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Stefan Gates' Vietnam travel diaries

A deliciously different family holiday that will give your child a feast for her senses

Posted: 10 October 2012
by Stefan Gates

There are loads of good reasons to visit Vietnam: the 3,200km coastline of glorious beaches, cities fizzing with excitement, the plentiful shopping opportunities and the beautiful natural scenery. But I don’t travel for any of those things. I travel to eat. Which is why my daughters daisy, eight, and Poppy, six, are sitting opposite me in a hoi an restaurant, eyeing a bowl of fragrant salad suspiciously. “smells okay, but what is it?” they ask, and that’s when my holiday dilemma hits crisis point.

You see, we’re searching for the most extraordinary food on earth, which is lovely for food-obsessed parents, but a bit challenging for their children. The dish that’s in front of us is phenomenal – aromatic, flowery, delicately constructed, complex yet clearly flavoured. But the secret ingredient that makes it so exciting would probably freak out most children.

I’ll be honest: I make TV programmes such as Cooking In The danger Zone and Incredible edibles, tackling food fears and prejudices. so far my daughters have had it pretty easy, so this year my wife, Georgia, and I decided to open their eyes to some of the world’s most exciting foods. It seemed such a good idea around the kitchen table at home, but on landing in hanoi we were met by a terrifying monsoon and sensory overload: unfamiliar smells, sounds, and women struggling along the motorway with bicycles piled with flowers, pigs, whole families, all soaked to the skin. and the food stalls all sell bizarre-looking stuff.

My girls sat ashen-faced in the car and I could read their minds too well: “daddy, why on earth have you brought us here?” luckily, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights at the hanoi Mövenpick hotel: an oasis of sophisticated swiss luxury amid the cacophony of the cityand just as we drop our bags and gaze out into the biblical rain, it stops, so we hit the streets. Hanoi is scarily chaotic: the frothing sea of people, the relentless rip- tides of mopeds and that unshakeable stench, which smells of adventure to me, but of rotten food to Daisy and Poppy. Time for lunch, and that’s when all the girls’ fears melt into fascination. You see, Vietnamese food isn’t just delicious – it’s exciting because it has lots of dishes you build yourself.

We order Vietnam’s legendary Pho and Bun Cha, and our waitress brings us trays loaded with piles of the freshest, sweetest herbs, crab spring rolls, pork balls, vermicelli and fragrant broth. The flavours and textures are strange for the girls but they’re having too much fun to notice. Most of hanoi’s Bun Cha and Pho joints look pretty downbeat – grubby even – but the food’s fabulous, with a huge turnover of locals chowing down and drinking Bia hoi, beer homebrewed daily and full of character. It goes without saying this is world-class food at very low prices – £1–2 or so a person. But it’s the interactivity that the girls love – they’re already becoming little global gastronauts.

Next morning, we’re ready to dig a little deeper. Time for cooking school, Vietnam-style. We speak to Vidotours, who normally set up cooking adventures for adults, but don’t bat an eyelid at arranging them for children, and soon we are heading to dong Xuan food market with Chen, our culinary guide. The Vietnamese display their salads and vegetables in extravagant piles, and it’s all so fresh it practically hums. The frog-skinner is a highlight: fat frogs are despatched with a whack to the head and then skinned with one noisy rip. It’s a culinary baptism of fire, but the girls watch with a mixture of horror and fascination.

We then head off to the highway 4 cooking school beside the beautiful West lake, where daisy and Poppy learn how to make spring rolls and banana flower salad. and suddenly everything changes. Before the cooking class, Vietnamese food had been an adventure, but now the girls are experts. They tell me how to make sauces, and how to get the best flavour out of herbs – they’ve soaked a bit of Vietnam into their souls, and it’s the most exciting feeling.

We head south to da Nang, halfway down the geographical s-bend of Vietnam towards the south China sea. and that’s when my wife wrestles control of our travel plans. Time to go somewhere we can relax, she says. “are you taking me to a spa?” I say, with a hint of scepticism. “You’ll like thisone,” she replies. “It’s all about food.”

After touching down at da Nang’s swish new airport, our car spins us past stalls plying fragrant clam Com hen, fiery Bun Bo hue noodle soup and heavenly fried fish. I hang out of the window breathing in the last few atoms of aroma. and so we discover fusion alya and its sister hotel fusion Maia. These places are all about deep, resonant luxury. Maia’s individual villas have private pools and gardens, espresso machines and meltingly soft beds. The huge infinity pools are set in beachside gardens bursting with flowers and shaded sofas and, though I struggle against it, I feel myself relaxing.

The brand new fusion alya is a complete Vietnamese food experience, while Maia’s spa is, according to lonely Planet, “one of asia’s most impressive: a magnificent wellness zone.” It’s certainly one of the biggest, with 16 treatment rooms set around a shady garden and pool. But the really big news is how this place works: treatments are all included in the price of your room. Two a day! and my worries about what daisy and Poppy would get up to while we are pampered vanish when a team of young ladies sweep them away earn Vietnamese, have their hair braided and soak themselves in water fights.

The food at fusion is extraordinary, courtesy of chef Marcus. his seven-colour menu mixes relaxed Vietnamese food with inventive restaurant cuisine – and is playful enough to keep daisy and Poppy interested. We tell Marcus the girls are here on a food adventure, so the next day he sends us to nearby hoi an with his head chef. It’s a unesco heritage site, but also a great culinary destination: one lady shows Poppy and daisy how to make rice flour pancakes by dropping a pool of rice flour paste onto a cloth and steaming it for 30 seconds before laying it out to dry. annoyingly, the girls are much better at doing this than me, which is obviously down to their nimble fingers and nothing to do with my lack of coordination.

Hoi an food market is even better than hanoi – a bubbling soup of sights, ranging from the gruesome to the glorious. Piles of fins, buckets overflowing with fish guts and blood for making Nam Pla fermented fish sauce, and all manner of unmentionables. But the traders were so friendly that the girls weren’t scared – they were captivated. We stop at a long row of squat-and-gobble street food stands selling the famous Cha Ca lao Vong grilled fish dish, to which thecustomer adds handfuls of herbs, salad, nuts, vermicelli, spring onion and sauces. It’s a hands-on flavour extravaganza, and the best thing is that you’re in charge. or at least, your daughters are as they torture you with lashings of ferocious chillies.

The Next day we go for a ridiculously idyllic trip to nearby Cham Island, which is classic holiday perfection: just think tiny tropical island, white sand, quiet beach, clear blue water, Vietnamese food. Back at the hotel, another culinary extravaganza awaits us: a glorious beachside barbecue laid on just for us. The beach is lit by candles and the sticky-sweet night air is warm. our two sunkissed daughters frolic and yelp with their favourite lady from the spa staff, while the chef grills fish and meat to smoky, sweet perfection. The girls tuck happily into their squid, twirl their own spring rolls and scoff banana flower salad like it was suppertime back home in north london.

But back to the secret ingredient in the girls’ salad. We are in an absurdly idyllic restaurant in hoi an’s old Town, all teak furniture, greenery and cool shade, eating banana-leaf-wrapped mackerel and Cao lau noodle broth. Then I spot something I simply can’t resist: pig’s ear and cabbage salad. When it arrives, it seems to embody all the best of Vietnamese food: herby, spicy, multi-textured and singing with lime leaf zest. The pig’s ear is thinly sliced, so it just looks like shreds of pork. daisy and Poppy bend over the dish and breathe in those flavours. “smells okay, but what is it?” “Pork,” I say. “oK,” they say, and dig in. But after finishing the bowl, daisy and Poppy can see from my grin something’s up, and ask: “What’s really in that salad?” “You’re so cool, girls,” I say. “I think you are finally, truly, international gastronauts, and I’m so proud of you.” “daddy, what was in the salad?” “Pork. Well, sliced pig’s ear,” I say. at which point they march me straight back to the hotel and make me order pizzas for everyone. It’s a small price when you receive two gastronauts in return.

Two nights at Mövenpick hotel hanoi (www.moevenpick-hotels.com) in two superior deluxe rooms and five
nights at fusion Maia danang (www. fusionmaiadanang.com) in a two-bed spa Villa with daily spa treatments, family cooking class, transfers, breakfast and flights costs from £1,839 per adult and £660 per child* through Western & oriental, www.wandotravel.com, 020 7666 1213.

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