Firstly, I had no idea what to expect when travelling to Vietnam - I had mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety. I was about to arrive in a new unknown country, with my small children. My worry was not made any easier by all the health warnings I read prior to our arrival - be careful of mosquitos, don't drink tap water, don't eat meat, don't eat off the streets......
However once we arrived, all these feelings dissipated and we saw a country with a heartbeat, similar to South Africa (my wife's homeland). I suddenly felt a familiarisation, a country full of life, colour and chaos.
90 million people, WOW, never before have I been in a country with so many people. Even experiencing the craziness of the Champs-Élysées is nothing compared to arriving in Ho Chi Minh City with 9.5 million people. Not to mention 4.5 million scooters, it was crazy left, right, front, back everywhere you look is a scooter. It truly is a city that doesn’t stop - continuous scooters, cars, buses - it is an incredible organised mess with no road rules and amazingly, no accidents!
I have to tell you the two hotels we stayed in, in Ho Chi Minh and Hoian were simply impeccable. They were clean, the service was excellent, actually above and beyond expectation we were treated like a king and queen at all times.
My children, wife and I are all obsessed with Vietnamese food at the moment, so for us this was also a journey of taste. From street food to upmarket restaurants, to a family cooking for us at home, to food at the markets -we tried it all and I have to say you did not disappoint Vietnam! The flavours were simple but flavoursome and the ingredients always so fresh. One of my favourite dishes was a hot pot of fresh fish cooked in lemongrass and coconut. The spring rolls varied from city to city but I like the deep fried pork and shrimp rolls wrapped in fresh lettuce with herbs and chilli. On our last night we had shrimp stir fried in garlic, shallots and chilli. As simple as it sounds, it was possibility the dish of the trip!
We loved the food so much that my wife and I decided to do a cooking class with a Vietnamese chef. We learnt how to cook the staples of Vietnamese home cooking such as spring rolls, pho bo and Vietnamese pancakes.
We went to the food markets which was an amazing experience. They lined the river - hundreds of people, young and old selling fresh meats, live chickens, baskets of bread, every kind of seafood, fruit and vegetables like you have never seen before. The vegetable villages were pristine patches of organic goodness- a labour of love, with no irrigation. We saw every kind of herb, flower and vegetable being lovingly hand placed into the soil, laced with seaweed for nutirents. No wonder lonely planet named them the “happiest people in the world”. This was definitely a highlight of my trip!
Before we go abroad we always savour the taste of our coffee here in Australia, as it never compares to the bitter, filter of coffee overseas. However, my wife introduced me to Vietnamese coffee - a shot of strong coffee topped with condensed milk and ice. Wow it was smooth, creamy and delicious; my wife was addicted to it!
The shopping was insane, chaotic and a bit overwhelming with too many markets and people at every corner on the streets trying to entice you to their stand. We walked and shopped, walked and shopped every day, we even tried the tailor service, which was interesting and frustrating at the same time.
We visited the Vietnam War Museums, the Palace of the King and Queen, French historical buildings, a lacquer factory and vegetable and rice plantations. We prayed at Buddhist temples, cruised along Thu Bon River, cycled to the ancient city which is world heritage listed, rode scooters along the countryside, visited a pottery village, learnt how to make pottery from the oldest lady in Hoi An and drove along tranquil fishing village - we even fished with the locals!
Our favourite chocolate factory Marou was there to greet us, a traditional bean-to-bar chocolate maker. They make their chocolate from raw materials that are cacao and sugar, my daughter’s favourite was treasure island! We treated ourselves with massages and facials, rowed a coconut basket boat and even rode a black buffalo!
Despite all these incredible experiences, most of all we loved the people - their subtle service, cheeky smiles and their willingness to do everything in their power to please you. The locals live such simple lives, trying to survive and saving every penny for educating the youth of today, the adults of tomorrow. As one local said "they will be the generation that will make a difference to our country".
As a family we had one of the most memorable holidays to date. Thank you Vietnam for your warmth, we loved it. Would I go back? YES YES YES.