Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Backpacking with the kids in Vietnam...

Time to tell you all about our travels. I have just written to friends and family - one of my long letters home I write every so often. Forgive me but I am more or less cutting and pasting. So this will be a bit more letter like than my usual blog posts. Still have to sort out photos. And my baby for that matter. Bella woke every 20 minutes last night for most of the night. Something is up and I have no idea what. Anyway enjoy this and look out for my top tips on travelling with kids that will follow some day soon.

What an adventure. I felt like I was in my early 20s again, except with a husband and two kids. We took three night trains, a thousand buses (including a very cool brand new, still tagged sleeper bus decked out in pink floral duvets, pillows, walls – a bus with beds! You can imagine how exciting I found that, let alone what Jemima thought of it all!) For those of you who know Vietnam and want details we spent 3 days in beautiful Hanoi, 5 in the mountains round Sapa, 3 in Halong Bay, via Haiphong, a couple in the old capital Hue, a few more in gorgeous Hoian, then made our way to the My Lai massacre site and spent some days at the beaches near there and around Quy Non. Then bussed back to Ho Chi Minh and on again to PP. We covered a lot of ground now I think about it.

The highlights: Jemima’s general excitement at nearly everything we proposed. She could not contain herself on the night trains and even got excited for bus journeys long after she should have become bored by them (our shortest journey was about 3 hours “I don’t mind Mama, I’ll have a little rest") stumbling across music and dance and water puppet shows in at least half the places we went to; a boat trip around Halong Bay; exploring the old quarters and spice markets of beautiful Hanoi (amazing architecture) by cyclo; swimming with Vietnamese tourists on stunning golden sand beaches off the tourist trail, watching local boys catch crabs and make fires and cook them, and squatting on stools by the road side eating roasted sweet potato, sticky rice and mango on tiny barbeques tended by Montagnard ethnic minority groups in the mountains near Sapa.

I loved seeing these people carry their babies everywhere (I have come back with three beautifully woven, colourful baby carriers! We had six carriers with us overall while we travelled). They breastfeed on demand until at least two years and generally I observed that their babies never cried and were totally chilled out. It was sadly typical actually – the town of Sapa itself has been colonised by Vietnamese people who have migrated there for the tourism (which developed around the attraction of the mountain people and their traditional way of life, stunning crafts etc) but the local tribes would be very unlikely to get jobs in restaurants, shops etc. They wandered through the town selling their wares with excellent English. They presumably need to be kept as they are or they would not be so interesting. For their sake I hope they can preserve their unique cultures, but it seemed unfair that the modern world remains largely inaccessible for them should they choose it. What I found most fascinating and sad was that as soon as you hit the town there were children in buggies, with bottles, or in play pens in shops. That is the modern way of doing things the Vietnamese people have adopted from us Westerners. These babies were so different and often crying from boredom or lack of physical touch. It was so interesting to see it right along side the ‘attachment' parenting approach. Well, at least it is if this is your main passion and interest as it happens to be for me! it was a true testimony to all I have read, studied and experienced, laid before my eyes. Vietnamese were all surprised that I was breastfeeding and carrying – they probably saw me as very primitive, like their mountain folk who they look down upon! Ho hum…

The blips…
hmmmm, in no order of priority… Jemima’s long-awaited hard-roasted egg (on said Montagnard barbeque) exploding in a fountain of blood, yolk and tiny baby chick embryo before her eyes. She was cool, I became a vegan (well vowed to, one day soon) and we didn’t order a replacement egg. Have I told you that unhatched chicks in their various stages of in-utero development are a delicacy here too? That and duck’s webbed feet; the 6 hour journey leaving PP on our first day turning into a 12 hour one as the bus stood still in a mile long, five-car wide traffic jam in rural Cambodia, 37 degrees Centigrade, middle of day, for 6 hours while we waited for a ferry capable of carrying about 8 cars at a time to cross the Mekong river. Surreal. We moaned a lot but the kids seemed oblivious. It got worse - at the border we discovered that our ruck sack was covered in pee from the leaking loo on the bus. Disgusting. The start to our holiday was no reflection of the rest of the trip you will be glad to hear.

On travelling with kids:
We were amazed. Everyone says it, but you can still never quite believe the children will be ok and tolerate it all until you experience it. But they were just totally cool with everything. Jemima's mantra became: "I am loving this holiday so much I can’t bear to go back to Cambodia!” (She only kept repeating it because it made us laugh so much the first time and she loves to entertain).

Bella had a ball because we had nothing else to do but carry her (gorgeous climate so not TOO sweaty to wear her all day unlike here) and go and see things. So she was fed a hundred times a day, cuddled/held non-stop by us and a hundred very forward, frankly very annoying, in-your-face Vietnamese and Chinese tourists. She didn’t care, she loved it, in fact she positively encouraged it by flashing one of her smiles and reaching out to them. Jemima on the other hand was often to be seen running away, shrugging off and shouting “NO!” as she defended herself from the onslaught of grabbing, drooling and general mauling from people just desperate for a feel of white skin and blonde hair. And James and I became practiced at reciting: “Thank you, yes they are, aren’t they? 9 months, 3 and a half, no sorry no photos today”. We managed to keep smiling most of the time though I was tempted to scream “Children don’t enjoy being laughed at and chased and manhandled by total strangers!! Back off you maniac.” I lost it only once when I had to have the usual argument about the fact that Bella is not a boy – they were insistent every time “Girl? Girl? Really? No…she looks like a boy!”. They carried on long after I had turned my attention elsewhere as if we would eventually change our mind and say, "oh actually you are right she is a boy after all." On one such occasion after I did not change my point of view they grabbed Bella’s nappy protected groin to find out if I was really sure... and then Jemima’s! Argghhh! They made me appreciate how gentle and shy the Khmers are, despite their equal adoration for fair skinned kids. We were tourists but often felt like the main attraction.

Jemima did miss her friends. She talked about them a lot and was excited at the thought of coming back home and to school, but she made friends everywhere we went, with gentler Vietnamese women and nearly every western backpacker in sight. She also became adept at evaluating public loos, on a scale of: “Oh this one is not very lovely is it Mama?” to, “Hmm, I think I’ll pee on the grass, yeah?” Yogis out there, the Breath of Fire has another use – it is totally lifesaving when you don’t want to smell. Really it got me through some of the most nauseating stenches out there… the only one it did not work on was that of rotting fish in a sweet little fishing port where we negotiated a trip to an island.

Vietnam is an amazing country and very sad when you see how much has been destroyed by the various wars. Really the legacy of the American war is hard to accept. We visited the famous My Lai massacre site – where the Americans landed in a village in broad day light and raped and killed women, children and grandparents – hundreds, I forget how many exactly – and then tried to burn the evidence. The site was very moving – the houses that were burnt down were left like that, some reconstructed so we could imagine what it had been like. The whole thing was documented by an army photographer – how weird. He must have just stood there and filmed the lot. There were shocking pictures of terrified women and children standing against a tree with the caption: “Moments before being shot down dead” or similar. It made you face the darkest, most horrific capabilities of humankind. The village today looks exactly as it must have done then. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, people were working in the rice paddies, it was a scene of peaceful medieval activity in a way. I imagined soldiers sneaking up on women and children working around the house… and realised that as I was imagining it, it was happening in the Middle East… No one has learnt anything from history. It could be Iraq now. (Actually if the US had done their history before invading Vietnam they would have also seen that they would never win against such a battle-hardened, always victorious nation…)

Despite all this Vietnam today is so much more developed and wealthy than I had imagined. It was like going to Europe compared with Cambodia. I have got so used to living here but I was reminded that it is arguably the poorest, least developed and most damaged country in the region. And the gap between rich and poor seems so much more visible and shocking here as well. In Vietnam there were lots of local tourists – it seemed a middle income country although of course I know there are areas of real poverty too- rural mostly. Yet I did not see much extreme wealth or poverty – if it exists it is not as widespread as here. In one morning in PP you will see naked kids on the street high on glue or mothers begging with their babies sharing the same road as the most expensive SUVs on the market.

So there you are. I have written way too much and Bella will wake from her nap any minute. It is overcast and cool here and I'm inhaling the damp dusty ‘about to rain’ smell I love so much. I'm so excited! I will make some tea and curl up and watch the rain drown out the ants with Bella. Jemima is playing at a friend’s this afternoon. The sky has darkened since I started this paragraph and there are now terrifying cracks and booms followed by various children’s screams from around the neighbourhood! I love it but it does sound rather like war. In a minute the down pour will begin and I will not be able to hear myself think - when it drums on the tin roof you have to shout to make yourself heard. I won't hear Bella either so better go see what she is up to. Practical travel tips will follow one day soon (Have I said that already?)

If you like this post, read this.


Anonymous said...

Ahhhh - you describe it in so much detail that I feel like I have been there myself! That pink bus photo is HILARIOUS.... I can just imagine what rapture you and Jemima must have been in. What I don't get is how you manage to fit in such a lot on so little sleep (that was always my excuse....) you certainly are wondermum. Hope the KY is going well. Look forward to your next instalment. T xxx

Spicegal said...

Travel with my children is one of my greatest passions so I've loved reading your stories on Vietnam!

People often wonder how we backpack with children, but as you point out it's our lifestyle choices that make it possible - how easy is it to share the bunk of an overnight train when your child is content sleeping with you? No jars and bottles to lug around with a breastfeeding and BLW approach to food! And who would want to lug a buggy around when you can throw your kid on your back - for a much better view too!

My LO, like yours, has loved hunting out animals in temples, yummy food stalls and making friends on trains without the need for a case full of toys to keep her amused. And I love introducing her to the world around her.

We've just done our first trip with 2 kids and now, reading your blog I can't wait for the next one!

Look forward to reading your top travel tips someday too! Keep up the great work.