A family that wants to experience Vietnam rather than just visit it sets out on an adrenaline-packed adventure that surpasses all expectations.
"Follow me," the guide shouts over her shoulder as she darts across the chaotic road. On basic bicycles with no gears, without helmets, on the "wrong" side of the road, in slight drizzle and against everything we have ever learnt about road rules ... we follow.
We are in Hoi An, Vietnam’s ancient port town and our family has signed up for a cooking class. In addition to touring the atmospheric old town, checking out the beautiful buildings and temples and taking selfies on the historic Japanese covered bridge, the kids want to do something.
Not for them a cooking course that just teaches about Vietnamese cuisine, they want hands-on with a bike ride to source the ingredients first.
So with our collective hearts in our mouths and our eight and 12-year-old thrillseekers leading the charge we weave in and out of traffic, manoeuvre roundabouts and cringe as a battalion of Hondas, taxis, tour buses and cars whiz past. Pedalling out of the old town and into a slightly more rural landscape the constant friendly beeping becomes just white noise as we focus on keeping up with the hotel chef and avoiding the potholes.
This is family holiday adventure at its adrenaline-rushing best.
By the time we are closer to arriving at the Tra Que herb and vegetable village our heart rates have slowed marginally and we are able to enjoy the passing scenery of rice fields, traditional housing and shops as the countryside unfolds.
After we park our bikes, the chef, Hung, guides us through row upon row of beautifully healthy local herbs (such as lemongrass and coriander) and vegetables, all produced without fertilisers. Hung explains the importance of various herbs and vegetables and will explain when we are cooking about the importance of balancing sweet, salty and sour flavours in Vietnamese cuisine.
Our next stop is the local food market for more supplies and the kids are all eyes as we walk among locals, baskets in hand, doing the weekend food shop.
This is not your suburban air-conditioned supermarket. Stall after stall is laid out with a dizzying array of colourful fruits such as pineapple, custard apple, green dragon fruit, jackfruit, papaya, banana, guava and longan.
In the wet market live chickens and ducks compete for attention with glistening just-caught fish, shellfish and oysters, fresh meat and oodles of noodles. Hung negotiates prices and selects more ingredients for our lunch. If travel is about reflection then perhaps what we take from this visit is just how far in general we have moved from the source of our food.
Back at the hotel and all four of us begin cooking our very hands-on, six-course Vietnamese lunch.
Ninety minutes later and we are not only more skilled at preparing a bun bo (beef noodle soup) and banh xeo hoi an (crispy pancake), among other regional dishes, we are also too full to move. It’s lucky we used up so much energy in the cycle before lunch.
So many people had recommended Vietnam as a family holiday but we were unsure if there would be enough to do rather than see. With eight-year-old boy, Griffin, who only has one speed (flat out) and an adventurous 12-year-old girl, Amelie, we wanted to experience this amazing place rather than just visit it. It certainly lived up to and surpassed all expectations.
Our cycling cooking class was not the first hands-on experience we had in this amazing country.
Starting in Ho Chi Minh City we visited both the historical relics and Cu Chi tunnel complex about 70km north-west of the city and the “rice bowl” of Vietnam — Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta area.
The tunnel network, used during the Vietnam War to facilitate Viet Cong control of the area, provides a stark reminder of the fighting and destruction that enveloped Vietnam during the war. Two sections of the tunnel network are open to the public and apparently, clambering seven times through the narrow labyrinth was a new record for our guide.
The constant sound of gunfire, from a neighbouring firing range, adds to the dramatic atmosphere and there is also an opportunity for adults to fire an AK-47 assault rifle — we declined.
In the lush green Mekong Delta, Uncle Phor is a smiling and sprightly 82-year-old who worked as an interrogator during the war. He is not actually part of the tour we’re on but our local guide, Lok, thinks the kids will love the experience. He’s not wrong.
Visiting Uncle Phor’s riverside home he challenges us to climb a coconut tree and pick the young fruit. Without words and quicker than any octogenarian we’ve seen anywhere he clambers up the ladder leaning against the tree and deftly picks one of the green fruit to demonstrate.
Overlooking the rhythmic mud-brown waters of the mighty Mekong we all get a chance to see just how high coconut trees grow and we’re grateful the ladder appears relatively stable, if not attached.
Three generations of Uncle Phor’s family, from his grown-up children to their children, live together perched in simple wooden houses at the edge of the meandering river delta. Surrounded by an orchard, the families trade their produce and ferry tourists in traditional sampans. Uncle Phor is keen to show us everything and, says Lok, loves the opportunity to greet visitors and share his home.
Once we’ve picked our green coconuts we need to slice them open —handing kids a machete is (not) always a good idea!
Opening a coconut so that we can drink fresh coconut water is actually a lot harder than it looks but as our 12-year-old says “OMG how amazing, climbing a coconut tree — who does that?”
Further on in the trip we have the privilege of spending two nights on a traditional-style junk boat cruising Halong Bay in Vietnam’s north. There are not enough superlatives to describe this magical place where dramatic towering limestone pillars rise silently from deep aquamarine waters and traditional fisher people still live in a world defined by water without most modern trappings.
Surely though, fishing for squid with bamboo rods from the back of a boat at night, learning tai chi as the sun rises and silently kayaking through pitch-black caves to arrive at tiny beaches where there is not another soul in sight are experiences that the kids will talk about for a long time.
Picture at top: Griffin greeting Uncle Phor. Picture by Sharon Szczecinski.