The first challenge was being dropped off across the road from the hotel.
We found out later that Ho Chi Minh city has 11 million people and 5 million motorbikes; which explained the criss-crossing of bikes all round us, furiously beeping horns and just zooming about unpredictably. The trick is to basically just step out and hope for the best- much more easily done without big backpacks and/or children clinging on to you for dear life- but we made it.
The Hotel was a gift from the Gods. No staff here- just family who all pitch in and happily chat away in either English or Vietnamese, pinching the boys' cheeks and generally just being lovely.
In order to cut down costs, we chose not to pay for a visa to Vietnam and so we had only 14 days to cover the whole country. Bearing this in mind, we got on with it and booked a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels the next day.
The tour involved being driven for 3 hours to the outskirts of the city, but this passed easily as the impact of the 'American' war was explained to us by the guide whose father and uncle fought on different sides. We stopped at a lacquerware workshop on the way. It was good to see a social enterprise at work which involved employing Agent Orange victims to make the goods. It was all very expensive, but we needed a wee stop anyway...
The tunnels were incredible when we got there, we watched actual propaganda footage of the Vietnamese living around the village of Cu Chi at the time of the war. It was basically a countryside weekend retreat/ farmland that got bombed to buggery. Despite having no skills for war these people protecting their land were fierce and resourceful, recycling the bombs and artillery that the Americans dropped and sending them back.
The tunnels brought the war alive to the children who were fascinated, running around the jungle and trying to answer all the questions the guide asked. This home schooling (or world/roadschooling or whatever you want to call it) started to make sense and our children couldn't get enough information. It was sweet relief after months of clashing with them to do their maths/ writing/ reading/ whatever- finally here was some learning that they were passionate about.
We were pretty tired after the tour but luckily we were right on the doorstep of the backpacker district (albeit down a quiet alley), so didn't need to venture out far for food. Or for GoGo bars, if that is your thing- not that our boys seemed to notice.
A visit to the War Remnants Museum was next on our list- and we approached this with care. We are keen to teach the boys the real cost of war- but not in scarring them for life.
We read on Tripadvisor about the exhibits, and having visited 10 years previously, I tried to visualise it from a child's perspective.
Mike and I took them in and were immediately greeted by a landmine survivor- well, the education couldn't be more authentic now, could it?
We walked around the ground floor to see the Propaganda and Protest exhibits- which was moving. With so much going on in the world at the moment, it seemed important that our boys can see real examples of how ordinary people put pressure on their governments and changed the course of the war. People power is a thing, and it's real. Look!
In the meatime, one of us went to the first floor to quickly scout it out- to see what was suitable. We realised quickly that we wanted them to see it all, apart from Agent Orange and the Guillotine displays so we made an agreement with them in advance that when we asked them to look at the ground- they did. No messing around. They knew that if we couldn't trust them then they wouldn't be going up and it would be a shame to miss out on so much good stuff for fear of them seeing a challenging picture.
We found out that there is actually an Air Con children's playroom on the third floor- perfect space to hang to whilst parents to tag team the more tricky exhibits.
The children dealt with it all very calmly, talking about what they were seeing and reflecting on why things might have happened that way. What would we have done if we were in that picture? How would we have felt? We all walked out via the outdoor display of historic US military tanks, planes and helicopters, trying to process what we had seen.
We realised we had missed a display- avoiding the guillotine exhibit, we headed for the tiger cage display where we found a colony of bats living in the roof. If you go there, make sure you look up! They are fascinating and it was a fun end to a very heavy morning.
On the whole, we got a lot out of Ho Chi Minh city, learning so much about Vietnam's history as it came to life before our eyes. It was a challenging experience though, just in avoiding traffic and our 4 days could have happily been 2 without any heartache. We ultimately enjoyed it though, even if we did find it mentally exhausting. Hoi An would be a welcome change.
Where we stayed:
Banana Leaf Hotel, 25 GBP per night. Great value, quiet location, clean and friendly.
What we did:
Cu Chi Tunnel Tour (booked with hotel) 5 GBP per person for half day tour (8am- 3pm)
War Remnants Museum, 52p per person.
Reunification Palace- a trip into retro glamour and a setting of historical importance. 52p per person
Fine Art Museum, Ho Chi Minh- fun for me, but the boys weren't too keen! 35p per adult.
Ben Thanh Market- Crazy hectic but fun and a great place to people watch as you slurp your Pho.
How we got around:
UBER doesn't operate so we used Grab which is similar and essential if you have a smartphone.
Flight from Ho Chi Minh to Hot An (Danang) was 20 GBP. We chose this as opposed to 16 GBP each for a 12 hour bus ride.
Dangers and Annoyances:
Usually we used Grab, but one time we used a taxi as there were lots around but the driver tried to charge us 22 GBP for a 10 minute trip! We didn't pay it, we challenged it and he apologised saying he need to do some more sums to give us the correct price...! We paid 6GBP in the end but the same journey cost 90p in a Grab the next day...
The streets are very busy and confusing- couple this with the poverty, scams and crimes are rife. Mike was using his iPhone for Google Maps one day and an old guy stopped his scooter to tell us to put away the phone. Snatch and grab is common. We thanked him and used good old fashioned paper map from then on.
Walking around is very hard- the motorbikes are everywhere, the pavements are full of market stalls and parked bikes! You pretty much have to walk in the road and its mental. this can be very tiring and stressful so give yourself lots of sit downs and breaks from the craziness. We have been on the road for 6 months, but Ho Chi Minh wore us out with the stress of keeping the children safe.
To cross the road, you have to just step out and hope for the best- but often bikes come out of nowhere.
Hotels- book in advance and get the hotel to collect you from the airport if you can. We heard of people being taken to the wrong place. There are many scams so play it safe in the big cities.
Food- for us, Vietnamese food was difficult to navigate as the Vietnamese are omnivores and our children aren't too adventurous. Staying in the backpacker district meant we cold eat the local food with English description, so we knew what we were getting. We also ate Indian food and even pizza when we wanted familiarity; we liked the choice that this area gave us, even though it was not 'real' Vietnam.
Museums all close for lunch! Check out opening times before you go to avoid disappointment.