Monthly Archives: January 2012

Made to measure (Hoi An, Vietnam)

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Up to this point Vietnam had been a bit of a disappointment, but I’d hoped that Hoi An would help to redeem it, and it did.

Hoi An is a pretty town, full of character, but it has made a name for itself for its tailors. There are over 200 made to measure shops in the small town, offering bespoke suits, dresses and even made to measure shoes and all at affordable prices.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

A local tailor sewing in her shop

It was our last stop in Vietnam before heading back to Kuala Lumpur so we increased our luggage allowance on our last flight to allow us to get some clothes made. And then the fun began.

The staff in all of the tailors were very friendly and were happy to entertain ‘the boy’ whilst we were measured and fitted for our new clothes. There are almost too many shops to choose from and with each tailor offering to turn around bespoke items within 24 hours you can see why some people get carried away.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

The boy plays amongst the fabric

Overall it was a really good experience and although it was a bit time consuming, ‘the boy’ was very content playing with the different staff in each shop.

Maybe I’ve been a bit negative about Vietnam and our experience here, but there has been one major positive, one that was a rarity in all of the other countries we’ve been to.  It is the humble bathtub. Up until this point in our trip ‘the boy’ had only had two baths, one in our hotel in Bangkok and one when we were staying with our friends in Singapore. The sad thing is that ‘the boy’ loves playing in the bath and to have only two in five months makes me feel as though we’ve been depriving him of something he loves. Which takes me to Vietnam. Every place we’ve stayed, apart from the $7 a night guesthouse in China beach, has had a bathtub. It appears that even lower budget options tend to come with a tub.  So even if mummy and daddy can’t promote Vietnam, ‘the boy’ has enjoyed some aspects of it that makes it all worth it.

Next stop Kuala Lumpur.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' enjoys yet another bath in Vietnam

Top tip of the day:
Head to the little streets close to the waterfront as in the evenings and during weekends the streets are open to pedestrians only. It was a welcome break to be able to let our baby walk around on the reigns without having to worry about motorbikes speeding through the streets.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' takes a walk along the river front

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Negotiating the cost of some pretty lanterns

The sugar rush (China beach, Vietnam)

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As we travelled further northwards we began to meet the cooler winter weather. This meant that:
a) we were able to find a double room with a large balcony overlooking the sea for $7 a night, but
b) it was far too windy and cold to sit on the beach for any prolonged time. All the same, it was great to be able to walk along the beach and get some fresh air, even if it was a bit chilly.

China beach is a strange area. The development there is phenomenal. In a 5km stretch of beach there are already nine or ten huge 5 star complexes, with at least another ten at the planning or part built stages. I cannot imagine that once finished all of these establishments would ever be operating at full capacity, but that’s just my opinion.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' enjoys a walk on windy China beach

The guest house that we stayed in is one of the last remaining beach front guest houses still standing, as many of the previous old buildings have been bulldozed to make way for these huge hotels.  According to the literature we read, the guesthouse we stayed in is likely to suffer the same fate. It’s a real shame that a unique family business, built up over many years can be taken away from the local people so easily, replaced by a very uniform hotel complex.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Relaxing on the balcony

That evening we ate at one of the few local places that was open as many were still closed over the festive period. The food was absolutely terrible, some of the worst we’ve had on out trip, but the family that ran it were so friendly and happy to take ‘the boy’ of our hands that it gave us a nice break.  We even forced ourselves to return for round two the following evening, as the added bonus of childcare gave my hubby and I some precious relaxation time. It was on our first evening here, after watching ‘the boy’ bouncing manically up and down on the back of a chair at 10pm, that we first realised that we were witnessing his first sugar rush.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' plays with the sand on China Beach

Rewind 12 hours…

Throughout the morning, before catching our flight from Dalat,  ‘the boy’ was handed many treats from the New Years Day sweet box. As it was one off occasion, we decided to turn a blind eye to the sugared dried fruits and small biscuits that he was being given.

When we arrived at the airport ‘the boy’ had an abundance of energy. He found some older children to interact with and spent the next two hours running crazily around the departure hall. On most plane journeys he normally sleeps, but not today. In fact, we’d commented on how much energy he had and how unusual it was for him not to have a snooze. And so there we were, late evening, watching him bounce around the café, wired, when all we wanted to do was go back to our room and sleep.  It was only then that we realised that his unusual behaviour could be down to increased amount of sugar that he’d eaten during the day. Needless to say, the New Years treats were confiscated for the remainder of the festive period and ‘the boy’ reverted to his normal laid back self. Hurrah!

Top tip if the day:
On flights, we’ve found that our baby has more discomfort with the air pressure on the descent, rather than the ascent. On shorter flights we save his milk for the landing, and give him a sippy cup of water, or his dummy for the take off.

The scream (General)

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The title of this blog does not have any relation to the painting by Edvard Munch, but to the noise we have to endure everyday from ‘the boy’.

After almost six months on the road ‘the boy’ is taking a stand. He no longer welcomes the attention he receives from complete strangers, and after months of accepting the constant cheek pinching, touching, kissing and hugging, he’s finally had enough and boy do we know about it.

How do we know he’s not happy? Easy. His reaction to any unwanted attention is simple. Scream as loudly as possible in the direction of the perpetrator and if that fails, kick! He may look cute, but once the scream is released, the cheek pinching soon stops.

Alf-o-rama is no longer welcome, unless of course it’s on his terms.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

I may look sweet, but I've got a scary scream!

 

 

 

Swan Lake (Dalat, Vietnam)

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Dalat is situated 5 hours by road from Mui Ne up in the highlands.  Our cramped little minibus left a lot to be desired, so we were pleased to arrive safely and to stretch our legs.

After a couple of months in the heat Dalat was a welcome drop in temperature. During the daytime the weather resembled that of a European summers day, but it got surprisingly chilly in the evenings. So much so that we had to make the fashion faux pas of wearing socks with our sandals, which is not a good look.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Wrapping up for the cooler evenings

Dalat is the city where the majority of travellers head off the tourist bus routes, hire a driver, and explore the surrounding highlands on the back of a motorbike. Whilst most people were busy negotiating the cost of hiring an easyrider, we were busy negotiating the cost of taking a Swan shaped pedalo out on the town’s central lake.  Even ‘the boy’ thought that our choice of transport was tame and promptly fell asleep five minutes after pushing off from the deck, only waking as we got back onto land.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'The boy' was unimpressed with the tame swan pedalo!

For the next few days we took advantage of the cooler climate by walking around the lake, visiting the local park and visiting one of Dalat’s famous sights, the crazy house. The crazy house is a just that, a crazy house built over five floors and made to look like a huge tree house. It has unexpected twists and turns with windy staircases, odd shaped themed rooms, round windows, mirrored walls and ceilings and enormous animal sculptures in the bedrooms. It was unusual to say the least and although the hubby and I had to take it in turns to explore the upper levels of the house, ‘the boy’ was happy toddling around the ornate gardens.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

The Bear room in the crazy house

Our visit to Dalat also coincided with Chinese New Year and the sights, sounds and excitement of this festive time made our visit more fun. Huge red balloons were being sold on every corner, Chinese dragons danced and weaved their way through the crowds and there was a hive of activity around the lake where the major parties and firework displays were being held later that night.

We took advantage of the time of year by booking our transport on New Years Day, considerably cheaper than the rest of the week. After some serious contemplation and feeling a bit disillusioned with our experience in Vietnam we decided to save ourselves many hours of travel on local buses and booked a flight direct from Dalat to Danang. A much simpler solution for us to continue our travel north.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

The balloon sellers on the streets on Chinese New Years eve

Top tip of the day:
Now our baby is faster on his feet we’ve been using his walking straps more regularly. Health and safety isn’t top priority in Asia, so we often find that walkways/paths often have broken fences/walls with hazards the other side. Even if your baby’s not at the walking stage when you set off on your trip, buy the straps before you leave the UK, as they are difficult to find in Asia.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Learning to use chopsticks

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'The boy' entertains himself with his much loved car and dinosaurs

Sun, sea and lots of sand (Mui Ne, Vietnam)

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After five hours sitting on a busy bus we were exited to finally see the sea. The journey should have taken four hours, but because of increased traffic on the road for the Tet holiday (Vietnamese new year), we joined thousands of others who were heading out of Ho Chi Minh to visit family and take their annual breaks.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Mui Ne beach - the kitesurfer's paradise

Mui Ne is becoming SE Asia’s Mecca for windsurfing and kite boarding because it has Asia’s strongest and most consistent onshore winds.  This meant two things for us:

1) We would have plenty to look at with hundreds of kite surfers hitting the water everyday.

2) ‘The boy’ would sadly be unable to paddle and enjoy the beach, as he would normally do, due to strong currents and big waves.

Our accommodation overlooked the sea and had a superb garden.  If the beach wasn’t ideal as a playing ground, the garden certainly was.  At the top of the steps leading up from the sea was a small pool for washing the sand off your feet. This became ‘the boy’s’ new baby beach and he spent hours sitting in it surrounded by his toys. It seemed to distract him from the fact that the real beach, which was only ten feet away, was out of bounds.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' enjoys playing in the foot washing pool - his new beach!

Mui ne is also famous for its huge sand dunes. Having never experienced dunes on this scale I was excited about seeing them and watching ‘the boy’ play in the ultimate sand pit.

The dunes are impressive and looked beautiful in the afternoon light. We hiked up to the top of the highest dune,  ‘the boy’ on my back, before releasing him for a run around with a difference. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. Walking had never been this hard before.  With each step, his foot sank down to his knees, making every move an effort. I was secretly hoping that this meant he would tire himself out and we would be blessed with a thirteen-hour marathon sleep later that night. Unfortunately he didn’t!

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' tries the dune buggy out for size

Although Mi Ne isn’t the ideal beach for babies, the atmosphere is very laid back; making it was a welcome break after the hectic atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh.

Top tip of the day:
Although our bus was delayed due to the Tet holiday traffic, we’ve found that 80% of the bus journeys we’ve taken over the last five months have taken considerably longer than the advertised times. We’ve got used to adding sixty – ninety minutes to every journey time (which is usually more accurate than the time we have been given) and we plan ahead and take extra food so that we can feed our baby on the go.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

The beautiful dunes

“Bike, bike, bike” (Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

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We’ve already mastered the art of crossing the road with ‘the boy’ in the sling, now we were going to have to master crossing the road with the buggy. This was not a task I was looking forward to.

Ho Chi Minh is a manic city and in a city of just over 9 million, there are over 5.6 million motorbikes on the road.  Our visit to Ho Chi Minh also coincided with ‘the boy’ finally differentiating between moving vehicles, until now everything was a car.  We’re normally over the moon when a new word is used correctly, but when you’re in a city with one of the highest concentration of motorbikes in the world, and the word ‘bike’ is shouted every time he sees one, let’s just say that by the end of day one we were a little tired of the word!

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Emerging from the Chu Ci tunnels

Top of our list in Ho Chi Minh was to visit the Chu Ci tunnels, an underground maze of over 121 km of tiny winding dark passageways, which were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet offensive in 1968. We were shown many types of booby trap used by the Viet Cong to entrap both men and sniffer dogs and were given the chance to crawl into the tunnels, which although still small, have been widened to accommodate the Western build. A few people within our group didn’t want to experience the tunnels, so a nice German lady took ‘the boy’ under her wing whilst my hubby and I crawled a few hundred yards underground in the darkness.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' takes us on a tour at the War Museum to show us the 'cars'

Another place on our list was the War museum.  My hubby has written a blog entry about our visit (click here to read), but the highlight for me was finding a children’s playroom on the third floor.  If you’re on a two week holiday with kids then finding a playroom probably isn’t going to be the highlight of your day (or week), but when you’ve been on the road for 5 ½ months and you find a secure, clean, friendly playroom, well, it’s truly exciting.

‘The boy’ wasn’t quite sure what to do at first, surrounded by books, balls, building blocks and cuddly toys.  To my surprise, after surveying his options, he chose to pick out the cylindrical building blocks and roll them around the playmat, something he normally does with our water bottles.  One hour later and fully settled in this new environment he was running around throwing plastic balls around the room having a great time.  It was lovely to watch.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' having a ball with lots of balls!

Ho Chi Minh was also the point in our Vietnam experience when we began to tire of the constant hassle and scamming. Unlike other Asian countries where a taxi driver or local shop might try to increase their prices to the tourist market, in Vietnam, the scale at which it is done means you’re always on your guard. In one week we’d had to deal with taxis with faulty metres charging over four times the rate it should be, inflated bus tickets, numerous occasions where no change was given or the wrong change, menus showing one price outside the cafe and a completely different higher price on the menus you order from, ridiculous prices for water or basic items and the constant hassle of people trying to sell you something you’re not interested in.  It can become very tiring, particularly when you’re travelling with a baby and you’re already more tired than the average backpacker.

Our next stop is the beach, so hopefully we can re-charge our batteries and view Vietnam in a more positive light.

Top tip of the day:
Even if you’re not interested in visiting the war museum, the playroom is certainly worth a visit. It’s away from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets and with an entry cost of only $1.50 (circa a £1) per adult (free for babies) it’s very good value.

War Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

 

 

Road safety Sue (General)

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A former boyfriend from my early twenties gave me the nickname ‘road safety Sue’ due to the fact that it didn’t matter how drunk I was, or my fellow party-goers, I was always insistent that every passenger wore their seatbelt on the taxi journey home.

On occasion my husband still uses the nickname, usually if I’m midway giving him annoying (according to him) tips on choosing the safest seat on an aeroplane, or the fact that in a head on collision you’re better off sitting in a backward facing seat on a train rather than a forward facing one.  In fact, before we’d made the decision to come travelling to SE Asia, I’d been busy researching the safest car seat to buy for ‘the boy’ and after some thorough investigation had decided that it was safest to keep him in a rear facing seat until the age of four.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

A local bus in Borneo, Malaysia. One of the first of many buses on our trip.

And then we decided that we would backpack around SE Asia.  SE Asia, where seeing five family members balanced upon one motorbike is ‘normal’, where crash helmets are a rarity and seatbelts, well what are they?

As you can imagine this was a huge problem for me. When you’re travelling and make a decision to get on a battered old bus or into a taxi then you’re making your own choices. When you have a baby with you, you’re making a decision on their behalf and you feel very responsible for every journey and every mode of transport that you choose.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

A sedate horse and cart ride in Yogyakarta, Java

Initially, getting into a taxi and holding ‘the boy’ on my lap felt very alien, but over the last five months it’s become less strange, but of course, ‘Road Safety Sue’ still has some travel rules including:

  • No standing up on our lap in cars or taxis
  • In local minibuses we wear the wriggle band to keep ‘the boy’ secure and allow us to be hands free
  • We never sit on the front or back rows of seats on buses / coaches preferring to sit in the middle.
  • We try and sit on the opposite side to the driver on buses / coaches
  • No motorbikes! (We’ve been offered many rides, but refuse every time)
  • For longer distance taxi journeys we try to choose a driver aged 35-55.

The last rule may sound like a strange one, but we’ve found that younger drivers tend to drive faster, more erratically and are a bit more daring with their overtaking. And after our experience of a few older drivers in Borneo, who either couldn’t remember which side of the road they should have been on after overtaking (slightly worrying), or had no idea how to use the controls properly, we plump for the ‘mid range’ every time.  Drivers between the ages of 35 and 55 often have a family of their own and therefore, (well most of the time) tend to be more careful when driving.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'The boy' asleep on my lap in a local minibus in Vietnam

Although certain vehicles and journeys still make me nervous, I realise that if you don’t embrace Asia and its travel differences, then we could never have experienced what we have.

To date we’ve travelled tens of thousands of miles on the following modes of transport:

11 planes, 59 taxis, 9 cars, 22 buses, 16 coaches, 14 ferries, 7 journeys on the MRT, 6 4x4s, 23 local minibuses, 6 speedboats, 8 tourist buses, 2 rib boats, 2 x cycle rickshaws, 1 tourist boat, 4 trains, 1 horse and cart, 3 motor rickshaws, 12 journeys on the sky train, 5 journeys on the underground, 1 canoe, 1 small wooden boat, 1 USA jeep, 2 tug boats, 38 tuk tuks, 10 sontows and 1 elephant…

… And we’ve survived to tell the tale.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'The boy' relaxes on the deck of a small boat on the Mekong river

Top tip of the day:
Don’t be afraid to tell your driver to take it slowly if they’re driving faster than you’re comfortable with. Although this isn’t feasible on all modes of transport, such as a bus, we always requested that the tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok, who often drive at high speed, take it steady as we had a baby on board.
On occasion we’ve had to instruct the taxi driver to stop so that we can try and communicate that he needs to slow down. As Road Safety Sue would say, ‘better safe than sorry’.