It’s week one of backpacking alone with Kit. I spent a fair whack of my 20s backpacking – travelling free-style, inviting adventure. But to be honest, I’m beginning to think the decision in my 40s to take an eight-year-old on the road in Vietnam was, in hindsight, rash. Mainly because you have to rely on the kindness of strangers – and that’s scary when you are alone with a child in an unfamiliar culture.
That said, it’s working out… so far.
We’ve made it down to the Mekong Delta by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. The night ferry across the Hau Giang river yesterday gave Kit and I a rush of adrenaline. Apparently, the new bridge collapsed while they were building it a few years ago, but I’d recommend the ferry even when they rebuild it. Waiting on the shore, we stood back as hundreds of moped riders revved up in the holding area ready to embark. As soon as they got the go-ahead, they sped up the ramp like angry bees. The noise was deafening as we pedestrians made our way on board and up the metal steps onto a sort of gantry, which seemed to be the only place to stand. Across the vast expanse of water the lights twinkled along the bulky port of Can Tho.
At the other side we were taken partly by taxi and then by foot down narrow lanes to a brightly lit guest house. Inside, it looked as if it was still being built – or perhaps dismantled, hard to say. Kit was not impressed with the cardboard thin door, lime green shiny walls and decrepit bathroom. And he was hungry.
An Australian couple in the hall told us the best place to eat was in a market restaurant on the waterfront, so Kit and I set out into the dark, empty lanes, twisting this way and that towards the lights until we popped out into the main drag. Again it was eerily deserted, but we eventually found the buzzy open-air market restaurant overlooking the harbour. We ordered a vegetarian dish with rice and lemon grass and looked out at the boats. I treated myself to a gin and tonic. It’s all been plain sailing up to now.
Getting home later was a bit trickier, however – and nothing to do with the G&T.
As any fool knows, the one thing to bear in mind in an unfamiliar town is getting home in the dark. Sadly, I had still not re-grown my backpacking whiskers and realized too late that I only had myself to rely on in this matter. We wandered along the deserted main road trying to remember which of the many alleyways we had come out of. Kit was sure it was one; I pulled rank and chose another. I was wrong. As the alley became darker and smellier it seemed we were well and truly lost.
I’d stupidly not brought a torch and by now the dark silhouettes and sudden flare of cigarette tips in the doorways were making me extremely nervous, but Kit was enjoying the adventure so I tried to sound upbeat. Rummaging in my bag I found a spray of insect repellent – well, you never know. It might have worked as well as Mace.
Meanwhile, Kit seemed undaunted and was adamant he knew the way, so acknowledging my hopeless sense of direction so far I gave in and followed him down ever-smaller alleyways. Just as I was starting to feel seriously worried, there it was. Our shabby, dilapidated, gorgeous, wonderful guesthouse.
The next morning we saw the Australian couple. There was an atmosphere hanging between them and they look grey with exhaustion. Turns out they got even more lost than us trying to get back to the guest house last night and didn’t fall onto their rock-hard mattress until nearly 2am…
Kit and I are still meandering through the Mekong Delta, making our way to the outpost port of Rach Ghia. It’s been magical – gliding through the quiet backwaters on small canoe-shaped boats, walking along tiny waterside paths through the orchards, hiring bikes and cycling through lush countryside and watching my son try to communicate with the local children. It’s bliss to spend a few hours out of the heat after lunch lying in hammocks in a café. The only thing I find a tad un-relaxing is the fact that all the cafes in these parts have pet snakes.
I admit it’s been tough carrying our backpacks in this heat. Kit’s got a tiny one, but sometimes he’s too exhausted to carry it. I can’t carry both. I was trying to get on a bus the other day and the weight of my backpack pulled me backwards sprawling onto the busy road. (Amusing for some; painful for me.) Kit’s been luckier. The other day some young English blokes offered to carry his backpack through the fruit market to the jetty.
While there’s usually someone friendly around, the chill realisation that my son could be left stranded if anything happened to me hit hard in the small port of Rach Ghia. For two days we were the only Westerners in a swelteringly hot town where English was barely understood and – worse still – there was nothing to do. Boredom is the biggest horror for an eight-year-old. I could have happily whiled away the time reading in the shade, but Kit was craving action, which in a one-horse town in torrid heat requires creative thinking.
Still, we had a laugh. One of the restaurants we found looked more like a pet shop – or aquarium. Basically, you chose your baby shark/eel/octopus/catfish or whatever and they gutted it there and then. Somewhat squeamish, we chose chicken and it arrived in four bits, with everything from the beak to the claw. The unsmiling waitress watched us flail about with chopsticks and then came over with a pair of scissors to chop it up. Horrible.
Other Western backpackers treat you differently when you’re travelling with a child. Perhaps with more distance, which is fair enough. That said, we spent a fairly intense day with an American guy on our way to Rach Gia.
He was wedged in the same cramped mini-bus (AKA rusty clapped-out vehicle) as us for several sweaty hours so inevitably we got talking. Turned out he was a retired lawyer who’d morphed into a hippy in his retirement. He looked like Mickey Rourke’s double and was fun. He’d apparently refused to join up for the Vietnam war and had been disowned by his folks. All interesting stuff, but I kind of wished he’d kept his voice down a bit when discussing the war.
Dusk was drawing in when we were eventually dumped somewhere in Rach Gia by the bus driver. Realising it was getting late, I’d already rung ahead to book a room in one of the few guesthouses. “Mickey”, who had nowhere to stay, decided to tag along, or as he gallantly put it: “escort you guys there – you know, look after you”. So, while he sat on a stump smoking a roll-up and looking like a surf-dude, Kit and I ran up and down the street for 20 minutes trying to find a taxi. Kit won.
Bit of a weird scene at the guesthouse. Left Mickey smoking outside and Kit and I checked into our room. Few minutes later there was a key in the lock, the door opened and there was “Mickey”. He apologized and left. Five minutes after that, a furious guesthouse owner was banging on our door: “Why you no let your man in? Why you not let him stay with you? Bad woman.”
Kit and I stood in the doorway more confused than nervous. Fortunately, “Mickey” appeared behind him looking horrified and the misunderstanding was sorted… Clearly no room for marital disharmony in Rach Gia, though.
Pho Quoc island
We’ve loved the Mekong, but it was also getting important to find Kit a beach so we’ve headed to the relatively unspoilt island of Pho Quoc and splurged a bit more than I’d budgeted for at the cosy barefoot-chic Mango Bay. White sand, clear seas, snorkelling and two French-speaking children to play with, plus the added excitement of using lamps to find our hut every night, being woken up by cows poking their heads through our shuttered windows in the morning, having an outdoor bathroom and sitting on the beach watching storms out at sea. Then time to move on again.
The food in Vietnam is great for kids. Rice, noodles, spring rolls … we’ve been eating vegetarian dishes – which is a rule I’ve followed when travelling since getting very ill in India – and neither of us got sick once. Kit quickly got a taste for Jasmine tea, though we seemed to be doing something culturally distasteful in ordering it. While we were often offered a cup free on arrival in a restaurant, if we tried to order it – and pay for it – we were practically ejected from the cafe.
Ho Chi Minh – the kidnap
Taking an eight-year-old backpacking on my own in Vietnam was a leap of faith, but while it has proved relatively painless, you have to consider that things can go wrong. In a worst-case scenario, you can be miles away from civilization when disaster strikes.
That said, our worst-case scenario could have happened anywhere in the world. On our last night in Ho Chi Minh I got into a dispute with a taxi driver over the fare. Once again, my appalling sense of direction had got us horribly lost. (If you’ve tried reading a Vietnamese map with tiny script and no specs you’ll sympathise.) So, as it was late, I did the one thing every guidebook tells you not to do – I hailed a cab.
Within a mere two minutes, the previously chirpy driver had stopped at our destination and was demanding mega-bucks. Clearly, I was being fleeced, so I said he must be mistaken and thrust an over-generous but more realistic fare at him. My big mistake was not having got Kit and I out of the taxi before disputing it. My other mistake was mentioning the word “police”.
Before I knew what was happening he was angrily speeding off with Kit and I rolling around in the back. When I eventually managed to sit up, we seemed to have raced into a pretty grim neighbourhood. Panic set in. Even if he hadn’t been going so fast to who-knows-where, the doors and windows were locked and we were trapped.
Kit still seemed remarkably unperturbed and I wanted to keep it that way.
However, desperate for someone to know what had happened to us in our “final hours”, I did a mad thing – rang my husband back in the UK and tried to create the impression to our driver that he was a well-connected diplomat in Ho Chi Minh who could spring us out of this mess by rolling in the big players. It was a failure – the driver was ranting so it made no impression on him and my husband simply went through a frustrating process of being baffled and then seriously alarmed.
“I’m S.C.A.R.E.D,” I said, using spellings so that my son might not twig that the situation was serious.
“You’re SCARRED?!!” yelled my husband, either not very good at spelling or too freaked out to concentrate.
“No, I’m F**@@ SCARED,” I hissed in irritation down the phone.
Kit was now alert to the enormity of the situation. While I banged on the windows, he saved the day by suddenly screaming louder and more terrifyingly than any bit-part actor in a horror movie. In a trice the taxi driver had pulled over, unlocked the doors and even apologised to Kit (not me).
I guess both the taxi driver and I had handled the situation badly and I’d like to think he had no interest in harming us. All in all, any troubles on our travels were negated by the joy of being on the road, meeting interesting people and most of all from sharing some pretty special experiences.
This sort of trip isn’t for children who thrive on waterparks and ice-creams, but a questing child will have the time of their life.