HANOI OR BUST

How to keep pre-teens oc­cu­pied in Viet­nam? Peter Lalor has a swag of sug­ges­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Family Holidays -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.