|A whole new world: Small farms located in neighbouring districts of HCM City have been turned into learning destinations for city children, who have little to no experience or hands-on contact with rural life. Pictured here, a guide explains how to grow and cultivate eggplant to city kids.
At a site 15 minutes from HCM City's centre, local and expat families plant vegetables, fish in a man-made river and cook meals under bamboo lean-tos. Bo Xuan Hiep reports.
For eight-year-old Nguyen Tuan Dat, the afternoon had been more than just a typical weekend jaunt: He'd picked an eggplant straight off the vine for the first time in his life and had even fed a few ducks and geese.
"I've never seen an eggplant growing before," he said, squealing in delight as he plucked a ripe vegetable from a plant in his family's 10sq.m plot at the Family Garden in HCM City.
"And I'd never fed a duck or rabbit, either," he said.
The farm site is 15 minutes from the city centre. Local and expat families plant vegetables, go fishing and cook together at the small oasis.
|Ripe for picking: Morning glory can be used in cooking, and as food for animals. — VNS Photos Bo Xuan Hiep
Dat, along with his father, mother and five-year-old brother, spent more than an hour on a motorbike last Saturday, travelling from their home in District 5 to visit the garden in District 2, an area where many expatriate families live.
"It was worth it," Tran Thi Truc Mai, Dat's mother, said. "We leased a plot because we wanted to grow clean vegetables for food and for fun, too."
Since the garden's opening in October last year, it has become a popular venue for both local and expatriate families.
Of the 60 available plots, 20 have been leased, planted mostly with eggplant, malabar spinach, cucumber, lime, morning glory and cabbage, among other vegetables and fruits. The monthly fee is VND650,000 (US$30).
For those who have yet to rent a plot, the Family Garden's staff offers group tours of the one-hectare site.
Nguyen Thi Thuy Van, 45, and her seven-year-old son, of Binh Thanh District, were part of a group tour last Saturday.
"Kids actually do all the activities during the tour," Van said. "They practise farm work, like hoeing land, trimming plants and harvesting the crop."
Like Dat, seven-year-old Le Thi Truc Ly, whose family has a plot at the garden, was surprised to see a flower often used in family dishes.
|A hopping good time: Visitors to the Family Garden give morning glory flowers to a rabbit being raised in a wooden cage.
"This is the first time I've seen a morning glory plant. My mother cooks with these at home," she said.
Moving tentatively, with a basket in one hand and a pair of scissors in another, Ly cut some of the morning glories to feed the ducks who swim on the artificial river that runs through the property.
For another young visitor, Pham Hong Quan, 11, of Thu Duc District, the garden has become a favourite weekend spot.
"I've visited six times over the last two months," he said. "I enjoy fishing in the pond and speaking English with foreigners here."
Along with Vietnamese families, the garden also attracts expatriates who live or work in the city.
Bill Hansen, an American who works for an investment firm, was tending to his family's vegetable bed with his son.
"I'm glad the kids are able to experience the work that farmers do before the food reaches our table," he said. "I also enjoy walking around while my kids are working. It's beautiful."
His six-year-old son, Trung Kien, said he was learning about plants at school and he liked being outdoors.
"I think I like vegetables now," he said, in a bare whisper.
Juliette Mene-Saffrane, a French architect who moved to Viet Nam last November, is also a frequent visitor to the garden.
"I come here every week to relax and have a drink. My kids enjoy fishing and growing vegetables," she said. "And they can play by themselves, and I don't have to worry about them."
The garden's manager, Le Quoc Son, said the weekend was especially busy, with about 200 people coming daily.
|Do-it-yourself: A guide teaches gardening skills to visiting children.
Entry is free, and visitors pay only for seeds and farm produce grown in the garden. Harvest of vegetables and fruits occurs within three to four months.
For those pressed for time, customers can pay a monthly fee of VND150,000 ($7) for garden staff to take care of their crops.
The staff regularly sends people who rent plots information about the status of the crops and harvest times via emails.
Nguyen Quynh Tran, 35, a landscape designer and director and owner of the Family Garden, said the site was first used to test new designs and sell products from her farm in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong.
After inviting friends to visit the garden last year, Tran said she was inspired to develop it further and open it for other families looking to get out into nature.
Families need a place where they can relax, garden and cook together, she said. "This is a value that every family should cherish."
|Bare necessities: A guide shows kids how to hoe and prepare the soil.
Tran began work on the site by building thatched shelters for people to rest after farming, bringing soil from Hoc Mon District, and putting up bamboo trellises for plants. She also erected an open-air lean-to for people to prepare meals using produce they farmed on their plots.
"As a landscape designer, I tried to design the garden as simply and harmoniously as possible. I'm most satisfied with the artificial river. They help cool down the area during the hot summer," Tran said.
For the 'river', about one-third of the water was taken from the Sai Gon River, which ensures natural living conditions for fish. The water is filtered to ensure cleanliness.
|Dropping a line: Pham Hong Quan, 11, fishes in the river at the Family Garden.
Tran said her aim was never to start a trend but to simply open a space for people to relax outdoors.
For now, her garden is one of the few in HCM City open to the public for planting and growing their own vegetables and fruits. The Vuong Tron Melon Garden in the outlying rural district of Cu Chi also offers similar services.
With its benefits of being connected to nature, learning farming skills, and taking part in a community of like-minded souls, the Family Garden is a peaceful refuge from the ever-present buzz of the city.
Dat, the eight-year-old who takes the long trip with his family from District 5, said it best: "I like it because I can learn a lot. I want to come back to see my eggplant and other vegetables that my dad and I have planted here. I really look forward to harvesting them." — VNS