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Vietnam Travel Advice

By Margie Hershey

Margie Hershey offers very helpful advice for for adoptive parents traveling to Viet Nam.

Here are my thoughts about our adoption trip in 2001, with updating in 2007 from a more recent trip:

We found the packing lists on the Adopt Vietnam web site to be very helpful! We stayed about two weeks in Viet Nam. I brought about 4 changes of clothes, plastic bags to keep the clothes in (after they had been sprayed with bug repellant; see below!), two big packages of saltines plus a small jar of peanut butter (which was really useful when we had the munchies but weren't ready to go out to a restaurant) and a pair of Tevas (which I wore most of the time) and a pair of sneakers (mainly for the planes). I carried two suitcases -- one of which was entirely filled with medical supplies and toys for the orphanage - and our oldest daughter Katie carried one. Because we went to the orphanage on our second day in Viet Nam and unloaded all the donations and gifts for officials, we had lots of room in our bags to bring purchases home. We bought lacquerware wall hangings, trays, and boxes as gifts and for our home, embroidered and ink paintings, ao dai for everybody, and my own personal favorites: two Vietnamese musical instruments (a big kind of vertical xylophone and a stringed instrument). The TAX store in Saigon was terrific. It was in District 1, a couple of blocks from the Rex Hotel. It closed soon after for renovation and I don't know whether it has reopened.

Here's my own top ten list of the things I most appreciated having with me:

1. Two CoolMax t-shirts. We were lucky enough to have what the natives called "cool" weather (low 90s) in Da Nang and Saigon the whole time, and the only day I was really hot was the day I wore a regular t-shirt. Otherwise, we've had much hotter and stickier weather in Bloomington! I got the CoolMax t-shirts on the Web; they have a "wicking" action that draws moisture away from your skin.

2. A travel wallet for each of us. I found one at Wal-Mart but Katie got two much better ones at a travel store. These were beige wallets with a couple of compartments, made out of a light canvass-like fabric, that were worn around the waist using a thin, comfortable strap. We left most of our money, our passports and documents in our hotel safe and carried our Vietnamese money, a bunch of dollar bills, and color-xeroxed copies of our passports and visas with us in the wallets. On a later trip to Saigon and Da Nang, it was a lot hotter and perspiration got to the wallets, so we learned to keep the money and paper in plastic sandwich bags inside the wallets.

3. Bug spray. We sprayed our clothes with Permethrin before we left and kept them in plastic bags from then on, as our travel clinic suggested. Then we sprayed our feet and lower legs and our exposed arms with a 20% DEET spray each day. We also took Malarone (a malaria preventive), which was great. I had heard too many concerns about Larium but I felt that we needed some anti-malarial, and our travel clinic recommended Malarone. You take it once a day, starting the day before you arrive in country, and for seven days after you get back. The only side effect we found was that if we took it with a light meal instead of a full meal, we could feel just a little light-headed. No big deal, though. Malaria is not a major concern if you stay in the big cities, but for my family, I think it was better to be protected; malaria is a very nasty disease.

4. A Vietnamese-to-English-to-Vietnamese dictionary. Because Hannah was 11, we wanted to communicate as well as we could. I knew no Vietnamese when we left, but I was surprised to find out how many phrases I was able to pick up. (I am absolutely hopeless at tonal languages, so I never even tried to learn Vietnamese before coming!) And I found that my use of even a very few Vietnamese phrases (hello, thanks very much, stuff like that) produced really appreciative responses from a lot of people!

5. A Polaroid camera. Hannah lived in an orphanage full of kids from age 5-16. We took lots of Polaroids of Hannah's friends, so that they could have photos of themselves with her, and they just loved the photos and watching them develop! We brought two rolls of Polaroid film (and could have used more) and 15 rolls of regular film, all of which we used. We wanted to make sure we had a thorough record of Hannah's Da Nang, so she can remember it. Alternatively, if you're staying near your child's orphanage for a few days, you could take regular or digital photos and have them developed overnight. It isn't expensive.

6. Bottled water. We didn't bring any with us -- it's readily available there -- and we never used the camping water purification bottle that we had brought (we just didn't need it; bottled water was everywhere). We used bottled water for everything. I was determined not to get sick -- we had enough else to worry about -- so we not only drank bottled water, we rinsed our toothbrushes in it, and we washed our faces in it! In both hotels, the shower had a hand-held shower head, so I didn't have to worry about swallowing water while showering.

7. Along the same line, I brought five big packages of alcohol-based wipes, which we used to wash our hands. Our hotel in Saigon had a big sign above the sink saying "City Water Is Not Drinkable," and we took them at their word, including whatever residue would remain on our hands after washing them!

8. A Yahoo account. E-mail was a real lifeline for me while we were there. My husband and two of our other children remained at home, and it was so important to me to stay in daily touch with them, and with our friends and colleagues. The Yahoo account worked very well and consistently, and I had no problems at all getting and sending e-mail from our two hotels. On our second trip, I used an Internet café every day. It was incredibly cheap - often about the equivalent of 50 cents for an hour of e-mailing. (I was fascinated to see that the manager of the Internet café, surrounded by very up-to-date computers, kept track of the time we spent by putting a post-it note on our computer stating the time we started, and using an abacus to calculate the rate! I guess it was a cheaper form of accounting than using one of their own computers!) When I got home, I downloaded copies of all the e-mails we sent and received on each trip. It was a great record of our experiences in Viet Nam.

9. Lots of photos we brought of our family and home. We gave copies to Hannah's extended foster family, to Da Nang officials -- I don't think they had a clue what Indiana was like (now there's a shock...), and I think they felt much better about letting Hannah go after seeing photos of us and pictures of the landscape and schools.

10. Lots of smiles, especially when doing our best to give the appearance of eating things that we had no intention of digesting, but which were kindly offered to us pretty often! Above all, it's so important to be respectful of our hosts and their culture. So we were careful to wear long pants and jumpers, bow our heads to anyone our age or older, and follow the lead of the people we were with.

What we didn't need: We took way too much money. We changed our money at our hotels; changing a hundred dollar bill gets you a better exchange rate than smaller denominations do. We didn't take any travelers' checks because we had heard it's harder to find a place to exchange them, and you do pay a premium (about 2 1/2 to 3%) for paying with a credit card.

The traffic in Da Nang was fascinating and entertaining but not at all threatening, and I really had no problem with the traffic in Saigon. (Trying to get across the street at Indiana University during class-changing time is much worse.) Nor did I run into any pickpockets or any other crime. We spent most of our time in District 1 (downtown), and we were never approached by anything more worrisome than a few rather lethargic beggars plus a five-year-old street salesgirl who would put any telemarketer to shame.

Some additional thoughts:

A lot of Vietnamese expatriates coming back into Saigon had a paper with their name and address on it, protected with plastic, taped on the side of their suitcase. We decided to do that, too; it was a real help when we were in a sea of black suitcases. We also put a cheap plastic belt around each suitcase, just to discourage pilfering at the airport.

Taxis are cheap, but be sure you know the fare before you start. If you have trouble explaining your destination, have someone at your hotel write it down for the taxi driver before you leave. Keep a copy of your hotel's card in your travel wallet, for the same purpose. Cyclos (bicycles with a cart in front) are fun to use, but be especially cautious to get an estimate of the fare up front. Cyclo drivers are often viewed as somewhat "shady" in Viet Nam, and we were threatened once by a cyclo driver to get us to greatly (and way unreasonably) increase our payment.

Don't hesitate to get out of the hotel and see the cities. I understand why some families just want to stay in a European-style hotel and use room service. But they miss SO much that way. Babies and small children are amazingly adaptable creatures; take the time to walk around, people-watch, and give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with your child's birth country as well as your child.

This article was updated in 2007. Margie adopted her 11 year old daughter from Danang Vietnam in 2001.

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