We were not able to properly prepare children for some of the "safety issues" of Vietnam because we were truly not aware of them until we encountered them. Most of the time we just pretended to be local and did what seemed appropriate. In truth the thing we were least able to prepare children for was the beggars. Even Tien was not prepared for the people we encountered on the streets of HCMC. Most of the beggars were people with amputated limbs or severe birth defects. They followed right on our heels and continued to beg.
In Bangkok the beggars didn't follow, but most were apparently lepers. These people were EXTREMELY difficult for my children to deal with emotionally. In Hanoi the "beggars" were more apt to be children selling things. Many seemed as interested in practicing their English and talking to Americans as in actually selling.
Along with the beggars ALL of my children found it sometimes difficult to cope with the way people on the streets and in the shops felt they could touch and ask personal questions. "Madame have THREE children?!?" got to be a laughing matter with all of us. This was often followed by "Not same father!?" My nearly-blond, 12-year-old son was extremely patient about being "petted" and was usually able to get through it without looking extremely annoyed. My daughter attracted all sorts of attention and remarks about being very beautiful, but not Vietnamese. My newest son was hounded by people speaking Vietnamese and generally telling him how lucky he was to have a family and be going to America.
On the road to Kien Giang we stopped twice each way to wait for the ferry across the river. My husband and sons got out and walked with our driver and "keeper" while they smoked. They attracted their own share of attention. My daughter and I sat in the van with the women traveling with us. It was almost like a "Twilight Zone" episode as people pressed their faces against the windows to observe the Americans inside. Mia found this very unnerving - especially after she learned that women were gathering their friends to look at the "beautiful child" in the van.
We did a lot of airport waiting in the course of our travels. ALL of my children found it tiring, boring, and annoying at various times. They spent much of their airport time sitting against a wall or pillar with the carry-on luggage while my husband and I dealt with tickets and Customs. We did not do a lot of waiting for the adoption process. All of the Vietnam appointments were done by my husband alone with our various "keepers." Only in Bangkok did all three children attend the medical and embassy appointments. The hospital waiting time was spent almost entirely with Ari and Mia teaching Tien about his first escalator. The embassy time was spent playing games. We took with us several preschool card games that could be played with little talking. Tien's first game was "Go Fish" and the second "Old Maid". By the time we left Bangkok he could also play a modified version of "UNO". While Ari and Mia taught their brother about escalators and card games they were also teaching him about families and English. I think those transitions were made easier because we had three children in Vietnam rather than only one.
We had measurements for Tien before we left, and managed to bring clothing in his size. We selected clothing so it would be very similar to what his siblings were traveling in. We took t-shirts and shorts in bright colors - although not as bright as Ari wears. We took a pair of sandals identical to what his siblings were wearing. Tien's initial reaction was that all the clothes were too big -- but he has since fallen into the "large and comfy" look of his siblings. We also went back to a "toddler plan" I'd used years ago. I brought a bright yellow hat for each. They were all willing to wear them and I could spot them easily when we became separated in crowded areas. The HCMC hotel staff laughed at "Yellow hats going out," and "Yellow hats coming back." We brought Tien a backpack in the same style as his siblings. Included in it was his journal and a teddy bear selected by his new sister. Ari brought Tien a pair of sunglasses similar to his own. Ari and Mia each carried some money of their own in a neck pouch with a photocopy of their passport and itinerary. We gave Tien a pouch and provided him with money as we gave it to his siblings. He was totally unaccustomed to making his own purchases but chose to rely on his siblings instead of his parents when buying. I think it was a good idea to start out our relationship with three children in a situation where they all had similar clothing, belongings, and opportunities.
With the exception of one night, we ate Vietnamese or other Asian food with Vietnamese people through our stay in HCMC and our travels to Kien Giang. Children learned how good chicken noodle soup is for breakfast and how to try something different for every dinner. On the road to Kien Giang our driver decided where we would eat and our "keeper" ordered food. We didn't always know what we were eating but it was always very good. In Hanoi we ate mostly Vietnamese and Italian. Ari and Mia were happy to see something they recognized and Tien got his first taste of change. By the time we got back to Bangkok, Ari and Mia were delighted to discover MacDonalds and share the hamburgers with their very skeptical younger brother. After we met Tien we DID buy from street vendors. Tien told us which things were good, so we thought we should try them. The fruit was WONDERFUL! Only when I was buying ice-cream bars in Hanoi did I really consider that we might be out of the realm of the "health agreements" we had made. We weren't. We all stayed healthy through the trip. While none of my children liked everything that crossed their lips, they were always able to find plenty to eat at every meal and never went hungry.
We asked for extra time in Vietnam so we could see a bit of the country. What we saw was mostly kid oriented, but we had a marvelous time. We spent a day at the beach near Vung Tau. Had we known how far the trip actually was or how much fun we were going to have we would have planned to stay the night. We discovered the Tunnels at Cu Chi really are a child adventure along with a history lesson. Going through the tunnels and walking in the jungle along with an opportunity to try on military clothing and fire automatic weapons was a lot of fun for all three kids. We saw three waterpuppet shows and enjoyed them all. The one we saw in Hanoi was by far the best. We toured the Vietnamese Air Force Museum near Hanoi where kids got to sit in a MIG fighter and we all noticed that they turned the lights on when we arrived. We rode cyclos with delight, enjoyed the shopping, but skipped zoos on advice from Lonely Planet.
We also did some things that were difficult. Before we met Tien we walked through the War Crimes Museum in HCMC. The section on "victims" we could not have touched without language skills to talk about it. It was difficult for Ari and Mia to see and understand - but it was important that they see it. We toured the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. Ari and Mia were not at all sure viewing a "maintained body" was cool. Tien thought we were being VERY good to him to take him there. We ate one night at the Omni Hotel Saigon where dinner could be paid for only in dollars - and many of them. Mia and I laughed when we realized how out of place we were. Ari cried because he was sure most of the people staying there had not seen the poverty around them. Tien had no way to know that we were as out of place in that hotel as we had been in the "rest stops" where we ate on the way from Kien Giang. This was the night I knew for sure my first two children could see the reality of Vietnam and were not "Ugly Americans."
We know absolutely that our adjustments to being a family of five have been better because we traveled as a family. Ari and Mia know what it is like to be someplace where absolutely everything is different. They know what it is like to stay away long enough to miss friends and favorite foods. They know something about how Tien feels when he is so upset with his new family or so lonely for things left behind that all he can do is hide under his blankets and cry. They also know the joy of discovering new and wonderful things. They remember their excitement with the first cyclo ride and their surprise at the warmth of the South China Sea. They can fully appreciate why Tien was thrilled with his first snow (which wasn't much) and were willing to use all the snow in the park to make a snowman with him. They have seen where Tien lived and have met some of his friends. They are able to explain to their friends when Tien acts "weird" or seems to have inappropriate reactions.
I would in no way suggest that taking siblings for adoption travel, to Vietnam or anywhere else, is the ONLY thing for any family to do. I would, though, suggest that people adopting an older child look closely at what it might mean to family adjustment to take a sibling. Not every American child is ready to make that journey. Many should not go. Some will surprise us with their patience and understanding when it is absolutely required. We know that we made the right decision for our family. We have three children who are learning to be siblings even yet. Not every day is a good one six months into this new family - but most are. I honestly believe that we NEEDED to take Ari and Mia when we went to Vietnam to adopt Tien. All three of these children have a clearer understand of each other, of themselves, and even of their parents. Because the first three weeks of becoming a new family constellation was in hotel rooms and airplanes, half-a-world away from where we are now at home.
Susan Hall and her husband Chris traveled to Vietnam in June of 1997 with their two children, son Ari and daughter Mia. They arrived home twenty-two days later a family of five, after adopting their son Tien in Kien Giang Province.
© Susan Hall