We, of course, had our own guides in the family. One afternoon, my boys hailed a fleet of cyclos, Vietnam’s three-wheeled pedicabs, to take us to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. The puppets—foot-high dragons, phoenixes, fairies, and foxes—danced and scampered across a stage of waist-deep water, manipulated by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. (Imagine Esther Williams as a marionette). Another day, we wandered through the Old Quarter, a circus of anarchic traffic and mazelike streets that have traditionally specialized in particular crafts, trades, or products. We strolled down Hang Than (Charcoal-Sellers’ Street), which is famous today for Vietnamese candy, and sampled banh com, a rice field-green sweet cake, and banh dau xanh, a yellow, halvah-like mung-bean treat that foreigners love or hate (we split down the middle).
I’d worried that the noise and congestion of the Old Quarter might be too much for the girls, but Maya, who’d brought along a camera, shot pictures the whole time, and Noa, who loves animals, kept pausing to look at one more impossibly cute thing—a porcelain poodle, a Snoopy pillow, a Chihuahua barking in a store doorway. On Hang Ma (Votive Paper-Sellers’ Street), vendors specialize in vang ma, the paper facsimiles of money, cell phones, eyeglasses, and other worldly goods that Vietnamese burn as offerings to their ancestors in the netherworld. The shops and sidewalks were so full of bright tinsel streamers that it looked as though the entire block was gearing up for a party. We had our own fest at the Metropole, Hanoi’s century-old premier hotel, where we dove into the chocolate buffet (chocolate fondue, chocolate pastries, chocolate truffles, hot chocolate). As Maya recorded in her journal, "there was even chocolate-covered fish (which, disgustingly, one of us mistook for something else and took a huge bite of!)"
Mekong Delta: The Canoe Caper
In Hanoi, we knew our way around. But once we took the short early-morning flight south to Ho Chi Minh City, even my family became tourists. Our Trails of Indochina guide, Linh, met us at the airport with a roomy van, and we immediately headed southwest for the three-hour drive into the Mekong Delta, where we would spend the next two days. Known to the Vietnamese as the Song Cuu Long, or River of Nine Dragons, the Mekong ends its nearly 2,600-mile journey from China here, creating an agriculturally fertile region with a water-based society that’s unlike any other in Vietnam.
At our first stop, the sleepy river town of Vinh Long, we were joined by Hai, a thoughtful local guide who had learned his English working for the U.S. military during the war. We took off by motorboat, first crossing the river itself, then traveling down smaller tributaries lined with pomelo trees and coconut palms. We saw a woman standing knee-deep in the shallows, washing her hair. A blue and yellow kingfisher watched us from a tree. I had heard that these waterways serve as the major commercial thoroughfares of the delta, but I didn’t fully understand their importance until I saw the narrow sampans sliding through, one entire boat weighed down with coconuts, another with grape-sized longan fruit, a delicacy known in Vietnam as "dragon’s eyes."
The value of boats was, at that moment, especially pertinent. When we first began to plan our trip, we decided to participate in a charitable program that Trails of Indochina sponsors in rural areas. For $400, we could donate a sampan to a poor family. Despite the fact that the percentage of people living in poverty has declined substantially, many Vietnamese remain destitute, and a profound economic disparity has developed between city dwellers and people in the countryside. (The woman washing her hair probably had no running water.) Giving away a single boat would, of course, do little to remedy the situation, but it would ease one family’s suffering. And we liked the idea that our children would meet the people we hoped to help.
When our motorboat pulled up at the village of Hoa Phuoc, a group of children ran outside to watch us step ashore, then trailed along as we followed Hai to a one-room shed looking out on the waterway. Holes in the door had been patched with empty rice sacks. Our kids, who’d been laughing with the village kids a minute before, suddenly grew silent. A tall, thin man with ruddy skin and few teeth stepped outside. Hai introduced him as Mr. Kim, the 66-year-old father of the family we had come to meet.