23 Tips For Taking A Toddler On A Tour Of Vietnam
A dear friend jets off to Vietnam next week with her toddler son, slightly apprehensive about her first overseas trip as a single mother.
The unstoppable Ms J is a seasoned traveler and she tells me she’s got the single mum routine well and truly under control. But I wanted to give her some idea of what to expect in my beloved Vietnam, which can be a crazy and overwhelming place to visit.
So, thinking back on my nearly four years of living and working and traveling in Vietnam, here’s some “Vietnam for kids” tips that I think adventurous parents of toddlers should know before they land. (In no particular order.)
1. Vietnamese people love babies
You won’t really understand how much Vietnamese people love babies until you get there.
You have a cute baby, you’re used to people smiling at the baby, maybe bending down to talk to him/her. That’s at home, and it’s not everyone, just a few people per outing. But in Vietnam, expect just about everyone to react to the baby. Faces will light up, people will start to crowd you, people will clap their hands in front of the baby’s face, pinch cheeks and thighs and pat heads. It can be overwhelming.
If you are in a hurry, just smile and keep walking. If the baby is afraid, just smile and keep walking. If you have time and the baby thinks this is how life should be, just enjoy it. Let the waitress parade the baby around the restaurant, let the xe om (motorbike taxi) driver play with the baby on the motorbike, let the hotel security guard bounce the baby on his knee.
I was initially concerned about how waitresses would take Miss M away from me. But, after being repeatedly reassured that no one planned to steal the baby, I learned to enjoy having a bit of time to eat with no one on my lap, using both hands!
People may give the baby food. It should be OK, even if lollies before dinner isn’t your idea of entree.
Young children, especially light-haired children, will get similar treatment. But it’s babies who are the true rock stars in Vietnam.
Vietnamese people enjoy childish boisterousness and it’s perfectly ok for kids to run around and be noisy in public places. However, naughty is still naughty and won’t be tolerated.
2. The traffic is crazy – but you will survive
Motorbike traffic in Vietnam operates on the same principle as a school of fish. The traffic just flows around obstacles. So if you’re that obstacle, the traffic should flow around you.
Getting stuck in the middle of the flow of traffic is scary, especially if you’ve got your child with you, but just remember the school of fish principle. Whatever you do, don’t panic and make a run for it. If you are still, motorbikes can go around. The people on the motorbikes have a vested interest in NOT hitting you, so try to make it easy for them to avoid you by being predictable. Walk slowly, watching the oncoming traffic, and wave one arm above your head to make sure people have noticed you. (You’ll probably feel like a twit, but it is effective — and that’s coming from someone who’s ridden a motorbike in heavy traffic in Vietnam.)
My school of fish theory only applies to motorbikes. Trucks and buses are the kings of the road. They won’t try to go around. Do your very best not to get in front of them.
To cross the road, stand at the curb and look both ways. Honestly, look both ways — people drive every which way. I’ve even seen a bus mount the curb to try to get around a traffic jam. Look BOTH ways, then look again. Don’t wait for a gap in the traffic, you’ll be stuck there til you’re a pensioner. You should look for a light spot in the traffic. When you see it, step off the curb and walk slowly through the light spot, looking for another light spot ahead. Just be slow and steady and you should get to the other side in one piece. Your best crossing option, though, is to wait for a local to cross, then walk beside them. They will think your fear is hilarious, and they will usually try to make sure you survive the crossing.
3. Don’t drink the water
The water from the tap is not fit to drink. Bottled water is cheap and readily available. I’d recommend cleaning your teeth with bottled water, too. And try not to let the baby drink the bathwater.
4. Ice is OK
If you get ice in your drink, don’t panic. Check to see if the ice has been made by a machine, i.e. it is cylinder-shaped and has a hole in it. If it’s machine ice, it’s OK.
The big chunks of ice that are dropped into beer and softdrinks, that’s OK too. The chunks of ice in the men’s urinal — don’t drink that. It’s put there to subdue the toilet smell, apparently.
5. Tea is free
In most restaurants, you’ll be served iced tea when you arrive. It’s free, so drink up.
6. Napkins are not free
In most restaurants, you’ll get plastic-wrapped moist towelettes or jasmine scented wash cloths. They’re not free. You’ll be charged VND1,000 to VND3,000 per napkin. You’re not being ripped off here. Everyone has to pay for napkins.
7. Street food is fantastic
The best Vietnamese food is the stuff that’s cooked right in front of you and dished up on a plastic plate or in a plastic bowl. It’s fresh, it’s hot and it’s delicious. For adults – don’t be too afraid of the raw stuff, just be sensible. Shake any water off and dunk greens in the soup. I’d be a bit more cautious with young kids. You can ask for greens, including herbs, to be boiled. The staff can just dunk it in the big cooking pot. That should kill any germs.
8. Em oi is the most important phrase
“Em oi”. Memorise it. “Em oi.” It means “hey you” but slightly more polite. Use this term to get attention in restaurants, hotels, guest houses — just about anywhere. “Oi” is the hey and “em” is the you. But be aware that “em” is used to address people younger or subordinate to you. If the person you’re addressing is older, or important, use “anh oi” (kind of like “hey, older brother) for men and “chi oi” (hey, older sister).
All tourists try to learn the basics – xin chào (hello) and cảm ơn (thank you). But most Vietnamese can understand hello and thank you. They just won’t be listening for “excuse me” or “hey, waiter”, especially if they’re deep in conversation about last night’s Vietnam Idol. Call out “em oi” and you’ll definitely get their attention.
9. Don’t expect Western service standards
Wages are low in Vietnam, really low. Waitresses and waiters only earn about VND2,000,000 a month. That’s about A$100 or US$96 a month. For this princely sum, wait staff are expected to work long long shifts, six or seven days a week. They may even sleep at the restaurant – the restaurant gets free “security” and the staff get free rent.
So don’t be impatient when the wait staff are all sitting around chatting, rather than hovering behind you looking out for a glass that needs refilling. If you need something, shout “em oi” and you’ll get someone’s attention. Don’t be offended when a waitress slouches over and unceremoniously dumps a plate on the table, then turns and slouches off. That’s kind of the way things are done in Vietnam. It’s not a personal insult.
10. Food is served when it’s ready
There is no concept of entree and mains in Vietnam. Eating is usually communal. So all the dishes are placed in the centre of the table and every diner serves themselves. Some tourist and backpacker restaurants serve per-person meals – as in you get the whole plate of food for yourself. But not many of those places understand the Western concept of all meals being served at once so everyone can eat at the same time.
Most restaurants in Vietnam have small kitchens and only one cook. Food is cooked to order, so once a dish is ready, it’s delivered. Groups of people need to understand that this is actually good service — the food is fresh and hot and delivered immediately. So, if you’re in a group, do the local thing and share your dishes. That way everyone gets to eat as soon as the first dish arrives. And, if you’re still hungry after everything’s been delivered, order more! If a dish is so good it gets finished, order more! That’s the way the locals roll.
11. You are rich, you have to pay more
If you have enough money to fly to Vietnam, you are rich. In Vietnam, the average annual income is about US$1,100 — probably less than you spent on your flight.
So, don’t get angry when you get ripped off. You really can afford to pay two or three times the local price — and whatever you’re paying for will still be cheap. Vietnamese people think it’s only fair that you pay more – you can afford it.
12. People will try to rip you off
Closely related to the previous tip. People will try to rip you off. Don’t get stressed about it, just try to get an idea of what going rates should be. Ask your hotel/guest house receptionist how much a taxi should be to a certain place, or how much a particular item should be at the market. If you pay only double the price they quote, you’re doing well.
13. Keep your valuables close
There’s a fair bit of snatch and grab crimes throughout Vietnam. Don’t be too paranoid — that’s no fun at all — but be sensible. Keep your handbag and camera on the shoulder furtherest from the traffic, don’t flash lots of cash around and don’t carry an enormous purse — buy a small purse on your first day and keep it in your front pocket. And only carry enough money for that day, with some emergency cash down your bra. Fellas, I’m not sure where you usually keep your valuables – in your jocks?
14. Let the hotel keep your passport
Hotels and guest houses are required by law to keep your passport. This is so the police know who is staying where. The hotel staff are not trying to steal your passport, they’re just doing their jobs.
15. Allocate a whole day to the Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi
Give the kid a day off from city life and head out to the Museum of Ethnography. Let them run around and climb into and out of the traditional houses in the outdoor section of the museum.
16. Vietnam has very convenient convenience stores
If you’re out and about with the little one, who suddenly needs food or water or milk, there is usually a shop close by. A local shop might not look like a shop to you — it will be a stall piled high with packets of biscuits, shampoo, scotch, tinned milk and soft drinks.
The more Westernised convenience stores look like 7-11s. There’s a number of chains, including Stop N Go and 24 Gio (24 Hour). They sell all the Western “convenience” foods like Pringles, Oreos, crackers, yoghurt (pronounced kind of like ya-hout in Vietnamese), packaged sandwiches (which are suprisingly good), cup noodles, water, juice, soft drink and beer.
17. Vietnam has cows
Fresh milk is available but for some reason it only lasts a few days, so keep an eye on the expiry date. UHT, or long-life milk, is readily available, as are various brands of powdered milk, sold in a can and marketed as “children’s milk”. There’s also infant formula, if you’re still using that. If you need milk when you’re out and about, find a convenience store and ask for “sữa” (sounds almost like sewer) and point to the baby. You should get something to keep him or her going until you get back to your pad.
18. Vietnam doesn’t have McDonalds
Deal with it. It does have a number of international fast few chains, such as KFC, Pizza Hut, South Korea’s Lotteria and Jollibee from the Philippines. But you’d be crazy to waste a meal on bland fried food when Vietnamese food is so utterly sensational.
19. Prepare your story
Vietnam is a very conservative society, with most young people living with their parents into their 20s, and remaining at home even after they’re married. Young people couple up early and when you look around it seems no one ever ventures out alone — it’s all couples. Single mothers exist in Vietnam but they’re usually quite alienated from society. (The abortion rate is very high in Vietnam, too.)
So a woman traveling alone or even going to dinner without a partner or a friend is unusual. Foreigners get away with this kind of thing because they’re very odd. But people will ask where your husband is. Be prepared for it. Decide from the start whether you are divorced or widowed or whether your husband is just “busy” or “at a conference”. By all means tell the truth, but it might take a while to explain your circumstances to someone with limited English and no concept of anything but the traditional Vietnamese life of getting married and then having kids.
20. Nappies are cheap and readily available
While many locals raise babies without ever using a nappy/diaper, packets of disposable nappies are available in supermarkets. Be aware, though, that the quality is a lot lower than what you’re used to. Mamy Poko, a Japanese brand, is the highest quality disposable nappy brand. So you don’t need to bring an enormous supply of disposable nappies with you, you can buy as you go.
21. Thar be butt-hoses
The butt hose can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you get a dose of the squirts, use the butt-hose to preserve your butt-skin. Use the butt-hose to clean off the baby — just check the pressure before pointing the business end at any delicate baby bits.
But, with a toddler around, the butt-hose can be a nightmare. Of course it’s excellent fun to spray water at people … just not at the end of a long tiring day when everyone is wearing their last set of clean clothes. When not in use, it’s best to turn the butt-hose off at the wall. Toddlers just can’t resist it.
22. Vietnamese coffee is the best coffee on the planet
It’s sweet, it’s thick and it’s strong. It’s just the thing to start the day, or to keep you going. Two might make you a bit shaky, but you’d still be tempted to have a third.
You have to try at least one glass of cà phê sữa đá – milk coffee with ice — even if you’re not a coffee drinker. It’s fantastic.
If you are a coffee drinker, don’t settle for hotel coffee or the Americano crap served in backpacker joints, keep walking til you find a place that will serve you the good stuff. A little tin pot that’s filled with ground coffee, then hot water which slowly drains into a cup with a bit of condensed milk in the bottom. Once all the water has filtered through the ground coffee in the tin pot, pour the hot coffee into the glass of ice you’ve been served. Jiggle the long spoon and the straw around until everything is cold and mixed up and Bob’s your uncle.
23. Have fun
Vietnam is noisy and dirty, with rubbish in the streets, horns honking day and night and all available space dedicated to some form of commerce. But it’s fun. Enjoy the craziness. Look at the expressions on people’s faces as they zoom around in absolutely mental traffic conditions. Listen to the laughter coming from people dining on the footpath, on tiny plastic stools. See if you can spot two traffic police on enormous kick-arse motorbikes having a bit of a cuddle (same-sex touching and hugging is big in Vietnam, opposite sexes don’t touch in public).
And if you don’t love it, that’s ok. Just observe the craziness and focus on the parts of Vietnam that appeal to you, whether it’s the food, the pagodas or the businesses that serve the expat community, like the fancy bars, high end restaurants and gourmet supermarkets.
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11 years ago