There were great tips that people shared in response to the recent piece on travel tips to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I also received some questions via email but one message this morning got me thinking about traveling to a foreign country with children, particularly those with special needs. Most people I know of have gone overseas when their children are either babies or in their late teens and older. The rationale being that it is easier to cater to their needs or they can take care of themselves.
Ellen posed this question:
We are going to Vietnam for the first time over the holidays and have been reading your website, which is marvelous. Sadly we will only be in Vietnam for just for a few days on the way back from Thailand -and only to Saigon/Mekong area. We are already planning a return visit dedicated just to Vietnam, we are that sure that we will like it.
We have two sons, 13 and 11. To say that they have white-bread palates is an understatement. The 11 year old also has autism, so that adds a layer of complexity to travel. I want them to eat local and as native as two Irish/German New Englanders can. Any suggestions? They are not seafood eaters. I want to keep them out of fast food! I have some ideas from your Saigon article, but any place you can think of that might satisfy culinarily-challenged kids would be great… restaurants, grocery/food market items, types of foods, etc would be welcome.
Hmmm… as adults, traveling to a foreign country presents both opportunities and challenges. Where to go and what to eat? How to eat safely? When you are traveling with children, particularly those who are finicky or are special needs children, special handling is required. Here are some suggestions and strategies for authentic eating in Vietnam:
Prep the kids in advance and start young! If possible, introduce them to Vietnamese classics, such a pho noodle soup before you leave your home country. That way, they will not suffer culture shock upon arrival. (Ellen and her family will be in Thailand first so that is part of the advance preparation!) To illustrate, the photo above is of a 22-month-old toddler eating a bowl of homemade pho; it was sent in my his Vietnamese American mom, Suzanne (remember the post, Generation Gap: Why some Asian elders bug me?). Here's a tip from when I was a kid: If the bowl of pho is too hot for your child, add an ice cube to the bowl to cool it down. That's how I got trained!
Vietnamese food is a hybrid cuisine. It’s an amalgam of East and West, which means that to eat like a native would include enjoying goodies like banh mi baguette sandwiches. To engage and encourage kids to enjoy Vietnamese food, explain it to them in a culturally relevant manner. With regard to banh mi baguette sandwiches – they are like Vietnamese hoagies! When you go to buy one at a place like Nhu Lan deli in Saigon, talking to the gal at the banh mi station is like placing an order at Subway. The bread is baked on the spot and you get to make the call on what you want it in!
In Saigon, go to Givral in District 1 (across from the Continental Hotel) and get a French pastry (such as croissant) from the case; parents can order Vietnamese noodle soup. Try one of the Pho 24 outposts in Vietnam for pho noodle soup. They have a small menu, you can watch the staff make each bowl, and you can examine the various toppings at the open kitchen up front. Get coffee or a smoothie at one of the many coffee houses in Saigon. Places like Trung Nguyen and Gloria Jean's are modeled after Starbucks. There are ice cream shops in Saigon. such as Fanny Ice Cream, and it’s fun to go there in the middle of the heat and get scoops of chocolate, red bean or even durian ice cream! These are all authentic Vietnamese spots and they will be accessible to families.
Vietnamese cuisine is the have-it-your-way cuisine. Let kids play with the food. They can tinker all they want with squirts of lime, shots of chile sauce, leaves of fresh herb, etc. Each mouthful can be varied. There are no rules to eating, just parameters. Or maybe they won’t want to tinker all and that’s okay too.
Eat at off-times. Despite a restaurant looking dead, it is open for business. Vietnamese people – particularly those in Saigon – are hardworking entrepreneurs. When you want to eat, someone will feed you! Consider going late morning, mid-afternoon or early evening to places like Quan An Ngon or Banh Xeo 46a. Such eateries are not as busy then and you can get the staff’s attention. For finicky and special needs children, they can peruse the open kitchens at those restaurants and roam a bit without causing too much trouble.
Choose mellow, casual restaurants. Vietnamese people are by and large, very easy going. They pretty much leave you alone at a restaurant, but tend to over fuss at formal dining establishments (read: those with tablecloths). So if your kids need space to do their own thing, the more formal joints may not be suitable.
Vietnamese people love children. They always enjoy seeing a family together, especially one enjoying Vietnamese food. So dive in and don’t be afraid to ask questions or even point and gesticulate. If your child wants something in particular, there’s likely to be someone willing to satisfy him/her.
Previous posts and discussion regarding travel to Vietnam include:
- Tips for getting a Vietnam travel visa
- How to eat safely and stay healthy while traveling in Vietnam
- Food souvenirs worth bringing back from Vietnam
- For addresses on most of the restaurants mentioned in this article, see Travel Tips to Saigon: Where to Go, What to Eat
Feel free to share your suggestions and/or personal experiences so as to assist Ellen and others traveling to Vietnam with kids!