When we left London on 10th June 2012, Maple was around 22 months old, just to give you some idea if you’re judging this according to your own childrens’ ages. To allay your fears from the outset, we had a magnificent three weeks. We would do it all again. I know there are a fair number of forums with alarmist idiots saying that you shouldn’t take a toddler to Vietnam, that it is hard and dangerous and on and on they boringly rant with their conservative and desperately dull forebodings. We had no issues whatsoever. This was in part due to our planning, and in large part due to the wonderful country and its beautifully gentle people.
In brief, how did we achieve an easy three weeks in Vietnam from 11th to 30th June 2012? We achieved some of this in the planning:
- we kept the itinerary super simple;
- in Saigon and Hanoi we stayed in apartments which allowed us to self-cater for Mae as we could not be at all sure how Vietnamese food was going to go down for her;
- for much of the time Maple had her own room, apart from at Cassia Cottages on Phu Quoc where we shared a gorgeous Garden Cottage;
- Maple’s check-in luggage was a small bag full of food so we had a huge array of snacks and foods which were familiar to her;
- We were always near water as Vietnam was extremely hot;
- We didn’t travel with a pram and instead took a Bushbaby back carrier with its own sun canopy to take her out and about in;
- We stocked up with mosquito repellent and sun cream so we didn’t have to shop for any of this when we arrived;
- We took enough nappies and wipes for the entire trip (they were available, but it was really nice to know that we had what worked for us);
- We took a Phil & Ted portable highchair as highchairs were extremely scarce (this fitted into the storage compartment of the back carrier);
- In terms of clothes we packed the absolute minimum and we certainly didn’t regret this. Maple lived in light, loose long-sleeve shirts and loose flowing trousers.
Food for the little one
Maple is a pretty good eater, but she is accustomed to my cooking and can be extremely fussy about alien foods being popped in front of her in cafes or restaurants. Perhaps I’ve spoilt her with a lot of lovely home cooking. Nonetheless, because of this, my main concern about the trip to Vietnam, was how to feed my daughter. I knew that she loved a huge array of foods but I couldn’t be sure that the new textures or sauces wouldn’t be too much for her. Rather than risk too many difficult times, the bulk of our packing was food for Maple. Sue me! And I can tell you right now, we did not regret it. There are international supermarkets in Saigon and Hanoi where it is possible to buy some of the bits and pieces your little one might be familiar with, but I packed a huge amount of stuff and barely had to buy anything for her until right towards the end. She also ate numerous meals out with us, enjoying the tofu, prawns, noodles, rice, launching at omelettes, pancakes and scrambled eggs at brekkie time; she loved spring rolls and the lush fresh fruit. When you read how much we took you’ll think I am totally over the top, but it gave us huge peace of mind. In hindsight, I could have cut back a teeny bit in terms of quantity as we did arrive into Melbourne still with a lot of unopened dried snacks still in tow (which we declared but they didn’t bother to check). One hint: make sure you check that your child likes all of these foods before you pack them! So what did we take?
Yes we packed a few bits and pieces of frozen food. I knew that when we arrived in Saigon, we were heading straight for Somerset Hoa Chi Minh Apartments where we had our own kitchen. So I decided to freeze some produce, wrap it up carefully, and pack it deep inside our rucksacks. Worst case scenario was that some things would defrost and need to be eaten immediately, or would not survive the journey and need to be discarded. I was willing to take the risk as we had so few clothes that we could spare the space.
- Prawns (Mae is obsessed with them and of course you can get them in Saigon but she just loves them cooked in butter and lemon and that was so easy to prepare in our apartment). They were still iced-up on our arrival (amazing eh?);
- Three punnets of cream cheese Sainsburys brand – I can mix anything with cream cheese and Maple will eat it;
- I had half a bag of frozen peas left in our freezer in London so I packed it – it was still very cold when we arrived so I refroze them and they were fine;
Fruit and Veg
- Two bunches of asparagus. I had them in the fridge and had to clear it out so I packed them!
- Same goes for a few lemons and a punnet of blueberries!
Dried foods/Canned food
- Bob The Builder Pasta – any pasta sauce gets wolfed down if served with this pasta!
- A small bag of couscous – easy to make anywhere just covering it over with some boiled water.
- Spam – have not used before or since, but Maple loved it chopped up in a pasta sauce. (I can’t stand the stuff but it served its purpose.)
- A couple of small cans of tomatoes. Can easily get there.
- A few small cans of corn. Mae adores corn on the cob but actually didn’t much like the canned sweet corn at this stage, so this was a tad wasted on her;
- Two cans of marinated tofu – can buy tofu there but was so easy and she devoured it.
- Two nets full of mini-bell cheese wheels;
- Two boxes of Philadelphia cheese and bread stick snacks;
- Loads of Ella’s Kitchen purees; breakfast ones, veg and fruit ones, a couple of meat ones which Mae won’t touch with a barge pole but which I mix into pancake batter and she devours rolled up with cream cheese. Many of these were great when we were on flights or in transit or just to keep her entertained;
- Ella’s Kitchen smoothies – an array of flavours. Not quite the hit I had been hoping for, but cooled in the fridge they were great refreshments;
- Boxes of Goodies Raisins;
- Small snack bags of Ritz Crackers – probably too salty for everyday use, but perfect to keep her entertained in cabs and planes;
- Fruit straps/roll-ups; I took along three punnets of these in apple, apricot and peach and she just adores them. Pure fruit and they entertained her for ages and lasted the whole trip. I haven’t found any like it in Melbourne yet, but have figured out how to make them which I’ll post elsewhere cos every toddler LOVES them;
- Fruit bars;
- Dried apple rings; an absolute favourite;
- Oat biscuits;
- Peanut butter – she loves it.
Overkill? Perhaps. But it kept the wolf from the door and gave Mae some familiar nourishment in the midst of many foreign smells and exciting chaos.
Where did we go and where did we stay?
Bearing in mind that I was 19 weeks pregnant when we left London, and we were travelling with a 22 month old nut case, we decided to keep things super, super simple. We kept our trip confined to three destinations over a three week period.
- Saigon from 11 – 16 June
- Phu Quoc from 16 – 25 June
- Hanoi from 25 – 30 June
Our Malaysian airlines flights flew into Saigon and out of Hanoi
Saigon 11 – 16 June
We stayed in a two-bedroom self-contained serviced apartment at Somerset Ho Chi Minh City Apartments. I had scoured the forums and blogs for apartment accommodation in Vietnam or at least accommodation where we would have a separate living area to the bedroom so Oz and I would not have to go to bed when our daughter did. Somerset Apartments came up in various reviews and we decided that the ease it would afford us to have our own kitchen and a pool was worth the extra cost. Airport pick-ups and drop-offs made it even more convenient. The staff were super friendly and breakfast was included and served by the pool each morning. There was a washing machine and fully equipped kitchen, two spacious bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large living/dining room. We were on the fourth floor, I think, and from there we could hear the tantalising sounds of the Saigon traffic in the distance but by no means enough to disturb us. The food in the restaurant was ok. We were so exhausted and working around Maple’s sleeps, that in Saigon we did not venture far from the apartments for our meals, so we grew fairly fed up with the menu very quickly. Sometimes we ordered room service and some evenings we ate by the pool as our baby monitor iPhone application worked from that distance and the restaurant was located right by the door going to and from our section of the complex.
I’ll say from the outset that we were incredibly jet-lagged so we decided that in Saigon we would prioritise sleep and pool and any sightseeing would be a bonus. We would not punish ourselves for not hitting the ground running as we usually do. The apartments were located a short walk away from the botanical gardens and the zoo, which is a great break from the busy streets and fantastic for the little one to run around unrestrained. The zoo was predictably depressing but there are some lovely shrines and pagodas in the area too. From the apartment, we wandered to various enchanting pagodas, awash with incense and dragons and shards of light firing down on stone floors through broken roofs. Ben Thanh market was a short taxi ride away and the area around it extremely walkable. We did a fair amount of walking too. We had read a huge amount of material about tourists finding it difficult with locals touching their children. We, on the other hand, for the most part, found the locals absolutely delightful, and largely respectful. Having Maple in the Bushbaby back carrier also helped as she was nicely contained and when anybody did try to stroke or touch her, they had a hard time gaining access. Maple was also extremely forward in telling people “no” when they did touch her. She was just not having it at all and the locals all understand “no”! So Ben Thanh market with Mae in the back carrier was just lovely. We are market people as it goes, always drawn to the food, flowers and local tat! We didn’t eat there but had I not been pregnant and had we not had an unstoppable toddler in tow, we would definitely have sat at some of the low tables and tried some of the very exciting looking fresh spring rolls (my absolute favourite), soups and fresh fruit drinks. We also checked out the war museum. In my view, if you ignore the war, you’re ignoring these people’s history. It is a photographic journey through the impact of the Vietnam war on the people of Vietnam and not for the fainthearted. There were tears. An essential visit.
Prior to this trip, people warned us relentlessly about the heat. Some even thought we were mad to travel to Vietnam in mid-June. And yes, it was hot, but it was definitely doable; even when pregnant. The back carrier had a sun canopy and Maple was lathered in suncream (50+), hat and light cotton trousers and shirts (mostly picked up on the cheap from H&M). We did short bursts of outdoor activity at sensible times of the day, and spent the hottest part of the day indulging in siestas or swimming in the pool. All very, very doable. I’ve done hotter. And even at 19 weeks pregnant or thereabouts, I was absolutely fine.
Phu Quoc Island 16 – 25 June
What a great move this was. Friends had recommended Phu Quoc island, saying it was chilled out, loads of choice for accommodation, excellent food, beautiful seas and so it went. Now we’re not usually beach and pool-type holiday-makers. We are keen on some diving definitely, but usually we go for the outdoors, crazy cities…Cuba, India, Philippines and so on. We hit the road and we trek, train and check it all out. Chilling by a pool aint our bag. But this was different. Preggas, 2 year old in tow, and bloody hot. So we decided to plant ourselves on an island for ten days with a pool, by the sea, near some local markets. A brief google search threw up Cassia Cottages and unlike the other resorts, the owner at Cassia returned my email almost immediately. I didn’t make a decision straight away and yet the owner, and/or his management team, entertained my endless questions and they won me over. A decision we did not regret.
Cassia Cottages sent a car to collect us from the local airport, brought all our luggage around to the Garden Cottage and sat us in the outdoor covered restaurant for some complimentary refreshments. The manager, Dao, an absolutely beautiful Vietnamese lady, with the most gentle and serene temperament, asked me to come to the cottage to check that they had darkened it sufficiently so that Maple would be able to sleep in there during the day. This had been one of my very specific requests because Mae’s two hour sleep in the middle of the day is a mainstay which we weren’t prepared to forfeit; it gives us a break and energises her for the afternoon. I had totally expected that they would ignore or forget my request, and so I was bowled over to find that Dao had personally hung the windows with thicker blinds and was prepared to do more to accommodate us. We were so so grateful. We requested the Garden Cottage because it was set back in the gardens, away from the two pools, so that we would not have to deal with the sounds of everyone playing and passing by us. A great choice. It was very simply and beautifully done, with the one bedroom (lovely mosquito net-covered bed and our Phil & Ted travel cot) and a huge and gorgeous bathroom with bath and shower. Amelie, a French/Vietnamese girl who had just arrived from Paris to take on the role of Deputy Manager, was also extremely helpful and super friendly. The staff fell in love with Maple and she with them, and at meal time, there was never any sense that we had to keep Mae contained in her highchair as there was always someone willing to play with her, take her to see the fish in the pond or whatever else was her particular delight. There were two pools; one for adults only, and the other for families. We met some wonderful people there, with whom we have remained in touch. The pools overlook the sea, which at that time of year, on that side of the island, was extremely choppy and too rough to take Maple out into, but certainly perfect for beach walks. We took a taxi the half hour drive to Sao Beach for the calm waters. Exquisite beach and totally transparent, crystal waters where we all happily frolicked for hours. Covering up with high factor suncream and hats is essential as the sun has a very brutal sting.
The kitchen staff at Cassia Cottages were extremely obliging at cooking the odd thing for Maple off the menu and I was also encouraged to use the kitchen if I wanted to cook for her, but I actually felt that I would get in the way, so I didn’t actually do this. The night market was a fairly substantial walk away or a super short car ride, and the food looked incredible!! We kept saying that we would go back there to eat dinner one night, but enjoyed the fabulous menu at Cassia Cottages so much that we never got there in time. It is a fairly small market, lined with fresh fish, meats and vegetables on ice. The smells of the barbeques were mouth watering. You can choose your kebabs or soups or share a hot pot (add your own fish and veg to a bubbling broth sitting on a gas stove at your table) and let the locals cook it up for you. Then you sit with a bottle of beer or drink of your choosing and soak up the atmosphere. The heartening thing about it, is that 80% of the customers were Vietnamese, so it didn’t feel like a ridiculous touristy affair. If we had our time again, and we will, we would definitely eat there more than once.
On several occasions we caught a taxi into Duong Dong to the local market. We watched as a tiny tug boat pulled the bridge apart to let a boat pass down the river, and then draw the bridge back together to let a swarm of cyclists, motorbikes and pedestrians cross its rickety planks to the other side. The market is for the locals and it is a photographer’s dream; streets lined with makeshift and colourful awnings; baskets of exotic fruit and veg; buckets of desperately sad frogs with their legs tethered and bleeding waiting to be put in a stew of some sort; fish flip-flopping about on ice; the marketeers wearing the enchanting conical palm bamboo leaf hats, which one immediately associates with Vietnam; rice delicacies wrapped expertly in bamboo leaf by wrinkled old ladies with a twinkle in their eye; bright plastic buckets and super cheap toys which break as soon as they are removed from their wrapping; and the road heaving with motorbikes and bicycles and pedestrians, all doing their shopping. A real market for real people and a must see. For us, this was a huge highlight of Phu Quoc.
It was an emotional thing leaving Cassia Cottages. We very simply did not want to leave and nor did Maple. Their attention to detail, their homemade ice cream using spices grown by the owner (oh my gawd!! So good), and the unsurpassed customer service leave you wanting for nothing. The eco/enviro approach to maintaining the grounds is painstaking for the staff but means that patrons are never bothered with lawn mowers and machinery, which was a joy as the rest of Vietnam is seriously noisy! We will keep in touch and we will return.
Hanoi 25 – 30 June
After our experience in Saigon, we decided to stay in another Somerset apartment in Hanoi. We had already made a tentative booking at a small hotel where there was no pool and no second bedroom, but with a tiny kitchen. However, being near water had proven to be essential in the heat, and rather than pay to go and use another hotel’s pool (which you can do), we decided to go with another two bedroom apartment at Somerset Grand Hotel. These apartments were in Hanoi towers, and from there we sometimes caught a cab short distances, and often we just walked because the location was just brilliant. Also, the restaurant did a fantastic spread for breakfast. A huge range of choice and an absolutely scrummy start to the day. We did a lot of room service for dinners when Maple slept. There is a supermarket in the basement.
Oz and I love to hit the streets when we arrive somewhere new and just get lost and breathe in the chaos, cooking smells and smiles of the locals. Hanoi is just brilliant for this. The Old Quarter won us over immediately and despite the heat, we managed to cover quite a lot of ground, taking in the crazy shops, spilling out into the street. The Old Quarter was a reasonable walk away from our apartment, but easy to do even with Maple on Ozzie’s back.
Other places we visited were:
- Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum; this is a must. Totally organised; in and out. The man himself lies there looking at the ceiling, dead as the day is long. Fascinating. Maple made some hilarious comments and the guards looked pretty serious about things so we didn’t dally.
- The Temple of Literature; a calm place to visit with lovely gardens and beautiful relics.
- The Hanoi Hilton is the nickname for the Hoa Lo Prison, located right beside our apartment building. This was used by the French for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war. Eye-opening and an easy visit.
- Water Puppets; we thought this might just be a tad touristy and a waste of time, and more than that, we almost didn’t do it because we thought Maple would create a song and dance and make it impossible for anybody to enjoy the show. How wrong we were. She was absolutely entranced. The musicians and vocalists were extraordinary and the puppet show in water was well worth a peek. Only 45 minutes or so from memory.
- Wandering around West Lake is lovely, particularly towards the end of the day when the locals come out to play sport, or Tai Chi. The Pagoda is lovely and there are loads of streets off the main drag worth exploring.
- Dong Xuan market and surrounds, well worth checking out.
- We came across some gorgeous children’s boutiques and bought some stunning dresses for Maple, incredibly cheaply. Something to remember. We continue to get comments about these dresses. The fabrics are just beautiful and very nicely made.
- Look I could carry on, but the long and the short of it is, we checked out the guidebook and then just walked and sometimes got cabs to cut ourselves some slack. It is a fabulous city and we will definitely go back.