YAYERI VAN BAARSEN and her partner find taking their five-month-old daughter backpacking through Vietnam is a great way to meet the locals
My daughter got her second tooth on the night train from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang. Her first tooth came a week earlier, just after we’d booked our last-minute flight. Timing, it seems, isn’t her strong point. Teething isn’t either. Halfway through the night, the young couple in our sleeping compartment decided to never have children. Understandable. During the teasingly relaxed flight I’d found myself thinking: “Why didn’t we do this earlier?”. But during the ensuing 16-hour train ride from hell with dirty toilets and not enough bins to dispose of dirty nappies, this quickly changed to: “Why on earth did we do this?!”
Our little monster finally fell asleep in the cab from the train station to Hoi An. That afternoon, when cycling over the bridges, around the temples and below the colourful lanterns that decorate the streets of Hoi An’s historic quarter, our daughter snoring softly in the carrier, I was reminded again of the reason we decided to go on this journey through Vietnam. Because travelling makes us happy. Pre-baby, I’d backpacked through Europe, Asia and India – why stop now I’ve got a child? Being a mother doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life vacationing close to home in baby-proof holiday resorts, especially not now our baby is still so small and portable. She doesn’t need solid food yet and she can’t walk or talk. In other words: no worries about dirty salads in unhygienic restaurants, no heart attacks because she wants to cross the road by herself in the centre of Hanoi, and no whining that she’d rather visit a theme park than a rice field. It’s a shame she can’t carry her own backpack yet, otherwise she’d be the ideal travel companion.
Not everyone shares this view. “How brave,” lots of people said. A few thought it was borderline child abuse and some, like my mother-in-law, declared us completely crazy. I have to admit, there were a few times when I wondered if maybe they were right. This started even before we left, when reading about the huge rise in measles in Vietnam – a disease babies usually get vaccinated against at 14 months. Dengue fever cases, for which there isn’t even a vaccination available, had increased by 249 per cent compared to 2018, other travellers told us. Not something you want to hear when discovering a mosquito bite on your baby’s leg, just after arriving in the country! We also thought “What have we done?” when our daughter decided to pee all over the bus seat – as we were still busy changing her nappy after a poo explosion that also soiled half her bodysuit. And when she wanted to play ‘peekaboo’ during nursing and, with a big grin on her face, pulled away the shawl covering her head. There I stood in front of the Buddhist Phuoc Lam Pagoda in Hoi An, my breast exposed and my head slowly but surely turning tomato red …
Luckily, Vietnamese people love babies. Waitresses offer to babysit so we can enjoy our meal in peace; when I say I’d rather hold my daughter myself, they entertain her by making funny faces. Taxi drivers make animal noises or sing along with the radio when our daughter starts whining after a few kilometres. “Cute baby, cute baby!” we hear frequently and, wherever we go, everyone wants to touch her. With her blue eyes and blonde hair, our daughter is a major attraction. In Huế, all of the hotel staff cover her in kisses. On Cát Bà Island, we find ourselves surrounded by a group of Chinese tourists with cameras. Instead of photographing the beach or ocean, they’re taking pictures of our baby relaxing on a beach towel.
Backpacking with a baby does require some adjustments. This time we’ve decided to skip the full moon parties and avoid the Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam. It’s a shame to miss the floating markets that have been on my bucket list for ages, but we don’t want to take any mosquito risk with the little one. Instead of rushing from jungle trek to museum to market before catching the bus to the next destination, not wanting to miss a single hotspot, we now spend at least three nights in the same place. Apart from a slower pace, we also travel in a bit more comfort. After reading reviews about holes in mosquito nets, air-conditioning only functioning three hours a day, and the resort being located on an island full of aggressive monkeys, we immediately cancelled the romantic beach hut we’d booked. What can I say; perhaps becoming a mum has made me fussier. Instead of dragging our daughter along for hours in the 34°C heat, we swap sightseeing with lots of breaks in cool cafes and stay overnight in hotels with a bathroom, air-conditioning and sometimes even a pool. It’s backpacking deluxe, but to be honest I get a better night’s sleep than on my last trip to Vietnam, when I shared a dormitory in a party hostel with nine other travellers.
Actually, she isn’t too much of an obstacle, my 8kg pooping front pack. We travelled by plane, car, bicycle, boat and bus. Just like the Vietnamese, we crammed the three of us together on a small scooter. Not in busy Hanoi, but on Cát Bà Island, where the deserted roads surrounded by jungle make you think you’ve somehow ended up in Jurassic Park. Snuggled in the baby carrier, my daughter didn’t seem too impressed by our island scooter tour. She also managed to sleep through Phạm Ngũ Lão, Ho Chi Minh City’s chaotic backpacker street where Asia-pop is played at full volume from the speakers and you can’t walk a metre without someone offering you a massage or two-for-one happy hour cocktails. Not even the limestone islands in Ha Long Bay, so beautiful the archipelago has been recognised by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage-listed site, could grab her interest; she spent the majority of the boat tour sleeping on my lap. We change nappies in the weirdest places, such as the roof terrace of a Hanoi coffee bar and the benches in Huế’s Purple Forbidden City. Soon I notice travelling with a baby actually reduces your stress level; I used to be annoyed when having to wait hours for a delayed train, now I barely notice as I’m too busy with my daughter.
Another advantage is the contact with the locals. Instead of asking whether we want to buy a mango, pineapple or nón lá (traditional straw hat), street vendors ask the name of our daughter and how old she is. While waiting for the train in Quy Nhơn we meet a grandmother with her grandson of about eight months. In broken English, she explains that in Vietnam often three generations live together in the same house; when the parents are at work, grandma takes care of the children. Men sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the road drinking cà phê sữa (coffee with sweet condensed milk) laugh when they notice I am carrying a baby in front of me instead of a money belt or camera bag like most tourists do. Fellow backpackers love her tiny hippy trousers with elephant prints. We also meet people backpacking with older children and learn that travelling through South-east Asia is perfectly doable with toddlers and pre-schoolers too.
Of course, it’s not ideal when she starts to cry in a crowded restaurant just when our dinner is served, but hey, Vietnam’s famous noodle soup, phở, also tastes great when it’s cold. Maybe we’re creating a little globetrotter – although I have to admit she was more interested in a water bottle than a water buffalo. In any case we’ve created memories. Ho Chi Minh City isn’t just the place we watched the sun set through the smog from a rooftop bar; it’s also where our baby first rolled over. In Huế, she said something that resembled “mammamamma” for the first time (unfortunately, it was when looking at a coconut.) And if, later in life, our daughter ever wonders where she got her second tooth, we’ll happily tell her about the train ride from hell during which we asked ourselves why on earth we decided to go backpacking with a five-month-old baby.