Our trip to Vietnam was 15 years in the making, and then
stolen borrowed from a group of friends. (Arpi! Kate and I dedicated this trip to you.)
After my first trip to Vietnam with my family the summer after my junior year in college, I came back and told tales of pho for breakfast, and ca phe sua da appearing as soon as the words left your lips. Kate was hooked and we began talking about going to Vietnam together. Yadda yadda yadda, 15 years later, Kate with an 11 month old and us with a 2 and 4 year old…perfect timing! Sort of. We waffled for a long time before we finally decided to make it happen.
I had already been to Vietnam four times since then, but never with kids. Despite having been there so many times and speaking the language, I was anxious about this trip. My memories of traveling in Vietnam included lots of dirty tables, litter on the streets, controlled chaos on the roads, squatting over various latrines, restocking pockets with wet wipes and napkins. Then I imagined all of that with my potty-training daughter, who skips and hops with wild abandon…right into a wall of sars-mask-wearing, scooter-driving Asians. And my son, who eats like a feral cat, turns trash into toys, and licks tables because he thinks it’s fun. Of course, when they both throw tantrums, as they often do, they like to flop like dying fish all over the ground. The filthy, littered ground. Rightfully so, the thought of Vietnam with these two was giving me anxiety. Of course, I had other memories of Vietnam too. I was amazed by the industrious spirit and work ethic of the people. I was mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of the cities. The landscape was gorgeous. The country’s history made the monuments humbling and heartbreaking. And the food. The FOOD. The food was enough reason to go. Did I mention it rains ca phe sue da in Vietnam?
Moreover, we wanted to instill an adventurous spirit in our kids and expand their view of the world. I didn’t want my anxiety to keep that from them. Finally, we were going to be traveling with an adorable, blonde baby. That’s like money in the bank. Or should I say, dong in the bank.
The trip was worth the 15 year wait. Traveling with Kate, Peter, and Ben (which will forevermore be referred to as the Ninh Binh Lengend) was easy and comfortable. We actually did have pho everyday for breakfast, and the coffee was abundant. We were treated like celebrities everywhere we went. Or rather, we were treated like the Ninh Binh Legend’s entourage everywhere we went. The surprise for me was how much Vietnam has changed since Don and I were there 8 years ago. Bathrooms, streets, restaurants, traffic…all upgraded. Of course, traffic lanes are more like suggestions, but people actually, sort of, mostly obey the traffic lights. In Ho Chi Minh, I hardly recognized the street my aunt lives on. On the road to Ha Long Bay, I was surprised to see so many construction vehicles. It seemed they were expanding every road in that area. The progress comes with a price as I missed the authentic charm of the small towns and the serenity of the country side. Of course, one of the upsides of progress is that every toilet we went to was fully functioning.
Another sign of progress was the markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is go to the markets. In Vietnam, my market mantra had always been, “If you’re looking, don’t walk. If you’re walking, don’t look.” The stalls were usually so crammed tight, the floors strewn with litter and other hazards. It was impossible to walk without looking where you’re going. This time around, it was a breeze, and we even drove our stroller straight through Ben Thanh market. Clearly the Vietnam that I remembered, and the one that was giving me anxiety, wasn’t there any more.
The shining highlight of this trip was the food. The FOOD.
The food was just stupid good, and all of our favorite meals were usually under $15 for four adults and two kids (the Legend is still working on his eating skills). While popping delectable little hai cau dumplings into our mouths from one of our favorite street vendors in Ho Chi Minh, Kate and I lamented on why we can’t get food this good in the states. It’s one of the main reasons why I love coming back to Vietnam. Here were our all-star street vendors:
In Ha Noi, it was Bun Cha, the regional deconstructed vermicelli dish eaten with chargrilled pork patties swimming in a bowl of warm, well-balanced fish sauce, served with raw garlic and chilis and a heaping plate of herbs. We hit it twice. Peter fell in love.
In Hoi An, Chi Phuong’s Banh Mi will haunt us forever more. The damn sandwich snuck up on us. We didn’t realize it’s genius until halfway through, and then we were left aching for more. And we all silently suffered until I timidly suggested we bail on our dinner plans and get more sandwiches for dinner. And every nodded their heads in earnest, with the sense of relief that the sandwich may not haunt us just yet.
In Ho Chi Minh, we came to love two street vendors. Co Phuong had been dishing up Banh Bot Chien and Hai Cau for over 30 years, right across the street from Ben Thanh market. We planned to go there for pre-dinner, but a sudden downpour trapped us and we cheered as we ordered a few more rounds. Both dishes were served with this sauce that was so simple and complex that I don’t know how to describe it more than a soy vinaigrette. Kien was drinking the sauce. Straight up drinking. And we had to stop him because, quite frankly, he was hogging it all. The other vendor was the Banh Cuon lady in Ben Thanh market. She’d been there 20 years and makes the Banh Cuon to order, where she pours a translucently thin layer of batter over a cheese cloth stretched over a wire frame to steam. Eating at a tiny counter in a frenetic market is an experience in itself, but everything kind of slows down and silences when the food is that good. I washed it down with a pomelo slushie from the vendor next door.
We had plenty of other highlights, but, of course, traveling with kids had its challenges. Everyone told us the flight was going to suck. But the flights were just fine for the kids. They even did a fairly decent job of adjusting to the time change. The challenge we had with them was no different from the challenges we have with them on a day-to-day basis at home: sitting down for meals, transitioning from place to place, putting on shoes, keeping shoes on, unexplained grumpiness, wanting to be carried instead of walking, and, my favorite, whining instead of talking. You’d think a trip to the Motherland would solve all those daily problems and replace them with new ones, but I’m here to tell you that the challenges of having small children in America travel with you when you go to a developing country. The new challenges included planning our days around nap and bed times, keeping their hands relatively clean, keeping their shoes out of their mouths, keeping track of the various strings and ropes Kien was pretending were his pet snakes, getting Quinn to eat fruit…And the biggest adjustment was realizing that traveling with kids comes with different expectations than traveling without kids. I will say, since we made sure the kids got enough sleep, I also got plenty of sleep. Way more than what I would normally get when we go on vacation. That’s a win.
Of course, The Ninh Binh Legend, as far as I’m concerned, was an angel. He breastfed, napped on and off in the carrier, wasn’t scared of the countless strangers who would pick him up, and cold chilled when he wasn’t hungry, sleepy, or poopy. Almost everywhere we went, someone would grab the Legend and rush off to show their friends, “Look at this adorable baby I found! He has orange hair and his parents should probably put a sweater on him, but look how cute!”And if there was a camera around, The Legend was doing selfies with the locals.
I’m sure Kate and Peter had their hands full, but we would’ve swapped in a heartbeat.
Four days into the trip, Quinn had a fever that lasted three days. She was a squishy blob of cuddle 24/7 on those days. I was just getting to the point of pushing the code red button but Don kept things in perspective, and we got some over-the-counter antibiotics and tylenol from a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy in Ninh Binh for $9. Thank goodness for the lack of high medical prices and lack of insurance lobbyists in Vietnam! She bounced back within 24 hours and was back to her old self, just in time for the best chocolate croissants I’ve ever had at a little joint in Hoi An. Fortunately for us, she got sick on the perfect days when we spent most of our time on a boat, in a car, or on a plane, so we didn’t miss out on anything.
Here are a few other highlights of our trip, and some photos:
- Seeing Kate, Peter, and Ben at breakfast for the first time in Ha Noi and realizing this 15 year pipe dream was actually happening.
- A cyclo tour of the Old Quarter in Ha Noi
- Realizing that we got a whole boat to ourselves in Ha Long Bay, and the crew outnumbered us
- Seeing how the seafood market comes to us on our boat in Ha Long
- Rowing through caves at Ninh Binh
- Seeing Kien’s sheer excitement when we got to the beach at Hoi An
- Going on a sunrise date with Kien and giggling as we ran away from waves before he decided it would be more fun to run into them instead. Fully clothed. Cold.
- Snuggling in bed with Quinn every day
- Walking through the charming streets of Hoi An
- Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh, especially the cephalopod section of the seafood area. We would go several times a day so Kien could look at all of the squid and octopus for sale and this one vendor let Kien touch the tentacles of a squid
- Walking through the streets of Ho Chi Minh the weekend before Christmas and taking in the sheer humanity of so many people on scooters just cruising around
- Figuring out how to cross the streets of Ho Chi Minh like a boss
- Being part of the Ninh Binh Legend’s entourage and watching him get so much attention
- Breakfast. Pho. Every. Day.
- Vietnamese coffee: we got to taste the most exotic coffee in all of Vietnam – where the weasels eat the coffee beans and poop them out whole before they are roasted. As Trung Nguyen Coffee describes it, “It’s the Excalibur to the hero.”
- Dinner with my grandma. She’s ninety-something years old, doesn’t remember much, but she is a feisty old lady with a fiction-like history. I’m so thankful Kien and Quinn got to meet her even though none of them may remember. Plus, the feast at that dinner was unreal.
I would go back in a heartbeat (you hear that BBRAG!). I relished the time we got to spend with the Walsdillos and share my country and my culture with them. I am grateful for the opportunity to see my grandmother, possibly for the last time. And it feels good to be able to see my kids experience a different part of the world and, hopefully, instill in them a sense of adventure for exploring and embracing difference.
Finally…here’s a pro tip…anytime you travel to a country where the currency is called the “dong,” no matter how mature you think you are, you will never lack for jokes.