Olle was the perfect traveller in Vietnam. Not that we did much internal travelling. We arrived in Hanoi very late Friday night, one week before my friend Sue was due to meet us there. I had planned for us to go south to Hue in that week. But by the time I tried to make train/plane bookings on the Monday morning, everything was full for the next few days. So we decided to remain in Hanoi for the week, taking some daytrips to the surrounding countryside and villages. The second week we went up north to Halong Bay (scene of the film Indochine, if you've ever seen that - we haven't, we'll have to rent it soon).
So we spent most of our time in Hanoi itself, a city about the same size as greater Sydney (four million), but without a skyscraper district, so that it felt small and manageable and, in one kind of way, even gentle. (Traffic excluded!)
Co-parent and I have both travelled "independently" in the past (she spent a full year in India in 1977 on two hundred pounds sterling!) and when we first arrived in Vietnam, our urge was to fill our days with walking, museums, pagodas, watching and sampling as much of the life as we could. Small hitch: five year old child who first wants to sample the hotel swimming pool for a couple of hours after breakfast and falls sound asleep by 7pm (which in Australian time is 10pm, so he was doing well to make it that far.) We had to readjust and reschedule: organise our days around two swimming pool sessions (after breakfast and before dinner), head for a restaurant by 6pm, plan one main event (museum, whatever) per day. It was very hot and steamy, so in fact these parameters were welcome to us, too. And of course they changed, so that by the end of the two weeks, he was able to stay up till 9.30pm, so we could go out to restaurants at a more civilised hour.
When I told people we'd be taking Olle to Vietnam, there was a quick twitching of eyebrows and perhaps a glimmer of concern. I felt as if we were doing something daring and possibly dangerous. But close friends of mine took their then-five-year-old there ten years ago. So I knew it was possible. Still, I admit I had a sense that we were entering uncharted waters. I couldn't have forseen that those waters were salty and belonged to a hotel swimming pool.
The pool at the three-star Army Hotel (about which there is a great deal more to be said) was the highlight of Olle's visit to Vietnam. (The simple pleasures of childhood!) Here he first swam across a pool unaided in the deep end. He learnt to do handstands in the water, to jump in backwards, to dogpaddle the full length of the pool (35m or so). He hung out in the shallow side pool and made overtures to non-English-speaking children. On weekends the wealthy citizens of Hanoi brought their chubby children to swim there - we saw no Vietnamese with a spare ounce of fat on them, except in that pool. In the pool on our fifth day, we met Canadians Janice and her almost-seven-year-old daughter Bao (pronounced Bo), who became our instant friends and travel companions. They had arrived the day before on the train from China, where they'd spent a month travelling, revisiting the orphanage where Bao spent the first year of her life.
The kids ate many plates of chips (French fries) by the pool, some of the most delicious I've ever had in my life. We watched a rat run in and out of the bushes to retrieve berries which had fallen from a nearby tree. We watched the changing panorama of other guests, in an array of multiracial and multicultural families - many couples of Vietnamese with Europeans, many Europeans with Vietnamese children. We drank numerous cups of Liptoms black tea with a slice of lime and cans of the insipid Vuietnamese beer. The kids drank Orangina and Sprite - enough Sprite to last Oli the next ten years.
Like so many things at the Army Hotel, the pool was a bit shabby and didn't work properly ie it was warm - uncooled. With the outside temperature at 34C, this was unrefreshing, to say the least. This did not deter the children but it did deter me. In the end, I stopped getting in.
Maybe swimming in a pool gave life a gloss of normality for Olle (not that we have a swimming pool in our tiny house). He appeared to take the fact that we were in a foreign, Asian country completely in his stride. (He had been to Singapore and England when he was three, but I don't think at that time he realised he was in another country.)
What a different life he leads compared to mine. It's the difference between the mid-20th and the 21st century, I suppose. I didn't fly in an aeroplane until I was ten. I didn't leave Australia until I was 20. At 20, the difference of Asia certainly struck me with immense force. Everything - the noise, the smells, the sights - was an assault on my senses and established view of the world. Olle, however, seemed cool, calm and collected at all times. In the mornings he would pull the curtains open, look down on the street and describe what he saw. He especially liked watching a group of boys play soccer as motorscooters and bicycles weaved through their game. He didn't seem to think it in any way remarkable that most people were speaking a language he can't understand. He quickly learnt to say 'thanks' in Vetnamese. He's a 'good eater' anyway and we had no trouble finding rice, grilled fish and chicken for him to eat (plus baguettes and cheese, pancakes and pastries at the delightful Cafe.) He always found something to amuse himself with at visits to temples and museums, whether it was watching large lizards in the sun, spotting goldfish in an ornamental pond, gathering fallen frangipani flowers from the footpath (something he likes to do in Sydney too) or gazing at ancient scimitars in the History Museum.
The cheek-pinching began on about the third day. A man walking past in the street actually slapped him, or tapped him, on the cheek. Well, I had been told the Vietnamese loved children. It happenned again and again, usually a little pinch. People seemed fascinated by his curly hair (which went very curly in the humidity) and bright blue eyes. A stallholder in the indoor market said "Booty bebe!" and held up three fingers. No, five fingers, I showed her in return, realising she had said he was a beautiful baby. Many people at first thought he was a girl, or asked if he was a boy or a girl, because of his long-ish curly hair. Thus when we went places with Bao and Janice, we ran the gauntlet of questions about where Bao was from ("China, yes, the south, yes, she does look Vietnamese") and how old Oli was and was he a boy or girl. Followed by a quick pinch of the cheek or hug.
The face of Mr Viet Nam (really), aka Nam, our 25 year old guide to Halong Bay, took on a cast of religious bliss whenever he spoke directly to Olle. I found this very interesting to watch. I couldn't tell whether it was a "this is how happy I'm supposed to look when talking to small children" face or the face of unself-conscious, unmediated joy. I still can't decide.