It was September School Holiday, Felicia and Elkan were in town for 10 days. I was clueless where to bring them around Hong Kong. For the first 5 days, Elkan was lazing at home playing console games. I decided to give both of them a small surprise – their maiden trip to Vietnam!
As usual, I planned this trip at the very last minute. I am always seen as an impulse traveler. More than 65% of my travels were decided and departed within 48 hours. Let me correct my critics here, I am not an impulse person. I don’t like planning a trip many months ahead (unless it is a long difficult journey). Planning is for those who take a long to decide something. A long wait can develop different types of expectation that may leads to disappointment. When I want to travel, I just pack my bags and go. I like the feeling of freedom and instant gratification. There’s no need to plan, just do it. I like to discover as I go along. It feels more like an adventure.
Elkan was very excited when I told him that we would be exploring the underground-forested tunnels and swampy waterways. He likes adventure but he remains a very timid and careful boy. As much as possible, I would want to expose him to different parts of the world so he get to experience life outside his little shoebox universe in Singapore.
Day 1 – It was a short 2.5 hour flight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived and checked into our hotel at 11:30am. By noon, we ventured out and I gave them a quick 4-hour city tour. I brought them to the city’s most popular tourist spots – The Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee City Hall, Reunification Palace, Ben Thanh Market and Dong Khoi shopping street. (Felicia and Elkan managed to recognise the location where Harshad shot his infamous conference video 2 years ago.) All the tourist attractions were located within walking distance from our hotel, it was very easy to explore the city center on foot.
Our last stop for the day – We visited the War Remnants Museum. Through the rich war history of Vietnam, Elkan learnt the important lesson of peace and harmony. There, we saw many disturbing war photographs. This is my second visit to the War Remnants Museum and it still evokes a deep sense of grief and anger in me. These war stories reminded us the true value of peace and the pain of wars. For a country that went through 2,000 years of war (first against the Chinese, the Mongolian, then the French, the Japanese and finally the American), Vietnam underwent many generations of untold and unimaginable sufferings. The last war may have ended more than 20 years ago but the aftermath of the chemical war crimes continue to haunt its victims and their next generations. It is a lesson that Syria must heed from Bosnia and Vietnam. War is simply senseless and victory-less. No one wins – except those merchants of wars.
Day 2 – We woke up at 6:30am and went on a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Along the way, the travel guide brought us to a Vietnamese lacquer-ware factory where handicapped war victims work. There, we were given a brief introduction of lacquer-ware making. Despite the emotionally story of supporting the war-victims through purchasing these products, I didn’t buy anything from this factory. The prices of these handicrafts weren’t cheap. All the items were priced 300% more than the ones in the city. Clearly, this was a “tourist-shopping-trap”.
We had lots of fun at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Viet Cong built these tunnels as a defence network against the offensive American troops. During the war, the tunnels served as a communication and supply-routes for the Viet Cong. The tunnels housed soldiers and their families. Some of these tunnels extended over 200km long and 10m deep. Presently, many of these tunnels were lit with lights and made wider and taller to house the bigger-sized tourists.
Both Felicia and Elkan successfully descended into the original A4-size ground hole. I didn’t bother to attempt, as I know my chubby body won’t fit into the small entrance. Tunnel walking was a breeze for Elkan but not for the adults. Almost all the adults came out of the narrow 40m long tunnel with tiring perspired expressions, except for Elkan. He was the only one who wanted to go for a second round. Elkan was bursting with energy. Instead of doing 1 underground tunnel crawl, he managed to persuade the tour guide to let him explore more underground tunnels.
The weather was unpredictably hot, humid and stormy, I was too tired to go anywhere else. After Cu Chi Tunnels, we headed back to our hotel where I took a short nap. Later in the evening, I met up with a good Singaporean friend, Kelvin for dinner. He brought us to a very cozy and beautifully decorated shop house for authentic Vietnamese food.
Day 3 – We joined a group of Australian and Singaporean tourists to Mekong River. It was a full day tour. We started the day at 8am and returned at 6pm.
We had an excellent English-speaking local guide. The trip to Mekong River took 2 hours. Along the way, we saw many rice paddy plantations and old towns. We stopped by at a temple of giant Buddha and Goddess statues and a bus depot where I saw a kind tourist guide entered a lotus lake to retrieve a young girl’s watch.
All was well until Elkan broke down in tears at Mekong River. He was having a really bad stomachache. His frantic cries made everyone worried. The Australians and Singaporeans travelers were very kind and offered medicines and ointment oil. Even the local drink stall owners made hot ginger tea for him.
Elkan struggled the pains throughout the Mekong tour. His cries frightened the boatmen. Imagine this, we were the only one with a crying boy along the peaceful, scenic Mekong River. Every passing boat gave us that strange look. Elkan was screaming and crying on the boat. We had an extraordinary express tour, the boatmen sensed the urgency of his condition and rowed the boat super fast. We reached the jetty ahead of everyone else. There, Elkan vomited and made a couple of “emergency toilet breaks”. It was so bad that we have to make an instant “temporary toilet shelter” for him out on the jetty. Fortunately, we were in this village where there were stalls selling t-shirts. We bought him a new t-shirt (as he vomited on the one he was wearing). This is certainly one painful and unforgettable trip for Elkan and his poor parents. Thankfully, the whole group of travelers was very understanding and kind towards our plight.
Just when we decided to cut short our tour and head back to the city, Elkan’s tummy wasn’t painful anymore. He was back to his old self – noisy, jumpy and naughty. My son is indeed a big joker. He certainly got everyone’s attention. He is one big chaotic charmer.
On our last night in Vietnam, we met up with my primary school friend, Rosline Heng. Her husband and her were stationed in Vietnam for many years. We missed an opportunity to meet up with her last month when they visited Hong Kong. Guess fate gave us a second chance to meet.
Tomorrow is the last day of our short adventure. We will be packing and heading back to Hong Kong for one more night. On Sunday, Felicia and Elkan will be flying back to Singapore and I will be heading north to Shanghai for a short business trip.
Guess I will be missing them for another 2 months before their next return in November. By then, I will be making another impromptu trip. Surely up north where northern lights glitter – the only questions are which country, with who and when.