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Serendipity - the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

“… how IMPORTANT it is to ONCE in a while, STOP, take a CHECK on your LIFE, re-evaluate, and move FORWARD….”

Well, that’s it, this adventure over. Such a perfect trip, anyone would have thought I’d actually planned it. But no, an impulsive need to just get away took over. Sometimes you have these thoughts and you have to just go with them. I did get rather stressed in the week leading up to our departure, amongst other things, neither Finn nor I had valid passports when I came up with my cunning escape plan and they arrived with only days to spare. But hey, everything fell in to place, from my desire to show Finn parts of Asia I had been before – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, I whittled it down to Bangkok and Vietnam. Dropping Laos was the mental stumbling block, I could picture us there, the things we would do, but I had to weigh up how long I could be away from the girls. Once I’d got over the fact that we couldn’t get to Laos I went ahead and started to book a few hotels on the internet before going (gone are the days of just turning up and finding a room in a half decent guesthouse or hotel). We had a few tweaks to our travels along the way and it all just fell into place beautifully. Serendipity.

We’re on the plane on our final flight back from Dubai to London, it seems like it was only a couple of days ago we left and yet it feels like we’ve been travelling for so long. London – Dubai – Bangkok – Vietnam – Bangkok – Dubai – London. Travelling has definitely been good for the soul. It has been such a fantastic experience and a whole new experience travelling with Finn. I have been many times to Asia over the last 20 years, but no trip has ever been like this one. I can say this has been the most social experience of travelling I have ever had and that’s all down to Finn and his ability to speak to anyone and everyone, armed always with a smile. I thought we would be leaving our world behind us and that I was going to show him a different world, to see how other people live, to see amazing sites, taste different foods – but in fact he has just taken it all in his stride, all that we have seen, embraced it all and shown me a different world. I wanted him to realise how fortunate we are and how life isn’t about material possessions. It was a revelation to me that, with Finn at the tender age of seven I was pretty much in charge of his life, but I realise now that he is steering his own path already and I am there to gently guide him in the right direction. I feel honoured to be part of his journey and of course the girls, who are beginning to tread their own paths.

We met so many lovely people on our travels, everyday brought new people, new conversations. I realise now one of the things that is missing so much at home is that everyday social interaction with people and I need to address that. We are by our very nature a gregarious species, not a solitary one. I believe we are what we experience – it makes us who we are and it is through shared experiences that you feel alive. It has re-affirmed how important it is to have friends at our side to share our journey through life. We get so wrapped up in our own lives that we often forget to look out for those around us. It was so good to talk to my old school friend in Dubai, she didn’t judge me, she didn’t question me. She welcomed me as an old friend and said she wasn’t at all surprised about our travels “it was very me” apparently. Reassuring to have someone know you better than yourself.

 

I can now happily say that throughout our travels we stayed fit and healthy, which was amazing really, we even managed to avoid being ravaged by mosquitoes. I hope we are all better off now for having had this experience and realise how important it is to once in a while stop, take a check on your life, re-evaluate, and move forward. The scary thought now is going back to our little microcosm, with its limited social interaction. Note to self – don’t let life pass us by …

Well, did I get all I’d hoped from the trip? Yes and more. All too easily you can end up in a place where you’re just going through the motions of everyday life, but somehow disconnected from it all. What our travels did was to make me feel alive again. We’re here on this earth once, for such a short time and our children have one childhood. We have to get it right. I need to hang on to that feeling of being alive again. Teach my children how to live and love every day, something I’ve been striving to do for years: Live – Love – Laugh … Not quite there yet.

The highlights of the trip were not the sights but the people we met along the way, the amazing group on our Halong Bay live aboard boat trip; the lovely French couple we shared our trekking through the villages in Vietnam with, giving me the opportunity to speak French freely again; Mai, our beautiful guide on our trekking who was a kindred spirit to Finn; the Dutch couple with their two children who we chanced upon in Hoi An and then weeks later found ourselves one row behind them on a flight from Bangkok to Dubai! All these chance encounters have left me with a more fatalistic view of life, and for now that works for me, not because I can dissolve all responsibility for my life but because it’s a calmer way to live.

To conclude, I need to share a poem with you – I first came across this poem in my teens and it has stayed with me ever since. When I find myself experiencing things that I connect with, happy times, this poem resonates loudly within me. I still recall being on my first ever diving survey, off the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on the West coast of Scotland. We were in an open R.I.B, crossing the Sound of Mull, wet from our dive, the wind and waves were lashing us and the sun shining through, I couldn’t believe how happy I was, there was no place I would have rather been at that moment in time, I had the best job in the world and these words were shouting to me:

 

Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He, who can call today his own:

He who, secure within, can say,

Tomorrow do thy worst,

For I have lived today.

John Dryden (1631 – 1700)


Well, through our travels we really have lived for each day and what days they have been! To my son, I give the gift of adventure.

.

 

Dubai

Re-united in Dubai

Dubai – Wow! – We arrived from Bangkok on the afternoon of the 26th April and R flew in from London with the girls that night. We were lucky enough to be staying with friends here, Sue and Gus and their two boys. So nice to be met at the airport and taken ‘home’ after all our travelling. It was magical being reunited with the girls again. They arrived around midnight Dubai time, so I left Finn asleep and headed to the airport with Gus. The minutes dragged by as we waited in the heaving arrivals area. Then they appeared – Phoebe riding on the luggage trolley and Issy striding confidently alongside carrying her little rucksac. I jumped up waving and Issy let out a thunderous “Mummy!!!!” for all to hear. Huge hugs all around followed.

The girls did really well on the flight over, especially Issy on her first flight, helped along by a Peppa Pig DVD. R told us that during the flight the air hostess walked down the aisle calling out “Duty Free, Duty Free”, to which Phoebe looked confused and asked him “Why is it due to freeze Daddy? I thought it was going to be hot in Dubai”.

Well, we have had the week in Dubai and what a fantastic week it has been. We Embraced Dubai, all it has to offer and have crammed so much in:

Sunshine, pool and desert

We had a lazy start to the first day and enjoyed the sun and pool.

That evening Sue and Gus took us, our three kids, their two, plus a friend to the desert for an evening barbeque. We drove out of town for half an hour or so, then turned off the road in their 4 x 4s, bumping over the flat scrub until we got to the sand dunes – all around us desert. Great for the kids to appreciate that Dubai is actually rooted in the desert. We arrived in daylight and had a play on the sand dunes, surfing down them with boogie boards. It was great fun and even Issy had a go, first with Phoebe and I, then a solo run which she came down with her eyes shut tight to avoid the sand! After the first run I got overly confident and had a complete wipe out right at the bottom of the dunes, having gone all the way down standing up – ouch! That sand is hard.

 

The sun set over the desert and after all the fun we settled down to a fine barbecue and finished off with toasted marshmallows around the fire. A great start to our week here.

Making a splash at Waterworld
Next up was a visit to Waterworld, an outdoor water park, low key by Dubai standards, but just right for the younger children – water slides galore, a lazy river, fun pools, dead sea floating pool and of course sunshine! From the youngest to the oldest we all had a great day.

As we drove through Dubai Finn was keen to point out the landmarks to his sister. “Oh look, there’s the tallest tower in the world” he says, as we pass the Burg Kalifa, prominent in the distance. Phoebe is computing this information, so for assistance he adds “It’s bigger than our house”. Phoebe looks at it out of the car window, holding her hand up against the window she replies “It’s not even as big as my finger”. Brilliant.

 

Dubai Aquarium

Next up, the obligatory visit to the Aquarium. The largest aquarium in the world, holding 10 million gallons of water, is situated in Dubai Mall, the largest Mall in the world. On arrival you can’t help but be impressed as you gaze up at the sheer abundance of fish housed behind the largest sheet of aquarium glass in the world – it’s actually an acrylic panel measuring 32 metres wide by 8 metres high and 750 millimetres thick. The whole aquarium is over 50 metres in length and 20 metres deep and can be viewed from all three floors of the Dubai Mall. Crowds stop and stare at the sheer spectacle of it – so many beautiful creatures to see. A really impressive design feature of the aquarium is a 50 metre walk-through tunnel which gives you a 270 degree viewing angle into the aquarium.

 

The entrance to the tunnel acts as a darkened cave system to the largest collection of Sand Tiger sharks in the world and they assemble suspended above your head, just an arms width away where you can gaze incredulously into their gaping mouths and marvel at the rows of razor sharp teeth. As you stand in the tunnel shoals of fish swim past all around and over your heads, giving you a spectacular view.

The aquarium houses over 33,000 aquatic animals, comprising over 140 species, the likes of which you would never see in such close proximity in the wild. But you can’t help but be mesmerised as the sharks, rays and fish glide effortlessly through the crystal clear water. There are over 400 sharks and rays in the tank and its is always such a privilege to see the rays flying so gracefully through the water. It really has to be seen to be believed and as artificial as it is I hope it gives people an appreciation of the richness of life found in our oceans.

The children, large and small, had a fabulous time there – a glimpse into our underwater world, the sheer diversity of life and some very special memories for years to come. As part of our ticket to the aquarium we also had a ride in a glass bottom boat that cruises over the surface, but to be honest, with such amazing views just walking through the aquarium it was quite un-necessary.

On the upper floor there was a small zoo housing ‘creepy crawlies’ such as spiders, snakes and lizards, some freshwater fish displays, a jellyfish tank, beavers, trained otters putting on a display and penguins. But the star of the show really was the aquarium.

 

Dubai Mall

Back to the Dubai Mall, did I mention – the largest mall in the world – I think you get the picture now. Strictly for window shopping only on our budget, except of course for Candilicious, the largest sweet shop in the world, which we did allow ourselves to go in. We also indulged in an ice cream stop at Coldstone’s. I thought we were ordering three ice creams as a treat for the children to eat, but the real treat was in the delivery. Once we’d deciphered the choice of ice creams, we ordered – the children stood with their mouths gaping. One attendant scooped out the ice cream, then threw it several metres through the air to land on a cold board, where it was promptly chopped up with chocolate brownies, flattened out, scooped up, juggled and finally flung through the air, across the shop, to land in a paper cup being held by another ice cream talent maestro, then promptly served with a spoon. F and P were in shock and were invited to stand behind the counter as they prepared the second ice cream, F was then handed the cup to catch the ice cream at the end of the process, he tentatively held up his paper cup wondering how on earth he was going to catch it, only to find the ice cream lobed completely over his head and caught safely by the second attendant. “Mmmmm”, they tasted so good.

 

Children’s City

We had one day using the local buses and metro system to go across town to Children’s City. It took a record 2 hours 15 minutes to get there, which resulted in some sense of humour failure. The kids really enjoyed it though.

Children’s City is a learning centre aimed at children, of course, with interactive exhibits that playfully explain scientific concepts, the human body, space exploration and natural wonders. All three of ours loved being able to press all the buttons, crank the handles, move the things around. Favourites were linking hands, to complete the electrical circuit via our bodies and thus light up a bulb, landing a plane in a simulator and flying around the world on a flying carpet, by virtue of sitting on a carpet and a ‘magic’ camera relaying the image onto a screen in front which had us superimposed flying over well known places around the world. The girls also enjoyed riding a rodeo style camel and horse and all three worked together on the coffee production line, turning the handles to get the conveyor belts moving. Upstairs was a small planetarium which took us on a tour through our solar system – it was really well done, but Issy didn’t really appreciate it, I guess due to the dark, so that made for a rather stressful show.

They all wanted to stay for longer, which is always a good sign. By the time we came out it was absolutely roasting outside, so we had to bypass the lovely park in which Children’s City was situated and hop back on the bus and metro, eventually conceding to take a taxi for the last leg back.

 

Finn peddling to power an enormous fan.



The beach

We got up early one day to have the morning on the beach. Shallow sloping white sands and the calm sea with gently lapping waves made it perfect for the kids. The hypersaline water in the Arabian Gulf made swimming a lot easier than usual too. The white sand beach had a drift line of beautiful shells that the children all enjoyed digging through to find their ‘treasures’. Finn was delighted to catch a jelly fish, two comb jellies and see small shoals of fish swim by. The water was so warm and the sand so hot that there was not a sand castle in sight.

 

Kidzania, Rainforest Cafe and The Fountains

Back to the Dubai Mall, again, but this time to Kidzania. A crazy place, only in Dubai could you find this. In the heart of the Dubai Mall you enter Kidzania, a scaled down town where everything is child-size. It’s a day of role play. The town is filled with different shops, offices, hospitals and the like. The concept is that the children undertake different jobs, for which they get paid in the local Kidzania currency of Kidzos. They can then spend their Kidzos money on fun things. Although we could watch what the children were doing we couldn’t get involved, so they had to be completely independent in their place of work. They would chose a workplace and the glass door would be closed behind them. Finn loved it and didn’t hesitate to throw himself at all the challenges. Phoebe did so well too, as there’s no way I would have had a go by myself at her age. Issy even got involved and we looked on as the two girls went to work in the biscuit factory, they stood in their white aprons and Issy carefully followed her sister’s lead. They proudly showed me their biscuits when they came out and really appreciated eating them all the more as the product of their labour.

When Finn wanted a drink, he didn’t just go and buy one, he went to the Coca Cola factory and had to actually go through the processing plant to make his drink.

He was more keen on working than spending and tried so many jobs: pilot in a simulator, an aero structure technician designing aeroplane hydrofoils, a HP computer designer, a newspaper worker, a water and electrical inspector to name but a few. He spent his Kidzos on racing car driving, a game of pool, and karaoke singing!

Phoebe worked independently as a paramedic, a paediatric practitioner in a hospital, and took charge of Issy in the biscuit factory and the milk production unit. She spent her Kidzos on making a bracelet in a jewellery shop, having her nails painted, car driving and finally singing Karaoke with Finn.

They thoroughly enjoyed their time there and it was interesting that Finn just wanted to try all the different jobs and earn the money and Phoebe was more keen on spending from the outset. A sign of things to come?

 

After Kidzania we wandered through The Mall to The Rainforest Cafe, where we enjoyed a very late lunch under the jungle canopy, with frequent outbursts of simulated tropical storms, lightening and all the animated rainforest apes and elephants coming to life. Magical for the children.

 

Finally, at the end of a long day in downtown Dubai we wandered out of The Mall onto the waterfront to view the Burg Kalifa, at 828 metres with more than 160 stories, it is of course, the tallest tower in the world. We would have liked to have gone to the top to the viewing platform, but another day another dollar for that one. At 6 pm the waterfront comes alive as the fountains rise up on Burg Kalifa Lake to an amazing water display of choreographed fountains dancing to the powerful Arabic music being blasted out of the surrounding speakers. It’s truly mesmerising (I know, another mesmerising moment, of which there are many in Dubai) and like so many things in Dubai, like nothing I have ever seen before. It only lasts for a few minutes at each performance but packs a real punch. We all looked on in wonder, even Issy stopped her frantic rushing around, just stood and stared! Utterly captivated by the whole spectacle.

On our first trip to Dubai, when Finn and I stopped over for a few days we were fortunate enough to have a meal at Carluccio’s with Sue and her family, on the waterfront and took in 3 of the water displays, as they played out every 30 minutes from 6pm. We were in a haze that night, having just heard about Teasel and it didn’t seem right to be enjoying anything, but the fountain display was so captivating that it took you away from any sad thoughts for the duration of the show. The last show was by far the most captivating as the night time makes the show all the more spectacular as it is lit by more than 6,000 lights. The Dubai Fountain apparently cost $218 US million to build! The high pressure water jets shoot up the water over 70 metres in to the air, in various patterns.

 

Desert safari

Coming to Dubai we had to go on a desert safari. So, on our penultimate night in Dubai we were collected at 4pm from our friends house and taken in a Toyota Landcruiser into the desert…

A convoy of about 15 cars head out of town to the desert. Once again, as on our first night, we turn off the road onto the desert, but this time we don’t stop at the dunes. We then embark on a ‘dune bashing’ trek across the desert, where the 4 x4s power up and over the dunes, in roller coaster fashion. We had deliberated before booking whether the children would enjoy such a trip. Although our children do enjoy thrills and excitement, they mostly prefer the more sedate rides at amusement parks. Phoebe had also been very tentative a few days earlier going down the water shutes at Waterworld, so my friend thought this wouldn’t be for her. Actually, come to think of it R wasn’t keen either. Oops, just me and Finn then. We deliberated and thought the best plan would be for R to be dropped at the desert camp directly, with the girls, and miss out the dune bashing. However, due to a turn of events I won’t go into here, we decide to go for it. It was one of those adrenaline sports. Within a few minutes of our white knuckle ride Phoebe was shouting to Mohammed, our driver, in between fits of hysterical laughter, ” Faster! faster! put your foot down!…… faster, put your foot all the way down!!”. Finn then added, with nervous laughter, “By the time we finish we won’t know which was is up and which is down!”. And Issy, well let’s just say she wasn’t wholly appreciative of the experience and held on tight to my hand throughout. She may question her total trust in her mother next time we suggest anything.

Eventually, the rollercoaster dune ride came to an end, thankfully, the roll bars fitted to the car were luckily not required and we entered the next entertainment of the evening. By now the sun was setting over the dunes as we arrived at our camp – here we enjoyed some delicious Arabic food whilst watching a show of belly dance and other dance I couldn’t put a name to. The older two and I had the obligatory henna tattoo and we also fitted in a brief camel ride. Just before we departed I managed to clamber up the dunes by the camp, in the dark, and fit myself in to some snowboard bindings before launching myself down the dune – “yey, I did it!” ……I then took about 8 minutes trying to get the damn binding off my feet!!! All in all a great experience and one I am sure the children will remember for years to come.

 

 

And finally

We are so grateful to our friends, who we stayed with in Dubai – without their hospitality this leg of the trip, in Dubai, bringing the family together, would not have been possible. It was great that the girls had this to look forward to as they followed our travels around Vietnam.

Our friends live in a very nice gated ex-pat community on the outskirt of Dubai – an area called The Arabian Ranches. It has beautifully manicured plants and palm trees lining the streets, colourful bougainvilleas, all connected by cycle paths that follow the roads, weaving in and out of the tended grounds. As we peddled through the blistering heat it amazed me how these plants can survive out here in the desert, even with their arterial network of hoses irrigating them. Each block of houses is centred around a green area with communal parks, shaded play areas and a pool. A hop and a skip from the back garden, the pool was amazing. We’ve tried various holiday locations with the children, Egypt, Greece, Lanzarote, France, and never found a good pool … Until now. The water was the perfect temperature, you could spend all day in it. We chose our moments carefully when we went in, never between 12 and 3pm, but so great to just pop out of the house and take a dip.

Dubai had never been on my list of places to visit and I must admit I was hesitant about going there (in fact if it wasn’t for the travel agent suggesting a cheaper flight went via Dubai, I wouldn’t have had that light bulb moment and come up with this cunning plan of all meeting up here). It really helped staying with friends, gin and tonics on tap, their lovely maid to help ease me back into life as mum of three, meals and washing all taken care of. We truly have had such a wonderful time that Dubai has surpassed all our expectations. It’s not a cheap destination and you do have to pay quite a bit for the attractions but once you embrace Dubai and all it has to offer it is an experience you will remember for a life time. It also helped staying with friends as they buy special attraction booklets that can get really good discounts on most of the attractions. There are so many opportunities to do things with the children here, Dubai style, they had an amazing time!

 

 

7 reasons why everyone should travel with a Finn (aged 7 1/2)

  1. He’s just the right size to check under all the furniture, so you don’t leave anything behind when checking out of hotels
  2. You get priority boarding on all planes
  3. When you drop something he can pick it up as he’s closer to the ground
  4. You get fast tracked through passport control and don’t have to queue so long
  5. On a return visit to any restaurant you always get the best seat in the house, as he will have befriended all the staff
  6. You get a good discount when haggling to buy things, repeatedly told, “As you are with the boy I give you special price”
  7. Most importantly of all – you’ll have the most social trip ever, as he talks to everyone you encounter and puts a smile on so many faces.

 

Day 23 – Homestay

We set off early today to try and make some progress before it gets too hot, but we’re onto a losing battle there, as by 8 am the temperature is already rising. A short drive takes us to an area described as ‘inland Halong Bay’. An otherwise flat landscape, cultivated with rice, erupts with tall limestone pinnacles, all colonised by a dense growth of green vegetation. It’s very impressive. We take to the bikes again today. This time they have a bike for Finn, but as he rides it around the courtyard it is evident it is too small. I worry that he’ll wilt on the 3 hour ride ahead and won’t be able to keep up, so we put a towel over the carrrier on the back of my bike and off we go. Narrow tracks that follow the rice fields, weaving around the limestone outcrops. We pass hens, chicks, ducks and goats along the way.

Eventually we come to one of these rock pinnacles that has steps all the way way to the top, only 469 apparently. Well, I can be honest and say this was one of the toughest endurance events I have undertaken in a long while. It must have been over 40 degrees in the full sun, with no wind to cool us. By the time I got to the top my head was spinning, so I just lay down, for about 15 minutes, drinking some of my water and pouring some over my head. Mr Mouse and Mr Lion had raced up together, no problem. When I do eventually sit up, I am blown away by the view. We could see for miles with Ninh Binh, the ancient capital of Vietnam, now an industrial sprawl, in the distance. We waited and waited for a helicopter to collect us from the top (sure that was in the itinerary?!). We reckoned a water shoot would have been a good way to descend, but in its absence had to descend back down the steps.

 

At the base a little lizard kindly posed for a photo, then went about his daily chores. We got back on the bikes for the cycle back to lunch. It was hard work, really hard work, too, too hot. The sun was beating down on us and the the heat was rising from the road. When we arrived at our destination we abandoned our bikes immediately and all went off – I collapsed in the nearest hammock, Thomas stood under the shower, in all his clothes, Finn headed down to the stream that ran behind the small house and Christine went in search of a drink. A fine meal was brought to us, which we ate outside, shaded from the sun, looking out onto the beautiful landscape. I went in search of Finn, he had gone on a small boat ride down the river!!

 

After lunch we travelled a short distance away and boarded a rowing boat. It was quite a local tourist attraction, many boats filled with lively Vietnamese, singing and talking. The lake flowed through the limestone mountains, we followed through a series of tunnels that carved their way through the limestone outcrops.

In between the tunnels we emerged into a lost world, accessed only via the tunnels, steep cliffs all around, with a flat vegetated platform – you half expected a pterodactyl to swoop down towards us. The flat areas used to be farmed by local families, now displaced by tourism, each family was allocated a rowing boat to ferry tourists, by which they could earn a living. In all we took around 1.5 hours to navigate around the lake through the tunnels.

And so ended out 4 day tour around rural Vietnam. We had a 3 hour drive back to Hanoi, arriving early evening. It had been a really really great experience and one we’ll never forget. We heard lots of tales from our guide Mai about life growing up in a small traditional village in the mountains around Sapa. We shared our experience with a lovely couple and I had the bonus of being able to speak French again for days. Finn thoroughly enjoyed it and took all he saw in his stride. We walked, cycled, kayaked and bounced about in the minibus.

So ended our stay in Vietnam, with a last supper in a favourite restaurant in Hanoi. Finn doesn’t want to leave and there is still so much more to see … Another day, another trip ….

Day 22 – Homestay

We awoke in our picturesque stilt house, nestled in the bamboo forest, on the edge of the lake. After a breakfast of noodles we head onto the lake in kayaks, just as thunder rumbles across the mountains and the rain starts. It was so good to be out on the water kayaking freely around. We don”t go far, but it’s a great way to kick start the day. It’s really warm rain and after the kayaking we take to the water for a swim. The water is warm but deep and dark. The lake is formed from a flooded valley, part of a huge hydroelectric scheme. It’s the kind of water that you feel there may be monsters lurking … so I don’t hang about!

Finn was tired today and lacking his usual humour. I guess the strenuous exercise, the heat and the diet are all taking their toll.

Later that day we experience a real bone-shaking car ride to Ninh Binh, on the south. The roads are extremely pot-holed and we are thrown from side to side as the mini-bus weaves in and out, around and through the pot-holes. Finn somehow manages to sleep through much of the journey, with his head bouncing up and down on my lap. The first part of the journey had him feeling really sick, he went completely pale, and we had to stop by the roadside for him. One section of road was being re-laid, but there’s no hope – as soon as the new surface was laid, the traffic weaved in and out of the road maintenance vehicles, so before the stream roller even had a chance to flatten it off it was already all bumpy!

We stop on the way for refreshment – fresh sugar beat crushed up and served with cumquat. Very refreshing.

By early evening we reach our final homestay of the trip. This time we have stepped up a gear and have our own rooms, with a bed. We all help out in the kitchen to prepare supper, rolling spring rolls and preparing the vegetables. We dine on a feast outside, under the stars, with the local family comprising a couple with their two young daughters and grandmother. They have a small business making rice noodles which they sell daily at the local market. From the milling of the rice to the noodle making and drying we see all the simple equipment they use. The meal is delicious, one of the best we have had in the country, with the mix of good company and good food. Meal times are a very social affair here, all sharing food from the small bowls, taking a little at a time with your chop sticks, placing in a small bowl with either rice or noddles. After the meal Mr Lion and Mr Mouse play with riotous laughter again.

 

 

Day 21 – Homestay

After a breakfast of banana pancakes and condensed milk we had the energy to face the day. The morning brought a soft light to the landscape around us. We spent the morning hiking through the mountainous landscapes, past rice terraces and irrigation channels. Throughout the countryside we keep encountering drifts of butterflies that flutter past us, dancing together in groups of 10, 20 or more, weaving in and out, up and down. As we walk Finn and Mai are chatting and laughing all the way, playing pooh sticks as we crossed little rivers. They affectionately call each other Mr Mouse and Mr Lion. Finn did so well, as it was hard work trekking, the temperature had soared to mid thirties (in the shade, so somewhere around forty degrees!) and the heat rises from the ground and pounds down from the sun. Towards the end of the morning Finn was lagging, so Mai gave him a piggy back. We passed a small shop selling water and crisps and were invited to come in and sit out of the sun. They all crowded around Finn again and gave him a bag of crisps and a bag of peanuts. As we sat they couldn’t take their eyes off him. After a very sociable 15 minutes or so we were on our way. Just a short walk more and we reached Na Mo, a White Thai minority village, where we had lunch in a local home. More kind hospitability, more rice, pork, chicken, tofu and morning glory.

After lunch we took to bicycles for a circular route, everyone stopped what they were doing as we passed, much laughter and shouts of “Hello!” or “Xin chào”. The path through the rice fields became quite rugged and at one point Finn teetered off his bike and his foot promptly landed well and truely planted amongst the rice – he now has a much better appreciation of just how muddy the rice fields are.

We stopped off at a local spring fed pool and took a dip to cool off. We were joined by a group of local boys who were having great fun dive bombing into the pool. Suitably refreshed, we then got back on the bikes cycled on in our cooling wet clothes.

Back in the minibus and a short drive to a local market to pick up food for supper, our hosts tonight are a long way from the market, so we bring the food to them. We drive through the Black River area, the main road we are driving along turns to a smaller road, then a very bumpy dirt track, until eventually we get out as the truck can go on no longer. We get out at a Muong village and walk the last 5 minutes with our bags to Mr Guong’s traditional wooden stilt house.

It is situated at the end of a peninsula jutting out into a vast lake. We have arrived at our stop for the night. It’s another step up on the rustic scale. Just one large room, bamboo flooring, open windows. Where do we sleep? We get to know our hosts. Catherine, who is travelling with us and her French husband Thomas, is Vietnamse born, so she chats to Mr Guong and then translates to French. On the wall, in pride of place hangs a picture of a much younger Mr Guong, alongside a series of medals – all won for his services to the Viet-Con.

We dine on a simple mat on the floor again. The meal starts, as it did yesterday with a small glass of locally brewed rice wine. Although its called wine it’s about 40 percent proof and knocks your socks off. I drink the first glass and politely refuse any more. There are noodles for Finn today, so he eats a bit more.

Later, Finn and Mr Guong make up the ‘beds’ – a mat, a wafer thin mattress and a mosquito net. Another great day.

 

 

Day 20 – into the hills

A complete shift of gear today, and one of the main reasons for coming to Vietnam – we left Hanoi at 8 am this morning, embarking on 4 day tour with Ethnic Travel to trek, cycle and kayak through small villages of the mountainous area to the west of Hanoi, then travel south down to the Ninh Binh area. Along the way we will be staying over night with local families in the villages. I wanted Finn to see how simply people live and get an insight into rural Vietnam and subsistence living. Away from the busy tourist trail.

So, ahead of us a 3.5 hour car journey. We struck lucky again, with just us and a French couple, Thomas et Christine, and a lovely tour guide called Mai, from the north western Sapa area of Vietnam. Mai is young, vibrant, full of laughter and with a good command of English makes an excellent guide. She and Finn have really hit it off. They sit together in the front of the minibus, chatting away. Meanwhile, the 3 of us in the back have sufficient room to strech out and lie down for some rest as we each have a bench to stretch out on. This makes for a comfortable journey, until a sudden slam on the breaks sees both me and Thomas thrown from our benches onto the floor as we sleep!

Our first stop was at a local market. There are few tourists that pass through here so people were genuinely interested to see us, well, Finn really. One woman, on the fruit stall, asked to take his photo on her phone, then paid him a mango for the privilege. Mai found this hilarious, “One photo, one mango!” she repeated on many occasions over the next few days. We showed the market ladies the photo of Phoebe and Issy I carry around and then all her friends gathered around looking with interest and intrigue. It was amazing to see as they marvelled at them.

We walk through the market and see fresh fruit and live produce. As we stop to look at the container full of live catfish for sale Finn taps me (yes, he is learning to be discrete) and points to someones shopping basket on the floor – it contains several small bags, one of which is moving. The ladies laugh at us, again, and open it up to reveal a bag full of small crabs, they pull one out and offer it to Finn, but he politely declines.

We get back on the minibus for a short ride then get out and have a half hour walk down a small track, though a village, past rice fields. Mai shows us the Mimosa plants growing alongside the track. When you touch the leaves they quickly close-up. Finn and Thomas are amazed by this and we wander on slowly as they touch all the plants in sight. We pass water buffalo being herded along the track by an elderly woman, stick in hand. It appears to be the job of the young or the elderly to tend to the buffalo as it’s one of the least strenuous of the jobs required on the these small family farms.

We stopped at a very local road side cafe for lunch. The grandfather was lovingly carrying around his 5 month old grandson, the mother prepared our food and two other women were in the bedroom at the back of the cafe, with 3 more youngsters. Finn wandered off, as he does, and I found him playing with the babies in the bedroom. It’s one thing deciding to ‘go local’ and eat the same as the locals, but it’s quite something to decide to do that with your child. Of course I was anxious as Finn tucked into his first meal, cooked in an environment that is a long way from our modern hygiene standards, but if we wanted to see an authentic Vietnam, this is how we had to do it. I watched him vigilantly, all he touched, all he ate, all he drunk. We’ve talked about the hygeine, the importance of washing hands and all that, but to a 7 year old boy it doesn’t really compute. Finn was really good and tasted all that was put before him, but didn’t exactly relish it. After he’d tried his best I gave him some bread we’d bought to keep him going.

A short drive up into the mountains followed, rewarding us with far reaching views of the town of Mai Chau and the mountains beyond. There followed a 3.5 hour hike through small villages, being looked at curiously by all we passed, some were reserved, others a tentative wave or a cheery ‘hello’ in Vietnamese. Here, White Thai, H’mong and Tay people all live in the same community. We trekked past terraces of rice fields then through thick bamboo forest, along a steep footpath used by the locals. Much to Finn’s surprise we passed some men hunting with a bow and arrow. We stopped to observe what they were up to and they let Finn draw back the bow. On we walked, a short while later we encounter a group of boys Finn’s age who had just killed a small snake with a stick as it came out of the irrigation channel they were playing in. We stopped to examine it. Finn was delighted with this encounter. The boys then entertained us by jumping into the irrigation channels for a quick swim. We’d have happily have got in too if it wasn’t for the colour of the water …. And the snakes… And the fact that is was only half a metre wide, so I probably would have got stuck! But we envied their ability to cool off like this.

 

Then eventually, as the sun was setting we descended to the village of Tong Dau, nestled beneath the valley and home to White Thai people. Our bed for the night was in a very simple bamboo stilt house, in this small village, owned by a couple who’s children had grown up and moved away. All the village children came out to have a good look at us. They peered at Finn, not knowing what to make of him. As he had a captive audience he played up to it and soon made friends, although they remained huddled together, security in numbers.

We went in to our homestay, Mr Que’s house. Up the wooden steps that wrapped around the outside of the stilt house into a simple room, wooden floor, wooden walls, a large window opening looking out onto banana trees. When I showed Finn where we’d be sleeping he said “You’ve got to be joking. How can we sleep here? It’s all open, there’s an open window and no door, anything could come in”. It was a simple room, with a very thin mat and blanket on the floor and a mosquito net hanging over head. Finn looked around in disbelief, “Everything’s made of bamboo, the walls, the floor, the roof”.

We enjoyed a nice meal with our hosts, eaten around a low table, sitting on the floor. It was a large room with all the family needed in it – a bed in the corner, somewhere to sit, a table to eat at. No ornaments, no clutter, a few family photos on the wall. I was surprised to see that now that electricity had come to the village there was a television, pride of place in the room and a telephone. It was a great space and our hosts were so welcoming. By now it was dark outside and we saw some fireflies glowing around us.

We went to bed, Finn rather anxious that animals could get in. We climbed into our silk sleeping bag liners we’d bought in Hoi An, pulled closed the mosquito net and settled down to sleep. Finn slept brilliantly. I woke a few times in the night to a symphony of animal noises. In the morning we awoke to the sound of children, hens, pigs and birds.