In June, the five of us ventured on our first non-European vacation together, destination: Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. To say it was eye-opening is akin to saying that fireworks are colorful. Daily, our horizons were pried open. Even something as basic as sidewalks were not be what I had assumed. I always figured sidewalks were for walking alongside a road. Wrong. Sidewalks are real estate. Sidewalks are where you watch soccer with your family, or play “go” with the police officer on the beat, or create an impromptu parking lot for scooters, or store pots of julienned bamboo shoots, or make vats of sauce, or conduct all kinds of commerce from sharpening keys to selling banana-leaf wrapped rice-packets to cutting sideburns.
Though the constant horizon-prying-open was sometimes exhausting—the daily reckoning of my narrow world-view hardly had the same languid relaxation as lingering over a three-hour meal capped off with vin santo—it was also exhilarating. And it made our world feel closer, more connected, more possible.
If breaking out of your comfort zone and shedding complacency is the key to a meaningful life, then I heartily recommend a trip to southeast Asia. Yes, it can be a shock to the system, but I think that shocks are good now and then for keeping us travelers wide-eyed and young and receptive, and novel destinations are ideal for memorable family vacations.
All that said, here is my list of eighteen tips to bear in mind as you consider a trip to the other side of the globe. You won’t regret it.
1) Don’t rule out a trip to Asia on the assumption that it must be twice as expensive as flights to Europe. I was shocked to discover that tickets to Bangkok were $750, while tickets to Rome for the same time period were twice that. Plus, daily living is far cheaper (our average meal in Hanoi, for all five of us with beer and soda, totaled $10). Speaking of price-tags, don’t assume that lesser known destinations like Luang Prabang will be the most economical. We found meals in Luang Prabang were at least three times pricier than Hanoi (though that still adds up to less than Europe or the States). Why? Apparently because transporting goods into places with shakier infrastructure is more expensive. Therefore, locally made items in Laos are far less expensive than in more touristed locations, as are service items. Siena and I each got an hour long Lao massage for 7$ each, and if you see Gabe, ask him about the fish spa, when fish nibbled our feet for 10 minutes for a cool $3.00.
2) Stash those moist towelettes they hand out like Halloween candy on flights to Asia, you will use them for utensil polishers, table cleaners, and toileting supplies which are in short supply throughout southeast Asia. The less said about this the better.
3) When you spot room rates at $20.00 you will be tempted to make this the most budget vacation you’ve ever imagined. Don’t. Spring for a bit of luxury, especially in stimulating cities where a spot of friendly assistance, a basket of novelty fruit, and relieving a/c can go a long way to maintaining travel enthusiasm. Feel free to underspend in more relaxed locations, but in a place like Hanoi, aim for spending less than you would in Europe perhaps, but more than you think strictly necessary based on budget hotel fees. The pricier accommodations—particularly those noted for excellent customer service—are the ones that send someone to meet you at the airport, that guide you to the ATM when you arrive without local currency, that walk you through a tangle of Hanoi streets to the street food stall where the staff eats their meals of pho ga (chicken soup), that will look up a recipe for that smoky, mysterious hot sauce you see on all the tables in Hanoi, that will follow your progress on your day trip and will arrange for better than expected compensation when the trip goes awry. In short, when everything else feels a little overwhelming or a little too unfamiliar, it can feel nice to feel like someplace is “home” where you are taken care of. At least for a little while. Remember that pausas aren’t just for Italy anymore. You’ll need little breaks for refreshing the spirit to take on more adventure. Plus, having the staff greet your newspaper reading son with, “What’s new in the world, Gabriel?” is just bliss.
4) Minimize travel between counties. Caveat here… we did tons of traveling between countries as we craved tastes of both Thailand and Vietnam, but also a bit of Laos as it’s further from the tourist trail. But if we were to do it again, particularly on a tighter budget, we’d go to one country and just sink. Those tickets between countries rival Ryanair in their budget-friendliness, clocking in at around $20 each, but those add up. Especially if you have a large family, which 3 children in Asia definitely is.
5) Balance your trip. Even if you stay within one country, plan to break up big city stays with countryside interludes. Opportunities abound for respites that include kayaking through rice patties, sailing in a dragonboats past limestone karsts, biking through ruined ancient cities, sleeping in a jungle alongside staggeringly clear ocean waters, and trekking through terraced fields into tribal communities. The hardest part is winnowing down the choices by remembering that there can be a next time.
6) When you start researching visa requirements, that’s a good time to plan vaccinations. And then comparison shop. The price at your doctor is likely to be higher than at the local health department which may be higher than the grocery store. Keith and I got all of our shots at Giant. By the way, we skipped the malaria pills because nausea is a common side effect and who wants to be queasy when there is so much Asian food waiting? Besides, dengue is far more likely in many Asian destinations, and there is no vaccination for that, so we were better off bringing lots of mosquito repellant and lightweight long sleeve shirts to ward off zanzare.
When you are there
7) Even if you are like me and think of vacations as a time to unplug, bring your device. Particularly if you want to look up what a “special” ingredient is before recklessly ordering it and accidentally ingesting water bugs in your rice crepe. Or you want to figure out what that animal is outside your hut that half your family thinks is a bird and half thinks is a monkey. You’ll get quite a chuckle when you realize it’s a tokay gecko. Known during the Vietnam war as the “F**& you lizard” because soldiers desperate for sleep would rail against this odd amphibian’s loud call that made jungle sleep impossible (side-note: did you know that the tokay gecko’s ear chamber spans the whole head, so you can look in one “ear” and see out the other side?) Devices are also good for identifying those sea cucumbers that litter your otherwise innocuous looking Thai cove. And imagine your surprise when a quick search reveals that this invertebrate shoots its entrails out its anus when threatened. Don’t. Jar. The sea cucumber.
8) Understand the scams. This is especially true in cities. A quick Google search will alert you to the scam at the Grand Palace, where a “helpful” stranger will warn you that the palace doesn't open until 4, then he’ll call a Tuk Tuk driver who will take you on a wild goose chase to gem stores (at best) and rob you (at worst). We almost fell for a variant of this, but caught on once we realized we were being shuttled to a Tuk Tuk, which are well known for their irascibility. Chance favors the prepared mind, so arm yourself with a little knowledge, but then don’t stress. Entering Vietnam we were immediately assailed by a woman with Keith’s full name on a card. She ushered us to a table to help us fill out our visa-on-arrival documents, and we figured she was from the hotel, until we realized we hadn’t yet left immigration/baggage claim. We were immediately suspicious. Despite Nicolas having just told us (he read the Vietnam guidebook and thus was our resident expert) that scams were often designed around small scale rooking and bribing. Even so, we’d just handed our passports plus all our money for the visas-on-arrival plus an extra 5$ per visa to this woman and feared we’d never see her again. Turns out, that 5$ bought us some crazy diplomat privilege of opening lines to zoom through immigration. Totally worth it. Other times the swindling is more of a scam crossed with the kind of hawkish salesmanship you might be used to under the Eiffel Tower or outside the Coliseum, but with blistering levels of aggression. Our first morning in Hanoi I held out my hand to forestall a donut seller, and, with impressive aim, she launched a donut into my outstretched palm. Soon she had pressed a bag of donuts into Gabe’s hands, put her conical hat on Siena and ordered me to take a photo, and then exhorted us to pay $150,000 Vietnamese dong. Which only later did I realize is $7.00, about $5.00 too much for even very tasty little donuts. Most scams in Vietnam are like this, based primarily around overcharging, but who is really going to go to the authorities because they overpaid by $5.00? So watch for those men running after your feet lamenting the state of your shoes, and the Tuk Tuk drivers following slowly to cajole you for a ride, and the conical cap wearing ladies attempting to shove their stick with the charming hanging baskets onto your shoulder. If a salesperson is relentless, you probably don’t want what they are selling, so keep your head and hands down and just keep walking. Quickly. On the other hand, people who ask if they can speak English with you may be merely trying to practice this skill they realize they need in a post-modern world. Go ahead and wile away an hour beside a banyan tree chatting with the young people who may be tomorrow’s world leaders.
9) Do some tourist stuff. A trip to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without taking in a show at the water puppet theater. These designed experiences are the kind of thing I usually avoid, but they definitely offer a lens to understand the culture. Art in Asia has a whole different impetus and trajectory than the western world (more on this below), and the more guidance the better. For instance, those water puppets developed from rice patty farmers looking for a way to amuse themselves through storytelling. As a rule, I hate puppets, but I’ve never seen anything like it, plus the traditional music is evocative. So I say, go to a sky bar and take in the view while musing aloud, “I’m in Bangkok.” Go to the Kuang Si water falls, even if they are number one rated activity in Luang Prabang by Tripadvisor. If you go early, and in the off-season (our summer), you will have those mystical, fairyland series of limestone hued falls to yourself. Yet another activity geared towards tourists are cooking classes. These are shockingly inexpensive, and allow you to connect to local culture while learning how to bring vacation flavors home. I’m still making pho on a regular basis. Along with the chili sauce from the recipe the hotel employee gave me.
10) But not too much tourist stuff. We went to a lot of glorified temples in all three countries, but our favorite was the tiny, tile-covered one in Bangkok that we just stumbled into. It was otherworldly, and to my mind even more impressive than the Reclining Buddha (though that was definitely awesome, see note above). Some of our favorite restaurants were places recommended by hotel staff as places they enjoy, including the series of bamboo shelters in Luang Prabang that were only reachable by walking across a bamboo bridge stretching across the Nam Kahn river (which feeds into the Mekong). There we found cocktails made from rice whiskey, and Lao barbeque, which approaches fondue in its parade and celebratory quality.
11) Look to museums as a place to duck out of the heat and learn about a pocket of life that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. We dove into the history of Bangkok, admired creations by students at a modern art show, imagined the Burmese experience in Thailand, noted that Asia is in the center of the map at the National Museum of Vietnamese history, and escaped a torrential downpour while simultaneously wondering at the life of Lao royalty (with our shoes off—it’s an odd experience to compare gifts of various countries to the Lao king while in your stocking feet). Art museums are particularly interesting. In “The Art of Travel” Alain de Botton muses that the job of the artist is to guide the viewer in how to see. I agree—appreciating art in a place so categorically “foreign” can allow us to begin to see through different lenses. For example, at the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, I realized that the Western artistic history of putting color on white canvas or plaster is the opposite of Asian art, which began by gorging sections out of black lacquer. I wondered if this is why modern art in Asia has a real tactile quality. As a bonus, if you are in the mood for stealing some artwork, you really can’t beat this museum. Half the guards were so solidly asleep they didn’t stir when we stomped by them chattering about Uncle Ho.
12) Explore the markets. You do need to be careful of water, and thus vendors hawking peeled fruit, but that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting with the crazy bounty of fruit that is sold peel on. Mangosteens, lychees, longan, and rambutans (chôm chôm in Vietnam) are a great way to connect with local people at markets, and markets are where it’s at. Most markets aren’t remotely geared towards tourists. They back up to slow moving canals so vendors can toss in peels and waste, they sell items as strange to westerners as grubs and frogs still twitching on sticks… buying fruit is a way to engage with market culture in a gut-friendly way. Plus, a heaving bag of mangosteens and rambutans costs about a buck.
13) Look for reasons to shop for basics. I pity the traveler who only gets food at a restaurant—so much do they miss. We learned about our destinations through shopping. For instance? Snack foods not really a thing in southeast Asia—we really had to search for our EuroCup snacks (P.S. Watching soccer with Vietnamese commentators desperately trying to pronounce Italian surnames is its own brand of pleasure). Even pharmacies are windows into other cultures. A quick story: Keith needed band-aids to ease the horrible sandal sores he acquired walking back from purchasing said sandals after a day of almost-fruitless searching (pro-tip: the big-footed should plan ahead for all shoe contingencies while still in the land of size 12). He ducked into a pharmacy, where in Hanoi you can’t just pluck a box of anything off the shelf, you have to ask the pharmacist. He struggled to explain band-aids with hand motions before finally resorting to Pictionary. The woman did the Vietnamese version of “a-ha!”, raced outside to jump on her scooter, and motored down to the pharmacy at the end of the road (while Keith wondered what the heck had happened). She returned and triumphantly plunked down a box of tampons. Keith tried to tell her that wasn’t what he was trying to buy while she shouted over him that these were “very strong!” Finally he remembered he had one adhered bandage that he could take off and show her. She stared at it, and then removed a strip of band-aids from under the counter.
14) Read literature from the hotel. Internet resources are overwhelming (except this one), but a reputable hotel will have vetted local establishments, and have excellent recommendations. This is how we found Mont Nom Sod, the jewel of our Bangkok trip (they sell a milktoast which is defiantly not boring), the architecture walk in Luang Prabang that instructed us on the unique blend of French Colonial and traditional Lao architecture as well as how to respectfully observe the daily offering of alms to the monks. Also, the list of safe street food stands in Hanoi was single-handedly responsible for our now deep and abiding love of Vietnamese food.
15) Pay attention to signs. Southeast Asia is chockablock with humor where westerners are unused to finding it. We giggled over injunctions against bringing durian fruit onto airplanes, wondered if it was ski masks or robbery-at-gunpoint that was forbidden at banks, and were sent into paroxysms of giggles at the signs instructing bathroom-goers that correct toilet use does not involve standing on the seat of the toilet (though our punchiness could’ve been the jetlag talking—potty humor is its funniest when one’s body thinks it’s midnight while the eyes say its noon.)
16) Stay flexible. Look, it’s Asia. And I don’t care how much you study ahead of time, hand gestures will get you further than attempts to speak (we are none of us too shabby when it comes to language learning and even after tutoring by our hotel staff I would walk into a café, order traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, and be met with strange looks until I pointed at the sign… you would think that caphe sua da would be an uncomplicated phrase. You would be wrong). You are just going to have to go with the flow. After a four-hour journey to Halong Bay, we discovered that our overnight dragon boat trip (with a candlelit dinner in a pirate cave and morning tai chi on the deck) was shortened to just an afternoon voyage, thanks to the promise of nighttime storms. Yes, we railed against the weather and the tour operators that didn’t tell us this before we left, but then decided that hey, even if we knew it was going to just be a day trip, we would’ve done it. So we decided to just enjoy what we had instead of mourning what we didn’t have. This was tough when we entered our cabin and saw how spectacular our journey would’ve been, but by the time we were served cold toast with packets of melted butter on our bus ride back to Hanoi (dreams of the candlelit cave dinner fading into the mists) we found the whole thing amusing. If we’d insisted on being cross, we would have missed those magical five hours on the boat.
17) It can be unsettling to be immediately labeled as other. Even if you were magically imbued with fluency in the local language, because of your western appearance and freakishly gigantic proportions, you’d still have to watch assumptions flit across people’s faces. Siena said it gave her a sense of what being in a minority in our country would be like. That can be freeing—without the expectation of fitting in, it is surprisingly easier to make mistakes and stretch out of your comfort zone—but it can also be intimidating. Our cooking class in Hanoi included a trip to the market, and partway through, the chef laughed at how much joy it was giving people to see this “upbeat” American family, especially Gabe, who was considered adorable. My response was…really? I felt like I kept getting blank stares from people. But then I realized, my own eye contact slides away quickly, afraid of seeing the assumptions and labels in the gaze of the locals. Hanging onto a look a little longer allowed me to see the smile that followed. So pay attention to how the discomfort of being other can impact your own behavior.
18) Go in curious—ask yourself why? A lot. The beauty of a trip to Asia is that it is at once so particular and different from our “norm” , it leaves substantive room for curiosity—Why do the telephone lines look like a ball of yarn after being played with by a basket of angry kittens? Why are there fewer practicing Buddhists in Vietnam than Thailand or Laos? Why isn’t anyone else terrified of these five feet long monitor lizards swimming through the park’s canal? Why is Vietnamese the language that looks the most accessible, but is the hardest for our Western tongues? Why is condensed milk so ubiquitous and why is it so delicious on toasted bread? What is pandan? Why don’t the Vietnamese resent our presence? Why are the butchers female and why do they work actually sitting on the table? Why is this restaurant deemed street food when we are sitting on the fourth floor? Why is the economy of Hanoi seemingly based on food, unlike anyplace else we’ve ever visited? We learned so much by just allowing ourselves to wonder.