We arrived in Hanoi, north Vietnam, where the streets of the old town were lined with low-rise buildings, big old trees stuffed with incense sticks and sinewy black electricity cables draped and tangled between poles.
Indonesia had done a good job of preparing us for Vietnam
The rivers of scooters didn’t seem so impossible to cross. Just wait for a brief gap, step out and keep walking. Imagine you’re a mobile boulder and let the scooters wash around you.
Street-eating is the way to go. The pavements are crowded with women tending tiny kitchens. Some squat down and cook meat on small barbecues, some carry shoulder poles with vats of broth dangling from one side and everything but the kitchen sink piled high on the other side.
We found ourselves a sweet alleyway eatery between the old town and the church, where our super-tasty chips were cooked in a big wok of fat over a single gas burner set on the ground. This was a popular place with young people, all finding their spot on tiny plastic stools, eating meat on sticks and drinking beer in the gloom.
In Vietnam, it’s not cool to lose your temper
Saving face is important. Building someone else’s face is even more important. But when we were duped by shoe-menders in the street, I lost my rag.
They were pointing at Robert as if something was wrong. Of course I stopped, concerned. They then whipped his trainers off and covered the heels using rubber tyre and glue. A second man whipped off Thomas’s trainers and began stitching them with thread. A woman shoved her basket of banana fritters at us as we stood there, completely useless and unable to leave because the boys had no shoes!
If anyone knows Robert well, they’ll know that he can take a long time to get his shoes and socks on. He has autism socks with no seams and his shoelaces have to be tied to the exact tightness.
When you muck with my kids, you muck with me
I was petrified that his shoes had been ruined. So I raised my voice, lost face, didn’t pay and didn’t give a fuck.
Afterwards, we spent a lot of time answering the boys’ questions about how and why we trade in goods and services and explained about relative wealth. Luckily, once the bad feelings had passed, the boys wore their shoes again.
I was annoyed at being scammed, especially after a couple of taxi drivers had demanded more money than the meter showed. It left a sour taste in my mouth and I found it hard to warm to the Vietnamese. My detachment was compounded during our tour of Ha Long Bay where I felt herded along with hundreds of other tourists, constantly being told where to stand, where to sit, when to eat.
During the tour, our first ever kayak trip was hilarious. On the way out to the (not-so) secret cave, I had Thomas. He expected the kayak to steer instantaneously and got increasingly frustrated at our kayaking crapness. Whilst the guide headed out in a nice straight line ahead of us, we were zigzagging across the water like drunks. I exclaimed that I had forgotten how to steer. He shouted back ‘It’s physics woman! It’s just physics woman!’
On the return trip with Robert, he got so annoyed at our inefficient trajectory that he tried to whack me around the head with his oar. ‘JUST CALM YOURSELF DOWN’ was, no doubt, heard for miles across the bay.
Rain, rain go away!
In Hue and Hoi An, central Vietnam, it was non-stop rain. The picture-postcard beach at An Bang was grey and the sea was rough. Still, the boys had fun body-boarding under our nervous watch and we made repeat visits to a great vegetarian restaurant and drank fresh beer, made daily, that cost just 20p a glass.
We met another travelling family from Belgium who were coming to the end of their 6-month trip. The mother and I shared understanding looks as we talked about the challenges of travelling with kids. I’d like to say we shared the same rollercoaster car, soaring between massive ups and downs. But they had a two-year-old in tow and were strictly home-schooling their two older boys. Was I just on the tea-cup ride after all?
After days of non-stop rain, we flew down to Ho Chi Minh City in the south where the skies were blue again.
I should mention here…
that Thomas and I had an almighty fight on the first day. After some kicking, scratching and biting, Fraser had to separate us. Thomas shouted that I’d made him unhappy. Later, he confided to his dad that some comments at school before leaving had left him feeling wobbly. He felt different from his friends and he was lonely.
Thomas is a wee boy on the very cusp of turning into a young man and time with other kids is incredibly important for his self-esteem. Making it happen whilst travelling is hard. Thanks to Lady Luck we met a American mum travelling with her two kids, spent the afternoon at a swimming pool and gave them an impromptu dinner at our Airbnb so the kids could be kids.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is cosmopolitan in comparison to Hanoi. The avenues are wide, with great parks and some grand architecture. We explored the alleyways, couldn’t believe all the coffee shops, felt saddened by the Vietnam War Remnants Museum and its gruesome pictorial documentation of death and damage by Agent Orange, splashed out on a £9 box of muesli and a £3.50 packet of Digestive Biscuits.
Every week, when wifi allows, we squash onto a bed, prop the laptop on a pillow, turn off the light and watch a Planet Earth programme. Comfort comes in small ways.