Two--Then Three--in Vietnam

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The decision to take our older children along when we traveled to Vietnam to adopt our son Tien was almost entirely an emotional decision that we will be paying off financially for years. Had we adopted an infant, I'm positive we would have taken the financially sound route and just sent one parent to Vietnam. However, it became extremely important to us that Ari (age 12) and Mia (age 10) knew where their brother had spent the first 8 years of his life. We now know that our decision made our unique journey to family much easier for everyone. ALL of my children can relate to the emotions, stress, difficulty, and love that we feel individually and as a family.

Willing Volunteers

Ari and Mia wanted to travel. They had traveled fairly extensively in the United States. Ari had never left the country and Mia didn't remember the time she spent in Korea as an infant. Mia has never been a patient traveler, but she improves with each trip. They were willing to commit to the process of medical exams, vaccinations, medications, passports, and learning as much about Vietnam (and Bangkok) as possible before leaving. They were willing to make concessions to the health and safety issues of international travel, even though Ari still disliked washing his hands. They were willing to make accommodations in their education. We had an extremely supportive elementary principal who assured us that this trip would be more valuable than anything they would miss in school. In the end, we left the day after school was out. They were aware that there would be a lot of time spent "just waiting" and they were willing to say they would try to be patient. I would not have taken either of these kids if they had been unwilling to make the commitments needed, if they had not wanted to travel, if they had been a great deal younger.

We did most of our traveling alone as a family. We made the 6 to 8 hour (shorter going north) van ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Kien Giang with another couple and that was our only contact with "group" travel. The woman we worked with at Holt's Eugene office tried hard to discourage us from taking children. She felt they could not be prepared for the poverty and primitive conditions they would encounter. When we insisted, she dropped her objections. However, after we returned, she didn't find our encounters with Asia toilets near as amusing as we found them!

Preparing the Kids

Before we left we read about Vietnam. (Most of what we wanted to know was contained in books with good pictures and folktales found in the children's department of our library.) Ari was able to gain specific information with an e-mail interview with a couple who had traveled to Kien Giang. The same couple shared a video of the journey into the Mekong Delta so the conditions were not a total surprise. The video with the personal touch was more valuable than the commercially produced "travelogues" we also watched. We photocopied pages from travel guides so Ari and Mia could put them in their journals with headings like, "Places I Would Like To Go," Things To Remember," "Customs and Language". We talked about the Vietnam/American War. We talked a lot about the fact that WE would be guests in Vietnam and we were to participate in the culture as much as possible, try not to offend people, and, above all, present ourselves in such a way that people would remember us kindly and the orphanage staff and government officials would know Tien would be loved and cared for.

We made one HUGE mistake in starting scrapbooks. I gave Ari and Mia each a bound book with blank pages. We also started an identical book for Tien with somewhat different information. As we traveled kids saved things and taped them into the scrapbooks. Soon their books were overstuffed, bulging, and difficult to carry. Another time I will use loose-leaf notebooks so some of the pages can be removed, placed in envelopes, packed in the suitcases, and then put back together when we get home.

We flew from Ohio to LA to Seoul (Mia's 90 minute, expensive taste of her birth country!) to Bangkok. The next morning we flew on to HCMC. Our return trip was from Hanoi to Bangkok for a three day stay. We flew home through Osaka and LA. We packed puzzles, games, books and a few art supplies. I'd made a point of buying "travel toys" on sale after Christmas and kids selected books from a library sale. Most of what we traveled with was "new to them" so it was fun but not so wonderful it could not be left behind or given away. Ari left home with an actual library of paperback science fiction books in his pack and in the suitcases. He literally trailed them through Asia, trading with fellow travelers, leaving them in airports and hotels. In Vietnam the Customs officials insisted, "Children don't declare!" so Ari probably entered the country with contraband literature and left without it. Thai airlines provided movies and LOTS of food. The flight time across the Pacific really didn't seem terribly long.

Mia in cyclo
-HCMC-
We arrived in HCMC without luggage! Here we learned that our laid-back, "What, me worry!?" son was the one who panicked and thought the world had come to an end. Our daughter who had worried about virtually everything that could possible happen took it in stride and learned to wash clothes with shampoo in the bathtub. Our Holt "keeper" in HCMC was a man who truly understood that we were traveling with children. Our hotel was on a dead-end street about a $3.00 taxi ride from the "downtown" area. There were local children to play with in the evenings. The "man in the restaurant" got a ladder to retrieve a Koosh ball from the roof one morning and provided a tub of water to wash shells after our trip to the beach. The hotel manager provided a soccer ball after Mia was badly bruised in a game played with a coconut. In Hanoi our hotel was more "central" and the street outside was busy.

This Isn't Ohio

Before we left home I promised my worrying daughter that under no circumstances would I intentionally endanger our lives. Then we encountered the reality of Asia! From the time we landed in Bangkok until we got back to LA we saw ONE seatbelt in a car. We counted motorcycles helmets in HCMC and got to about 30. Long-boats in Thailand do not come with life vests. Crossing streets really DID seem dangerous initially. We talked about the fact that we were about as far from Ohio as Dorothy was from Kansas and decided to go with the flow. I knew we were not at home (And told my children that!) the evening I let ALL of them get on our "keeper's" motor bike and ride off to dinner while my husband and I walked. I also assured them we were not at home the day my husband encouraged them to shoot an M-16 at the Cu Chi Tunnels. As much fun as cyclos were, I don't think we stood a chance against a car.

Ari about to ride off
-HCMC-
As disconcerting as some of the safety issues were, the reality is that we actually felt we were reasonably safe. As we were "speeding" down a highway one afternoon, the speedometer registered about 35 miles an hour. We saw only 2 traffic accidents in Vietnam. In three weeks I was concerned for our safety only twice. Our Hotel in Hanoi left us hoping there was no fire because the emergency exits were non-existent. I felt safe enough in the long-boat in Bangkok while it was in the canals - then it came out into the river and I knew none of us could swim to shore.

On the up side of what seemed it might be dangerous was the confidence Ari displayed. He delighted in changing money. Without him, I would not have crossed 3 streets to get to the French bakery in HCMC. His sense of direction did not always prove correct but he was willing to walk the streets of Hanoi and the Central Market in HCMC to help his sister find the "treasures" she didn't buy when she first saw them. He walked several blocks in Hanoi each evening to "forage for breakfast" with my husband. He learned to "bargain" in Bangkok when he found a coveted dinosaur just as his Baht were running out.

Unsettling Encounters

We were not able to properly prepare children for some of the "safety issues" of Vietnam because we were truly not aware of them until we encountered them. Most of the time we just pretended to be local and did what seemed appropriate. In truth the thing we were least able to prepare children for was the beggars. Even Tien was not prepared for the people we encountered on the streets of HCMC. Most of the beggars were people with amputated limbs or severe birth defects. They followed right on our heels and continued to beg. In Bangkok the beggars didn't follow, but most were apparently lepers. These people were EXTREMELY difficult for my children to deal with emotionally. In Hanoi the "beggars" were more apt to be children selling things. Many seemed as interested in practicing their English and talking to Americans as in actually selling.

Along with the beggars ALL of my children found it sometimes difficult to cope with the way people on the streets and in the shops felt they could touch and ask personal questions. "Madame have THREE children?!?" got to be a laughing matter with all of us. This was often followed by "Not same father!?" My nearly-blond, 12-year-old son was extremely patient about being "petted" and was usually able to get through it without looking extremely annoyed. My daughter attracted all sorts of attention and remarks about being very beautiful, but not Vietnamese. My newest son was hounded by people speaking Vietnamese and generally telling him how lucky he was to have a family and be going to America.

On the road to Kien Giang we stopped twice each way to wait for the ferry across the river. My husband and sons got out and walked with our driver and "keeper" while they smoked. They attracted their own share of attention. My daughter and I sat in the van with the women traveling with us. It was almost like a "Twilight Zone" episode as people pressed their faces against the windows to observe the Americans inside. Mia found this very unnerving - especially after she learned that women were gathering their friends to look at the "beautiful child" in the van.

We did a lot of airport waiting in the course of our travels. ALL of my children found it tiring, boring, and annoying at various times. They spent much of their airport time sitting against a wall or pillar with the carry-on luggage while my husband and I dealt with tickets and Customs. We did not do a lot of waiting for the adoption process. All of the Vietnam appointments were done by my husband alone with our various "keepers." Only in Bangkok did all three children attend the medical and embassy appointments. The hospital waiting time was spent almost entirely with Ari and Mia teaching Tien about his first escalator. The embassy time was spent playing games. We took with us several preschool card games that could be played with little talking. Tien's first game was "Go Fish" and the second "Old Maid". By the time we left Bangkok he could also play a modified version of "UNO". While Ari and Mia taught their brother about escalators and card games they were also teaching him about families and English. I think those transitions were made easier because we had three children in Vietnam rather than only one.

Tien in a tree
-Hanoi-
Yours, Mine and Ours

We had measurements for Tien before we left, and managed to bring clothing in his size. We selected clothing so it would be very similar to what his siblings were traveling in. We took t-shirts and shorts in bright colors - although not as bright as Ari wears. We took a pair of sandals identical to what his siblings were wearing. Tien's initial reaction was that all the clothes were too big -- but he has since fallen into the "large and comfy" look of his siblings. We also went back to a "toddler plan" I'd used years ago. I brought a bright yellow hat for each. They were all willing to wear them and I could spot them easily when we became separated in crowded areas. The HCMC hotel staff laughed at "Yellow hats going out," and "Yellow hats coming back." We brought Tien a backpack in the same style as his siblings. Included in it was his journal and a teddy bear selected by his new sister. Ari brought Tien a pair of sunglasses similar to his own. Ari and Mia each carried some money of their own in a neck pouch with a photocopy of their passport and itinerary. We gave Tien a pouch and provided him with money as we gave it to his siblings. He was totally unaccustomed to making his own purchases but chose to rely on his siblings instead of his parents when buying. I think it was a good idea to start out our relationship with three children in a situation where they all had similar clothing, belongings, and opportunities.

With the exception of one night, we ate Vietnamese or other Asian food with Vietnamese people through our stay in HCMC and our travels to Kien Giang. Children learned how good chicken noodle soup is for breakfast and how to try something different for every dinner. On the road to Kien Giang our driver decided where we would eat and our "keeper" ordered food. We didn't always know what we were eating but it was always very good. In Hanoi we ate mostly Vietnamese and Italian. Ari and Mia were happy to see something they recognized and Tien got his first taste of change. By the time we got back to Bangkok, Ari and Mia were delighted to discover MacDonalds and share the hamburgers with their very skeptical younger brother. After we met Tien we DID buy from street vendors. Tien told us which things were good, so we thought we should try them. The fruit was WONDERFUL! Only when I was buying ice-cream bars in Hanoi did I really consider that we might be out of the realm of the "health agreements" we had made. We weren't. We all stayed healthy through the trip. While none of my children liked everything that crossed their lips, they were always able to find plenty to eat at every meal and never went hungry.

We asked for extra time in Vietnam so we could see a bit of the country. What we saw was mostly kid oriented, but we had a marvelous time. We spent a day at the beach near Vung Tau. Had we known how far the trip actually was or how much fun we were going to have we would have planned to stay the night. We discovered the Tunnels at Cu Chi really are a child adventure along with a history lesson. Going through the tunnels and walking in the jungle along with an opportunity to try on military clothing and fire automatic weapons was a lot of fun for all three kids. We saw three waterpuppet shows and enjoyed them all. The one we saw in Hanoi was by far the best. We toured the Vietnamese Air Force Museum near Hanoi where kids got to sit in a MIG fighter and we all noticed that they turned the lights on when we arrived. We rode cyclos with delight, enjoyed the shopping, but skipped zoos on advice from Lonely Planet.

We also did some things that were difficult. Before we met Tien we walked through the War Crimes Museum in HCMC. The section on "victims" we could not have touched without language skills to talk about it. It was difficult for Ari and Mia to see and understand - but it was important that they see it. We toured the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. Ari and Mia were not at all sure viewing a "maintained body" was cool. Tien thought we were being VERY good to him to take him there. We ate one night at the Omni Hotel Saigon where dinner could be paid for only in dollars - and many of them. Mia and I laughed when we realized how out of place we were. Ari cried because he was sure most of the people staying there had not seen the poverty around them. Tien had no way to know that we were as out of place in that hotel as we had been in the "rest stops" where we ate on the way from Kien Giang. This was the night I knew for sure my first two children could see the reality of Vietnam and were not "Ugly Americans."

Hall family at the Grand Palace
-Bangkok-
Empathy Training

We know absolutely that our adjustments to being a family of five have been better because we traveled as a family. Ari and Mia know what it is like to be someplace where absolutely everything is different. They know what it is like to stay away long enough to miss friends and favorite foods. They know something about how Tien feels when he is so upset with his new family or so lonely for things left behind that all he can do is hide under his blankets and cry. They also know the joy of discovering new and wonderful things. They remember their excitement with the first cyclo ride and their surprise at the warmth of the South China Sea. They can fully appreciate why Tien was thrilled with his first snow (which wasn't much) and were willing to use all the snow in the park to make a snowman with him. They have seen where Tien lived and have met some of his friends. They are able to explain to their friends when Tien acts "weird" or seems to have inappropriate reactions.

I would in no way suggest that taking siblings for adoption travel, to Vietnam or anywhere else, is the ONLY thing for any family to do. I would, though, suggest that people adopting an older child look closely at what it might mean to family adjustment to take a sibling. Not every American child is ready to make that journey. Many should not go. Some will surprise us with their patience and understanding when it is absolutely required. We know that we made the right decision for our family. We have three children who are learning to be siblings even yet. Not every day is a good one six months into this new family - but most are. I honestly believe that we NEEDED to take Ari and Mia when we went to Vietnam to adopt Tien. All three of these children have a clearer understand of each other, of themselves, and even of their parents. Because the first three weeks of becoming a new family constellation was in hotel rooms and airplanes, half-a-world away from where we are now at home.

Credits: Susan Hall

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