Vietnam: Have baby, will travel

By Kirsten Johnstone

Kirsten Johnstone and Mia paddling up a Mekong Delta tributary. Photo / Dan Addington
Kirsten Johnstone and Mia paddling up a Mekong Delta tributary. Photo / Dan Addington

We knew the risks, had done the research, printed maps of the malaria zones in South East Asia, and knew about a spike in Dengue fever cases - even in developed countries like Singapore. We'd read about the life cycles of mosquitoes, and ways to avoid the little bloodsuckers. We had looked up the figures for infant mortality in half a dozen South East Asian countries and spoken at length to our doctors, travel doctors, and even a man who worked for the World Health Organisation in Manila, about tropical, water-borne and food-contamination illnesses. Finally, despite our anxiety, we settled on Vietnam for our first family trip with our 10-month-old daughter, Mia.

Thankfully we'd also taken the precaution of travel insurance. The night before our crack of dawn flight, we were up with a vomiting baby. We delayed our flights. Two days later we boarded our rescheduled Jetstar plane to Singapore. Luck was on our side - four seats and a bassinet to ourselves. No chance of dehydration for Mia - she breastfed constantly; I felt like an I.V. drip.

The gastro stuck again - no nappy on earth could contain those explosions. Around hour seven, she needed a run around, and we let her crawl up and down the aisles, with me "chasing her" - which she thought was hilarious. She laughed so much she had a coughing fit, and threw up down my cleavage. Which was okay, but then the rest came ... we had the entire cabin looking at us in disbelief as our little vomit monster poured forth.

Her dad tried to catch it with his hands and missed the vomit that hit the centre aisle. The flight attendant, muttering and blinking rapidly, rushed over spraying his tiny bottle of deodoriser, in-case throwing up was catchy. We scrubbed and consoled, and Mia screamed and fell asleep. Three hours later, smelly, exhausted, and sticky with the heat of Singapore, we made it to our friend's apartment, our haven for a couple of days.

After a full day of sightseeing, we headed out for dinner among the shisha smoke and Persian carpets of Arab St. Mia had her first major meltdown - a full level five, an inconsolable cry that forced us to re-think the limits to which we can push our usually good-tempered child. I silently pondered if travelling with a baby is akin to child abuse. Maybe babies really DO need the routine and familiarity that "baby whisperers" preach about. I worry this experience might damage her for life.

The next day we fly to Phu Quoc, an island off the south coast of Vietnam, booked into an isolated resort. We fear the worst. It's Monsoon season - we arrive in torrential rain. Our friends and us are the only guests, apart from a friendly Vietnamese man who appears to have organised a rendezvous with his mistress.

It has all the hallmarks of a mosquito playground - frog ponds, vases of water by the doors to wash feet, no nets on the windows, no air-conditioning. We lather on the insect repellent, cover Mia with the baby version, tuck in the nets, and cover bare skin, but my stress levels soar the next morning when I find a bite mark on Mia's neck. I book in for a Vietnamese massage to calm my nerves, and when I return, limbs and brain refreshed, my baby has been replaced by a wild creature. Tropical fruit dripping down her chin, sand all over her wet clothes, hair plastered to her brow with sweat, and a maniacal grin - having a ball. All this space! Sand! Sea! And four adoring adults to play with! We're all okay!

After a few - surprisingly sunny - days watching fishing boats bobbing in our bay, eating our first tastes of the sweet and salty foods that make Vietnam a culinary hotspot, swimming and walking, we head to the mainland, to the chaos and cacophony of Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam is a country of motorbikes, millions of the things, honking incessantly, and balanced with cargo sometimes metres high - fishing nets, stereos and TVs, lotus flowers, and herbs. One scooter we see has around fifty plastic bags half full of water, with hapless goldfish enjoying the ride down the motorway. A family of four can fit on one scooter - toddler up front, Dad driving, baby wedged in behind, with Mum holding on - no helmets for the littlies. Traffic lights are optional, as is driving on the right side of the road. Crossing as a pedestrian is terrifying. Local advice is to just step out, look both ways, make eye contact, and move slowly and surely. Never step back, never stop. Show no fear. I thank my stars that Mia hasn't learned to walk yet.

I'd heard they love babies in Vietnam, that our daughter would be whisked away at every meal by enchanted waiters. I'd been disappointed so far, but as soon as we got to Ho Chi Minh, we were mobbed. People crowd around her, cooing, clicking, and snapping photos of her crawling - I don't know that babies in Vietnam are allowed to crawl in public. Mia was born for this role, and shoots smiles back, laughing, waving and showing off. Restaurant staff members take her off our hands while we eat - I begin to judge restaurants by the cluckiness of its waiters.

Our little travel companion is more adaptable than we dreamed possible. She sleeps wherever and whenever she needs to (the War Remnants museum made me feel a little lethargic as well), she takes to Vietnamese food with gusto, loves it when strangers lift her out of our arms and away, and sleeps well in hotel rooms. We get braver, more intrepid, and book a couple of days on boats exploring the Mekong Delta. We manage this too, with a little bit of baby-ushering so she doesn't fall off the completely un-baby-proof boats.

We fly to the North of the country, to Hanoi, where we're picked up by a taxi driver who tries to pull the scam we've just been warned about in our well-thumbed Lonely Planet. We get out in the middle of a bustling street in the Old Town, a crowded maze of streets where cars and scooters are parked on the footpaths and pedestrians are forced to walk on the road, trying to avoid collisions. We don't have a hotel booking, despite what we've told the taxi driver, figuring we'd just check a few out and find something.

It's 35 degrees, we each have 20kg of baggage on our backs, empty stomachs, and Mia is now sick and screaming. Everything gets a little fuzzy and tense, till we find an air-conditioned oasis to eat and re-group. Both Mia and I have caught colds - but Mia's has quickly gone to her chest. The flight hasn't helped her sinuses, and she is suddenly not our happy baby. Easy to find a really good doctor though, who says it's bronchitis, and plies us with antibiotics and a nebulizer. It means we have to stay put for a while, to make sure our little patient is recovering. Her father, in a break from mosquito paranoia, now turns his attentions to the air, looks up the pollution index for Hanoi, and finds it to be "extreme" - worse than Beijing, Jakarta and Delhi. It's then that we realise why so many Vietnamese wear masks over their mouths.

Hanoi isn't a bad city to be stuck in. There are pretty lakes and leafy boulevards, big colonial mansions and serene Taoist temples, contrasting with the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, where streets specialise in selling particular things - silk, Chinese herbs, bamboo, plastic children's toys - whatever your whims desire.

We discover the delights of Bia Hoi (freshly brewed, cheap, low alcohol beer) and foot massages. Mia bounces back quickly, and we book another boat trip, this time around Halong Bay - Vietnam's answer to Milford Sounds, but with around 300 cruise ships. We are on a conveyer belt tour - here's the bus, the boat, now we go for a swim, now climb a hill, now take a photo, now join the line for the amazing cave with the other 300 boats, and quick, back to the ship deck to see the sunset. Admittedly, it is a gorgeous sunset, but it's difficult to feel like you're getting a unique experience out there. We spend the night on the ship, eating what seems like a 10-course meal. Our captain takes Mia off our hands at one point; we find her later steering the ship. I don't worry with the Vietnamese when she is out of sight. Strangely I would never be this relaxed in a European country.

We head down the coast on an overnight train. I know it's going to be a rough ride, and the flight would only have cost a little extra - but my husband has romantic notions about trains, and I know this is an argument I won't win. The train jolts violently into stops, has loud passengers smoking in the corridors, and rock-like beds, one of which I share with Mia. She wakes often, and I doze. No worse than a teething night, I suppose.

Morning comes and goes, and we pull in to Hue about 4 four hours later than expected. Thankfully we've booked a five-star resort to unwind in, complete with two pools, a day-spa, free yoga and Tai Chi classes, two restaurants and a bar. For $60 a night you can live like kings and queens here. We're not really laze-by-the-pool people, but here we make an exception.

I have a minor breakdown on arriving in Hoi An - another case of midday heat and no hotel booking. It pays to be well organised heading to Hoi An - it has frequent festivals that mean full hotels. We finally find a mid-priced hotel, with possibly the rudest staff in town, but it has a pool and great location just over the river from the Old Town.

There are good reasons so many tourists come here. It has pedestrian only streets, lined with colourful lanterns and plants, great restaurants and their famed bespoke tailors. Hoi An also has a couple of nice beaches just a few kilometres from the town. On the night we arrive it's a full moon festival, and the city lights up, with children lined up along the river selling candles in coloured boats, lanterns hanging from trees and buildings, and live music playing in the street. Mia's eyes are like saucers as we wander back to the hotel.

We fly to Siem Reap for a few days before returning home - a fleeting dip into neighbouring Cambodia. It has more mosquitoes, heavier rain, and much more poverty than Vietnam. Twelve-year-old girls with their baby siblings hanging off them asking for milk. Landmine victims selling paintings. Weathered and stooped old people selling peanuts. I splutter something about how lucky we are when we pass a woman and her deformed baby outside Ankor Watt.

Mia loves the soothing chug-chug-chug of the ubiquitous tuk-guks that we use to get around the temples. She looks like a little tomb-raider crawling around these ancient ruins.

I know she won't remember her first overseas adventure, but I wonder if, in some small way, it has shaped her future self. Will she find the smell of a Khmer curry oddly familiar when she finds herself one day wandering the lanes of Siem Reap? Have her ears been opened to non-Western scales by the sounds of the Landmine Victim orchestra? Will she find the whirring of fans comforting? Will she one day be a mother herself and think we were crazy? She's learned such a lot in the last month - perhaps travelling with a baby isn't the craziest thing. Maybe it's allowed us to show her a little piece of the world with a bit more childlike wonder than we have at home.

Tips: Book a bassinet for the plane if you can. Buy baby insect repellent over there. Book hotels ahead - if only by a day. Convince friends or family to travel with you - those extra four hands for the first couple of weeks were a sanity saver. Buy comprehensive travel insurance.

Baby Gear: We took a Manduca frontpack, a Phil and Teds Traveller port-a-cot, and a tramping style baby pack. We took a car capsule too, but quickly realised it was superfluous - no one uses them over there, Mia hated it, and you're getting in and out of taxis a lot. We wore seat-belts and strapped Mia to us in the Manduca. We hardly used the port-a-cot, as Mia preferred co-sleeping, and the tramping style pack could also have been left behind - it's no good for a sleeping (slumping) baby. The only other thing we'd take next time is a baby monitor with good range. Less is more!

- nzherald.co.nz

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 28 Nov 2014 02:50:54 Processing Time: 994ms