Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, and we’d also planned a 2-day homestay tour in the Mekong Delta (a couple of hours from HCMC). We stayed 3 nights in Ho Chi Minh, which really in hindsight probably wasn’t enough. One site I was really disappointed to miss was the Cu Chi Tunnels, but there are just some things you don’t get time for. The weather was so hot and sticky that the kids tired pretty easily and we couldn’t pack that much into a day. I think too after 3 weeks of full-on travel, they were just a bit tired and unwell. Here are some of the things we did:

 The War Museum

This was an incredibly powerful and heart-wrenching experience. The War Museum does not pull any punches in detailing the graphic nature of the Vietnam War, the atrocities which occurred, and the devastating effects of Agent Orange. The first floor was OK for all the kids, but the second floor was quite disturbing. I didn’t allow Little Miss to go into any of the exhibitions – fortunately, there is a separate kids’ play area for just that reason. Picasso and Bookworm went into a couple of the exhibitions and looked at some of the photos, but were too upset to see much of it, and I made sure they didn’t see any of the really graphic images – pictures of deformed foetuses, for instance. I’m still not sure if we did the right thing in taking them – but I think we did. Outside the museum are big American tanks, a plane and guns – and when we first arrived, the boys thought they were the coolest things ever. After being inside the museum, I asked Bookworm if he wanted to walk by the tanks one last time before we left. He said, “Mum, I don’t even want to look at them, now that I’ve seen those war photos.” I think it’s important to understand the reality of war. I think it was a difficult, but necessary visit.

The Reunification Palace

More of a government house than a palace, but still quite interesting. It’s pretty much remained unchanged since the fall of Saigon in the 1960s and is quite impressive. Unfortunately we were a bit depressed after seeing the War Museum and didn’t stay too long because Bookworm was feeling sick as well that day. The kids liked the Guest of Honour seat in the President’s office, which had an enormous pair of buffalo horns extending out either side.

 The Dam Sen Amusement and Water Park

I don’t think you can beat Asia for cheap, fantastic amusement parks. This was an absolutely enormous place – maybe 5 times the size of Lunar Park – for a fraction of the price. The kids’ tickets were just $6 each! There were stacks of rides, and a big water park inside as well. Unfortunately the day we went was a holiday in Vietnam and I swear every single person in Ho Chi Minh was there was well, so it was very packed. We only saw one other western family though, so if you’re travelling and picked a normal weekday, you’d probably have the place to yourself. The slides were kind of wild and Little Miss wasn’t allowed to go on many, but she really enjoyed the children’s section.

  Saigon Opera House

A last-minute decision saw us buying tickets to the A O show at the Opera House, and we were so glad we did. It was amazing – the kids were transfixed. Created by a former member of Cirque de Soleil, A O tells the history of Vietnam through dance, music and acrobatics, with just bamboo baskets and poles as props. The feats they achieve are quite incredible – human pyramids, flying across the stage doing cartwheels in bamboo baskets, and somersaulting off swinging ropes, to name just a few. Mesmerising.

The Ben Than markets

A huge marketplace with everything your heart could possibly desire. You have to be prepared to haggle though – which personally I found exhausting. Bookworm excelled at it, so I made sure to keep him close by 🙂

The Mekong Delta

We booked a one-night/two-day homestay through Indochina tours and Cruiseabout Travel, and weren’t exactly sure what to expect – but we were absolutely blown away by how fabulous this turned out to be. We had a private guide – Vien – who was amazing. She taught us so much about Vietnamese life, and was so knowledgeable, and kept the kids amused with games in the car and taught them how to make bracelets and rings with coconut leaves.

We drove into the Mekong and then took a boat up the river where we stopped off to see how bricks are made from the river clay, how coconuts are processed into oil, sweets, mats and handcrafts, and we also saw bamboo mat weaving. We visited a gorgeous place right in the mangroves for lunch and stayed overnight in a beautiful French villa and learned how to make spring rolls. We were going to bike into town to see the markets but the kids were pretty exhausted by then so it was nice to just hang out at the villa and enjoy the gardens and the very cute puppy they had living there. We also met a lovely Australian family who were on the homestay as well, and we really hit if off. Travelling is so great for making new friends! All in all, a wonderful way to finish our Vietnam experience. In the way back into Ho Chi Minh, Vien and I talked for hours about the differences between Australia and Vietnam – it turns out the difficulty of balancing work/career and family/children is a universal experience felt by women everywhere 🙂

 

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Nha Trang and Da Lat

After Hoi An, we caught a plane to Nha Trang. This was around the mid-point of our journey and so we thought a few days relaxing near the beach would be a nice rest, and it was, although the weather let us down a little. I’d read a few posts and forums with tourists decrying Nha Trang as a sleazy tourist destination, but while you certainly don’t see “real’ Vietnam, it was a nice spot to relax. It is true however that you can’t walk about 5 metres without falling over a Russian! There are plenty of activities to enjoy in Nha Trang – parasailing, scuba diving, snorkelling and jet skiing to name a few  – but most of these are not really for kids, so we didn’t do too much. Here are some of the things we enjoyed:

Cham temples

Built sometime before 781, the Cham temple is dedicated to Yan Po Nagar, the goddess of the country, who came to be identified with two Hindu goddesses, and who in Vietnamese is called Thiên Y Thánh Mâu. The temple was interesting, although some of the restoration work has been pretty poorly done, which is a shame.

The beach and Central Park

The main tourist stretch on the beach is called Central Park, and there is a pretty cool set of pools right opposite the beach. You can rent a chair for about $5 for the day and just divide your time between the beach and the pools. The boys enjoyed the beach, although December is not the best season for swimming – its pretty churned up and Little Miss did not like it much – but they all loved the pools. I think we are pretty spoilt with our beaches in Oz 🙂

Vinpearl Amusement and Water Park

Built on an island just off Nha Trang’s coast by a Vietnamese billionaire, Vinpearl is a resort and a huge amusement and water park. It’s not cheap by Asian standards but well worth a visit with kids. We spent a day there and still didn’t do all of the rides and activities. The kids particularly loved the water park, and there were really good water slides for all ages. I even did some! Also, you get there by cable car from the mainland which is heaps of fun.

Da Lat

After Nha Trang, it was a taxi ride up the mountains and into Da Lat. When we were refining our itinerary, we nearly dropped Da Lat – we have packed a LOT of travelling into the Vietnam leg of this trip, and I wondered if Da Lat was an extra stop that would push it a bit too far for the kids. I am SO GLAD we didn’t! We just loved Da Lat. The city was built by the French in the early 1900s in beautiful alpine country, and so the city has quite a European feel. The cooler climate means there are gorgeous flowers and gardens everywhere. There is a lot of interesting cultural history too, with many minority groups in the area. I think though what made Da Lat so awesome was an Easy Rider day-tour we did with local guide Hung. This was probably the best day we’d had, and I think Da Lat was the perfect place to do it. The highlights for me on the day trip were:

Datanla Falls

The Elephant Falls are more impressive, but these smaller falls had an alpine roller coaster you could ride to and from the falls, which is the best thing ever. There was also an archery range which we all thought was pretty cool.

Coffee Plantation and Silk Factory

Da Lat has coffee plantations everywhere, and it was very interesting to learn more about the coffee making process. And even more interesting was visiting a coffee house where the beans are passed through a weasel’s digestive tract before being used! We even tried a cup – I quite liked it 🙂 Seeing the silk factory was awesome as well – I hadn’t realised it takes 8kg of cocoons to make just 1kg of silk. it was fascinating to see the process and how the silk is spun from the cocoon – and I also liked that nothing is wasted. The silkworms inside the cocoons (who are boiled during the silk making process!) are used for cooking, and the silk that is not of good enough quality to use in cloth is used for stuffing pillows.

The Crazy House

I could try and describe the Gaudi-inspired Crazy House, but a picture is worth a thousand words:

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It is truly Alice In Wonderland-esque, a wild mass of wood and wire fashioned into the shape of a giant tree house and smoothed over in concrete, with hundreds of tiny winding staircases and little odd rooms. The eccentric owner/proprietor and chief architect, is Ms. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of aristocracy, with a degree in architecture from university in Moscow. Needless to say this was a total hit with the kids! Truly crazy and wonderful at the same time.

If anyone out there is considering a trip to Vietnam, a highly recommend a stop in Da Lat!

Things to do in Hanoi the whole family will love

So I’ve decided to do some travel blog type posts to inspire you to visit Vietnam 🙂 We really loved Hanoi and I think it’s a great city to get your feet wet in this very large and complex country. Here are some of the activities and sights we really enjoyed.

The Old Quarter

Definitely stay in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you get the best atmosphere and streets – crazy traffic, sidewalks cluttered with people selling food, cooking, washing, riding bikes, welding metal – tons of market stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine. Some streets are dedicated solely to one type of item and are aptly named – for example, “shoe” or “toy” street. Lots of fun to look around, although the manic pace will get tiring for young kids after a while. We found a great cafe and sat on a second-storey balcony sipping passionfruit juice just watching it all go by.

The Water Puppet Theatre

The kids LOVED this. We went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (located at the Hoan Kiem Lake) which is probably pricey, seeing how you can see it for free at various places including the Museum of Ethnology. But I think it was worth it because the show we saw was inside and they could do more with fireworks and lights and other effects. And anyway the tickets were less than $6 each – so cheap as chips really.

Hoan Kiem Lake

This is a beautiful lake and has the Temple of the Jade Mountain (worth a visit) and the Turtle Tower. Its nice to just walk around as well, especially at night when it’s all lit up.

Museum of Ethnology

It might sound dry as dust but this is a fascinating place as it contains both indoor and outdoor exhibits detailing the history and culture of the 54 ethnic groups which comprise Vietnam. The kids really enjoyed the outdoor exhibits – reconstructions of the types of houses various ethnic groups lived in, like this one:

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Truly fascinating. And right over the road is…

Cong Vien Nghia Do Park

A fantastic park in Hanoi. The kids loved it here. It has a beautiful lake, a clean and huge play area with lots of equipment, including a zipline, and motorised cars for hire for less than $1 each. It was a good way to spend a few hours and let the kids burn off some energy.

Thu Le Park 

We drove by this park on our way elsewhere and hilariously could not find out how to get back there for some time. We initially thought it was Lenin Park and went there (much to the surprise of the taxi driver), but that was pretty disappointing as it was just a square with a statue of Lenin (although it did lead to some fascinating conversations with the kids about Communism). Anyway we finally found the right place and it was great, although I will say I found the zoo a little sub-standard, which I guess is to be expected (it was hard seeing the tigers in such a small cage). Loads of rides, roller coasters, paddle boats etc etc all for about a dollar each. Little Miss was asked to pose for photos with tourists everywhere she went and one Chinese couple asked Souljourneyboy if he would hold their baby for a photograph! Oddly, we saw hardly any western tourists.

Hoa Lo prison

Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs during the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is called in Vietnam), the prison was initially used by French colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners, and is now a museum.

It details the lives, torture methods and barbaric practices of the French against the Vietnamese and is probably not for young kids. Ours were OK, although I did keep Little Miss out of the room which houses the guillotine used for executions. Picasso and Bookworm were old enough to handle it and again, the visit lead to interesting and important conversations. There is one room dedicated to explaining how the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners which is propaganda at its finest. If you believed the DVD that was playing it would be hard to see why any Americans wanted to go home, as they were treated so well as POWs 🙂

Night Markets

To be honest you can probably get better souvenir type items at the regular day shops but nothing beats the atmosphere of a night market. The kids absolutely loved it and Souljourneyboy even tried some street food.

Halong Bay

Even though this is some hours from Hanoi, most people visit Halong from Hanoi as a two-day one night or two-night side-trip. Absolutely spectacular. The limestone caves were amazing, as was sailing around the floating fishing villages in bamboo boats. The cruise ship we were on also had fun things like a cooking class where the kids learned to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and a spa where I had a massage – winner. We were glad though we just did the one-night trip, I think with the kids that was enough. And we also made some really nice friends – a couple of fellow Aussies who were travelling from Melbourne.

All in all, we really enjoyed Hanoi. I think I really liked that it was a nice way to start – you don’t get hassled so much by people trying to sell you things, so you can ease into it slowly. Souljourneyboy and I would have liked to have seen the The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but travelling with kids sometimes means you have to choose the park over the museum 🙂

If anyone else has travelled to Hanoi, I’d love to hear your favourite spots!

Taking flight and first impressions of Hanoi

We’re here in Hanoi!

After two train rides, two plane trips, a 6-hour layover in an airport in the middle of the night and a hair-raising taxi ride, we are here in Hanoi. And we love it.

The kids coped so well with the travel and the crazy airport queues. I did laugh when Picasso bounded into our first plane and into the business class area and said, in awe of the large and spacious seats – “can we just sit anywhere Mum?”

Um, sadly not. We eventually found our seats and Little Miss asked – “is this third class, Mum?”

We took an overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur and then did this for a couple of hours:

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One aerotrain ride and a flight later, we were in Hanoi. While they’d been amazing, the kids were exhausted, and I think I underestimated the impact of cultural shock on them. We came to our hotel – clean and comfortable but pretty basic –  and took our first walk through the Old Quarter. The traffic really is as manic as everyone says. No one stops. To cross the road you just have to walk out in front of bicycles, cars, and motorbikes and trust that they will swerve around you. And footpaths are not for walking – they’re for eating and cooking and selling and sitting and parking.

Little Miss was absolutely terrified of the traffic and the boys were worried about the pollution. They were concerned that the food looked so different and they didn’t understand what it was. Bookworm, his lip trembling, told me he felt “out of control”. That night we had some money stolen from Souljourneyboy’s wallet and the kids were understandably scared and worried. I fell asleep knowing  we had done the right thing in choosing a holiday that would stretch and challenge them – but wondered how they would go.

I needn’t have worried. The wonderful thing about kids is how they just acclimatize. They’re so resilient. We spend our first full day exploring beautiful Hanoi – such a city of contradictions. In the middle of the chaos is the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, where it is said the Golden Turtle God took a sword from invading Chinese to save the Vietnamese people. Tourists scams abound, and yet most Vietnamese are such beautiful people. They kept coming up to us and bringing their children to meet Little Miss. Within a couple of hours the kids were crossing roads like they were locals. We visited the water puppet theatre, a truly wonderful experience, and the kids adored it.

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Then we hit the night markets – an absolute must-do if you are ever in Hanoi. The atmosphere is incredible. Everyone is out and about and the city and lake are lit up with lights. We had a wonderful time and on the way home, Picasso announced, “this is way better than Australia, Mum!”

A pretty good end to our second day 🙂

 

 

The lives we might have led…

A strange thing happened to me the other week.

There I was, idly reading the various reports of Amal Alamuddin’s marriage to George Clooney, when I suddenly became aware of an odd feeling. A kind of a weird mix of envy and disappointment.

Well of course, I hear you say. What sane heterosexual woman wouldn’t be jealous of whoever finally married George Clooney? What you experienced is an entirely natural response!

Only her marriage wasn’t the reason I felt that slight pricking of envy. Actually, I think George Clooney is just about the least interesting thing about her.

No, as I delved deeper into my strange state of mind, I realised this was all about the fact that in another life, in another version of me, I am Amal Alamuddin – a kick-ass international lawyer who fights for truth in the International Court of Justice and is asked to sit on UN commissions.

We’re the same age, Amal and I. She has the kind of career I imagined myself as having at certain stages in my life. She has achieved goals and dreams that I myself once had.

And yet, I am not her. I don’t work in London or New York, and didn’t become an international activist. I made different choices. I chose to stay in Australia instead of travelling and working overseas. I chose to have a family young, at 25. I own all of these decisions; at each step of the way I chose this path and this life, and I love it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with incredulity over how blessed I am. I married my first love. I have three amazing, healthy, smart, creative children. I have a wonderful family and extended family, and more friends than I know what to do with.

And yet, even in all of that, there’s still a small, sad sense of knowing that in making these choices, I’ve cut myself off from other choices I might have made. In choosing one kind of life, you inevitably cut short the other life you might have had.

I used to wish I had a couple of concurrent lives. In one, I’m doing exactly what I’m doing now. In another, I’m working for the UN in Africa and I probably don’t have children. In another, I’m living a subsistence lifestyle on a farm and writing the Great Australian Novel. And in another, I’ve chucked it all in and I’m travelling the world.

I’m not sure how to reconcile all these different parts of who I am in the one life. It seems like such a short space of time. I was talking to a very dear friend today and we both agreed that reaching the ages we are now means, in part, coming to terms with the fact that life doesn’t really work out the way you thought it would. I’m not going to be able to give life to all of those people who lurk inside me; I’m not going to do all the things I thought I would or could, when I was a teenager. I’m OK with that, mostly; it’s just sometimes you see the life that might have been, and wonder about it.

And who knows? Maybe there are a few versions of me out there – living different lives, kind of like Sliding Doors. I’d quite like to think so.

Watching, reading and playing

I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve been doing lately.

I’ve been watching HBO drama Oz. While it’s over a decade old now, really good scripting doesn’t age, and Oz is a testament to brilliant writing.

 If I could describe this show in a word, it would be “relentless”. Relentlessly good. Relentlessly violent and confronting. Relentlessly bleak and tragic and uplifting and astonishing. It was the first of the HBO dramas that broke the traditional television mold – paving the way for shows like Game of Thrones – and I think it remains the best.

If there’s any setting which truly allows for a deep exploration of themes like love, hate, redemption, forgiveness and punishment, it’s prison – here we see life at its most raw, stripped of all civility. There were times throughout the 6-season show that I wondered if the portrayal of sex, gangs and violence was over-fictionalised – and then I watched a Louis Theroux documentary about life in a maximum security prison. I was disturbed to see that there was actually not very much creative license taken at all in Oz.

Probably the most astounding aspect of the show is its brilliant characterization. In Oz there are no grabs for audience sympathy – these prisoners are guilty, some of heinous crimes. They are violent and murderous and manipulative – we are fully aware of who these men really are; and yet, we are dared to see the humanity as well as the crime. It’s disturbing and unsettling as we are forced past our mental attempts to categorize and stereotype.

I read an article where Dean Winters, who plays scheming manipulator Ryan O’Reilly (incidentally my favourite character) said that once an actor begins to play a character to win audience sympathy, they fail to be true to that character. None of the characters in Oz are played sympathetically – they are brutal and violent and at times sociopathic. And yet we are drawn into their lives and care about what happens to them.

Oz isn’t easy to stomach – but if you can, its well worth it.

I’ve also been reading Gone Girl.

I seem to have this habit of buying popular books in the bookstore just before they become popular. I did it with Twilight, then Hunger Games, and now Gone Girl, which I purchased being blissfully unaware it was about to become a bestseller and a Ben Affleck movie. I’m actually glad, because it gave me a chance to read the book without any preconceived ideas. And I really enjoyed Gone Girl. The writing is so taught– incredibly descriptive and yet not an unnecessary word throughout the whole novel. The plot thrummed along at a cracking pace and I found myself wanting to skip ahead several times to “see what happens” because I couldn’t stand the tension. I also found myself reflecting in quiet moments on the novel’s central theme – the idea of whether you can truly every really know anyone. I highly recommend you read the book before the movie comes out.

And, finally, I have been playing a lot of chess. Bookworm is obsessed with this game at the moment, and I’m sad to say I’m not able to beat him anymore. He recently went to a chess tournament and won the bronze medal. And now he says things like “I’ve got you in a pin and a fork” and I have no idea what that means, only that I am about to lose. I really have to brush up on my skills, otherwise he’s going to get cocky 🙂

I’d love to hear what others have been reading and watching – any good books or shows or games to share?

 

New beginnings

Hello all 🙂

I’ve been so slack with posting this year – life has been super hectic with the kids in Year 5, Year 3 and Year 1 now.

I was also really busy with work – I had a wonderful opportunity to manage a team in a different division for 6 months, which I thoroughly enjoyed, even though my work-life balance was slightly out of whack. Once this was over and I was headed back to a Communications role, it kind of gave me pause for thought, and I found myself asking the dreaded question – what am I doing with my life?

Ever since I was little, I’ve had a strong desire to help people and do something to contribute to making people’s lives better. Even when I was studying Communications and working in that field, I always thought I’d end up working for an international charity or government agency and living overseas. But as life has a wont to do, it hasn’t worked out like that. I know I’ve been a bit disillusioned working in a government environment – I’ve realised making a difference in policy is just really hard and takes a lot out of you. I’ve also realised that the lifestyle of an international aid worker doesn’t really sit well with being the kind of mother I want to be. So I’ve had to let go of that dream – for now, at least.

So, what next I hear you ask? Well, I’ve decided to pursue an option that will allow me to help people more directly. I’ve gone back to Uni part time to study psychology. And I’m absolutely loving it. I’ve dropped down my days at work so I can be a bit more available for the kids and get some study done, and I’m really excited to see where this next part of the journey takes me.

A dear friend described this next stage of my life as “Act II” and I love that description. We’re never too old to pursue a new dream or goal – and isn’t 40 the new 30?

I would love to hear about your goals and dreams for the next year or the next 10 – we’re never done growing and changing and I think that’s wonderful.