Family trip in Vietnam - Tribute Episode: The Essential Ingredient for Unparalleled Touring

Blogs - Vietnam: May 23, 2014

Kathleen familyKathleen Brown, her husband John and their two adopted children, Peter Quang and Claire Xuan, are touring around Vietnam during their Christmas holiday. Kathleen is a long-time television producer and /media consultant for humanitarian agencies and her husband, John, a professional photographer. Every couple of days, they will post a story along with photos on their travels and adventures.

Family trip in Vietnam - Tribute Episode to our Guide Stars

Why guides you ask?  If you are like me, you have toured both with and without guides and what I have learned is -- they are an invaluable asset.  In Vietnam, guides, translators and drivers are essential to making your journey a safe, comfortable and uniquely unparalleled experience. 

Kathleen Family LifestartDuring our heritage tour, Hoi An Express and Custom Vietnam Travel provided guides who became integral to our experience of the country for understanding its traditions, cultural and religious landmarks, the foods and the many daily transactions one makes during a visit to a foreign country and who deepened our understanding of Vietnam's people, their economy and their national identity. 

Over the course of our three-week visit each guide became a trusted friend by sharing something of his own life, work, family stories and genuine pride in the country's history, its many landmarks and religious shrines, the beauty of its endless rice fields and industrious people and its treasured place in the global family of nations.

A journey made without their personal attention to our needs as an American family, with children, and more specifically two adoptees returning to the land of their birth, may have been as good as any tour in exclusive guidebooks or apps, but our trip was more -- so much more. It was the trip of a lifetime!&

VũIn the course of our twenty-one days in country, we came to know Bao, Mot, Hung and Loi in the Mekong Delta, Saigon, Da Nang, Hoi An and Hanoi, as well as, Vu and Quang on the Saigon Street Eats tour in HCMC.  Each guide shared a different personality, offering insights, sharing history and facts, helping us on and off boats, bikes, motorbikes and vans and into restaurants, historic sites, cafes, markets and finding rest stops, good prices, better deals, and ao ba ba, the local women's attire of the Mekong Delta, when my luggage was lost by the airlines and every stitch of my clothing arrived three days into our travel. 

Guide Stars

Mot, our hip, energetic guide in DaNang spoke several languages and had just taught himself Spanish in order to accommodate Spanish speakers touring the country.  He led our expedition on bicycles and a motorbike while on a countryside tour pedaling us through Cam Kim commune and to his own Father's home to reveal the senior citizen's basket-boat making skills and then on to a very poor neighbor's home whose sedge weaving into colorful mats earned about $5 USD for many hours of work. Mot's touring included a stop at a family's rice wine still, which had not appeared in the original tour description.

It was in central Vietnam, with Mot's encouragement, that our touring took on a much more personal edge as when a local ferry ride turned into a passenger play-by-play of our family history with approving nods from the locals or when an afternoon visit to  tailor shops lurched into an exciting design competition among our children.

Hung, a youthful man with the soul of a sage, took on maybe our most delicate and heartfelt passage in Vietnam.  He was our guide for two days of visits to our children's orphanages in Phu Tho province.  While sharing coffee and tea with both orphanage directors, it was Hung's job to ask delicate questions while seeking additional information about our children's histories.

After  our visit to one of our children's communes did not reveal much of his personal history, our evidently saddened guide led us on a pilgrimage to the Au Co Pagoda hoping that a visit to the Holy Mother of all Vietnamese people might provide solace and a sense of belonging. It was a beautiful gesture of compassion greatly lifting the spirits of our entire family.

LoiOn our visit to the Perfume Pagoda, Loi, our inveterate guide schooled us in the meaning of numerous altars, deities, touchstones for pilgrims and Buddhist practices.

When I paid for incense sticks with a 2 USD bill inexplicably causing a stir, Loi explained what lavish good fortune I had unknowingly offered the aging woman. I never imagined $2 bill could fetch more than $75 in Vietnamese money.

His detailed stories about everything we encountered were invaluable -- my personal favorite was learning about a shortcut to nirvana earned by pilgrims making a climb atop a pagoda near Heaven's Kitchen during a special festival.

BaoOne guide, Bao, met us during our first hours in country and spent our last full-day in country touring with us.  For this reason, he holds a special distinction in our guide hall of fame for his welcoming smile, extensive knowledge, and genuine interest in our children, as well as for seeing a seriously sleep deprived family off on our Mekong adventure. 

Bao's work included tracking lost luggage, locating pharmacies, reuniting us with found luggage, securing directions to Catholic Church for Sunday mass, educating us about the mangrove forests, saving us from the tourist mistake of embarking on the Monkey Island tour with food, cameras and purses that are monkey playthings, insisting on our not missing the climb up to the observation tower at Can Gio Reserve, securing permission for Peter to climb into a basket boat and encouraging us to take the fast boat through the mangrove forest which ranks up there with feeling like you're on a Disney ride through a magical forest.

Traveling through any country can be done with a guide-book or an app, but it is in touring with guides that a visit becomes an exploration at a deeper level and the journey becomes far richer for the guide star leading you. Having a guide/translator allows you to get your head out of the guidebooks and focus your eyes on the surroundings so you don’t miss the beautiful countryside, colorful residents, and amazing experiences that Vietnam has to offer.

Thanks to Bao, Mot, Hung, Loi, Vu and Quang for being our guide stars on our travels in Vietnam -- we have memories for a life-time because of each of you.

Cam On!

Kathleen, John, Claire, Peter and Aunt Anne

Falls Church, VA 


To book our guide stars contact:

Sylvia Hue at Hoi An Express at

Phuong at Custom Vietnam Travel at

Barbara or Vu at Saigon Street Eats at

Other articles written by Kathleen:

Family trip in Vietnam - 1st episode: Enter the DragonM
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 2: Cai Rang Water Opera
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 3: Hoi An ancient town
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 4: Hoi An Countryside
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 5: the LifeStart Foundation
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 6: Hoi An Cooking Class
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 7: Project Runway in Hoi An
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 8: Water Puppets - Vietnam's Original Muppets
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 9: Time to Cha Cha with the Chả Cá
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 10: A Visit to the Hung Kings Citadel and Au Co Ancestral Site
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 11: Our Visit to the Perfume Pagoda
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 12: Can Gio Reserve
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 13: Saigon Street Eats
Family trip in Vietnam - Final Episode
Club Opera Novel – A Diva of a Restaurant, Yet Without Pretense
A little gem on a search of something else: Finding Ganesh!