How a Teacher and a Therapist Took Their Family Around the World for Four Months.

In 2017 we did it.  Our family of four spent four months travelling around Southeast Asia, we called it “Four for Four – Cheeseburgers in Asia.”  We communed with elephants, we soared across the Laotian jungle, we licked the most delicious peanut sauce from our fingers, we laughed with faces that spoke no common tongue to ours.  Four months away from work and regular life.  Four months exploring different landscapes and cultures.  Four months of intense togetherness.

Many people have asked us how we did it.

This post is such a description – how we managed our jobs, our money, the kids’ school, and our attachments back home.  If you want to read more about what we did, I included some links to adventure blogposts at the bottom of this post.

Also, this blogpost is an invitation to my new blog project.  I am back in Bellingham, Washington, and I have been building a new business  called Trail Financial Planning.


We do financial planning and investment management for regular people.  Primarily, we work with families like us.  People with kids, with businesses, with values; people who care about life, and they way they live it.  As part of that endeavor, I blog about financially related matters that matter to me and my family – paying for college, retirement, taxes, our investments, etc.  My blog posts include:

Risk and return in the stock market

What I did to secure my credit

Should I request a refund of my Washington GET units? 

If you are interested in following that blog, you can either:

This blogpost is also a taste of financial planning.  It describes how we set a goal, and set about carrying it out.  We needed intention, money, time, and a bunch of logistics planning.  I’d be lying if I said it was easy.  But, I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of us.  I usually don’t like to make “brag-media” posts, but I know a lot of people are interested in doing something like this with their own families.  So, this post may get a little braggy.  Hopefully, this post will inspire others to reach for their big goals in life.

Here is a description of how we pulled off “Four for four.”

Step 1 – We built intention.

In 2013, Amy and I went out on a dinner date.  Our dinner dates are infrequent, and often careen into existential conversations like, “What the hell are we doing with our lives?”  While I was looking at the bill, sipping the last of my wine, we started talking about travel and trips with our kids.  At that time, Mia was in 5th grade, and Porter was in 2nd.  We had several trips we wanted to do, including a longer overseas travel experience.  On the back of the restaurant receipt, we listed the places we wanted to go, and the time available.  We figured we could pull off a semi-big trip every other year.

Travel goals – Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, Mexico, Central America, and a longer travel experience.

Time resources –  Seven summers before Mia would finish high school.

Oh crap.

Step 2 – We planned the time.

We decided  a four month trip made good sense for our family, and for Amy’s business.  We identified Mia’s 7th grade year as the right time – after she had a full year start to middle school, but before 8th grade and high school when school might feel more academic.

We circled the year on the receipt, and told the kids about our plans.  They took the news as kids often do about something totally incomprehensible:

Mia, our 11 year old, looked at us thoughtfully, “Uh, ok.”  Then her brow furrowed, “I guess so, but like when?  Which grade will I be in?  Where will we go?  How will we get there?  What would I do for school?  What would I eat?  What about Josie (our dog)?” She is her mother’s daughter.

Our 9 year old boy, Porter, responded with “Uh, sure.”  He is his father’s son.

We started telling others of our plans.  By writing down our goal and saying it out loud,  we gave the trip a certain destiny.

We went back-and-forth about what time of year to travel.  Amy and I decided on December through April, mostly because the window offered the best weather in Southeast Asia.  In addition, we could leverage the kids’ school holidays.

In the Spring of 2016, I wrote a letter to my school district asking for the time off (without pay of course) from my job as a high school teacher.  My principal was completely supportive.  So was the head of human resources.  It was as if these people read my request, and wanted the same thing for themselves.  They enthusiastically endorsed my plan.

Amy’s time off was a bit trickier.  She is a mental health therapist in private practice. Six months out she began telling her clients that she would be gone that winter.  At first, it seemed okay.  But then, the election result came in, and many of her clients seemed to experience re-traumatization.  Challenging.

Nevertheless, we left for the airport on December 11, 2016.

Step 3 – We planned the money.

How much?

I did some research.  Major research.  Meaning, I googled “How much does it cost to travel through Southeast Asia with a family?”

Turns out, there are many people who have written about this.  The “Indie Traveler” site was particularly useful (see note [1] for web reference).  Costs were reported as between $30 – $50 per day, per person, depending on the country.   I budgeted about $150/day, or $20,000 total, for our family.

This turned out to be a pretty close estimate.  At the end of the trip, I totaled our expenses: $19,262 for everything except flights to and from the USA (We used frequent flyer miles for those), or about $156 per day.  Wow, pretty close!

How to pay?

We paid for our trip out of savings.  We didn’t have the money saved before “the receipt,” but once we had committed to a dream, it was amazing how good we became at saving.  For about a year and a half before we left, we examined our monthly cash flows, and took a knife to our expenses.  We skipped a couple ski trips, and we cut down on restaurants.  We aimed to save about $1,000/month.  After a year and a half, we had about $25,000 in savings.  We didn’t want to use all of our savings (an emergency fund is important), so we also pulled some money from one of our Roth IRA accounts where some stock investments had done well.  Thanks to Apple and its iPhone!

Our actual travel costs

Although we tightened our belts before our trip, as travelers we lived well.  We did everything we wanted to, basically without regard for cost.  Of course, one’s travel style will be important here.  Our style is sort of the Do-It-Yourself, but without the cooking.  The major categories of expenses (listed in order of fun), were activities, food, accommodation and transport.

Activities and adventures were about one-third of the cost.   Some adventures were cheap (hikes or public museums), some were expensive – our guided trek in Nepal cost $2,700 for seven days.  I included some links to written up descriptions of our travel at the bottom of this post.

Fresh spring rolls on the street

Food was about 20% of our budget.  We ate good food every day, at restaurants or on the street.  The hotter and fresher the better we discovered.  We could eat on the street for about $2/meal per person.  Restaurants and cafes were more – around $4-5/meal per person.

Accommodation was about 25% of the budget.  We stayed in lots of different styles of accommodation, from gritty hostels to fancy hotels.  Our favorites were moderately priced home stays, where nice, clean, rooms cost between $30-$50 per night.  We loved the individuality, the people who ran such places, and the other travelers we met there.

Mia with Dung, the owner of one of our favorite home stays in Hoi An.

Transport accounted for about 25% of the cost as well.  We traveled by plane, train, bus, taxi, motorbike, tuk-tuk, song taew, long boat, bike, foot, and the back of a few trucks.

Amy and Mia buzzing around Ninh Binh, Vietnam


How we accessed money overseas

During our trip, we paid some for some things with a VISA card, but mostly we used cash.   We took out $300 – $500 from an ATM every few days; the machine delivered local currency of Baht, Dong or Rupiah.  The fees were modest, and well worth the saved hassle of needing to carry a lot of cash, travellers checks or some other method.  The machines were ubiquitous in popular tourist areas.   Sometimes I got a little stressed if I knew we would need a bunch of money to pay ahead.  For example, at “BEES Elephant Sanctuary” (see [3] for link), we needed to arrive at a remote location with over $1000 for a several day experience.  We planned ahead and hit the ATM a few days in a row, so it worked out.  There were other issues – border crossings usually required US dollars instead of the local currency of the exiting country.  If I did it again, I would have figured out how much US cash we would need, and just brought it in a hidden pocket.  We could have used around $500 US total for travel visas and other miscellaneous costs.

At first I kept track of our expenses with a detailed travel budget app.  But after some time, it became annoying.  I just wanted to experience the time and reflect upon it;  at some point even I, a spreadsheet geek, didn’t want to analyze it.  However, I persisted, because I knew I wanted to write this post.

US-based expenses

There were some US expenses that we had to cover, notably our home mortgage and health insurance.  Fortunately, we found a family to live in our house.  They paid for most of the mortgage payment and utilities while we were gone.   Health insurance, on the other hand, was just flat-out expensive.  , and we bought travel insurance.   But, US-based health insurance was pricey.  We paid nearly $1,200 per month for Amy’s policy and a COBRA policy from teaching for the kids and me.  Ouch.  Luckily we didn’t need to use it for any real ouches.  We did not want to skimp on keeping access to good health care.

Here are a few things that I learned about medical care and health insurance.

Medical care overseas was excellent.  We went to a doctor or other medical provider several times on our trip, and we received excellent care each time.  The needs were minor, so we just paid for it.  Total expenses for three visits:  about $100 including some prescription costs.

Travel insurance.  Travel insurance was relatively inexpensive – about $150/month for the entire family [3].  We wanted it in case we needed emergency evacuation.  Travel insurance companies specialize in working with systems overseas.  We never needed it, but well worth the peace of mind.

Our US-based health insurance.  We decided to keep our US-based health insurance while we were gone, in case we needed to come back to the US for care.  Fortunately we never needed to.  Although very expensive (we paid about $1,200/month for our family), we would not have done anything differently.  We wanted to keep access to a medical system we know and trust.  That said, the manner we kept US health insurance was a little clunky, and we probably could have done it better.  Amy has her own plan as a self-employed person.  We just kept paying the ~$350/month.  That was fine.  The kids and I are on a plan offered through my employer (Bellingham School District).  I was informed that I could sign up for COBRA.  I did, and it cost about $900/month.  What I did not realize was the “COBRA” is considered a new plan.  So deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses reset.  Even though the health insurance was the same exact plan, with the same exact benefits, offered through the same exact provider, and I paid the same exact premiums, we ended up with a “reset” on deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses twice in 2017, once when COBRA kicked in, and once when we switched back to my non-COBRA plan (when the 2017-18 school year began).  Grrrrrr.  Next time, I will research this a bit better.  There are bound to be more economical options than what we did.

Step 4 – We figured out school for the kids

For many families around the world, leaving school for four months is difficult.  Some European citizens are even assessed fines for for taking their kids out of school.  As a teacher, I know how difficult it can be for a student to be gone from school for an extended period.  Fortunately for us, the US school system is more lenient.  Officially, we un-enrolled the kids from school.  That turned out to be pretty easy, though Mia lost much of her electronic cloud-based work in OneDrive when her account was deleted.

Our kids’ teachers were incredibly supportive.  Porter’s 4th grade teachers, in particular, were hugely helpful.  The amazing Ms. Herndon prepared four months’ worth of math curriculum for us to take as home school along the way, arranged in travel-friendly packets including assessments!

At first, I didn’t intend to do much formal home school.  We used challenges like, “You have $10 US to go buy a gift from this Indonesian market for your secret santa person.  How much Rupiah is that, and go buy something.”  The kids loved that sort of thing.

Here is a youtube link to Porter carrying out some “homeschool travel math.”

After a couple months on the road, we could tell that the kids needed some structure.  So, we designated a couple days a week as “home school days.”  The kids would be required to do some math and some writing, plus another activity they don’t do on their own.   Mia would be required to do some sort of PE, while Porter would read.  We started doing some more formal math lessons and practiced using the supplied curriculum.  I really enjoyed being my own kids’ teacher, and Porter commented that he thought he was learning a lot since there was a single adult holding him accountable.

Porter doing some arithmetic racing in Hoi An

Step 5 – Plan the logistics

Amy is our travel planner.  I could go on and on about how much work she did.  But, this post is not about that substantial effort.  In short, she planned the first 3 weeks including transport and lodging before we left.  For the rest of the time, we basically figured it out as we went.  We found out that with kids, we liked having places booked ahead, rather than just showing up and figuring it out.  The internet is amazing for research.  There are a myriad of excellent sites to find accommodation and travel.  Trip Advisor and individual blogs gave us lots of third-party reviews.  Generally, once a week we would sit still, preferably near a beach or pool, to plan out the next one or two weeks.

Reflect, and celebrate

Although $20,000 is a pretty big price tag, in retrospect it seems a bargain.  We experienced so much, yet saw only a few other families traveling with kids.  I kept asking myself, “How many families are at Disneyland right now, and how much would that trip cost?”   A little more Googling finds some answers – about $1100 per day according to Hip Munk [6].  I have nothing against Disneyland, but we lived with real elephants [3], we ziplined hundreds of feet over the tops of a real Gibbon-inhabited forest [4], and we met real people around the world [5].  And we did it for about one-tenth the price.  Just sayin’.

Links.  We do not receive any compensation for externally linked websites.

[1]  “The Indie Traveller” – A good site with lots of detailed information about costs of travel.

[2] Nepal trekking.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, April 2017.

[3] Bees Elephant Adventure.  Blogpost written by Mia Chesbrough, February 2017.

[4] The Gibbon Experience.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, February 2017.

[5] People are People.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, January 2017.

[6] World Nomads Travel Insurance.  We never needed to use the services, but they got pretty good reviews.  This company was fine for us, though we never needed to use their services.


Vietnam – sliding into love with a place

“Dad, check this out, it’s an underwater walkway!” called Porter.

His voice emerged from the darkness ahead, probing the mystery.  My thin headlamp beam could not find his body, but I could hear his eager sloshing.  At my feet, a few ripples lapped at the dirt floor, suggesting Porter’s movement.  I turned back towards Mia, and saw that she would need some coaxing.

Porter, ahead, on the water walk way
“Come on!” I beckoned, “Just imagine you are Harry following Dumbledore to look for a Horcrux!”

“I know!  That’s why I don’t want to go!” she retorted, using explanation points to her own effect.

Amy and I removed our shoes, leaving Mia with an option to sit alone in a dark, wet cave or follow along.  In a huff, she began to peel off her socks.

We slid our toes and feet into the water, and onto the stone path six inches below the surface.  Eerily, the path was only a few feet wide, and the sides dropped off into dark depths.  The ceiling was uneven, and close to our skulls.  Porter was in the lead; we had no guide.  Perfect. We were finding our own adventures, exploring an alien world.  The cave didn’t go far, and wasn’t even that spectacular, but the day turned out to be a turning point in my attitude about Vietnam.  Discovering new places, encountering discomfort, pushing through are some of the reasons we love traveling.

For about two weeks up to this point, travel fatigue had been ruling our days – leaving us a grumpy troupe.  Our senses had been dulled, our enthusiasm muted by a crust of cynicism.  We were in a funk.  But we fought it – owned it, talked about it, wallowed in it, made fun of it.  Gradually, little adventures and, (especially) encounters with wonderful people, scrubbed away my malaise.  I found myself laughing more, and seeing further.  I found myself falling for Vietnam.

This post a sketch of a few of our encounters and experiences, and an excuse to post a bunch of photos.

Ninh Binh – climbing past industrial tourism.

After Hanoi, we traveled to Ninh Binh, a rural area of Northern Vietnam characterized by towering limestone karsts and rice paddies.  Also, we hoped, a place less touristy than the more famous Halong Bay.

We arrived to gray skies, and a town getting choked by tourism.  Resorts and hotels lined the river, and the air was filled with construction noises – new resorts and hotels.  On the streets, tourists walked and lingered in long trails and packs.  Groups of thirty and forty cyclists at a time pedaled by our guesthouse, waiting for a guide to tell them to turn left or right.  The main tourist attraction was a river boat ride, rowed by a (usually female) guide, often with her feet.  We had seen brochure images in Hanoi: a little wooden boat with a triangle-hatted captain, sliding along a peaceful ribbon of stream, cutting through green fields, backdropped by limestone karst.  Beautiful.

But, when we stood at the boat launch, with the tranquil river slipping away, the picture had been copy-and-pasted ad nauseam.  Boats streamed in and out non-stop, the nose of one boatload of tourists within smelling distance of the tail of the next.Big money was pushing the postcard Ninh Binh boat ride to the masses.   This was not our style.  Porter and I called it “industrial tourism.”

Our family didn’t stay in one of the fancy hotels, and we skipped out on the boat ride.  Instead, we rented motorbikes and scooted to a nearby cave system where we found the underwater pathway.  We hiked up a trail to a nice viewpoint where we could watch the ant-like stream of boats.  We stayed in a lovely homestay that looked about as appealing as a concrete block.  But the family running the place were anything but industrial – they were like bright red farmers market tomatoes in August.  The smiles of the grandma and grandpa who couldn’t speak any English but always found a snack or an extra glass to share tea made us feel welcome in Ninh Binh, a perfect antidote to industrial tourism.

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The Knight bus to Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park

After Ninh Binh, we wanted to go about 500 km South to the huge cave systems of Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park.  Most travelers in Vietnam (who didn’t have their own motorbikes), were taking “night busses.” Every good travel adventure must have a crazy bus story, just like every country musician must have a song about a dog and a truck.  This journey turned out to be ours.  Although we rode the night bus, we’ve since been calling it our Knight bus, after the wild purple vehicle from Harry Potter.  Our ride felt about as crazy, but real Knight busses are rarely driven by people as charming as Stan.

This bus system is intented for tourists, although many Vietnamese also choose night busses.  The busses are tall, with room to hold bunkbeds, three across.  Each “bed” is actually just a reclining seat, ergonomically designed to accommodate a 5’6″ person with size 8 feet perfectly.

At 9 pm, our bus pulled up.  There were two employees on the bus – a driver and assistant.  Their barking, stoccato commands quickly let us know told us these were a couple Mr. Angry Pants.

“You, over here!”  directing me to a bunk that was already occupied by a passenger’s bag.

“Kid, you go there!” telling Porter to go to the front while Amy and I were moving to the back.

Fortunately, there was also a Vietnamese tour guide who knew how to deal with the situation diplomatically.  He respectfully engaged the assistant like a matador dealing with an angry bull – a patient head nod, a few kind words back, a smile, and actions opposite the commands.  Along with the helpfulness of a few other travelers, we re-arranged the seats and were able to get beds near each other.  The bus lurched forward before anyone had settled in.

I levered myself into the small foot box, and laid my head back just beyond the headrest, and prepared for a night of no sleep.  Our ride was supposed to take 8 hours, but our driver must have been getting paid by the mile.  Because, he drove that bus like he was trying out for Fast and Furious.  We felt like we were strapped to the end of a windshield wiper in a proper Northwest downpour.   For the entire journey the bus swerved back-and-forth, sloshing us to either side of our seats.  Nobody slept until about 2 am, when our bodies finally grew sea legs.

We were supposed to arrive at Phong-Nha at 5 am, so when the interior lights switched on full blast at 3:30 am, we were a bit confused.  I checked my map.  Sure enough, we were in Phong Nha.  It was dark and misty outside.  The assistant ushered us off, leaving a small group of travelers befuddled, traumatized and huddled together, in a small mountain town, with nothing but a cool drizzle for shelter.

We stumbled down to our hotel, and around the back looking for a place to just rest out the remainder of the darkness.  We found some deck chairs around a pool area that were not totally wet.  So, we all curled up under cotton sarongs and waited for the light.  It took us the rest of the day to recover, and we barely mustered the energy to go for a 2 km run and moto ride to the river for drinks.

The next day, we got to explore the park, and the caves there.  WOW!  Amy and Porter have already described the Dark Cave well, so I won’t say much about that.  But the next day we went to Paradise Cave.  It was astounding.  I’ve included a few pictures.

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Hoi An

After the magic of Phong Nha, we caught an early morning bus ride to Hoi An, a small city in central Vietnam.  We arrived mid-morning, and were immediately surrounded by guesthouse owners and taxi drivers.  We typically don’t go with the first wave of service providers, preferring a little time and space before making any decisions.  But, one woman had a kind style.  She would give us a little sales pitch, then step back to let us think about it.  She spoke very good English, didn’t seem too pushy, and agreed to pay for half of our transport back to her homestay.  We decided to go have a look.

Once we agreed, we needed some transport.  No taxis around, just a few pushy motor scooter drivers, and the nice lady (also on her scooter).  We needed at least three.  I vaguely agreed to a price (how do you negotiate when you don’t know how far you have to go??!!), and off we went.  Here is a really great dad moment:  I jumped on the back of a scooter first, leading the charge, as men do.  Before I knew it, Amy and the kids were who-knows-where and “my guy” was flying through the traffic of Hoi An.  Nice work John, I had my bags and wallet, and had just left my wife and kids behind in somewhere, Vietnam, to ride with someone, to somewhere.  A bit unnerving.  Luckily, years ago I married well, and Amy sensibly made sure that the kids were tucked in behind the woman, and she had her driver stay in sight of the kids.


We arrived at the homestay, and found it to be simple and clean. The lady, named Dung (pronounced Yuom) ended up being one of our favorite people in Vietnam.  She let me know that I way over-paid to scooter drivers, but she paid half anyways.  Then she called them and gave them the what-for.  Yeah!

Dung was an incredibly lovely, hard-working and helpful host.  We loved her and her family.  Her kids, Mickey and Sophie, were outgoing darlings.  One day, Porter was doing homeschool, and Mickey showed interest in his work.  I gave her a couple math problems, which she enthusiastically got after.  She and Porter ended up in math races.  I told Porter that I wouldn’t share who won.

We loved Hoi An.  It is a medium-sized city, with small streets and quieter traffic.  It is a town of artisan and craftspeople – we visited tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers and of course, chefs.  Pretty much every day, Dung would give us a good tip on a place to visit or a food to try.  We grabbed bicycles (free to use from our homestay) and rode around town or the surrounding countryside.  We ate delicious Bahn Mi.  Porter and I carved a wood bowl by hand.  We had clothing tailored, and shoes cobbled.  We spent nearly a week, and on the last night Yuom made us a big dinner, to celebrate our friendship.

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A farewell to Vietnam

Our last stop in Vietnam was Jungle Beach, a quiet beach resort in South-central Vietnam.  It was a beautiful place – bamboo huts, a deserted beach, a jungle background and communal meals.  We met great people, who were traveling off the beaten path, no wonder we liked them:

Wendy, ziggy and Renault – a mom, son, and friend from France traveling for 3 months.  Ziggy and Porter had a good time playing in waves and sand together.  

Rico and Sophie – traveling partners from germany and Jamaica.  They were a blast and rico helped us for up a hemos ultimate on the. 

Mark and Nadia – traveling the length of Vietnam  by motorbike, from the north to the south.  Mark told great travel stories.  We enjoyed hiking up to a waterfall with them.  Then, at marks suggestion, porter he and I did some “boy stuff,” clamboring down the stream es instead of the trail.  Porter caught the spirit and suggested we go back via rock scrambling on the beach.  It look us one hour (rather than 10 minures on a road,  long, but awesome.

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We had arrived in Vietnam in a funk.  But gradually, our explorations, and encounters with wonderful people won us over.  It is a land with many faces, and with deep mystery.  Many parts seemed undecipherable to us: stories and images with clear purpose, but unknown meanings.  The traffic moved deliberately, but where?  Why is Mr. Angry Pants acting so angry?  What are all of those extra little accents and question marks on top of and below each letter in the language?  How do you say “beautiful?” or “delicious?”  Huh?  Again?  How far does this cave go back?  How do you eat this?  What do you think of Americans?

Every corner of Vietnam had a new, surprising view and voice.  It’s a vast, diverse country, filled with a sometimes intense, always vibrant, people.  A people eager to show off their beautiful landscape, a people eager to engage with a weary family, a people eager to make their mark on the world.  Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people, crept into our hearts.



Vietnam: Hanoi to Ninh Binh and Mr. Angry Pants

We arrived in Hanoi, in a travel slump.  Vietnam was our sixth new country in three months.  We weren’t excited to learn a new “hello-thank you-good bye-delicious-beautiful-I am ten years old” vocabulary, or eat a new food.  Our tongues and stomachs have been tickled by Southeast Asian cuisine, but the food we find the most nourishing is shared with other people (or elephants).  Since the intimacy of the Gibbon Experience and BEEs (elephants), we have met many people, but haven’t really connected with anyone.  We missed home, friends and pets.

But, we were landing in Hanoi, so we psyched ourselves up for a big Asian city.  The drive away from the airport seemed promising – interesting buildings, old French-colonial style, narrow and tall, with colorful fronts and decorated balconies.  The traffic was exotic, with a flow that seemed to follow the laws of fluid dynamics rather than engineering.  Motorbikes, pedestrians, cyclos, cars, bicyclists slid past one another, like dense tropical fish over a coral reef.  Every player was purposeful, perhaps a feeling we were searching for.

Hanoi streets


Our taxi driver, though, cast a cloud over our initial enthusiasm.  He was a pushy, impatient man, unlike most people we’ve met (both in Vietnam and elsewhere).  Once we were safely in his car, he told us the fare would be higher than what we had agreed on originally.  He and I argued, but in the end I submitted, as I dislike conflict and sometimes doubt my membership in the subphylum vertebrata.  Amy’s instinct for thriftiness is quickly becoming a family trait, so once I agreed to the higher price I had to look straight ahead to avoid six piercing eyes and three furrowed brows.

We reached the street of our guest house, which was too narrow for the taxi to drive down, so the driver stopped the car in the middle of the road, impounding a long stream of hooting scooters and cars.  He turned to my and said,

“You pay!”

I had only large denomination bills from the ATM in the airport.  Mistake.  ALWAYS carry small change – as soon as you get big bills, break them down at the nearest convenience store.

“Do you have change?” I asked the driver.

“No!” he barked back, like a slap.

“Small change?” I asked again, wondering if we were having a communication breakdown.  This time I showed a large bill from my wallet.

“No!” he staccato berated me again.

Next, he totally shocked me by reaching into my wallet (which I held in my left hand) and literally shuffling through my cash looking for what he wanted!  I was momentarily stunned.  I pushed away his hand (yes, I actually had to physically remove his hand), closed my wallet, got out of the car, made sure all luggage and family members were accounted for, then ran across the street (remembering to not get hit by a bus in my slightly frazzled mind) into a nearby store to get change through buying a bag of tortilla chips.  I returned to the driver and paid him.  He sped off in a huff.  Not even a “Thank you,” or “Good bye.”

I’d become so used to the kind, open hearted people of Southeast Asia, that it was a bit of a shock to meet a jerk.  We’ve realized that “angry, demanding and pushy” is certain archetype of person in Vietnam.  We’ve only met a few, but they leave an impression, I now refer to his tribe as “Mr. Angry Pants.”  On the flipside, the tortilla chips I quickly bought were some of the best we’ve had – crisp, thick and salty!

Most people we met in Hanoi were friendly.  Despite Mr. Angry Pants, we were quite taken with the city.  The traffic, as I said, is fascinating. There is purpose and structure behind it, but it is an organic structure.  The streets of the old quarter are tight, grimey, overhung by a canopy of electrical wires and business signs – “photocopies,” “Pho,” “Bun chien,” “massage,” “guesthouse.”  Every sidewalk is cluttered by parked motorbikes and people squatting on little red, plastic stools (always red!), eating some sort of street noodle dish, or drinking green tea and spitting sunflower seeds.  The place feels like a messy child’s closet after he tidies it using the “stuff and slam the door” method.

We had landed in the morning, so our first culinary experience would be lunch.  Woo-hoo, Vietnamese food!  We stopped at the first crowded collection of stools.  A gregarious man ushered us inside to a cramped room with three long tables surrounded by, you guessed it, little red stools.  The floor was tile, covered in used straws, a few bones and wet napkins plastered to the floor.  Every seat was taken by Vietnamese (I assume) young people chatting and chewing.  Vietnam seems a quick country, where movement is favored over lingering, so it was only a few moments before some stools became available.  We were invited to sit down around a pile of bones and dirty dishes.  The detritus was swept away to who knows where, with more than a bit falling to the ground.  We sat down, but no menus.  People were getting food, but we couldn’t figure out how.  Huh.  This is one of those uncomfortable traveling moments that was awesome before kids, but with mouths to feed, my criteria has shifted.  Amy and I looked at each other, smiled, and decided to stay put.

Fortunately for us, sitting right next to us were three Vietnamese girls who could speak English.  They actually suggested we go elsewhere for Pho, but also told us this place was famous for noodle bowls, or bún ngan.  We went for it, and had tasty, but very non-Western some-kind-of-meat and some-kind-of-thickish-noodle soup bowls.  Mia and Porter were paralyzed, and did not touch the food.  We didn’t even push for a “courtesy bite.”  On the way out, the cook noticed that our kids didn’t eat.  She waggled a duck head at them with a big smile.  Mia basically shrieked, giving the hoped-for reaction, and laugh.  Mia was a great sport about it.

We spent a couple days wandering Hanoi, marveling at the pace.  Amy started making Mia and Porter navigate us by paper map.  It took a long time, and they were a little annoyed, but Porter enjoyed the challenge while Mia put up with it.  Even though I have a app (which is awesome for navigation), you just can’t beat old technology for learning new skills.


Amy helping Mia and Poe learn to read and navigate maps

Story update March 13:  We were in Hanoi at the beginning of March, and I am actually posting this mid-March, two weeks later.  Mia has turned into an excellent map navigator. In Hoi An, she has grown to enjoy the role of navigator from the back of Amy’s bike.  Whenever we reach an intersection, say “the corner of Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van,” I would pull out my phone for assistance.  Mia would see me and scold,

“No, put that away!  I am navigating!” she commands.  Not nearly as angry as Mr. Angry Pants, but just as bossy.  Another family trait I love to see emerge.  Her routes tend to be wrong according to my app, but with much less traffic and more pleasant.  

Back in Hanoi, we enjoyed the “Women’s Museum” and water puppet theater.  I found real coffee (wow!) although the local brew, Bia Hanoi, did not crack my top five SE Asian beers.  Too bad.

Amy and I debated where to go after Hanoi.  As I said previously, we were travel fatigued, and choosing where to go next was getting more and more laborious.  Everywhere sounded beautiful but touristy.  Ha Long Bay and Sapa are beautiful places in the North, but they were supposed to be cold and drizzly, and very popular (touristy).  We opted for warmer climes, south to Ninh Binh.  To get us there, Amy eschewed the pricey, “we’ll book you ticket for you” English-language signs, and ran to the train station, where she bought us tickets directly.  Success!  The train was an enjoyable four hour journey, costing us each $2.75.  Yeah baby.

We arrived in Ninh Binh (actually we stayed in a little town nearby called Tom Cok), glad to be in a smaller town.  We were staying in a guest house run by Mr. Gia, but really we just called him grandpa.  He is married to, of course, grandma.  Both of them were absolutely lovely!  They could not speak our language, but yearned to communicate with us (fortunately, for practical reasons, their daughter could speak English).  Every time we saw either grandma or grandpa, they would chat earnestly at us in Vietnamese.  We both would gesture broadly and cast butchered bits of English and Vietnamese words into the air between us, our communication taking shape for a moment before disappearing into the void of senselessness, like soap bubbles floating to pop.  After a few rounds of zero understood communication, we would all burst into a fit of laughter and go about our business.  Of course, they loved our kids.

On the second day in Ninh Binh, we ran into Mr. Angry Pants #2.  We rented motorbikes to go check out some caves nearby.  As we approached the trailhead, a guy walks out into the road with a semi-official looking uniform, holds up his hand and commands us to “Stop!”

He waved us towards some parking on the side of the road.

“No thank you,” I said, staring straight ahead, “we are just looking.”

“No!”  (Does Mr. Angry Pants know any other words?)  “You are here!”  Pointing to his little parking lot.

I lightly turned the throttle to move past him, but he grasped my handle bar and started turning my bars towards his parking area.  “Here!  Free for you!”

Free?  No way.  Grab my handlebars?  No way.  Again, I was taken aback by this guy’s audacity.  I pulled my handle bars away from his fingers, and buzzed onwards.  Amy said as soon as he realized that his bullying wasn’t going to work, his eyes immediately left me and scanned for his next victim coming down the path.  We were relieved to enter a gate where a very nice ticket booth lady showed us where we could park for free, and how to buy a ticket to go to the cave.  After speaking to several other travelers, we realized that Mr. Angry Pants’s sales tactics, though distasteful, were not without success.  Many people had parked at his “parking lot,” and paid the one dollar or so “fee.”

We’ve now encountered three other Mr. Angry Pants in addition to these first two.  It seems to be a personality type, but I have no idea why or if it really is a thing.  But, we’ve spoken with other travelers who know exactly what we are talking about.  As is often the case when I talk with other people about my own challenging perspectives, my judgement of Angry Pants’ behavior has become less harsh.

In particular, I spent some time speaking with Etienne, a French-Canadian man who used to work for the “Fish Police” in Vancouver, BC.  He has been travelling for, get this, five straight years!!!!!!  He is very interesting, and seems intent to just understand different countries and cultures around the world.  Even after five years of travel (his longest stay is two months in Rome), he still woke up early to stroll the markets of Hoi An; diving into who the Vietnamese people are.

Etienne also had some stories about encounters with a few Mr. Angry Pants.  But on the whole, he told me that he was just surprised that there were not more.

“After what they’ve been through, and after what other people have done to them, I am shocked that they are not more angry, or that there are not more angry Vietnamese.”  He opined.

Interesting.  In my Pacific Northwest, nearly Canadian mental sensibility, I see no need for brash bullies in this world.  But, I have never lived through war, I’ve never had my homeland invaded by one country after another.  I’ve rarely had my freedom trampled upon.  Except when a bully reaches into my wallet or pushes my handlebars against my will.  It sucks, it feels bad.  It makes me angry, like my pants are too tight.  Point taken.

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