So often we are asked why we travel so much, what drives us to be constantly on the move. For me it’s a difficult question to answer, there are so many aspects of travel that I love. But if I had to choose one it would be that travel makes me feel most alive. I love exploring new environments, especially ones that are in stark contrast to my everyday life. For example I’m drawn to the messy and vibrant cities of South East Asia, where everything works in a slightly different way, from the transport, to the way people eat, so often its a more old fashioned way, that gives an illusion of time travel.
Vietnam is a country I fell in love back in 2006, there was a rawness and messiness that fascinated me. I was hoping the country and people didn’t disappoint this time round, when we returned with our two young daughters. Of course I knew this time it would be an altogether different experience.
I won’t lie, travel with two children under the age of five is tiring and stressful at times. After having some down time over Christmas in Penang, Malaysia and we felt ready to pack our bags and be on the move again. That being said, I’m not sure we were prepared mentally for the busy metropolis of Saigon also known as HCMC.
We landed in the early evening tired and irritable, but happy to be exploring a new city and country. Our accommodation was booked very last minute, a family room in small hostel, it was outside the main tourist district. The hostel wasn’t really suitable for families, the room was a shoe box, with no where for our energy filled toddlers to play, but we had booked two nights here and were determined to make the most of it.
To our delight though the location of our hostel was a blessing in disguise, we had managed to end up in a very local neighbourhood, with no tourist restaurants within a 100m radius. This was the sort of travel Marco and loved and often craved. When we walked out of our hostel and were hit with that excited and slightly uneasy feeling, where you didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s important to just use your instincts and explore.
Eating is a national pass time in Saigon – amongst the fast paced life and business, we found a village type atmosphere which was so welcoming, and an unexpected surprise in such a huge sprawling city.
Maya rushed across the lane to see a little baby sat with his mother on fruit stall. Her curiosity is always leaves me with my heart in my mouth. I know we only have ourselves to blame, we were creating two little explorers they are being conditioned with all this travel.
Our first few hours in the city, was the usual combination of confusion and discovery, the excitement of seeing a new city a new country was present, but the tiredness of our journey creeping was also there and tempers were fraying. As we sat down for our first meal the famous Pho noddle soup.
Now, I’m not talking about any Pho, this particular restaurant was the real deal- how did I know you may well ask? Well when a restaurant has one whole room dedicated to boiling the meat broth with five huge vats boiling away. The other big give away, was the basket of fresh green leaves piled on each table, ready to be added to your bowl of meaty broth and noodles. Of course I had high expectations and it didn’t disappoint. You could tell the broth had been slowly simmering for hours it had that intense but smooth flavour, I sipped the broth and could feel it slowly nourishing my body.
Whilst trying to enjoy this delicious authentic dish I wrangled the kids. I was so intent on enjoying our first night in Vietnam we could’t have chosen a more authentic place for first night.
Sadly, Maya had other ideas and her tiredness had taken over and full on tantrum was brewing, yes, these were the bad moments of travel with small kids. Emotions cannot be hidden and children don’t wait to be behind closed doors. The screaming and shouting started and we had to contain her as the tables were so tightly packed together and full of greenery and chopsticks and various forms of chillie, I was worried she was going to knock everything on the floor.
So instead of enjoying our pho, in a calm and leisurely manner sucking up the atmosphere, I gulped it down. So we had to end our evening rather abruptly and get back to our shoe box room to sleep.
Our second Night exploring a local neighbourhood.
Our second night in Vietnam we had more success with the girls, again our hostel was a blessing in disguise being in such a local neighbourhood. Before dinner we decided to wander the narrow lanes and see what we could learn with the hope of stumbling upon a good place to eat.
Our biggest obstacle and danger was dodging scooters, who really didn’t care much for pedestrians, the trick was to keep moving if you stop you confuse them. As we wandered the narrow lanes and back streets we got a real glimpse of how people lived. There was a whole street of tiny one room dwellings no bigger than a store cupboard. 1.5 metres by 2metres, we saw elderly couples and even young families of four living in these tiny spaces. I noted how they were all spotlessly clean and tidy, the lucky ones had a small mezzanine upstairs. It was surprising how well they made them work and seemed to be very functional.
After wondering, down a narrow lane, we realized we had done a full circuit and were back near our hostel. We had decided to follow our noses and heard some loud music and bustling of people coming from an inner court yard. We wandered into the court yard and realized they were serving seafood, there were big counters full of ice filled with prawns and shellfish. It was packed with local people most young professionals, with thought it must be good if its so busy.
After sitting down, at the standard tiny plastic kids size chairs and stainless steel table, 3 waitresses rushed over to help us. The menu was only in Vietnamese, but it did have photos of the dishes, so with a lot of help from our band of waitresses and some sign language, we weren’t sure exactly what we had ordered, but were expecting a surprise.
The food arrived quickly and it seems our order had got lost in translation, as about half the dishes on the menu were brought out. But after the first mouthful we didn’t want to to send anything back, everything was melt your mouth delicious, from the perfectly cooked squid in a delicate sweet chili sauce, to clams cooked in their shells with crushed peanut sprinkled over the top. Then there was the clam and rice soup that we had ordered for the girls, but we Marco and I ended up eating nearly all of it.
At the end of the meal every last scrap was eaten and we even mopped up all the sauces with delicious French bread they make all over Vietnam. We had a great culinary introduction to Saigon, and had set the bar high for other delights we would be tasting during our stay.
This is the vlog (part 1) of our week in Saigon