I had wanted to visit Vietnam ever since my days as at University student in Melbourne where $5 could buy me a noodle soup (Pho) and a plate of Spring rolls down Victoria St Richmond. The food was always so memorable and fragrant, how good must the country be to visit?
I came close many times and somehow something always got in the way, so finally landing in Saigon I was quite thrilled to be in a car from the airport while motorbikes screamed past me down busy roads lining the Mekong River which meanders through the city like blood filled veins through a warm body.
Learning - (under protest), that travelling with 3 children 5yo and under has its challenges...this trip was been designed with comfort in mind and we decided to focus on Southern Vietnam. In Saigon, we chose a beautiful yet older style apartment on the outskirts of the main city 'District 1' however the peacefulness of its location on the riverside was something to be thankful for in a city of 12 million people who all seem to be moving in different directions 24 hours a day! Connected by a free speedboat ride to the city only 10mins from the main hub of Saigon we didn't feel isolated from the main action. The early morning 'Pho' at our floating pontoon breakfast restaurant overlooking the Mekong a great way to start the day. Fresh mint and coriander...chilli and lime. Ingredients so simple yet astonishing all in the one bite. It was at this point of the trip that M developed a '2 Pho a day' habit and O insisted on having one each morning - just like dad.
Our first full day in Saigon we chose to take a private tour which included visits to Notre Damn Cathedral, Post Office and War History Museum...the latter providing propaganda filled journey through war time Vietnam and some very sobering photographs of times past (albeit only one side of the story on display). The highlight was certainly Reunification Palace which was like stepping into a time capsule of 1970's Saigon - as if the building was deserted the minute the tanks smashed down the front gates on 02 April 1975 signalling the fall of a Saigon to the North Vietnamese. Musty offices...War time Operations Planning room...70's style telephones and giant radios, banquet halls in shrouded in drapes made of yellow velvet, it was is if Nixon himself might pop out at anymore to explain the time that was...
Fresh off the back of a trip to another country with a communist style government (China) we were expecting to be greeting with similar hushed tones and propaganda rich verbatum from our tour guide. Not so! Down in South Vietnam we were told in no uncertain terms that this was Saigon - not HCMC the name as bestowed upon it at the end of the Vitnam war.
On our last day we stumbled across two lovely old American fellows who were accompanied by a camera crew as they were filming a documentary about the Vietnam war and the stories of translators and where they were today. The gentlemen had served as Navy Seals in Saigon in the 1970's and were clearly moved to be back in Vietnam to tell their tale. From our short experience here we can see that around every corner there is a traveller here with a tale to tell...
The heat was not been our friend and despite ourselves living in eternal summer in Dili, walking the streets dodging the 6million motorcycles that call Saigon home was a challenge - even with the glimpses of green parks that are scattered through the city like mini-oasis's (although it was too hot to play much to the annoyance of the kids).
Always up for an adventure the two older kids quickly learnt to cross roads with gusto - arms outstretched and palm splayed flat as is the locals way of stopping traffic, while we constantly battled to hold onto H who insisted he walk independently!
Our hotel recommended 'Min's cooking class' for one of our activities, assuring us the kids would be very welcome. Making our way to the Ben Thahn markets by car early in the morning we were greeted by none other than Min herself and her 'translator' who wanted to confirm with us that we spoke French. Ummm, fail. Never the less we managed to make our way through the market tour where the kids marvelled at live bull frogs trying to leap for their lives through netted bags and tiger prawns that were literally jumping out of their ice filled tubs. You can't get much fresher than that!
A short taxi drive away awaited four other punters also booked on the cooking class for that morning who were perhaps not expecting 3 small children to join them! Their concern (and ours) was soon overcome as the staff took over H & Bel's entertainment by producing play dough and other toys so they played happily while being fed lemonade while the adults cut veggies in the surrounding tables making a traditional Vietnamese salad, marinated pork and dumplings. Sensational.
Our second stop on our Southern Vietnamese experience was been the beachside tourist mecca known as Nha Trang. A long sandy white beach littered with scantily clad tourists on one side of the highway, tall brand named hotels on the other side, Nha Trang is clearly a destination still in the making and provides a somewhat similar vibe to Thailand or Bali perhaps 20 years ago. Like our experiences in Saigon, english speaking staff in restaurants and in taxi's were a rarity. Thank goodness for pictures in menus!
This part of our vacation was very relaxing and we enjoyed days on the beach, around the pool, a few massages and yet another cooking class where we learnt to make food in a traditional 'clay pot'. The dish we cooked used fish, ginger, shallots and chilli and was beautiful and fresh and only enhanced by eating it from the same dish it was cooked in. We even purchased a few claypots so we could ourselves try to rectify the experience back home.
The highlights of Nha Trang for the kids was the cable car ride over to 'Vinpearl' Island which is about a 10minute journey with spectacular views of the Nha Trang coast. For about US$100 we were able to spend the entire day exploring 'Vinpearl Land' which included a reasonably impressive aquarium complete with 'Mermaids' (Vietnamese girls dressed in costumes with goggles on) who braved the sharks and stingrays once a day to put on a show. Miss 4yo was clearly impressed by the display and proudly explaimed to her older brother that he need no other proof that mermaids were indeed REAL!
Vinpearl has an enormous water park complete with the biggest and baddest looking waterslides I have certainly ever seen, however we were all quite content to hang out mostly in the kids pool which included smaller versions of the slides that even H braved. Perhaps my favourite memory of the day is Marco helping him to the top of the ladder and him skirting his way to the edge to 'launch' himself down the 3 metre slide at speed where I caught his startled and water logged face at the other end. After a quick submerge he spluttered with surprise - 'Again! Again!'
M did take the older kids on a few of the larger waterslides where they sat on large rubber rings, enthusiastically encouraged by Bel who is our family adrenalin junkie, while more cautious O works up the courage to follow his sisters lead. Even a capsise at the end of one of the longest and scariest looking slides didn't seem to break her spirit and she was quite mortified we had to go back to the hotel eventually!
Nha Trang's tourist mix mainly appears to be Australian's and Russians...the latter having no qualms about stripping down to the barest of swimsuits and letting it all hang out. No matter what time of day I looked outside the hotel window - 5am or 7pm down onto the beach, it was packed with swimmers and couples strutting their stuff up and down the shoreline. Nothing says people watching like a 50yo main in a black g-string and matching mesh shirt. Eeek!
One more night in Saigon before we headed to Singapore and loved our experience in Vietnam and certainly will be back when the kids are a little older so we can experience Northern Vietnam.