HANOI OR BUST
How to keep pre-teens occupied in Vietnam? Peter Lalor has a swag of suggestions
SOME travellers crave a cocktail and pedicure by the pool, others are drawn to encounters with bedbugs and backpacks along a jungle trail. Some travel to shop for shiny objects; others to stare at shrines and crumbling monuments.
The most divergent aspirations, however, surely will be found within the cloister of the modern family unit. Which is what we learn when travelling to Vietnam with two children aged nine and 11.
For these two, a pirated Rocky I DVD is ancient culture, Ho Chi Minh City’s KFC restaurant is an exciting culinary discovery and a cruise around Halong Bay’s World Heritage-listed islands is a minor nightmare because there’s no cable television on the boat. Such a holiday could easily end up with the sort of polarisations that resulted in the American invasion of that country. But despite some tensions and tantrums, we eventually manage to paper over the yawning gulf of the generational divide with a series of negotiations, bribes and painful concessions.
I’m of a mind that any country where a beer costs 20c is going to have it all over the continents and isles where thimbles of designer lager set you back a week’s wages.
The children similarly approve of any place where internet cafes charge 40c an hour and stalls selling those cheap DVDs line the streets.
Our worlds collide, as it were, in the crowded and chaotic old quarter of Hanoi where we set up camp for four nights. A few blocks from Camellia 4, our cheap and cheerful hotel (you can stay comfortably in Vietnam for less than $US40, or $47, a night), we find an internet cafe that doubles as a child-minding centre for the fading hours of the afternoon when we’ve all had enough of each other.
Lucy, 11, proceeds to chat via webcam with her mates in Sydney’s Marrickville, including one who’s holidaying in Japan. Harry, 9, resumes his endless battle against the forces of evil in the World of Warcraft.
Being of the poste restante generation, I retreat across the road where a street stall selling beer and soup sets up outside a small temple every night. Bia Hoi is a Hanoi institution and also seems to be the generic name for the outdoor bars on the crowded corners of the old quarter, all of which boast a barrel of beer, some glasses and a few small plastic stools. One intersection in the old quarter boasts five Bia Hoi spots, and this is a great precinct to set up and ease yourself into the evening.
P. J. O’Rourke once argued that all you need to know about communism is that you can’t get good Chinese takeout in China and Cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. I can counter that you can get 20c beer in Vietnam, which makes the price of democracy about $6 a bottle.
The stall I adopt also sells pho, delicious noodle soup. The $US1.50 street-stall version turns out to be the tastiest and best we try, better than the fancy bowl served at a fivestar resort later in the trip.
My wife, Sue, takes the chance to rest in the hotel for the first beer or two but arrives in time for a bowl of soup. When the kids emerge, they’re hungry as well, but we’ve given up our seats at the three crowded communal tables.
The waiter, ready for any situation, finds a spare table and a space between some motorbikes across the road and sets up so the kids can eat. We have thus achieved a peaceful pattern of coexistence that becomes a daily routine.
The food in Vietnam, by the way, is good for adults and kids. The French influence means the baguettes are plentiful, but our children love the many mild versions of local chicken and beef dishes; spring rolls, fried or fresh, are winners. And when comfort is needed, garlic bread and chips always seem to work. Food hygiene appears to be a strong point; even the street vendors use gloves.
Early in our trip there are tensions and a little culture shock, but not much. Harry shows he’s adapting well by almost bowling over an expat in a dash for the exit at one airport. ‘‘ He’s already a local,’’ the bemused woman says as I apologise. How right she is. Within a week Harry is catching up on lost sleep while riding pillion on a highway outside Hoi An. It is the first time we’ve braved a motorbike taxi service but after a while we stop worrying about trucks travelling on the wrong side of the road, the lack of helmets and the determination to carry three people for every 100cc of power. And the kids do love travelling by motorbike, at least the bits they are awake for.
We’d been warned Vietnam’s cities would be the hardest for the kids; the hustle and bustle tires them. So we feel our way slowly, stopping often for drinks and snacks. The shopping is wonderful and all of us find something of interest every few metres (everything from displays of snake whisky to gaudy Uncle Ho mementoes). But cultural outings are more difficult and involve compromise. A trip to the Temple of Literature — the university, established in 1070, which boasts beautiful buildings in an oasis of calm amid the traffic of Hanoi — has to begin with iced chocolates at a cafe and finish with the promise of more later.
This outing also involves the first crossing of a main road. This is a big step for any visitor. Ignore the stupidity of at least one guidebook, which suggests you close your eyes and walk, and just be patient and wait for a decent gap. Bikes and motorbikes will go around you, but if you stop or bolt you may cause an accident. Families need to stick together and rehearse moving, as one, on command.
The narrow streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, where motorbikes take up the footpath, are also a test and you need to develop a disciplined and vigilant single-file approach; drivers and riders will give you only a few centimetres leeway so keep your arms tucked in.
I plan to fit in a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum the day after the Temple of Literature, just to see how Uncle Ho is holding up and whether the locals really do file past in tears. I also think I may say a little thank you for establishing a political system where beer is so cheap. Alas, I find myself heading to the Hanoi Water Park and it worries me to admit there are more laughs and fun to be had here on the slides, rides and rapids than one could expect from a slowly decaying dictator. The view across the Ho Tay, or West Lake, from the top of the slides is worth the terror of the ride down.
I also notice good water parks in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang; they’re cheap and good fun and guaranteed to amuse most children. We enjoy it all, too. One communal outing that founders, though, is to the meat market in Hanoi’s old quarter. Kids may put up with vegetable markets but Lucy is clearly shocked by the horrors of open-air Vietnamese butchers and Harry, for once, is sympathetic to his sister’s lot.
Keep your time in the big cities as short as possible. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, with its World Heritage-listed village, river and endless beach nearby (the surfing scene in ApocalypseNow was set here) is the perfect antidote to city chaos. Here you can ride bicycles, catch motorbikes, swim, shop and eat until you burst.
And beware of the odd crossed wire. On our last night in Ho Chi Minh City, the doorman blocks our entrance to a small cafe cum bar. ‘‘ Sorry sir, this is lady bar,’’ he says. ‘‘ What’s that?’’ the kids chorus. ‘‘ Ladies only,’’ I quickly tell them. This is one cultural experience I reckon they can skip. ■ www.jetstar.com.au ■ www.vietnamtourism.com
Cheap and cheerful: Clockwise from bottom left, water puppets; Harry and Lucy enjoy local food; internet cafes in Hanoi; water taxis