Immigration immediately transports us all to a setting in Soviet Russia. A ripple of silence runs through our previously animated travelling companions. I look down the line to its source and smile sheepishly as a stone faced officer catches my glance. We perfect our entry technique by watching the Vietnamese passengers who all stand impassively looking to the right of the official as he checks their passports. He looks at each person carefully and then at the passport for a long minute and bows them on without comment. My face looks like a statue as we approach the desk. Suddenly Joe wants to cross the yellow line into Vietnam. I lean over with a fixed face, piercing eyes and with a vice-like grip draw him back. I quietly tell him to stay next to me if he doesn’t want to spend his first night in prison. All goes well through our silent scanning until the official surprisingly breaks into a smile and asks is this your wife and children? Just one wife? I smile and shrug. Yes, just one wife. He looks sympathetic and waves me on. Is that a wink he gives me?
We are in and on our way as our little family regroups toward the arrival area. The doors open from sombre order and quiet to taxi and tout bedlam. Like corralled sheep we are led to a car and whisked away. In this bubble we watch the teeming city life outside. The kids seem to have shrunk and are sitting low and wide-eyed in their seats. This does not look like Noosa to them. The heat, the noise, the smells, the sights are pounding on the car. The culture shock of the new and exotic. For Marg and I, a mixture of fear and excitement. For the kids, mainly just shock. The drive is strangely relaxing, drawing us slowly into the city as anonymous observers. The parents are starting to get their breath and wits back as the taxi does an incredible u-turn into on coming traffic to position us at our Hotel entrance.
The kids sigh with relief when they walk into the air-conditioned lobby. So we begin a nesting instinct that becomes a pattern for our trip. Scan and evaluate the room for its merits and defects. If it passes the 30 second eyeball test, begin scattering clothing, toiletries and games evenly through the room and under the beds. If it fails immediately, send Dad out into the wilderness to find a better option. Luckily for our first day, Marg has picked a little boutique gem. The kids love the room — much more than the streets outside! They check the TV channels for a touchstone of something familiar; CNN will have to suffice. From Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City in a day is taking its toll as fatigue rolls over us and we collapse into a deep sleep.
We awake to the background buzz of traffic and tooting horns. From our balcony the street below is alive with action and commerce as a stream of motor scooters weaves their way down the road. Pillions vary from caged chickens to the ancient elderly and elegant young women. It is a new day and we are all very excited and ready to explore. Free of our packs we are liberated to venture out for the crucial supplies: money and food. We all hold hands and wait for a gap in the traffic that never comes. It looks like our holiday will be spent on this intersection until we observe the obvious pattern. Walk slowly and steadily onto the street as the waves of scooters curve around our pack. Whatever else, do not stop or make an unpredictable sudden move.
Our interaction with the local people to date has been a delight. The Hotel staff are charming, warm and dignified. They take genuine pleasure with the children, telling Amy she is a beautiful girl, and the doormen patting Joe on the head. As parents we are chuffed and think this is a very good omen for the days ahead. And so it proves throughout Vietnam that adults respond to the children and treat them with care and interest. Over time Joe takes the continual pats on the head with good grace but occasionally looks with pleading eyes to me for relief. Shopping is fun; people are friendly and helpful, smiling politely at our rudimentary attempts with Vietnamese "hellos" and "thankyou". With surprising ease we walk down the road and find an ANZ teller machine. It strikes us as slightly odd in this setting. My statement is a delight, telling me I am a Dong millionaire. Blessed is the computer to give us credit cards and email instead of traveller’s cheques and Post Restante.
In the next few days we explore many of the city's landmarks including the bustling Ben Thanh City market, the old French Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace. On the morning of the 30th April 1975 the Communist forces sealed the fate of Saigon and ended the Vietnam War when Lt Ngyen crashed his tank through the then Presidential Palace gates and a soldier ran to the top storey balcony to unfurl the Vietcong flag. The children scramble on the tank and around the old American F-5E jet while we mull over the folly of that terrible conflict.
For a change of pace we visited the zoo, a fun place but not abundant with animals. The kids love the huge paper mache dinosaurs and jumping at the feet of the T-Rex. On this day my obsession with mosquitoes begins to develop after I notice some bites on the children’s legs. I count three days off, waiting for fevers and headaches and reading in mounting panic about the dreadful ravages of malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis. All possible but not likely from two mozzie bites. From this day on I become the terror with heavy duty repellent. The kids mock me mercilessly as the mad mosquito man when I carry out search and destroy missions in our Hotel rooms. A guidebook can sometimes give you too much information.
Our adventure to the Saigon Waterpark becomes a miniature epic. “Let’s take a taxi.” They are reliable, convenient and for once we can afford it. After 10 minutes we clear the inner city and launch onto a highway of controlled chaos. We settle into a routine of moving casually through all sorts of traffic and obstacles from pedal bikes, motor scooters and trucks to the occasional pedestrian. We drive on and on and on. I begin to think our driver is taking us north to Hanoi. Finally we are dropped at what looks like an empty car park and relieved of $20 US. This had better be good I think as we trundle towards a pair on uninviting iron gates. This better be good. And it is. It is a weekday, the Waterpark is almost empty and the kids skip around happily from wave pools to slides and their favourite the lazy river.
I read a book for a while and then began exploring a tower slide. Before I know it I am strapped into an odd looking sled with my back and head forced forward. A crowd of children, including my own, watch from below so I have to commit. Suddenly I am on rollers and dropping almost vertically from the tower. My stomach seems to be trying to exit through my mouth as I hit the water and aquaplane like a bullet across the pool, hitting the padded wall with a thud. I realize I am strapped in to stop me sitting up in terror and breaking my back. The kids are cheering as I smile weakly and stumble away. When we exit the park a lovely free aircon bus is waiting to take everyone back into the city. Courtesy of the Waterpark and offering a regular return service. Ah, the benefit of local knowledge!
At our Hotel Reception the staff greets us with a warm smile. They have finalized our onward travel arrangements with smooth efficiency and minimal charge. We thank them for their help and retire to our room to rest before catching the night train north to Na Trang. In this short time we have begun to acclimatize to Ho Chi Minh City and our apprehensions have vanished. The kids are looking forward to their first sleeper cabin with excitement. But that is another tale.