By Harry Hodge
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, mostly it was the worst. It was our family trip to Hanoi.
The kicker was this trip had so many moving parts: My newborn son Payton is only three months old; my mother- and father-in-law are not frequent travellers; getting around Vietnam is generally stressful enough when it only travels one person, etc.
But my wife My’s family lives mostly in a small village in Bac Ninh, a province over from Hanoi. It seemed like we could swing a six-day trip up there and everything would fall into place. Short flight, inexpensive (staying with family) and so on.
But, of course, bad omens started popping up on our way to the airport. My mother-in-law is always the first to suggest we take a motorbike anywhere, mostly because she fears getting carsick travelling in a four-wheeler. Predictably, we started seeing the puking happen one person at a time; Payton, followed by his sister Avery (not quite 2) and of course, Grandma. Helpful tip: Always bring spare shopping bags when travelling in Vietnam.
Check-in was fairly routine, until we got through the metal detectors, and discovered Grandpa had left his boarding pass somewhere. My had to go back to the ticket counter and score another boarding pass for Granpda, making us the last ones on the flight.
We made it to Hanoi eventually, despite Avery losing it on takeoff from Saigon and howling through the early part of the flight. When we got to Hanoi, we had time for pho before hopping in a car for another couple hours to Thap Duong, my wife’s village in Bac Ninh.
Seven hours door-to-door is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone seniors and babies. When we got there, it had been two years since we’d seen anyone up there, and none of our relatives had met our kids yet. The local firewater/rice wine was steady and flowing, right up until everyone retiring for the night.
First night: Avery freaks out sleeping with the grandparents in the farmhouse; she sleeps with me and My but I wake up in the middle of the night, choking on my own puke from rice-wine-induced acid reflux. Between her screams and dad’s swallowing-of-vomit, little sleep is enjoyed.
Days two to four: Payton is fine but Avery develops a fever, which persists for our four planned days in the village. I can from here cut to day four, where her fever caused My endless stress and forced us to stay indoors pretty much the entire time.
I’m not a prima donna, but being stuck in a village farmhouse in North Vietnam means no cable, Wifi, aircon, or pretty much any modern convenience. Even taking a shower took a disastrous turn on Day Two, where I tried to turn the wrong faucet and end up tearing the rusty spigot off the wall, causing a geyser of water to flood the area. Standing naked screaming “turn off the water” to people who don’t speak English meant my requests weren’t met for a while.
This is another reason why I have difficulty visiting my in-laws. Everyone is super-nice, but after two days of trying to communicate in Vietnamese, my brain simply shuts down and I get cranky. I found myself going for a lot of runs before the temperature hit 34C (usually by 11 am) and hitting up one of the two coffee shops in the village with Wifi, just to see some English. I did have a Philip K. Dick novel and some graphic novels saved onto the desktop of the computer, but still patience wears thin after a while.
I feel like I’m giving the village a bum rap, but I ate pretty well and nothing cost us any money, so the price was right. People were pretty understanding we had sick kids, so the drunkles mostly left me alone (at my father-in-law’s instructions and there were no late-night karaoke sessions). One nephew is a hairdresser and gave us decent haircuts, and another made his own gun (!) so I shot that a few times.
But still, sweating for four days and having a stressed family makes for a tiring, not restful, getaway. As well, Vietnamese family visits often seem to occur from 7 am onwards, and there always seemed to be at least a dozen people in the house sitting in the living room when I’d wander out of bed in my underwear.
When the day came to hop a car to Hanoi, I was frankly, stoked. I also looked forward to finding some western food.
The trip to Hanoi went fairly smoothly, but wow that city has a lot going on. I wasn’t sure if Hanoi traffic was louder than the chats with relatives I couldn’t understand in my in-laws’ living room.
Days five and six: Our first night in Hanoi, the kids were whiney but we still managed to take a few pics around Hoan Kiem Lake. Avery had finally recovered from her fever, with My having worried about whether to take her to a hospital… That would have really sucked. But, predictably, on the Friday Payton got his own fever. Our last night, we also discovered that Hoan Kiem District shuts out motorbike traffic, which is overall a good thing. Unfortunately, my wife’s nephew couldn’t get to our hotel through the police blockade, and we avoided bribing some cops to get food to the hotel since they brought it on motorbike.
On our way out of the hotel, Avery broke Payton’s thermometer and gassed us with mercury fumes. We also had some more puking in the taxi, with Avery and Grandma getting sick on the cab to the airport. It just felt like the whole trip we were cursed, but finally we made it to Saigon. We had another arduous ride to our house and finally, when we made it back, it felt as though the clouds parted. I can honestly say I’ve never been so happy to have a vacation end.
Everything is a learning experience, and this trip was definitely one of those. The next time you think about travelling across a developing country with your wife, babies and mother- and father-in-law, maybe give it a second thought before booking your flights.