Smiling impishly, my youngest daughter was the first to react to the news. “You said you would take me anywhere in the world if you got fired. You just got fired. I’ve picked Vietnam. When are we going?”
Parental empathy can be a rare commodity among adolescents. But essentially that had been the deal. A few months earlier, with the likelihood of a 25-year career in pulp and paper coming to an end because of downsizing, I had proposed taking each of my two teenage daughters on an overseas trip.
Several conditions were established up front. We would travel light (only small backpacks for the three-week journey), low-budget (hello hostels and local foods) and finally, the part that made the girls forget the first two conditions, they would choose the destination.
My wife strongly supported the idea. My long office hours over the past few years and the girls’ busy social lives meant infrequent quality time together. Travel would provide what travel does best – an opportunity for interaction, adventure and hopefully cherished memories.
It would also provide a great learning environment. My first lesson was not long in coming. The youngest, having made her choice known first, was first to travel. For the trip to Vietnam, she had meticulously packed rolls of coloured string. Barely airborne, I noticed her taping several lengths to the back of the headrest in front of her.
“What are you up to?” I asked.
“Making friendship bracelets. You weave patterns and tie knots in the strings. Everyone wears them. Want to try?”
I had picked up a newspaper in anticipation of several hours of reading bliss. Looking around, I couldn’t see any other grey-haired types making friendship bracelets. “I’d love to, dear. Show me how this works.”
Initially, unruly strings and fumbling fingers stymied all progress. However, persistence paid off and one of my creations was given a passing grade by the master.
The flight attendants were much more impressed. They kept stopping by to check on my progress and offer both encouragement and a limitless supply of refreshments. The unsolicited fawning did not go unnoticed by the other grey-haired types peering above their newspapers.
Our entry point to Vietnam was Saigon, where wide boulevards teemed with motorbikes carrying everything from small chicken farms to ladders to families of four.
Outside of Saigon, we visited a park commemorating a Viet Cong battleground. War in all its gruesomeness was on display – massive bomb craters, booby traps and photos of napalm victims. Compared with the banality of video games, direct exposure to the horrors of armed conflict brought on hushed respect and reflection.
Next we headed for a few days of hiking near the Chinese border. The valleys of terraced rice fields, the mist-covered peaks and the cascading rivers were magnificent. But a local girl serving as our guide was perhaps the best discovery.
Slightly older than my 16-year-old daughter, she had graduated at 6 from looking after the family’s water buffalo to caring for her younger brother and selling trinkets to tourists. By 13, her command of English got her a sought-after guide job. By 16, she finally got married (two to three years later than the village norm).
The two girls giggled as they fired questions across the great cultural divide: “You’ve never heard of New York? You’ve never heard of McDonald’s?” “You’ve never seen a hemp plant? You don’t cook meals over an open fire? You don’t cook!”
From the border country we took an overnight train to Hanoi. That evening in a hostel dorm, the bunk beds became perches for travellers telling tales of trekking across South America or visiting India. Someone had just arrived by train from London (via Europe, Russia, Mongolia and China). I was impressed. My daughter was mesmerized.
We eventually threw our packs on a bus for Ha Long Bay, a seaway sprinkled with hundreds of jungle-covered islands. As we chugged along through narrow channels and isolated coves on an ornate Chinese junk, my daughter befriended two Australian girls.
Next, in the picturesque coastal village of Hoi An, we careered around for a few days on a bicycle built for two, with me providing pedal power and she shouting instructions when to turn and where to stop/shop.
Our final destination was the kiteboarding beach of Mui Ne, a chance to kick back, brave the winds and ride the waves.
The weeks flew by and suddenly we were back in the Saigon airport checking in for the long flight back to Montreal. So many things had changed. Conversations had become, well, conversations. Gone were my stifling inquiries about school, tests and homework, and her one-word responses of “nope,” “yup” and “boring.”
We branched out into a wide range of new subjects – Vietnam’s wartorn history, the pleasure of eating ice cream in the tropics, how to avoid malaria and endless chats on travel possibilities. We learned new card games. We learned how to cook some Vietnamese fare. We revelled in each other’s company, which, I think most parents would agree, is as close to nirvana as we can hope for.
Now back home, life has slipped back into its regular routine. But as I hear my daughter regale her friends with our adventures, I know her memories of the trip are as powerful and poignant as mine.
I look forward to donning the pack once again. The 18-year-old has her sights set on Costa Rica.
Blake Maher lives in Montreal.