There are a number of perks of living in Asia. The kids are in a school that doesn't have a strict attendance policy. We can easily extend their vacations by a day or two simply by sending the teachers an email. They encourage travel, as they view it as a learning experience. Can I get a hallelujah? I wish American schools in the States felt the same way.
There are also a boatload of national holidays here. Thanks to the great diversity in religions and cultures (and the government seeking to honor them all), there are ten national holidays per year. Woo-hoo! The most recent holiday was the Chinese or Lunar New Year. Because we are so close to China (and many Singaporeans have Chinese ancestry), it's a really big deal here. So, the kids' school shuts down for 3 days.
Another perk is that travel to different countries is relatively easy, since there are tons of Asian countries/islands clustered in close proximity. Close proximity = short flights = happy [or at least sane] momma.
Our latest adventure was to a place I thought I would never see (or even want to see)…Vietnam. My dad served in the Vietnam War. Whenever he talked about "Nam" (which was extremely rare and brief), I always had an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I realize the war is still a very politically and emotionally charged topic, and I do not want that to be the focus of this post. I want to focus on the beauty of the country and the healing that has taken place in the years following the war…and of course, the madness of traveling with our circus of six.
I really had no idea what to expect when we arrived. I suppose I imagined dense jungles like the footage of the war I'd seen on the History Chanel. Wrong! We stayed in Hanoi. It's a city alright. Complete with a lovely, modern airport. However, once you exit the airport, buckle up! Or don't. Most people don't because they are on scooters. So many scooters. So many people. So many people on one scooter! It was common to see four people on one scooter. I kid you not. Once I spotted five…a toddler on the front, dad driving, mom holding a newborn, and a kid on the back. Whoa, Nelly!
Hanoi, the capitol city located in the heart of northern Vietnam, is where we stayed for the first part of our trip. It felt so crazy to have the freedom to walk down the streets of what was once enemy territory. We stayed in a section called the Old Quarter. It was gritty and loud. No apparent traffic laws, no crosswalks, small fires burning on the street corners or on the rows of endless balconies nestled above tiny, brightly lit shops whose merchandise spilled into the street. Roosters strutting in alleyways, very few dogs. (I heard there was a whole section of a market where one could purchase a whole, roasted dog…We didn't go there.) It was everything Singapore was not, and I found it strangely refreshing. It was as if someone had peeled back the veneer, and I could peer into another world.
I had so many mixed emotions on this trip. Emotions I never anticipated. It was just another vacation, right? It suddenly felt like much more as I stood in front of the Hanoi Hilton (the infamous Hoa Lo Prison) where so many American POWs were tortured. Almost without exception, every passerby smiled at the kids. Shouldn't we hate each other, I wondered. At the same time, I was so grateful that we didn't. I could look at the people and see people, not enemies. Moms, dads, grandparents, children. Just people.
As we walked toward Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, we found ourselves skirting a massive wall topped with barbed wire. There were gates at irregular intervals, manned by guards carrying AK-47s. At the main gate we read the sign: Defence Ministry [I know the spelling looks incorrect, but I promise, it's right]. Again, I had that strange feeling that I didn't belong there. Then a young guard approached our ever-grinning, waving baby boy and gave him a Hong Bao.
A Hong Bao is a gift. It is a red envelope with money or treats inside given during the Chinese/Lunar New Year. A Vietnamese soldier gave my boy a gift. The irony and beauty brought tears to my eyes. See, the Vietnamese celebrate the Lunar New Year, too. They call it Tet. As in the Tet Offensive launched in 1968 during which the Viet Cong hid massive loads of arms in carts carrying decorations and flowers for the festivities into South Vietnam and lead an attack that changed the course of the entire war. Crazy.
Anyway, I just wanted to write a bit about the trip while my emotions were still fresh. There will be more to come with pictures and descriptions, and our par-for-the-course misadventures.