Family Vacation to Vietnam (2016)

Since Robert had missed out on most of our trip to Thailand four years ago, and since we got a good deal on airfare (Japan Air, Boston to Narita and then Narita to Hanoi), we all went to Vietnam for two weeks at the end of August. Samantha traveled on her original passport, with a baby photo taken at just about the age Helen was in her passport photo, leading to some confusion when people would review our passports and see, on paper, two babies and a kid, but see before them two kids and a baby. Japan Air was lovely and fastidious, of course. They ushered us on the plane absolutely first, and also gave us packs of diapers and individual baggies for Helen on each leg of the trip. Meanwhile, Robert was sold on Japan Air if for no other reason than the hot and iced green tea that kept coming down the aisles.

During our layover in Narita, after using the experimental high-tech bathrooms that doubled as an art installation, we stumbled upon a traditional art activity in the form of woodblock printing. Samantha was incredibly tired and a bit cranky, but she watched the activity from my back and by the end was interested enough to get down and proudly stand with me as I held up our print. Marcus was interested despite himself, and helped with one of the different layers of color.

Overall we had good flights, and we arrived in Hanoi around 10:00 at night the day after we left Boston. We were staying at the Golden Palace Hotel in the Old Quarter, and the hotel sent a car to the airport to meet us after we'd gone through the visa-on-arrival process (they never did take our picture, though we paid the "picture" fee right there) and gotten our bags and bought $7 SIM cards for each of us. On the ride from the airport, it was a little startling to see a number of people setting fires right on the edges of the sidewalk. "Are they burning trash?" Robert wondered aloud. "Holiday, holiday!" our driver said, and it seemed to be a full moon festival of some kind of a lot of ceremonial fires. Meanwhile, Marcus fell asleep in the cab and transferred to one of the hotel beds, and slept straight through until the morning.

The next morning, Samantha promptly got sick, before we'd eaten or drunk anything in the country. In hindsight it appeared that she'd caught some sort of generic bug while traveling, and it ran its 24-hour course with her before moving to Marcus and then to Robert. At the moment, it just seemed ominous to have a sick four-year-old our very first morning of the trip. Robert kept thinking she was fine, and then of course she'd be sick again, so finally I just took her back to the room and helped her rest and hydrate while Robert took Marcus out for the day.

Breakfast in the hotel was nice, though--Marcus had orange juice and I had passionfruit juice, and they'd make any of several dishes to order for you. Marcus liked the pancakes, which were more like thick crepes, slathered with honey, and I had the bahn quon, while Robert had crab noodles and a lot of coffee.

Robert and Marcus went out for a long walk, and Marcus made friends with everyone who was making or tending a fire on the street. Then they took an Uber (yes, there is Uber in Vietnam--Robert was thrilled that it was there, that it eliminated the need to demand taxis use their meters (although, actually, that didn't seem to be nearly as big a problem here as it was in India), and that virtually every ride was about $1) to a lake on the outskirts of the city where you could see the wreckage of an American B-52 that came down in the lake, surrounded by houses and buildings. Finally they went to Kem Trang Tien, a famous ice cream place back near the center of Hanoi where motorcycles can just drive in to get their ice cream. Robert said his cone was okay, but Marcus's coconut bar was terrific. That night, Marcus crashed early, and Robert went out to bring back some street food for us--assorted spring rolls, fresh and fried, and a big bao, and a sugar cane juice.

The next morning, since we were all up and wide awake by 3:30, we decided to go to a flower market that operates from 3-6 or so. We were later told that basically all the flowers there came from Dalat or the surrounding region, and were being distributed around Hanoi. Flowers are very important for the many Buddhist altars that everyone has at home or in a business, and yellow flowers are a especial favorite.

From the flower market we took a car back to the main lake in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem, which is close to our hotel and which features prominently in myth and legend--there's an Arthurian-style myth about a sword in this lake, and an ancient turtle (one of only three of its kind left in the world, and one of the sacred animals of Vietnam--interestingly, the others are a unicorn, a dragon, and a phoenix) used to live in this lake, but just died this winter, sadly. It was a very cute turtle, too, judging from photos. At any event, we walked around the lake along with hundreds of other people, now that it was close to and just after 6:00 in the morning.

People powerwalked, did tai chi, and did aerobics. "Imagine 50-100 people at a time in perfect sync with the aerobics leader," I was telling Sarah after we got home, trying to describe the scene to her. "'50-100' also describes the people's average age," Robert added. Helen got her first "sniff kiss," a Vietnamese cultural hallmark, from an older man doing tai chi by the edge of the lake. He inhaled long and gently. At different points walking around the lake, I had to stop so groups of older women could adore her. They clearly wanted me to take her out of the sling so they could get their hands on her, but I resisted.

Marcus was fascinated by the banyan trees that grew out into the lake itself, and he walked out on the trunks of a few of them. We didn't take the red bridge to the temple on the island because it wasn't open yet, but it was nice to walk around while it was a bit cooler than the true heat of the day.

Back at the hotel we had another nice breakfast. Samantha loved her pho ("with no stuff in it, please!").


We took advantage of the free college-student tour guides at Hanoi Kids, who sent two cheerful guides to our hotel to meet us and take us to the Museum of Ethnography, a neat museum looking at the 54 different ethnic groups in the country. Everyone we met seemed to be able to quote that "54" statistic, which was a bit baffling to us. I'm not sure anyone could tell you, off the top of their head, how many different Native American tribes there are in the US, after all. At any rate, the museum had actual houses from a dozen or so different ethnic groups arranged in a nicely landscaped garden area, and we went into these with our guides and climbed around and talked about matriarchies and matrilineal lines and looms and all sorts of other interesting details.

There were also banyan trees to climb, and a snack shop where the kids had ice cream and we all got some water. "It's cold today," one of our guides said. Robert looked at her very strangely. "Yes, winter is coming," the other guide agreed. It was, perhaps, 91 at the time? And of course, incredibly humid.

Samantha and I climbed up the women's staircase to this house, while Marcus and Robert climbed the much more phallic men's staircase on the other side. Samantha then watched the informative movie about the house and the people and regaled our guides with some of the things she learned.

The inside of the museum was small and not as nice as the houses outside--it was also air conditioned entirely by two units in one ground-floor room, though the sensation of being inside, with actual walls and a ceiling, and no air conditioning, was somehow much worse than just being outside.

In the evening we took a street food walking tour, and meanwhile Hanoi was hit by the fringe of a typhoon. The kids wore their ponchos that I'd brought from home, correctly figuring kid-sized ponchos might be a harder find here, and I used an umbrella from the hotel, and Robert mostly just got wet.

We ate all sorts of delicious things, including Vietnamese egg coffee (frothy and like a zabaglione, really), and bun cha, and fruits in coconut milk, and fried spring rolls of several different sorts, but our favorite was when Miss Moon, our guide, having heard Marcus's incessant pleas for a coconut, hunted down a deaf vendor who sold bo bia, little rolls of shredded coconut and shredded sugarcane, which were absolutely divine. Samantha adored the little stools that were de rigueur at all the restaurants.

Helen was a celebrity everywhere we went. The Vietnamese really do love babies, and Miss Moon delighted in bringing Helen over to meet the waitstaff and other patrons wherever we were. Eventually she would squawk, and someone would bring her back to me (or, more likely, they'd try bouncing her and try to avoid having to give her back to me!).

On our last day in Hanoi, we tried to go to the park near the zoo (though we'd heard the zoo was kind of sad, and not that great, we do like visiting zoos in different countries--it's a great way to get to see local kids and families and get a feeling for the culture, and we've done it, memorably, in Bangkok, Jerusalem, and Reykjavik). Our first problem was that there were no western-style toilets, which made Samantha just decide she didn't really need to go to the bathroom after all, but then it started to rain as the typhoon moved in, and it became clear that it wasn't going to stop raining, so there went our dreams of riding around inside a giant inflatable ball on a lake, among other things.

Samantha expressed her disappointment poetically in a journal entry for that day: "Once upon a time we went to a park by the zoo. Rain."

As a plan B, we took an Uber to the Lotte Center, a Korean high rise close to the zoo with a big supermarket and department store. Everyone perked up as we rode around the supermarket and picked out snacks for later on. The "Crab Me" crackers/chips proved especially popular, and the $.25 nigiri, individually wrapped, were quite pleasant as well. I got some sticky rice with pork floss for the train ride later that night, and then we went up to the department store, where we used their lovely bathrooms and where I nursed comfortably and then changed Helen luxuriously in the yellow-leather baby changing tables in the baby lounge. Ah, Lotte! We love you. We then went to Cha Ca La Vong for their famous fish cooked at your table with dill. The fish was really good, not like anything we'd had before, and we were glad we made it there (or across the street from there--they are very big on look-alike, sound-alike places, and it was unclear whether we ate at an outpost of the original famous restaurant or an enterprising imitator, but either way it was delicious).

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Created: 9/3/16. Last Modified: 9/3/16.