In which I get felt up by a python and have a day I’d rather forget in Saigon.

We loved Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals still call it, Saigon. . As before, I’m glad when we decide to spend more time in one place instead of bouncing around every few days. We came in on a Friday and had a flight to Tokyo the following Friday. On Tuesday, though, we went near a bookshop and they had all sorts of Totoro merchandise. As we were excitedly looking through it, a little spark went off in the back of my brain. “Self,” I thought to myself, ” do you vaguely remember how you moved your plane tickets to Tokyo back by a few days because of when you’re going to the Totoro/Studio Ghibli museum?” And I replied “Why, yes, now that you mention it I do remember something of the sort. But I wouldn’t have completely forgotten when I’d booked a plane ticket by two days, would I?” At which point I retorted “Have you met yourself? You’re the same person who once spent an hour looking for eyeglasses SHE WAS WEARING AT THE TIME.” Oh yeah. See? This is why I like talking to myself. Endless support!
A call to Japan Airlines confirmed that we were indeed booked on the flight the next day and not Friday. I had a small panic attack over this, and needed to call two overseas JAL offices to figure out a solution. Thank goodness for internet calling capability. Out of sheer luck, we were able to move the ticket to Thursday at no additional cost and change our Air BnB reservation as well, but man, those were some anxious hours. 
We awoke on Wednesday to take a boat tour of the Mekong Delta. I’ll say here that this wasn’t really my cup of tea. I’ve written before about how I dislike bus tours where you walk through areas like you’re in a human zoo, and this was sort of the same but on a boat. It was a small tour and the reviews were excellent, so we thought we were in for a treat, but we weren’t impresed. The kids felt the same way, especially after some of the really small scale experiences we’ve had. Still, there were some interesting tidbits to be had and some great pictures that I’ll share here. 
We started off by heading through the slums of Saigon. Remember how I talked about not wanting to be those people heading through the slums in a bus, disembarking and taking pictures? Well, we became those people in a boat. Sigh. These houses border the river around Saigon. Our guide told us that the government is trying to move them but doesn’t really provide enough for them to afford even a small apartment on the city outskirts. Moving to the country isn’t an option because of a lack of jobs and opportunities for their children so here they stay. The front of the houses face a busy street and often have a shopfront, so it’s not even clear that the back faces the river. 

Next stops were a buddhist temple and then a look at a small village along the Mekong Delta. We met a family who raises pythons to sell for meat and skin and had some close encounters with them! The little 90 year old grandma who lives there let me take some pictures of her. I love pictures of the elderly – so many stories in the lines in their faces. The tour took us by an orphanage that was run by Buddhist monks as well. I don’t know how I feel about this – it was different than I was expecting, with children growing up clearly well fed and receiving an education in a clean environment, but overall it felt weird to me to have this be a stop on a tourist tour. I didn’t take any pictures therebecause it just felt odd. 

In the village was the Cao Dai temple, which has as its holy people the Buddha, Confucius, Sun Yat Sen, and…Victor Hugo. Yes, even the Vietnamese appreciate the French Revolution. 

We had a tasty meal at a local house, then back to Saigon and past the huge Heineken billboards that frame the riverside. 

Our next day was probably the first overall worst day of the trip. Everyone was crankly, snappish. I’ll just relay how dinner went as an example. I wanted to find a place for bun chay, or vegetarian noodle salad, and found one that didn’t seem too far but not quite walkable. We managed to get a taxi and when he let us out…we had left all the cash back at the apartment. Eric and the kids got out and walked to the restaurant and I stayed with the driver to get cash. By the time the driver found a working ATM and I paid him, it was nearly double the fare! He dropped me off where he had left the rest of my family, but they were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t realize it, but the restaurant was in the backpacker district. Loud, bright lights, tons of people vying for your attention and asking if you want a massage. I later learned that Eric was offered some “fine ladies” a few times when the kids were a few steps behind. 
No one I asked knew where the restaurant was. I had to stop in at a hotel and ask them to google it. I got there and found my family waiting for me, and I was annoyed they hadn’t waited at the spot to go together. And then the food wasn’t that great! Ugh. We tried to make up for it by having a beverage at a rooftop bar but the boys just whined about how it was too high up for them and how they felt vertiginous and spent the time looking away from the edge. It was ladies’ night at the bar, so I thought things might be looking up, but then they handed me a free drink of…a strawberry daquiri, possibly one of the worst alcoholic cocktails known to woman. 
So the day ended, and I suppose one bad day out of the last six weeks isn’t bad, but I could have done without the insult of a strawberry daquiri. 


In which we pay to ride and experience claustrophobia in the Cu Chi tunnels

We’ve arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals prefer to call it, Saigon. After a day of relaxing we booked another Grasshopper bicycle tour, met our guide Nguyen, and were off. Man, it was hot and humid. Due to our inability to convert inches to centimeters and thinking we’d have a chance to fit the kids for bikes, one of the bikes was almost comically small. Thankfully, the boy took this one and did just fine with it.

It was a muddy, bumpy ride through the countryside, and it was so fun! Passing by rubber plantations, we stopped at a rice paper making factory, where almost all the work is done by hand. You know those little lines when you get the sheets? It’s from them drying on the bamboo mats! I always just thought they were decorative.



tapping the rubber tree

We stopped at a local roadside stand for a snack, and our tour guide told us that it was owned by a former Viet Cong. Eric asked if it was weird for him to have Americans in the shop, and Nguyen answered “No, here in Vietnam we forgive and forget after the American war.” (The Vietnam war is called the American war here) So surprising, given that the Vietnam war still has such a strong and negative legacy in our country and that there was so much damage inflicted by us on their country as well.

After 30 km of riding, we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels. With the bike tours, you go to the far side of the tunnels, less visited by foreign tourists, much quieter and more of the original size entry holes preserved. These were a large series of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used to hide from and attack American troops during the war. They were so well hidden that Americans only found about a third of the tunnels, even after carpet bombing the area. The tunnels were all dug by hand, a vast network of 75 miles near Saigon, with exits popping up every five to ten meters or so. The tunnels have three layers to them, a top layer just below the ground, and then subsequent layers about 7-10 meters below the previous. There were booby traps in case American soldiers did make it through. Air vents were disguised as termite mounds, and the entrances were barely large enough for me to fit through. After crawling through them for 30 meters, my heart started to pound and fear took over. I’m not normally claustrophobic, but to be in a tight space in utter darkness…I don’t know how the VC were able to stay down there for weeks at a time.


Diorama of the tunnels at the site



Inside the tunnels, at the exit point. So cramped and tiny, even the girl had to stoop


Creepy mannequin recreations of rooms under the tunnel, here’s a meeting house where the kids take part in a planning session

A lovely meal on the riverside after that, then back home to Saigon, and all in all a delightful day.


In which I take stock again

It’s time for another installment of what’s working, what’s not.

Needs improvement

  1. City arrivals. We always somehow end up in a new place hungry, tired, cranky and hot and someone starts crying. Sometimes that someone is me. It just takes a couple hours between the plane and actually getting the place we stay and then getting food somewhere, and someone has a breakdown somewhere in there. The boy, when he is hungry, is truly terrifying. Ravana wouldn’t stand a chance against him and would run away whimpering in fear.
  2. Learning to relax midday like the locals do. Here in the tropics, there is morning activity and then evening activity, because it is brutally hot and humid in the middle and only the idiot tourists are out. This is really where it helps to have a place right downtown, where it’s easy to head back to and chill in Air-con comfort until it cools off.
  3. ATM fees. Man, they get you with every withdrawal. It’s hard to know exactly how much money you need especially when you’re withdrawing millions in local currency and your head starts to swim. In hindsight, we should only withdraw the absolute maximum amount every time as there is always a way to spend it, and many places do not accept credit cards. More than once we did not have enough cash and had to run to the nearest ATM to withdraw more. There are banks that do not charge ATM fees and reimburse you for international ones, and perhaps it would have been wise to use one of those, but since we have so many automatic payments arranged through our current bank, it felt like too much work.
  4. Getting through the airport. Why won’t my kids just shut up while we got through security, immigration, or customs? Why must they use this time to ask the million questions they have saved up? Why do they say at customs “Hey Mom, what about all that US money you have?” (for the record, I only had $200 in cash on me, not declarable!) Holy god, it’s maddening and has led to some…unpleasant moments in the airport.


What’s working:

  1. Still, the pacing and flexibility. We don’t have anything planned when we get into a country, and this has been great. When we got to Cambodia, we weren’t sure how the weather would be as rainy season is unpredictable, and because we weren’t booked we skipped the beach and spent more time in Siem Reap and had a wonderful experience because we could do things at a nice clip instead of feeling like we had to squeeze it all in.
  2. Bike tours. Absolutely love exploring countries by bicycle with a guide! You get to see things up close, talk to people, smile, engage, and interact. So different than taking a tour bus or just going from point A to B in a car. On a bike you see the countryside, the houses, stores, hear weddings and parties taking place, and all the kids really do run out and wave and say “hello!” to you as you go by. If you like to ride, absolutely take a bike tour. We’ve done two with Grasshopper and they have been fantastic, and are planning on taking more as we come across them.
  3. Smiling. Every time we smile at someone and say hello, we are greeted with the same on return. This has been true everywhere we go, even to people who may at first seem standoffish. Having the kids is also a natural icebreaker, especially the girl, who attracts attention everywhere she goes. We’ll go to a restaurant and the waitress will start talking to her and then just absentmindedly strokes her hair for the next ten minutes while she chats with us.
  4. Finding places to stay. We’re learning that there’s a huge difference in staying outside city center and not. Our perfect place is just a few streets away from the main drag, where traffic and partying noise is low at night, but still walkable to where we want to go. Most of the times we have booked a place for a few nights when we get in, get a lay of the land and then book for the rest of the time according to what our plans are and where we want to be. This does take a lot of time of searching though, as there is an overabundance of available places. We are also almost exclusively using air bnb’s. As a family, it is SO much nicer to have a living room and bedroom so you don’t all have to go to bed at the same time, and the price isn’t that different.
  5. Money. We’re more or less on budget for the trip, though SE Asia has been a bit pricier than I had anticipated. While we could stay in hotels that cost $20/night for a room, we wanted something a bit nicer. While it’s costing us less than a comparable room would in the States, it’s not dirt cheap. Food is moderately priced for us as well, since we’re less likely to eat at roadside stalls.
  6. Saying “yes.” When you have an opportunity, take it! We did the photoshoot in Siem Reap, and then the photographers got a job in Saigon and asked us to take part! We got to do a free night motobike tour and eat delicious street food and hang out with young Vietnamese people, and it wouldn’t have happened if we’d turned down the initial offer.


  1. Do not, I repeat do NOT, under any circumstances, use the colored, highly perfumed toilet paper for any, shall we say, vigorous cleaning. Developing a contact dermatitis in sensitive areas is NOT fun. Ask me how I know (ouch, and thank goodness for the prescription hydrocortisone cream we have with us). I recommend watching youtube videos on bum gun use and learning to use same. The bum gun is a water sprayer attached to the toilet, looks just like the sprayer you have next to your kitchen sink. After use, you only need a square or two of TP to lightly pat yourself dry.
  2. I highly recommend having all visas you need done prior to arrival if you are travelling with kids. Vietnam and Cambodia both have visa on arrival services, but there is a line for it and after a flight even one more line with the kids can break you all. In Bali it was a visa right at the immigration desk, no extra waiting, thank goodness.
  3. We loved the Indonesian and Cambodian food, but needed breaks every now and then. One of my most delicious meals in Cambodia was a veggie burger I had at an expat bar. Mmmm. I no longer have disdain for people I see eating Burger King in foreign countries. Sometimes you just need a taste of home.
  4. Plastic water bottles are everywhere and unavoidable. To try and save at least a few, I would boil water in the electric kettle provided in nearly every room, let it cool overnight and then refill a bottle. Some places have large water cooler bottles for refill which is nice.
  5. If you travel to Cambodia, make sure all your money is crisp and new looking! The main currency there is the US dollar, but if bills are at all old looking, they won’t take them. I had withdrawn a $100 bill from an ATM there that had a tiny, 1/8 inch tear in one edge and they almost didn’t accept it. Check money whenever you get it and ask for crisp new looking bills only, else plan on just hanging onto it until you get back to the States.
  6. There are some games in the Family on the Loose book that came in really handy. First is mini Olympics, done in waiting areas or even in line. Basically, a set of directions or challenges can keep kids going for a long time. Like, run to that pole, go around it three times, jump up and down ten times, then come back. Another is timing how long they can stand on one foot, or hop, or something like that if there isn’t open space. We also use the dinner games of choosing a category and then having to go around the table, each answer starting with the last letter of the one before it.
  7. Bali, Cambodia and Vietnam are easy places to travel with the kids, with the exception of crossing the street. Do as the locals do, wait for a bit of a gap and then WALK across in a brisk, steady fashion so the motorbikes anticipate your movement and go around you. Don’t run pell-mell across the street. If you have a child who tends not to pay attention and daydream at inopportune moments, hold their hand. Again, ask me how I know.

Items gained:

  1. Some new clothes, souvenirs. Eric and I got cool sneakers in Cambodia to wear around instead of our sad, torn up running sneakers. I’m not getting rid of those yet though because I think there is still mud in our future. We also got custom made leather flip flops in Siem Reap, leaving behind our nearly trashed other ones. I usually leave them in the hotel rooms – I don’t think anything is thrown out here, someone will take them and find a way to make them usable again.
  2. Herschel backpack. That cheap messenger bag I liked? Well, let’s focus on the cheap aspect as it began disintegrating. In the Bali Airport I just bought a nice Herschel backpack and have loved it. Point is: take good gear with you. Side bonus though, I gave the messenger bag to the Balinese clerk who was absolutely delighted to have a free bag.

Items lost

1.My shit, a few times.