by aengelson | May 5th, 2011
When my mom and dad announced they were ready to visit us in Vietnam, I knew it was a big deal.
You see, they’ve never had passports before. Sure, they’ve traveled a lot in the U.S., from Florida to Hawaii to Arizona, but never outside the states (excepting brief trips to Vancouver and Tijuana, which barely counts). I helped them plan, and my sister and her family joined in, and soon a family reunion/trip in Hanoi was in the works.
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I have to admit I was a little nervous. This wasn’t Europe or Australia–Vietnam is serious foreign travel, and I hoped they’d have a good time, or at least survive the experience! Our daughters counted down the days to when they got to see their grandparents, aunt, and cousin.
After a marathon of flights, and some minor chaos at the immigration counter, they walked out bleary eyed from the airport and into the sensory overload of Hanoi…
Our first few days were spent with the usual easing-in routine we’ve established with our visitors: a taxi ride in the mad traffic, a wander about Hoan Kiem Lake and the Turtle temple, some tourist-friendly pho at Pho 24, some ice cream at Fanny’s. Everyone was of course fascinated with the cacophony of Hanoi: the traffic, the women carrying entire shops on a bicycle or baskets on their shoulders, the trash, the vibrant street life, the ubiquitous motorcycles.
They did amazingly well in those first days, although my nephew had a bit of a problem with jet lag. The girls decided to experience it with him, waking up at 3 a.m. and getting in some quality playtime in the darkness!
Then it was off the the easiest place to travel in Vietnam: Hoi An. My mom had specifically told me “we’re not really here to see Vietnam.” They wanted to see grandkids, see our life in Hanoi, and maybe get in one brief trip to a place with some sunshine, surf and sand. Hoi An has all that, plus beautifully preserved historic buildings, some of the best restaurants in Vietnam, plenty of great shopping, and a quiet city center (they actually ban motor vehicles on the central streets from 6 to 9, which, in Vietnam is radical!).
We stayed at the Thien Thanh hotel, a nice little boutique place I’d highly recommend: plenty of character, not too expensive, and a five-minute walk from the town center. It came with a postage-stamp pool, quaint little rooms decorated lots of wood and quirky details, and a superb buffet breakfast served on a patio overlooking fields of green water-spinach.
We did have a bit of a scare when my mom took a tumble and hurt her knee, but we all agreed it could have been much worse. We’d already made sure our trip wasn’t filled with too much walking for the plus-60-folks in our group, and the fact my mom now had to walk with a cane made us all the more aware how tricky travel in Vietnam can be if you’re disabled or have less than full mobility. Cracked sidewalks packed with motorbikes, narrow staircases with uneven risers, and holes in the road all became even more pronounced obstacle than they usually are.
Hoi An was a great mix of culture and relaxation. A temple here, a cold beer there, a bit shopping there, an afternoon spent under the beach umbrellas there. We ate like kings, whether it was the fresh seafood and spring rolls at the beach, or dining on homestyle Vietnamese specialties at Morning Glory in the evening. We finally tried Mango Rooms, and were impressed with its nouvelle twists on Vietnamese cuisine, but thought many of the other great restaurants in town give you as much quality for less money. We spent more than a few hours eating and sipping cocktails under the twisting fans of The Cargo Club.
As easy as travel is in Hoi An, we had our slip-ups. One afternoon, after eating a huge lunch and heading for the homemade ice cream at Casa Verde, we put my 5-year-old daughter, 6-year-old nephew and 60-something mother in a cyclo–a bicycle pedicab, and walked along with them on the waterfront.
But at a certain point we lost visual contact, and they vanished! After a bit of panic and scouring the streets of Hoi An (it’s not big, luckily) we did find the befuddled cyclo driver and his three charges. Despite my daughter’s slow and loud enunciation “Do you know CASA VERDE? ICE CREAM?” and the fact that my mother and soon all the occupants were muttering “we don’t know where the HELL we are!” it all turned out for the best. Luckily, the drive didn’t try to pedal them all the way back to Hanoi…
And back in Hanoi, we spent more time together, fixing meals and drinks, taking short jaunts into the city, seeing a few sights, doing a little souvenir shopping, and having quite a pleasant time. All of them even took a trip out to Halong Bay (there weere moments of usual Vietnam mix-ups, including the tour guide that didn’t meet them at the boat, and the “Blue Mai Tai! Can you believe it, my Mai Tai was blue! But I drank it anyway!”).
Back in Hanoi, my moment of genius came when my sister and her husband wanted to walk around and really experience Hanoi’s old quarter. What to do with my less-than-mobile parents, who would have wilted after five minutes of threading the traffic and insanity Hanoi’s maze of streets? Solution: drop the parental units into two wicker chairs at the poolside bar at the Hotel Metropole, Hanoi’s historic colonial-era hotel. Two hours and several Bloody Marys later, everyone was blissful. Mission accomplished.
I did manage to get my dad, sister, and brother-in-law to a real bia hoi (complete with low plastic stools!) for some fresh beers–and the Hanoi experience was complete.
As my mom later wrote to me “it was the best family vacation ever.” And I couldn’t disagree. I was honored that they all took the leap, bought the tickets, and endured the long flights and jet lag to see us. The cousins had a blast, as if no time had passed between them. And now my parents are world travelers. I hope you liked your first trip abroad–I sure did.