The decision to take our older children along when we traveled to Vietnam to adopt our son Tien was almost entirely an emotional decision that we will be paying off financially for years. Had we adopted an infant, I'm positive we would have taken the financially sound route and just sent one parent to Vietnam. However, it became extremely important to us that Ari (age 12) and Mia (age 10) knew where their brother had spent the first 8 years of his life. We now know that our decision made our unique journey to family much easier for everyone. ALL of my children can relate to the emotions, stress, difficulty, and love that we feel individually and as a family.
Ari and Mia wanted to travel. They had traveled fairly extensively in the United States. Ari had never left the country and Mia didn't remember the time she spent in Korea as an infant. Mia has never been a patient traveler, but she improves with each trip. They were willing to commit to the process of medical exams, vaccinations, medications, passports, and learning as much about Vietnam (and Bangkok) as possible before leaving. They were willing to make concessions to the health and safety issues of international travel, even though Ari still disliked washing his hands. They were willing to make accommodations in their education. We had an extremely supportive elementary principal who assured us that this trip would be more valuable than anything they would miss in school. In the end, we left the day after school was out. They were aware that there would be a lot of time spent "just waiting" and they were willing to say they would try to be patient. I would not have taken either of these kids if they had been unwilling to make the commitments needed, if they had not wanted to travel, if they had been a great deal younger.
We did most of our traveling alone as a family. We made the 6 to 8 hour (shorter going north) van ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Kien Giang with another couple and that was our only contact with "group" travel. The woman we worked with at Holt's Eugene office tried hard to discourage us from taking children. She felt they could not be prepared for the poverty and primitive conditions they would encounter. When we insisted, she dropped her objections. However, after we returned, she didn't find our encounters with Asia toilets near as amusing as we found them!
Before we left we read about Vietnam. (Most of what we wanted to know was contained in books with good pictures and folktales found in the children's department of our library.) Ari was able to gain specific information with an e-mail interview with a couple who had traveled to Kien Giang. The same couple shared a video of the journey into the Mekong Delta so the conditions were not a total surprise. The video with the personal touch was more valuable than the commercially produced "travelogues" we also watched. We photocopied pages from travel guides so Ari and Mia could put them in their journals with headings like, "Places I Would Like To Go," Things To Remember," "Customs and Language". We talked about the Vietnam/American War. We talked a lot about the fact that WE would be guests in Vietnam and we were to participate in the culture as much as possible, try not to offend people, and, above all, present ourselves in such a way that people would remember us kindly and the orphanage staff and government officials would know Tien would be loved and cared for.
We made one HUGE mistake in starting scrapbooks. I gave Ari and Mia each a bound book with blank pages. We also started an identical book for Tien with somewhat different information. As we traveled kids saved things and taped them into the scrapbooks. Soon their books were overstuffed, bulging, and difficult to carry. Another time I will use loose-leaf notebooks so some of the pages can be removed, placed in envelopes, packed in the suitcases, and then put back together when we get home.
We flew from Ohio to LA to Seoul (Mia's 90 minute, expensive taste of her birth country!) to Bangkok. The next morning we flew on to HCMC. Our return trip was from Hanoi to Bangkok for a three day stay. We flew home through Osaka and LA. We packed puzzles, games, books and a few art supplies. I'd made a point of buying "travel toys" on sale after Christmas and kids selected books from a library sale. Most of what we traveled with was "new to them" so it was fun but not so wonderful it could not be left behind or given away. Ari left home with an actual library of paperback science fiction books in his pack and in the suitcases. He literally trailed them through Asia, trading with fellow travelers, leaving them in airports and hotels. In Vietnam the Customs officials insisted, "Children don't declare!" so Ari probably entered the country with contraband literature and left without it. Thai airlines provided movies and LOTS of food. The flight time across the Pacific really didn't seem terribly long.
We arrived in HCMC without luggage! Here we learned that our laid-back, "What, me worry!?" son was the one who panicked and thought the world had come to an end. Our daughter who had worried about virtually everything that could possible happen took it in stride and learned to wash clothes with shampoo in the bathtub. Our Holt "keeper" in HCMC was a man who truly understood that we were traveling with children. Our hotel was on a dead-end street about a $3.00 taxi ride from the "downtown" area. There were local children to play with in the evenings. The "man in the restaurant" got a ladder to retrieve a Koosh ball from the roof one morning and provided a tub of water to wash shells after our trip to the beach. The hotel manager provided a soccer ball after Mia was badly bruised in a game played with a coconut. In Hanoi our hotel was more "central" and the street outside was busy.
Before we left home I promised my worrying daughter that under no circumstances would I intentionally endanger our lives. Then we encountered the reality of Asia! From the time we landed in Bangkok until we got back to LA we saw ONE seatbelt in a car. We counted motorcycles helmets in HCMC and got to about 30. Long-boats in Thailand do not come with life vests. Crossing streets really DID seem dangerous initially. We talked about the fact that we were about as far from Ohio as Dorothy was from Kansas and decided to go with the flow. I knew we were not at home (And told my children that!) the evening I let ALL of them get on our "keeper's" motor bike and ride off to dinner while my husband and I walked. I also assured them we were not at home the day my husband encouraged them to shoot an M-16 at the Cu Chi Tunnels. As much fun as cyclos were, I don't think we stood a chance against a car.
As disconcerting as some of the safety issues were, the reality is that we actually felt we were reasonably safe. As we were "speeding" down a highway one afternoon, the speedometer registered about 35 miles an hour. We saw only 2 traffic accidents in Vietnam. In three weeks I was concerned for our safety only twice. Our Hotel in Hanoi left us hoping there was no fire because the emergency exits were non-existent. I felt safe enough in the long-boat in Bangkok while it was in the canals - then it came out into the river and I knew none of us could swim to shore.
On the up side of what seemed it might be dangerous was the confidence Ari displayed. He delighted in changing money. Without him, I would not have crossed 3 streets to get to the French bakery in HCMC. His sense of direction did not always prove correct but he was willing to walk the streets of Hanoi and the Central Market in HCMC to help his sister find the "treasures" she didn't buy when she first saw them. He walked several blocks in Hanoi each evening to "forage for breakfast" with my husband. He learned to "bargain" in Bangkok when he found a coveted dinosaur just as his Baht were running out.
© Susan Hall