Natalie Paris proves that taking a young child around Southeast Asia is entirely doable
"Granny, take your shoes off and shhh," Greta whispered. "Now come and sit." My mother - on her first ever trip to Asia - followed the instructions of my tiny daughter, who knelt down on the temple carpet, tucking her bare feet beneath her. Bossy (just like her mum), my just-turned three-year-old now considered herself an expert on how to behave around Buddhas.
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The thought of taking a toddler somewhere mildly chaotic like Southeast Asia had sparked numerous concerns. I had fretted over the long plane journey, the jet lag, the heat, the unpredictable traffic, the tiresome sightseeing, the long car journeys, jabs and strange food. Then there was the possibility of a medical emergency - it was enough to make me want to stay at home.
Yet travelling with very young children, I was told, is highly doable - they are portable and pliable. Thus convinced, but still a little trepidatious, I opted for a tour of North Vietnam.
It sounded ideal - not only for us, but also for another couple who were looking for some easy-going exploration: my parents. Having recently retired, they wanted to book a big trip to Asia that avoided rushing around or doing anything too challenging.
So it was, then, that we all found ourselves in Hanoi, one of my favourite cities, at a theatre beside Hoan Kiem Lake. There, three generations of us stood bewitched by a traditional water puppet show accompanied by singing and music from the zither-like dan tranh. At the Temple of the Jade Mountain, Greta was enchanted by the storybook legend about the giant turtle which returned a sunken sword to a king.
Later, when exploring the old quarter, it helped that our daughter was still small enough to be scooped up from the narrow pavements where much of daily life takes place, and whisked through the torrents of motorcycle traffic that give the city its energy.
After a couple of nights in Hanoi, our tour took us to Ninh Binh as an alternative to the standard, more touristy two-night boat trip around Ha Long Bay. The river and mountain scenery was just as dramatic and we took shorter voyages more suited to a toddler, slipping quietly between vast stone crags in little wooden boats nudged forward by locals who row with their feet.
Greta was excited by the river caves we passed through, and was entrusted with a torch with which to spy bats in the crevices overhead. The three days spent exploring the striking green landscapes also included time making spring rolls with a local family, which gave her the chance to run about with children of her own age, almost oblivious to the language barrier.
A few days later, we found ourselves in Hoi An, an old riverside trading port made up of rows of yellow and dark wood-shuttered merchant houses, traditionally lit with lanterns. I was sad to find that this Unesco-preserved heritage town has lost some of its quiet character in recent years. At night, coach parties, hordes of street sellers and illuminated boat rides made it feel like a theme park. But Greta loved it - entranced by the buzz and the brightly coloured lights.
The heat in central Vietnam in April reached 32C, making visits to old shop houses and Chinese temples very focused. The humidity made our toddler grumpy but the upside was that she took extra naps, giving my husband and me a couple of hours off as the retired folk joined her for a siesta. We escaped to the pool at our beachside hotel, where the palm trees had nifty buttons on them that made cocktail waiters appear.
When the toddler was awake, a lantern-making activity was a big hit. Crafting is something that Greta does a lot at daycare, so it was a welcome burst of familiarity. She was more cautious when it came to food but, despite her always having been a tricky eater, we were pleased to find we could rely on egg-fried rice, fish, chicken skewers, plain noodles, chips and weird fruit to keep her fuelled. The varied hotel breakfasts also allowed her to bulk up on cereal, sausages and toast if she'd been picky at a street stall the night before. What's more, with spoons and forks commonly used in Vietnam, there was no need to master chopsticks.
We don't often bother to get a guide on holiday, but those who did join us as part of our itinerary provided context that helped Greta make sense of the trip, rather than Mummy and Daddy taking her to new places each day for no obvious reason. They were all eager to showcase their home towns and were wonderful with Greta.
On a fishing trip, our guide Lily told us how, to her parents' shame, she had been one of the last women in her village to get married. "I talk too much," she laughed, painfully, but then described how years of working in the tourist industry had given her the strength to stand up to societal pressures and fight for her independence.
It's a story that I'll repeat to my daughter when she's older, if she's ever in danger of taking her own freedoms for granted. But at that point, while she was spinning around, dancing to Lily's traditional folk music, I let her be - she was much too young to understand.
--Telegraph Media Group
China Southern Airlines flies to Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Noi, Phu, Quoc and Nha Trang, all via Guangzhou. csair.co.nz