It has been the most surreal experience getting to this point. After my last very disenchanted Vietnam related post I actually almost gave up on getting April's passport altogether as there were just so many hoops we had to jump through and the whole thing became so tiring. But the citizenship document arrived just in time!! It was almost like I needed to give up and let go of the reins a little before things could fall into place.
I picked up the passport last THURSDAY, we got the visa on Friday and we got on board the plane yesterday (Monday) morning! Talk about the eleventh hour! It really was like a bad early nineties American comedy- think Home Alone.. Or Home Alone 2.. Or 3.. Whatever takes your fancy.
Fortunately, since then, everything has been super smooth and we are now sitting in an amazing five star hotel in the middle of Hanoi after a jam packed day of amazing new experiences. The journey here felt very long as we flew 8 hours from Melbourne to Saigon/HCM, then had a 2 hour wait in the airport, another 2 hour flight to Hanoi and then 45 minutes in a bus to our hotel. We have 19 kids, 6 teachers and 2 parent helpers all together and I was expecting a few disruptions. I thought there might be a few cheeky/naughty/pushing the boundaries all the time kinds of kids, a few vomiters and definitely a whinger or two thrown in for good measure but to my surprise, everyone was amazing! Very little complaining was heard even though the journey was quite arduous. There was one sick child but he seemed to chirp up quite soon after.
On the bus trip to the hotel my right eye and the whole right side of my face was in pain. It felt like the beginning of a migraine and I started to worry that I would be down for the count for a couple of days. My head went so fuzzy that I couldn't open my suitcase (damn complicated padlock is hard to work when you're in a migraine haze) to get a Panadol out so I had a couple of pain killers from the other dad which were so effective that I was nearly asleep before I got off the elevator and into our room. I fell straight into bed and April had to do everything to set us up in our room. She was a champ figuring out the adaptor and power boards and she plugged all our devices in so they'd be ready for this morning's activities.
We woke at 6 feeling really fresh and ready for the day and after a quick shower I was anxious to head down to the lobby to use the wifi to Skype and email the family back home. The buffet breakfast was amazing but I was a little bit distracted chatting to John and Richie (Molly was already at school) and I didn't really eat much, just a little Bircher muesli, coffee and fruit. Tomorrow I'm planning on making a better effort. The kids were going nuts on the pastries, coco pops and bacon and showed an appropriate 12 year old lack of self control leading to some being starving by ten o'clock and some feeling overstuffed. I guess it's one of those living and learning experiences. Another of those is the need for sleep and the 12 year old's inability or refusal to acknowledge this vital human requirement. Kids are crazy... They're great... But crazy.
We met our wonderful tour guide Vinh (Vinny) in the lobby and the first thing on our agenda was a visit to the Vietnam Ethnicity Museum. Lots of artefacts and information about the different ethnic groups around Vietnam, which regions they came from, what set them apart from each other etc and while it was very interesting, the heavy humidity was making it very difficult for the kids to concentrate and enjoy it. They were very good though and didn't complain too much before we finally took off through the lovely tropical gardens, stopping to look at the historical buildings on the way, to our next destination, The Temple of Literature.
This is a temple that was constructed to honour education and literacy. It was very beautiful, set in pristinely kept gardens with a large pond in the centre. Turtles are everywhere as the turtle is a symbol of education. The turtle lives the kind of life required to do well in study, the Vietnamese believe, as they are steadfast and they are nourished on living food. There was also a Phoenix standing on a turtle to represent the balance required for study- like yin and yang, one stays on the ground and one soars above. There were gorgeous floral displays everywhere and it was just a lovely lovely place to be. I rubbed the turtles head in the hope that it brings me luck in my planned study next year.
We left the temple and did our first Vietnam road crossing! It's quite the experience crossing the road as a pedestrian in Hanoi. You need to slowly walk out into the traffic without hesitating and the motorbikes and cars stop for you. The whole driving thing seems super chaotic but the more you are in it the more you realise that this sort of chaos works here. Everyone is always beeping their horns at each other but it's not aggressive like it is in Australia, it's more like an "I'm here, just letting you know" kind of beep. It's sort of friendly really!
Anyway, the road crossing led us to KOTO restaurant for our lunch. KOTO means "know one teach one" and is a social enterprise that teaches street kids hospitality skills so they can go on to work in professional hospitality jobs after. It's the same kind of model as STREAT in Melbourne. Chau (the bilingual coordinator at the school) seemed to think it was the same thing but I'm not sure. It is affiliated with Box Hill institute so it's possible. The food was amazing, BBQ pork in a sweet and sour fish sauce with rice vermicelli noodles and salad and to finish all the adults had a coffee with condensed milk. I wasn't sure if I'd like it but I really really did. I loved it actually.
Feeling full and happy we then travelled to the Ho-Chi Minh mausoleum. The area around the mausoleum was quite tranquil as there is no traffic allowed and it provides a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Hanoi. We wandered through the presidential gardens and looked at some of the significant buildings from the time of Ho-Chi Minh, his cars, and, as the kids were fading fast (maybe a proper breakfast would've been good) we decided to abort our plans for an hour and head back to the hotel and let the kids have a swim in the pool and recharge before the next bit of our adventure.
After a little R&R we hopped into the bus again and arrived (a little late) at the water puppet show. Water puppets are a traditional story telling art form. It was quite clever and a bit weird really but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and that's what's important .
The next experience was by far the highlight of my day. We left the water puppet show and wandered through the crowds to the intersection of two busy roads where we waited for our cyclos to arrive and show us the back streets of Hanoi where our big tour bus could not fit. I loved this experience so much that I want to do it again and again. Sitting on a cyclo, which is a bike that has a seat in front for a passenger and a little roof overhead, and riding through the crazy Hanoi traffic has to be up there with one of the coolest things I've done. It was such a fantastic way to feel what it is like to be in the traffic without having the responsibility of manoeuvring through it myself - which I must say, I don't think I will ever try. There was an air of familiarity as we travelled past restaurants, this-n-that grocery stores and neon lit mobile phone shops... Footscray! It's very different of course, but definitely familiar.
The cyclos dropped us off at our dinner destination and we were lucky enough to meet up with some lovely friends from Footscray who have recently moved with their three kids to Vietnam for 6 months and celebrate their daughter's 13th birthday with them. It was so lovely to chat to them as its been few months since I've seen them and they were clearly really loving having some familiar people around again. I am hoping to catch up with them again before we leave.
Dinner was ordered by Vinny; a selection of dishes which we shared with one another. Soup, rice, noodles, spring rolls... So much food! Then cake with our friends and a lovely walk back to our hotel before trying to get the kids to settle down.
April has been asleep for half an hour but I can still hear some other kids making noise in the other room.. Oh we'll, they're not my responsibility.. My kid's asleep.. I'm the winner!
I'd better go, we need to be at breakfast by 7am.
I'll add some pics to this post tomorrow... Stay tuned!