Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Travelling Vietnam with kids

There's no more demanding time than when a toddler is 15 months old. They can't really talk, so can't tell you what's wrong. They are fully mobile, but balance is problematic. They have a propensity for climbing on to whatever they can, which when combined with a lack of balance and awareness, is a recipe for disaster. Kimi is all over the place. He is a very social little creature and so will run around visiting whoever is nearby. If we are in a  restaurant, he will wander over other diners, climb up on a chair at their table and sit there examining them as they eat. If the door of the restaurant is open, he will potentially try and escape out to the street, not really caring too much for the dangers of motor bikes whizzing around outside. If there are stairs, he will want to climb them. He now has the ability to push a chair across a room to use as a ladder to climb on to a pool table. He needs to be watched by somebody almost constantly and even then, there are perils. With us all in our hotel room one evening, lounging around on the bed watching TV, Kimi decided to stand up at the foot of the bed only slightly out of our reach. He stumbled, did a forward flip and landed head first with a thump on the relatively hard floor. A large egg with carpet grazing appeared almost instantaneously on his forehead, but with baby resilience, was almost gone within a day. The very next day on arriving at Phong Nha Farmhouse, he decided to roll head first down the brick stairs in front of a sizeable crowd of stunned spectators, who were sitting out on the patio sipping their afternoon drinks. It was a spectacular manoeuvre from which he somehow survived completely unscathed. Not even a scratch or bump from that one. It is a constant battle to try and keep him from hurting himself. Our ambition for the trip is to bring him (and everyone else) home alive and uninjured. While still in Hanoi, about to leave for Sapa, Kimi came down with a fever, clocking in at around 39.6 degrees (just over 103 fahrenheit). We couldn't really determine any symptoms other than a fever. No runny nose or dribbling or red cheeks that you usually associate with teething. No flu like symptoms. No signs of ear infection. And of course he couldn't tell us what was actually hurting, if anything. Some good quality drugs brought the fever down and he seemed fine for a few hours until he started to bake again. Seeing your baby cooking like that is a concern for any parent, even more so when you are in a foreign tropical land. We questioned whether we should cancel the trip to Sapa and just stay in Hanoi, perhaps even take him to a hospital. We decided instead to soldier on and spend a stressful night on the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai; the five of us couped up in a four berth cabin, with Kimi waking periodically in a feverish sweat, at which time we would sponge him down and give him some more medicine. The fever hung around for about 36 hours in total and then thankfully disappeared without trace. The coolness of the mountain air of Sapa perhaps assisting in the process. A nice change from the polluted humidity of Hanoi that we'd left behind. In the Sapa market we purchased a brightly coloured Hmong child carrier so that we could strap him on to our backs or fronts, as the Hmong mothers do. After a day of rest, the little fella was back in action, running around with all the locals once again fawning over him.

Kimi hasn't been the only one to be sick. We've all had bouts of traveller's diarrhoea. With the exception of Jazz, who instead had a bout of fear of getting traveller's diarrhoea and went through a few days of being frightened to eat anything or go anywhere near water. Finn had it the worst. During our three day cruise through Halong Bay, Finn was firing from both ends and could keep nothing down. Not even water. In one dramatic burst he succeeded on making it to the bathroom in time, but failed to quite get the toilet lid up before spewing forth a great torrent and decorating the entire tiny room with his breakfast. The tour leader of our boat provided him with some local herbal based pills that kill off the dodgy bacteria that cause this stomach sickness. It was like a miracle cure and Finn's recovery was amazingly swift. He and I sat out of the Cat Ba island excursion after that and instead had a relaxing day hanging around the boat. By the evening he was completely fine. Since then, we've stocked up on bottles of these little yellow pills. Just in case.

The Vietnamese people have loved Kimi wherever we have gone. Random strangers in the street will come over and try to pick him up. His blonde hair and blue eyes have been like a magnet for the locals. In one park we were confronted by a gaggle of young girls who squealed when they saw him, picked him up and started excitedly taking photos of themselves with him, like he was a slightly younger but more tasteful version of Justin Bieber. In restaurants the staff have often just whisked him off to other parts of the establishment to play with him while we have eaten our meal. That is always a godsend. A few moments of respite where we can eat in peace, without getting up every two minutes to chase him somewhere. On a boat trip to the Phong Nha cave, the old grandma Vietnamese woman who was skippering our craft saw Kimi and spontaneously grabbed him, unbuckled his pants and had a look inside before I could say or do anything. I guess she was trying to work out whether he was a boy or girl. All very strange. But nothing quite gets the locals going than when Kimi is strapped on to either Tori's or my backs in the Hmong child carrier. Especially if we are riding a bicycle with him strapped to one of our backs. In a village where nobody bats an eyelid when a whole family of five whiz by on the one scooter, or a group of buffalo wander on to the road, or a guy rides down the street with a large pig bound up lying across a plank at the back of a motorbike as an unwilling pillion passenger, every single person we pass screams with laughter and points our way as we ride by. Clearly it's something quite new around here.

It hasn't only been Kimi that has come in for extra attention. Jazzy also has had her fair share. Whilst walking around the markets of Dong Hoi, every single person turned to stare at her. Not a lot of tourists come through that town and it would certainly appear that they are not used to seeing a white skinned, blue eyed, freckle face beauty like my Jazzy. She was slightly unnerved but doesn't really mind being the centre of attention, so took it well within her stride. It is quite strange being a tourist in a land when you find that you are actually as much of a tourist attraction for the locals as anything around there is for you. Even in Hanoi she would occasionally be mobbed by squealing girls who wanted their picture taken with her.

The trip so far has been a balancing act. One where we have needed to try and balance Tori's and my desire to take in the sights of Vietnam such as temples, historical war sites or caves, with Jazz and Finn's need to run around doing kid stuff, while factoring in Kimi's safety. It's a day by day proposition, but finally now at Phong Nha Farmstay, a relaxing hotel cum hostel surrounded by rice paddies and rolling hills, in the central Vietnamese countryside, everyone has relaxed into full holiday stride.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hello Hanoi


It was always going to be difficult to come to terms with being back in Melbourne after a year on the road travelling Australia. And so it proved to be. "Have you settled back in?" and "Is everything back to normal now?" seemed to have been the predominant questions from well wishing friends and family. Categorically for me the answer was no on both counts. Nothing is as it was before. Kimi has made sure of that. Dealing with a new baby, now a toddler with burgeoning personality, guaranteed that nothing could ever be the same. We struggled. Well certainly Tori and I did. And still have been. Tori has hated the Melbourne winter. She'd rather be somewhere else. Pretty much anywhere else, but if asked to narrow it down, she'd point to the southern Queensland hinterland village of Maleny. A place of stunning natural beauty and significantly warmer climate. I, meanwhile, have been wrestling with my changed working situation. The daily commute to town from Warrandyte and the immense personal fallout that accompanied the end of my association with the company I formerly represented in Asia-Pacific. The latter one affected me more than I thought it would. Like a long term love affair that turns sour. Filled with bitterness and loss. The change in the actual work side has been a blessing. That had got to a stage where it was boring me senseless and they were getting far too corporatey and procedural for me. It has only been the damage of friendship that has been of any consequence. At times that wreaked havoc with my psyche. I bounced between rage and depression. The angst of the situation only recently calming to rest in my mind with the passage of time. And my working in the city these last few months has meant that I am hardly seeing Tori and the kids at all, after spending pretty much all of every day together last year. This has been especially difficult for Tori. Me off at work, Jazz and Finn at school and just her alone at home with Kimi. It was with this as a back drop that I booked us all on a five week trip to Vietnam. Something to look forward to. Something out of the ordinary. Something akin to life on the road. Five weeks of unplanned adventure in a foreign land.

We flew into Hanoi with three nights accommodation booked in a well recommended hotel, in the old part of the city. In the days when it was only Tori and I, we would just rock up to a new place and then look for accommodation when we got there. Apart from a few occasions, such as when we ended up in the very dodgy Tenderloin (aka the loin) of San Francisco, or a sleazy hotel that was more often paid for by the hour than by the night in Vegas, or when we drove around the entire state of Victoria in a weekend searching for somewhere that had a vacancy and ended up in Underbool, this method has served us well and led us to a load of interesting places. Especially when we were unable to find any accommodation at all and instead ended up staying in the homes of random strangers we met during the search, as had happened to us in Jordan and Turkey. With two pre-teen kids and an infant in tow, I wasn't quite up for the search on arrival method, especially after a fifteen hour journey and was happy to see that one of the blokes carrying the name signs at the airport arrivals hall was there waiting for me. Three nights seemed like it would be a good intro to the country and enough time to gather our bearings and work out where we actually wanted to go next. I've always liked unplanned travel. An open itinerary with the freedom to move on when you fancy, or to change direction based on the advice of a fellow traveller met during a chance, fleeting encounter in a bar. And who knows how it will be travelling in Vietnam with a 15 month old boy. Worst case scenario if it gets too difficult, we can just fly somewhere for a few weeks and laze on a beach. But I'm hoping for more than that.

As always, we arrived at our destination at night. Totally exhausted from a long journey and longing just for a clean bed to pass out on. But there had been casualties along the way. Kimi's sleeping companion Monkey Monkey and Finn's special blanket were both missing in action, last seen at Hanoi airport. We were all on edge and three days of booked accommodation all of a sudden seemed like nothing. What are we going to do then? How is this all going to work with a toddler? Should we have brought antimalarial medicine for travelling to remote areas? What can we eat and what should we avoid? What if one of the kids gets really sick? Even though Vietnam is well touristed now and hardly off the beaten trail, it is a country that we have no idea about and is sure to have its dangers. Will Kimi run off and be cleaned up by a rampant Hanoi motorcycle?

Like it usually does, the following day brought calm as the previous night's anxiety subsided and the excitement of being in a new and vibrant place kicked in. And what a vibrance Hanoi has. It is a city with a throbbing rhythm. One that is easy to pick up and assimilate into. The streets are a bustling seemingly chaotic whirr of motor bikes, taxis, cyclos and street vendors all moving in time, but somehow also at their own pace. People had warned me about the perils of crossing the road in Hanoi, making it seem like you were the poor unfortunate frog who inevitably got smooshed in Frogger. But in fact crossing the road is something akin to osmosis. A scattered mass of pedestrians somehow moves through the stream of traffic with no vehicles actually stopping or slowing down in any way. Somehow the entities pass through each other to continue unscathed on their way on the other side. The safety harness for Kimi had been bought following the warnings that if he ran out into this traffic, he was a goner. But the harness is still in Melbourne. And we'd been told that the stroller would be impossible in the old Hanoi streets. There is certainly no room for a stroller, or in fact even a pedestrian, on the inaccurately described "footpath". That's too full of parked motor cycles and scooters and people congregated on small blue stools chowing down on the local street food or downing glasses of the local bia hoi. So the stroller has just become another vehicle on the road and in fact a faster and more robust vehicle than some. We all stroll out there on the road along behind, moving at our own pace like a family of ducks, with the bikes cruising around us with a honk of their horn. In fact there is the continued sound of horns from every vehicle that possesses one, forming together to create the Hanoi street symphony. The street vendors move along at their own particular pace with a kind of bouncing gait. Bobbing up and down rhythmically while balancing a long pole over the shoulder, a basket at either end filled with their their wares. Their heads are resplendently adorned with the classic conical hats particular to this region. And their baskets carry all sorts of items from juicy pineapples, mangoes or bananas, to local vegetables or herbs or flowers, to crabs or other assorted shellfish, to socks and undies, to wicker baskets or feather dusters or the aforementioned conical hats, or indeed seemingly any item that somebody may potentially need to buy. The cyclos are mostly stationery vehicles soliciting tourists to purchase a one hour ride around the city. I'm still not sure how they feel they can fit five people and a stroller into that small carriage at the front of the bike, but it hasn't stopped every one of them asking. And there is a constant barrage of people trying to sell you things. T-shirts, Vietnamese hats with a red star, sweet sugar coated doughnuts on a stick, postcards, silver bracelets, a decorated paper fan. People in Hanoi seem to be doing fine, but its all relative and clearly the tourists who have the financial ability to travel there are laden with cash and ripe for the picking. Prices of course are inflated to the max, whatever the item. No sale is complete without a good haggle, which of course I've embraced wholeheartedly. It's all part of the game. I love the banter with the locals during these exchanges. The feigned look of shock at the price I've offered, as if I've just insulted them with my offer. The insistence that the price they've just put forward is their last and they couldn't possibly budge, acting as if their family won't eat for the next month if they were to go any lower. ("Won't take a penny less or strike me dead"). If a vendor agrees too quickly to the price I have offered, I realise that I've come in way too high and have just been played for a sucker. It's likely just for a dollar or two, so it's not the money that causes the grumbling feeling in my head. It's the feeling of having lost the game. Checkmate! In one exchange I was taken down by a man with no legs. He said he'd lost them from a bomb. That could certainly be true, with a large number of Vietnamese people still killed or maimed every year by unexploded ordinance dropped by the Americans more than 35 years ago. Or maybe that just seems like a more sympathetic story for a tourist target than having lost his legs in a motorcycle accident on the Hanoi streets, which is also a possible, but less exotic, truth. But regardless of the cause, one thing that was undeniable was that the man had no legs. I bought from him a copy of the book The Sorrow of War, which is a highly acclaimed tale of the American war by a North Vietnamese Army vet. The cover was pristine, but on unwrapping the clear cellophane covering I discovered that the pages inside were all photocopied. And poorly photocopied at that. I'd certainly paid a premium for a shonky book. But the words are legible and I guess it was just the words I was after, so in the end I was happy enough (though still grumbling slightly in my head) that I had an interesting read in my hands and had helped out a bloke who didn't really have too many other employment options.

Of course a major highlight of being in north Vietnam is the regular consumption of pho for breakfast. Finn is keeping a tally of how many bowls we manage to polish off on the journey. He's confident that we'll easily top 50 in the first few weeks. And all of the other great food at other times of the day, many of which have been staples over the years down Victoria Street in Richmond. And having spent many years occupied by the french, at least one good thing to come out of colonialism for the Vietnamese, or certainly the rest of us, is the french contribution to the local food. Banana crepes seem to be on the menu in every restaurant. Slowly but surely we are reaching in to the street food scene, but it's still difficult as a softy westerner not to wonder on the hygiene of the food preparation, and whether or not some dodgy bacteria on a plate will cause the next few days to be spent with one eye constantly toward the toilet. And often it's difficult to actually work out what the food concoction is that is on offer and a leap of faith is required. One that, having settled in, I am feeling much more confident about making.

Hanoi is a great place for our adventure to begin. The people are so friendly and welcoming. Even the people who are trying to rip you off do it with a smile. Restaurant staff have often played with Kimi to allow us to eat a meal, without having to chase him all over the restaurant. The trip through Vietnam will undoubtedly be an eye opener for us all. I'm looking forward to learning more about this country and its people. Among other things, I want to learn about the American war from the perspective of the Vietnamese. But this trip is not just about our interaction with a different culture in a different land. It is just as much about us once again travelling together as a family.