan

Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston eat Vietnam.

Discover Vietnam's unmissable culinary experiences with ex-MasterChef Australia judge Gary Mehigan, co-curator of Luxury Escapes' first-ever Signature Series foodie tour.

Some chefs are built differently: after training at iconic London venues The Connaught and Le Soufflé, Gary Mehigan returned to Melbourne for a blazing career across some of the city’s best restaurants. After a decade of service on Channel 10’s MasterChef Australia, alongside Matt Preston, today Gary hosts documentaries filled with delicious wonder for National Geographic.

Gary brings his global experience to Luxury Escapes' first-ever Signature Series Tour: an 11-day gourmet adventure through Vietnam, planned, designed and hosted together with fellow former MasterChef judge, Matt Preston.

Ahead of the tour, we sit with Gary for his tastiest tidbits on the best food in Vietnam. Read on for more.

Due to unprecedented demand, the exclusive Signature Series tour with Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan is now sold out. Watch this space for more once-in-a-lifetime Signature Series experiences coming soon.

Gary Mehigan eating in Vietnam.

LE: Had you travelled to Vietnam before the Signature Series tour? If so, did you discover anything different this time?

GM: My first Vietnam visit was a dream come true because I just ate like crazy! I’ve always been a big fan of the food. Fresh, crunchy, juicy, delicious, funky… the use of fish sauce and limes, lemons and sugar.

So, [some] observations on my second visit. Ho Chi Minh City is a glitzy, modern city, but there’s plenty to see behind closed doors – restaurants and bars especially. People’s first impression, even Matt’s, is that they prefer Hanoi. It seems more in your face, with wonderful, narrow French colonial streets and lots of food stalls, while HCMC is closer to Hong Kong or Singapore in style. I don’t know if it’s an observation or more of a reminder of how two contrasting experiences – two contrasting cities – make such a great food destination. It’s like Sydney-Melbourne in a way.

LE: It's almost like two Vietnams, right?

GM: Yeah, that’s how it feels.

LE: So what makes Vietnam one of the world’s must-visit street-food destinations?

GM: Unlike Singapore or Hong Kong, which are both great destinations, I think Vietnam allows Asia to really wrap you up in the experience. When you touchdown and hit the streets of Hanoi you’re getting exactly what you expect. It’s busy and there’s loads of scooters everywhere – you know you’re in Southeast Asia, and the food reinforces that.

The reason it’s such a great destination is that culturally, food plays such an important part in people’s day-to-day lives… you know, multi-generational families living in small spaces, eating out a lot because big kitchens are rare, across thousands of years of history. Immigration, too, plays a part – [from] China, Thailand and Cambodia, you can see the influences trailing through with the spices.

Street food’s one of the holy grails – and Vietnam has one of the great street food cultures.

Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston.

LE: What are your top-three must eats?

GM: Matt and I got really excited for the banh mis – Matt touched down ahead of me, and I was insanely jealous, as I knew he was getting stuck into three or four banh mis already. It’s one of our top lunchtime foods in Australia. And while your local shop might do great, you haven’t truly tasted one until you’ve experienced a hot steamy day in Hanoi … the rainy monsoon has just swept through … and you grab a banh mi off a local cart. You haven’t eaten banh mi until you’ve had an experience like that.

So banh mis are number one.

Banh cuon is number two. Soft, steamed rice sheet, filled often with simple things like mushrooms and shallot oil, steamed in front of you, rolled in front of you, chopped and served. You almost want to order another plate before you’re finished – it’s instant gratification. Wonderful, soft, tender, still warm… filled with delicious ingredients, dipped in a fish sauce and sugar mixture. I’m getting hungry thinking about it!

Number three: banh xeo. It’s a crisp, turmeric pancake, next to a big plate of herbs. In Vietnam, you’ll always be served a big plateful of herbs, everything from river weed and pennywort to shisho, leaves familiar and unfamiliar. It makes sense – it’s a major part of the diet here. If you’re out in the countryside, people are foraging around the rice paddies and pulling anything that’s growing on the riverside. So you have this kind of crispy, yellow pancake, with a little bit of pork and prawn – my favourite – and the pork fat is used to make the pancake super crispy. It’ll be filled with beansprouts, but the joy of eating it is tearing that crispy pancake, jamming it full of different aromatic herbs, dipping it in fish sauce and eating it. It’s an assault on the palate – juicy, funky and unctuous from the pork belly.

LE: Did anything surprise you over there on your recent trip with Luxury Escapes?

GM: Matt and I really hit it hard – we ate a lot and drank a lot. They’ve got a burgeoning microbrewing industry that’s just front and centre. I thought Aussies drank well – but the Vietnamese can drink at another level!

You can find anything over there – a friend of mine has a cool little whiskey bar, European in feel, with a Vietnamese flair. You feel like you’re walking into a speakeasy – it’s in a beautiful building, the outside’s just an iron door with a light beaming onto the pavement. That’s the only signage!

Or you go into a big brewery – that first night, I think we were with about 500 people having a lot of fun.

The coffee culture also surprised me. Vietnam’s always been renowned for its iced coffee, and its coffee production, producing Robusta mainly, has those fruity, bitter flavours that we love in our coffee at home. It was always used for freeze-dried coffee before, but now, the coffee culture we adore in Australia is hitting Vietnam’s streets, so you have Vietnamese coffee in a classic sense and new coffees of all types and grades.

And the burgeoning, high-end dining experiences that form a big part of our tour… a number of Michelin stars just turned up in Vietnam.

LE: Anan being very surprising; Ho Chi Minh City’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.

GM: Correct. And GIA, in Hanoi, Sam Tran [the executive chef] doing blow-away, delicious fine dining dishes, with all Vietnamese flavours. Put that together for a traveller: they can hit the streets, get the signature flavours we associate with Vietnam, go for things that are more out there and challenging, before going to a fine dining experience in a refined, destination-worthy restaurant. It was a big surprise!

There’s a Vespa street-food tour [on Luxury Escapes’ Signature Series Vietnam tour] around Ho Chi Minh City. It shows you a side of the city I didn’t know was there. It’s a city that’s got surprises.

A taste of what's in store in the Vietnam Signature Series.

LE: Do you have any food rules while travelling? Do you try only to eat local cuisine?

GM: I guess my first rule while travelling, the one I always tell my friends, is to do a half-day city tour. It feels a bit daggy, but sets the tone for the trip – whether it’s an architectural experience or a food tour, both give you a benchmark for all the places you want to go to, revisit or ignore. ‘Love the banh mi here, where else does this?’

It's how I found bia hoi – a very lovely thing in Hanoi, it’s a very weak beer, geared at being able to drink lots of alcohol on a very hot day. So refreshing.

It’s one of the first things I’ll always do – if I need to tap into a local food blogger scene, or – as we will do with Luxury Escapes – get people into places they wouldn’t be able to go to normally.

LE: As the inaugural Signature Series tour was the brainchild of you and Matt, what was your thought process behind designing it?

GM: Matt and I said from day one, "it’s penthouse-to-pavement".

This is a curated, high-end experience: you want to be down and dirty on the streets, but you also want a cocktail in an air-conditioned, beautiful space, where you can digest what you’ve just experienced.

It’s very different from backpacking, where you might spend thirty hours on a bus before checking in to hostel accommodation – that’s one way of travelling, but I think, as we get older, we want to travel differently. We want the same experiences – we want to sit on a plastic stool and eat banh cuon, we want to find a little restaurant that serves snail soup (among other delicious dishes), but at the same time we want to get off the bus and enjoy a cold towel and an egg coffee.

It's about mixing up unique, personal and curated experiences, so that when our travellers get home, of course, their friends have gone to Vietnam, but have they done anything like this? It’s almost about bragging rights. You can get up early and see the sights – or stay in bed, have breakfast with coffee, and eat banh mi with Gaz.

LE: Was there one experience or highlight that really stuck with you?

GM: I did love, strangely, the Vespa scooter tour. I have a rule in my life: there’s no bad weather – just bad clothes. We were on scooters, and then the rain came, and we were off them. We were sitting by the roadside, eating delicious crab soup, and the rain is really tipping it down. You get this moment where you think: I’m really in Vietnam. I like those moments. Slow everything down, let’s stop rushing to the next destination and watch life go by.

Due to unprecedented demand, the exclusive Signature Series tour with Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan is now sold out. Watch this space for more once-in-a-lifetime Signature Series experiences coming soon.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out 5 Reasons to Make Vietnam Your Next Escape.

About Nate Robinson
Mad for travel and an incorrigible foodie, Nate is as at home in a Mexican taqueria as he is at Tsukiji. When he's not abroad, you can always find Nate with a book in one hand and a tiki cocktail in the other.

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