“I’m certain you have one of these in your bag.” I look at the Vietnamese customs agent’s hand and my face turns white.
A bullet? I think he just told me I have a bullet in my bag.
I muster a nervous chuckle and search for a respectful, yet confident, tone of voice. “Um, sir, there are no bullets in my laptop bag.”
“Yes, I’m certain you have one.”
As he says this, I watch his hand cup the brass cylinder and slide down into the side pocket of the bag.
At first I assume he’s trying to rattle me with a little standard procedure fun, but as he pulls my family and me out of line and to the side for a closer inspection of my things, I begin to mentally steel myself for a trip to the back offices of the Vietnamese customs agency.
I hear Blythe’s sweet voice asking Lindsay why these men want to look in Daddy’s bag as I slip into a hollow, metal tunnel of anxiety, wondering how many hours of interrogation it will take me to convince them that I make software for a living and don’t even own a firearm.
As we approached the 30-day mark in Thailand, the time came for our visa run to re-up for another month. We chose Ho Chi Minh City partly because of its painless proximity to Bangkok with an easy to digest 90-minute direct flight.
However, Vietnam also held a certain attraction for us as a place with that fragile balance between the unknown excitement that makes travel fun and the safety and comforts required to keep two children protected and happy.
The region comprised of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos actually affords travelers a number of point to point options when putting together a multi-country SE Asia itinerary, and we considered all of them for our visa run, even if briefly.
Now on the return flight to Bangkok after five nights in Saigon, we’ve gotten at least a taste of what Vietnam has to offer and what it’s like to travel there with small children.
Let’s cut to the chase…
Vietnam is a beautiful country with rich cultural and historical heritage. Its provincial diversity could have you there exploring for weeks.
But, we wouldn’t put it at the top of the list for travel with kids.
While there are dozens of things to see and do, even some that we found to be perfect with Blythe and Levi, the aggressive hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding areas kept us eerily defensive when traveling with a two and four year old.
Coming off of a month in the Land of Smiles, we’d let our guard down a bit. In Thailand, it seemed locals were waiting at every corner to lend a hand while we shuffled the kids between scooters. In Ho Chi Minh, it felt as though we avoided a near miss with every street crossing.
And we paid the price for arriving in Vietnam with a relaxed and less-vigilant state of mind.
Within 24 hours of arriving, walking down a crowded sidewalk (yes, this happened on a sidewalk) in the midst of the Chinese New Year, I was bumped into by a scooter on my left side while carrying Blythe on the sidewalk. I was too busy trying to protect my daughter from getting run over to remember that I had slipped my phone into my pocket just a few moments earlier (yes, I am usually much more cautious about what I take out with me and where it’s stowed). Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the hand in my pocket on the right side.
We wake up the next day with a clean slate, ready to escape the city for a day-long tour of the Mekong Delta provinces. As an early Valentine’s Day treat, Lindsay planned to enjoy an evening at the spa while I looked forward to some much-needed “dad time” with Blythe and Levi.
Excited to share an authentic Vietnamese dinner experience with them, we decided on what appeared to be a very reputable street food sidewalk cafe. After ordering rice pancakes and a couple of bowls of pho, we began to have to perpetually fend off unordered plates from the more expensive end of the menu. They seemed to land on our table almost magically and any rebuttals were quickly met with the smiling face of an 8-year-old girl who insisted we had ordered them. Before leaving, the local next to me leans over. “Be sure you keep track of what you order here”, he says quietly.
Great. Strike 2.
I tend to believe that when nouns related to large segments of geography or time are used to describe misfortune, that it’s based on perspective. If hardships happen in January, June, and December, was 2012 really a bad year? Or did three bad things happen relatively close together when compared against a man-made concept of time?
And anyone who knows me or Lindsay can vouch that we’re typically unwavering optimists.
However, for five days I kept restraining myself from blaming “Vietnam” for what felt like a constant barrage of hustles.
Then we randomly ran into a friend in Ho Chi Minh City who had just arrived from Hanoi. She was driven a few kilometers from the airport by a taxi driver at an agreed upon price before the cab was stopped in the most remote portion of the trip. The driver informed all four of the women in the cab that they would each pay him $10USD extra or he would leave them on the side of the road in this dark area. Nice!
So, is Vietnam a bad place to travel? Of course not.
Is it ideal for travel with a two and four year old? Not really.
So after the string of events mentioned above and two dozen others I can’t get into within the confines of a blog post, forgive me if I over-reacted when a Vietnamese customs officer appeared to be giving me one last shake down before leaving the country.
After ripping my laptop bag apart for what seemed like 12 hours, he surmised that in fact, I did not have a bullet in my bag and probably didn’t own a firearm.
But this farewell is our last to Vietnam for a while.
Despite the griping in this post, we did get out and enjoy several activities in and around Ho Chi Minh City. In addition to just exploring the city and sampling street food, we wanted to list a few activities that we were able to enjoy as a family if you are planning to travel to Vietnam with kids.
Mekong Delta: With the number of tourists visiting the Mekong Delta each day, you can’t help but wonder how the people of the islands at the mouth of one of Southeast Asia’s longest rivers would be able to get by without the economics of tourism. However, after spending a day in the Delta, we were able to get a glimpse of some of the cultural and ethnic diversity that makes up Vietnam.
Water Puppet Show: This award-winning performance troupe has traveled the globe putting on one of the most amazing puppet displays in the world. Blending traditional Vietnamese folk music with the art of puppetry, this show was one of the highlights of our time in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ben Thanh Market: While this is one of the more touristy and dirty street markets we’ve seen so far in SE Asia, it has enough activity and cheap deals to keep parents and kids entertained.
Opera House: If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City on the right days, you can enjoy a performance at the stunning Opera House. The structure itself is worth seeing, but twice a week the company puts on a traditional Vietnamese display of performing arts.
War Remnants Museum: With a very violent and one-dimensional look at the Vietnam War, the War Remnants Museum is not for young children. However, Lindsay and I both knew we wanted to see this display of the atrocities that come with war. It turned out that they had a “kids’ club” where Lindsay and I each took turns with Blythe and Levi while the other went through the exhibitions..