0508102224 01There's a tap on the window. Outside there is a man in gumboots holding a hammer in one hand and a bag of potatoes in the other hand. He has a wild look in his eye and he shouts something un-intelligible. We can't hear him over the sound of the V8 engine, but we both know he's up to something a bit nutty.There's a tap on the window. Outside there is a man in gumboots holding a hammer in one hand and a bag of potatoes in the other hand. He has a wild look in his eye and he shouts something un-intelligible. We can't hear him over the sound of the V8 engine, but we both know he's up to something a bit nutty.

I'm in Andover, a little over an hour from London inspecting a Winnebago when Potato Man attacks. Ian who owns the RV is horrified. This nut job from the camp ground is upset that Ian has started the engine and is making a bit of noise. He tries the hammer potatoes into the exhaust pipe, but the exhaust is too large and his potatoes too small. Something tells me this is life story.... big ambitions, small results.

The search for a vehicle has been one frustration after another. Most vehicles I look at are nothing like they appear online. Finally this particular Winnebago is worth a decent look. Ian has owned this vehicle for three years and lived in it full time. It's clear he is fastidious about maintaining it. It is in excellent condition for it's age. But it's just so BIG!

It's while Ian is showing the motor and on-board generator that the Great Potato Incident of Andover occurs. Ian is clearly shaken up and embarrassed. He shouldn't be, he did nothing wrong.... the bloke is just drunk and nutty.... and he's wearing gum boots!!

I've spent the last week driving endless english roads in search of a good cheap car or campervan. Some have been sold before I arrive, others were not worth the effort. One looked great until I started the engine. It rattled like nothing I've ever heard before. The salesman seemed unconcerned that I had just driven for 40 minutes into country side. 

Despite the constant frustration the days in between the car search are great. London is a fascinating, busy, cosmopolitan city. The city is teeming with people. If you imagine an Australian city at peak hour on the busiest day of the year, then you'll have a pretty good idea of what this place is like.

On just our second day we wandered through Hyde Park and its spring gardens into St James Park. At the bottom of the hill we saw a crowd that had gathered and realised we had stumbled onto the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

The square was overflowing with tourists snapping pictures with their digital cameras and we simply joined in. James scored the very best of views up on my shoulders. Unlike Vietnam where everyone seems to be 5 foot 3 inches tall, London has it's fair share of people 6 feet and over. Jo I think missed most of it and Emily saw the backs and legs of quite a few people.

Since the start of the trip we have walked more than ever before. The other options are limited, confusing and a bit expensive. London Cabs are great but costly. The bus network is extensive as is the underground, but trying to decipher trains with a three year old shouting" Are we goin' on that train, dad?" over and over in your ear makes it hard to concentrate. Walking is the easiest answer.

We have walked to Madame Toussaud's, The West End, Regent Street, the Palace and the Houses of Parliament. Not to mention hours in Hyde Park.

Driving is an option, but again it's expensive. London has a Congestion Tax of eight pounds a day. The aim is to deter people from driving into the city.... I can only assume it doesn't work very well. The roads are clogged and one afternoon took me an hour to do 5 Miles through London traffic. 

It's very different to Hanoi and Saigon for very obvious reason, but in some ways it's very, very similar. There's the crush of people on the street, the dense traffic and the lack of personal space to name a few similarities.
Then again Saigon and Hanoi were both around 30 degrees and stewing in the tropical humidity. London is 10 degrees with lazy north wind pushing in from the North Pole. Welcome to England" it seems to whisper as it cuts through my clothing.

In the end we have decided to buy a car and caravan. The convenience of not having to drag our home with us everywhere, and the sheer bulk of a decent sized camper have virtually made the decision for us.

We've finally found a car... now we just have to find a van!

By Jo McInnes

I think Steve's and my views of Vietnam are somewhat different. Although I'm glad I went, it was certainly too long. By the end I was fed-up with the pollution and the unpleasant, assaulting smell of garbage mixed with cooking food as we walked along the street. But most of all I was dead sick of people grabbing my children! Personal space isn't a high priority in Vietnam.I think Steve's and my views of Vietnam are somewhat different. Although I'm glad I went, it was certainly too long. By the end I was fed-up with the pollution and the unpleasant, assaulting smell of garbage mixed with cooking food as we walked along the street. But most of all I was dead sick of people grabbing my children! Personal space isn't a high priority in Vietnam.

Like Steve, I too got to have my own little excursions; not often though. Partly because I didn't want to leave everyone else in the hotel room and partly because I didn't enjoy it that much.

 On my main excursion I got hopelessly lost. I had a map, but none of the street names on the map are spelt the same as they are on the signs - a little frustrating. My sense of direction isn't great at the best of times but My End to the Vietnam Tripwandering through a maze of streets where you can't see the horizon to get some perspective on things doesn't help.

I ended up halfway across the city before I thought it best to get some help. My choice of assistance was a nice young girl who could only say "I don't speak english". We tried anyway. I gave her the map, and after turning it around about 10 times she finally found where we were and pointed me in the right direction. I was off, feeling a little more confident, only to get lost again about five blocks later. It was ok now though as I new someone would be able to decipher the map. I had to get help about five times before I made it back home. I must say, I actually enjoyed this excursion and was quite proud of myself for finding my way back without having a meltdown.

My last straw for Vietnam though; my "get me out of here!!" moment came when we were waiting at the airport in Hanoi to fly out. By this point I was ready to leave. My stomach and the kids stomach's had been playing up for a large part of our trip and I had become obsessed with finding food that wasn't going to exacerbate the problem. James would say "I want ice-cream" and I would say "no mate, I'll buy you ice-cream in England".

We got through customs and decided we'd have something to eat while we waited for the plane. This couldn't be too bad I thought - it's an international airport. They've got to have good hygiene standards? We found a cafe, sat down and ordered - pizza, toasted sandwiches, orange juice etc. The waitress left and I just happened to be sitting and staring at the wall deep in contemplation, probably about the coming plane flight. Next thing, I spy a mouse shimmying down the wall between a pane of glass and temporary wall from a shop outside!!

I couldn't believe what I as seeing, I blinked and shook my head but it was still there. Then it disappeared. The waitress came over to give us our drinks and I told her. She just laughed. Our food arrived. I couldn't look at it. I don't think I'll ever be able to eat a Margarita Pizza again!

So there it goes. The Vietnam part is over. 10 days turned into 23. At times it truly felt like it was never going to end. On the whole though it was a great experience and the people were very friendly, if not a bit over friendly.

Now then, lets see what the UK and Europe has in store for us!

"It's like nothing is ever finished", Jo said as we travelled to Ha Long Bay. It is a perfect description of Vietnam. Nothing ever does seem to get finished. Everywhere we look something is either being built or torn down. Something is being left to rot in the tropical heat or is being redone.

The inability to put in simple terms how this country feels had been bothering me, but Jo had summed it up in a short, simple observation. Buildings are constantly being worked on, footpaths are either cracked, crazed and uneven, or being torn up and repaved. Roads are either excellent or a goat track, sometimes changing within meters from one to the other and back again. The place just doesn't feel finished.

It's not everywhere of course. When you get out into the country side it's everything the tourist brochures promise. There are acres of rice paddies with beautiful traditional buildings. There are cattle and chickens and ducks everywhere, and every available metre of ground is being used to produce some sort of crop. The mountains provide a picture perfect backdrop. It is obvious that these rural communities have been here for generations and they are settled and established. 

But the larger towns and cities are different. They seem to be constantly under review.

We went to Ha Long Bay to get out of Hanoi for a few days while we wait for a flight . Ha Long is perhaps one of the best known places in Vietnam. The bay is filled with almost two thousand limestone islands that seem to burst from the sea. The bays and coves have floating villages and floating fish markets, and throughout the channels a flotilla of tourist boats chug along taking people like us to all the popular sites. The pace of life here is different.

It's in Ha Long that I have come to realise that I don't know how I feel about this country. I loved Saigon for its busy nature and steamy streets. I enjoyed Hoi An for the resort town that it is. Hanoi is a sophisticated city & Ha Long has a lovely feel with its night markets & good hotels. But there are things that bother me, like how the children are treated.

Everywhere we go the children are adored. The affection is real and people want to touch them. It seems every second person tries to pick them up or kiss them. Most brush their hand across a cheek as they pass. James and Emily have come to hate it.

James is now constantly on the lookout for anyone approaching him. When he spots a potential offender he either does a swift little dodge and dives for us, or stares at them and growls like a dog to warn them off. Emily just runs. She grabs my finger and runs saying "No, no! No, no!" 

The locals laugh and think it's cute. They don't understand that the children really don't like it. We can't find a way to stop them so it's easiest and most effective to just let the kids use their own techniques. 

We do have a stroller with us which we use when possible. It's handy to stop the children being grabbed at all the time but it has its limitations. In an "unfinished country" you can't rely on a safe footpath to use. The stroller spends half the time on the footpath and half the time on the road mixing it with the traffic. It is a less than ideal solution. 

I can't go out on the street alone without being approached by dodgy looking men on motorscooters. They ask if I want "Boom boom.". They even give me hand gestures just in case I don't quite understand. A single refusal rarely works, it usually takes three or four goes for them to realise I'm not interested.

I like Vietnam, but I think perhaps that having an extra 12 days forced on us has coloured my view. The people we meet are friendly and are generous with their time and assistance. The service at most places is excellent, and their cuisine is fantastic. 

I think that without the children it would be a very different experience. With the ability to move more freely and go where we want, when we want, we would enjoy the time here more fully. I would recommend Vietnam to anyone with a sense of adventure. It is a fantastic place to explore and soak up, but I'm ready to leave.

We finally have a flight booked for London on the 2nd of May, and as long as a volcano doesn't erupt somewhere and cancel our flight again, we'll be on that plane come hell or high water.

I want to come back here in a few years. I'm interested to see if much gets finished...and what still needs to be done.

James and TankIt's our second last day and James and I are on the loose again. We've escaped the confines of the hotel to visit the Hanoi War Museum. The Museum is a 15 minute walk through terrible traffic and non existent sidewalks. It's also opposite Lenin Square andit's a public holiday celebrating the end of the Vietnam War.It's our second last day and James and I are on the loose again. We've escaped the confines of the hotel to visit the Hanoi War Museum. The Museum is a 15 minute walk through terrible traffic and non existent sidewalks. It's also opposite Lenin Square andit's a public holiday celebrating the end of the Vietnam War.

The celebrations are what we would expect on a national holiday. The night before there had been fireworks, the streets are decorated, and the public is out in force. In Lenin Square there's a crowd of people watching children drive battery operated cars and scooters.

One man has a remote control car. James sees it and is off. I'm starting the think my son is part Greyhound. When sees something moving out of the corner of his eye, he can't help but chase. The man controlling the car sees him and decides to play the game. He brings the car close and then makes it scoot away. He does it over and over again. 

The squeals of delight and frustration from James are loud enough to attract everyones attention, and before we know it we have a crowd of about 50 people watching. They are watching my small blond boy running like a madman after a remote control car. In among a hundred black haired Vietnamese, we can't help but stand out. To add to the oddness of the situation we are doing all of this under the watchful eye of Vladimir Lenin.

The Military Museum is very good and just a bit of an eye opener. We are constantly reminded of the Vietnam war through film and TV and books, but only from the western point of view. The Museum shows the Vietnamese perspective of a people defending their soil from foreign invaders.

What I have never fully appreciated is the length of the fight Vietnam had for independence. They had to see off the Japanese, and then the French and then the Americans [and us]. It was a struggle that lasted for decades and cost thousand, if not millions of lives.

In the eyes of Vietnam, our Vietnam War is "The American War". It's the final chapter in a fight for an independent country. Once the foreign forces had been expelled the establishment of this country has had it's problems andissues. Figures vary, but it's believed that thousands died under the early communist regime. Some people lost everything, there was a program of "re-education" and many people fled in fear of their lives.

The Museum does seem to ignore it. There are no stories of people who died after the wars. There are however stories of glorious victories, of comrades who help the fight, and of martyrs who died in the struggle for Vietnam. The museum paints a positive image of their soldiers and their struggle in much the same way we celebrate our soldiers.

While this washes over James, I'm enthralled with the different interpretation. The language is straight out of a communist manifesto, the presentation obliterates any question whether it was right or wrong. It was simply the cost of establishing an independent country after years of occupation.

Together however we are fascinated by the displays of aircraft and vehicles. There are tanks and helicopters, jet fighters and troop carriers. We inspect the lot. We also inspect the old flag tower that stands on the site. The tower was built from 1805 to 1812 and once at the top you have a fantastic view.There is a small problem as we discovered....the stair case! The flag tower is built for someone who is about 5 feet tall. I am 6 feet tall. Going up is not such a problem. Coming back down a narrow stone staircase, crowded with people and carrying a three year old boy IS a problem. Halfway down I could feel the stress on my thigh muscles. By the time we made it to the bottom I had full jelly legs. {they've only just recovered!}

The walk that day was a fitting end to our trip to Vietnam. We had a final adventure. We made a soldier with a machine gun wave and smile. It's been an experience I would never have imagined just months ago. Wandering the streets of another country with my three year old son, unable to speak more than a word of the language and barely on top of the currency.

For most of the trip all I wanted to do was get out and into the local culture. I walked for miles and miles. I got lost several times but always managed to find my way back. I made a few people laugh and had more than a few laugh at me. I got to share a good part of it with James, even though I don't think he'll remember much.
I write this from London where I understand the language, I can read the street signs, and nobody notices us as we walk on by. It's only been 4 days and I miss Vietnam already.

Who wouldn't miss a country with good beer for 50 cents a can?

By Jo McInnes:

OK, Now it's my turn to give this whole blog thing a go! Where do I start... To say Vietnam has been interesting is probably an understatement. I've been going through a whirlwind of emotions since the moment I stepped off the plane at Ho Chi Min City. These emotions nearly culminated in me removing someones head yesterday!

Not all of it has been bad, but for someone who has never even been "overseas" to Tasmania, it has certainly been an experience. 

I decided to go the whole "Visa on Arrival" route where you apply for your Visa. You pay some money, print out the approval letter, fill out a form, and then do the rest when you arrive. It's pretty easy and straightforward on the computer but confusing, time consuming, and more than a little daunting at the other end. It was by sheer luck that I found the right counter.

Once there, they took our passports and forms and made us sit and wait while they went away and scrutinised everything. I sat for about 20 minutes stressing about whether I'd stuffed up by applying for the visa this way and whether they'd send us straight back home? Finally we were summoned to a window to pay some more money (which is legit and I knew I'd have to do so beforehand). The woman stamped our letter and off we went... only to realise we still had to go through customs.

By the time we got to the baggage carousel almost everyone else from the plane was long gone with only a few bags, including ours thankfully, sitting there on their lonesome. That probably isn't the safest thing in the world these days? If I come to Vietnam again I think I'll try the old fashioned route of getting a visa.

By this stage James and Em were more than a little fractious! Although still pretty good by most standards. They'd been cooped up in a plane for around nine hours and then as contained as possible while we were doing the visa stuff. Luckily we had panda and monkey - our loyal and hardworking backpack come child-restraints to assist us.

I'm sure it looked like the circus had come to town! Four crazed looking westerners - two with wild eyes (no make that four with wild eyes but only two attached to leads), wrestling two huge bags, two carry-on bags and a stroller and travel cot in a bag. No wonder they were laughing and pointing at us!

Thankfully I'd booked a car to meet us at the airport. A trip in a car here is also an experience. There are no such things as child seats and if you saw how people drive, it's enough to scare the life out of you!

The other thing I'm thankful about is that I booked a two-bedroom serviced apartment rather than a motel room. It at least gave us all a bit of space to get used to our new surroundings.

Ho Chi Min City scared me. Steve thought it was great, but I was too scared to set foot outside the apartment for a while. I found it very hard to deal with people pushing stuff on me and wanting to touch and cuddle my kids constantly. I felt like I couldn't trust anyone.

It's incredible how easily tourists get ripped off. One evening we caught a taxi to the markets. On the way there it cost 32,000 Dong (under $2) and on the way back - exactly the same distance, it cost 179,000 Dong (over $10). I was so mad!! 

The same sort of thing happened in Hoi An and to a lesser extent in Hanoi - or maybe I'm just handling it better and more able to say "No". Now, instead of just getting in the taxi and hoping for the best I negotiate the price first!

We are still waiting for our flight to the UK- cancelled five days ago now. We've come to Ha Long Bay for a few days to get out of the city, which is where I write this from. It is also where my head was going to explode yesterday!

I don't think I'm a petulant tourist, but when I get to a so called resort and it takes over an hour to check in because I haven't been able to print a bit of paper off my computer I start to getting frustrated. I had the booking number and everything else they needed, but the Concierge wanted a print out - I even got the computer out to show him their email on my screen!

Finally we got to the room - mmmm, the musty aroma of mould! The beds were like concrete, the bath tap was broken and the shower head didn't go higher than your knee! And, to make matters worse, I ate dinner by myself in the restaurant last night because by the time my meal came Steve, James, and Em had eaten theirs and had to go back to the room to bed!

The only redeeming moment was when James sprayed himself in the face with the bidet hose - even though he had no idea what it was he was appropriately humiliated, disgusted and traumatised!

Anyway, we're out of there now - our four night booking turned into one and checked out early. I'm considering adding an unflattering review on the Trip Advisor Web site, but today though is a good day. I'm happy because we're in a far more comfortable hotel with a beautiful view of Ha long Bay.

I'm really not sure of how I feel about our trip so far? I think I'm still digesting it all. Overall, even with the scary sleeper train experience and the mouldy resort it's been pretty good - better even if I could control my children Embarassed! I must admit though, I'm keen for next stage in London!!