Week 14, Tam Cốc & Phong Nha, Vietnam with kids

Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Quiet days, long train rides, and boat tour through a massive cave

Our travels in Vietnam with kids have their share of excitement. They have their calmer times too. In these days between Christmas and New Year, we enjoyed the quiet moments of traveling the world. Plus one giant cave unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

“I think that’s the moment I knew that even as we traveled, Christmas and the kids would be okay.”

The experience Christmas

Relaxed man enjoys a birthday beer and a day with his wife and kids in Vietnam.
Relaxed man enjoys a birthday beer and a day in Vietnam with kids and wife.

This Christmas, we didn’t give each other a thing.

That’s right. On Christmas morning during our travels in Vietnam with kids, there were no presents, no tidily wrapped gifts, no enticing boxes. Like plenty of families, our usual Christmas has had a decorated tree that seems to have grown from ground made of bright colors and right angles.

And we have loved those Christmases. On Christmas Eves in our home, after the children are asleep, Jodie and I would start pulling plastic bags out of hiding places. There’d be a couple with each of our names on them, some that we had compiled ourselves, some sent by family. I’d start carrying cardboard boxes full of wrapped presents out of the garage, where the boxes had been camouflaged amongst other boxes, innocent decoys, or covered with old sheets.

When Christmas changed

Last year, our Christmas began to shift. Knowing we were aiming to start our travels, we discussed what things we were getting one another.

“We’d rather put the money into travel,” we explained to Connor and Aster.

And the kids? They did not throw a tantrum. They did not freak out, or wonder why we didn’t love them anymore, or wanted to ruin Christmas. There’d still be a few things under the tree, sure—and that was when our Christmas really began to change.

Instead of going to bed on Christmas Eve, they had told us that they understood what was what. Aster made it clear that she knew who Santa was.

Connor, to his credit, had never spoilered Christmas for Aster. Now, though, as we considered our last Christmas in the house, both the kids surprised us.

“We want to help put everything out,” they explained.

And they did. They helped us stuff stockings, carry out presents, and arrange everything under the tree. They helped us shift furniture so the front room would be ready for us to lay down blankets and comforters, and spend Christmas morning sitting together on the floor, sipping hot beverages and tingling with the anticipation of being handed the next present.

I think that’s the moment I knew that even as we traveled, Christmas and the kids would be okay.

Understanding things like Santa? It didn’t turn them off Christmas. Rather, they understood that they got to cross over into a new part of the holiday. They learned that from now on, they not only got to receive the magic of holidays, they got to help make it, give it, and share it.

Christmas 2022

This year, for 2022, our Christmas is indeed very different—even though holidays travels in Vietnam with kids resounds with Vietnamese remixes of American Christmas music classics. I made a wee tree from graph paper. Jodie and Aster colored in the “ornaments” I made from clues to our Christmas morning scavenger hunt.

During this quiet time together, we snuggled up and chatted, read books and, yes of course, played a little Minecraft. Travels to come wove through like dreams spoken out loud: LEGOLAND Malaysia, Thai beaches, Tokyo Disneyland.

We shared dreams. Together, we made plans. We didn’t give each other a thing for Christmas. We gave ourselves.

“Memories are the best souvenirs. Experiences don’t need to be dusted, yet you can always relive them in the mind, relay them with a story, and cherish them in the heart.”

Buen provecho

Water abounds in the Ninh Binh area, such as the rivers and lakes in Tam Coc.
Water abounds in the Ninh Binh area, such as the rivers and lakes in Tam Coc.

When a love of good, honest food is at the heart of a culture, then a simple phrase combining a wish for a good meal with a love of what matters most in life will be at the heart of that culture as well.

This is not about a country’s version of a good hearty “cheers” though. As much as I adore, and have gladly raised my glass for, a roof-lifting santé, slainte, gambai, kippis, slainte va, or saluti, for now I’m setting down my glass and picking up my spoon, fork, or chopsticks.

This is not about the beverage, but the meal. The satisfying not only of bodily appetite, but of soulful sustenance.

In France, it’s “bon appetit.” In Thailand, you might say, “Enjoy your meal,” or “gin hai aroy na“ (in Thai script, ให้อร่อยนะ)? For Japanese, you could say, “Meshiagare,” or 召し上がれ.

A common element of the phrase? Simplicity mixed with heartiness. Like an exquisitely grilled and seasoned steak, perfectly steamed broccoli with a bit of salt and a nice vinaigrette, or a butter and wine poached fish that evokes farm, vine, and sea, the featured ingredient is toothsome on the palate, clean on the finish, yet sticks to the ribs, the soul, and the memory.

Nourishing ain’t just about appetite

Another common element, though, is a bit more metaphysical, and even a bit, dare I say, touchy-feely. It’s about nourishment, you see. And to nourish is not just about the body. That’s actually in the very definition of the word “nourish.”

Yes, it does mean, in part, to provide for the body’s good health. However, when we talk about something being nourishing, we are talking about a feeling. It’s a lingering, soulful warmth, like a child who knows they are safe under covers and in a parent’s arms. It’s the moment when you know you’ve made a right choice in life, usually in the company of another who you know will always be part of your life, and you part of theirs.

To nourish, you see, is also to keep, to hold, to establish a feeling in the mind and in the heart, typically and preferably for a long time. To nourish is not just to send a meal on its digestive journey. It’s to bring you comfort and joy, that you will hold onto long after your plate is removed. It’s not just about feeling pleasantly full, but feeling peacefully fulfilled.

The new phrase we learned in Mexico and took to heart

That sense of nourishment is what makes these phrases so integral not only to a culture of good eating, but of the soul-warming, foundational feeling that follows hearing these simple phrases. And throughout Mexico’s culinary and cultural heart of Oaxaca, the phrase accompanies every plate and bowl. Every time a server in Oaxaca set our meal before us, they said it:

“Buen provecho.”

Throughout our month and a half in Oaxaca, hearing this phrase brightened my soul with the effervescence of bubbles in beer or sparkling wine. Not only did buen provecho weave in with every tamale, tlayuda, enfrijolada, pozole, mole, or chilaquiles, it came into the body, mind, and soul like a waterfall breeze after a long, hot hike.

It’s never just about the phrase though. From Mexico to Korea and Thailand, Connor asked me if it was possible to get a bad meal in these countries.

“It’s rare,” I replied. “But it’s possible.”

“What makes it possible?” he asked. “A bad cook?”

“That can be,” I replied. “But usually it happens when someone simply doesn’t care.”

The secret ingredient everyone knows

Throughout my children’s lives, they’ve been around good, simple, honest food. Jodie and I believe in home cooking. We delight in good foods from all over the world, whether cooked at home, dining out, or feasting with friends and family during potlucks. Yet in our many discussions over the years about food and cooking, a common element is something that didn’t begin with me or with Jodie.

I learned it from my Grandma Denise, though if I recall correctly, it didn’t start with her. She learned it from her mother, and of course, you know that I’m going to say it didn’t start with her either. It’s the sort of understanding, the sort of concept, that doesn’t start with anyone. It’s existed as long as life has existed, and as long as heart and caring have elevated life from surviving to thriving.

As a boy, whenever I complimented something my Grandma Denise had cooked, she told me she had made it with a secret ingredient.

“What is it?” I would ask. Even thinking about it now, as a man and a dad, my eyes take on the round, saucer bigness of the boyhood excitement that comes with knowing you stand upon the edge of revelation.

“It’s simple,” she would say, “but it makes all the difference. The secret ingredient is that I make everything with love.”

Only good cooks

Whether home cooking parents and grandparents the world over, or every cook and chef from a side street nighttime taco cart to the fanciest Michelin 3-star restaurant, if they don’t cook with love, they can pack up their knives. When a cook cares, that affection and pride seasons a dish deeper than salt. That caring comes through in the cooking, the prep, and the presentation. When the plate is set on the table, the warmth of the heart rises like flames in a February fireplace.

And in Oaxaca, a deep, soul-felt love of cooking suffuses the air. Every time we dined out in Oaxaca, the “buen provecho” came from the heart, and it went to the heart. We could feel the pride people took in their food, and their willingness to learn from new discoveries while staying true to tried-and-true traditions.

From the humblest donut at our favorite panaderia in La Crucecita, to the pozole we enjoyed at a rooftop dinner party in Oaxaca de Juarez, the buen provecho was there. We heard it, and answered it with humble thanks, rumbling tummies, and souls that knew it wasn’t just hunger that was being nourished.

Leaving Mexico, we took little in the way of souvenirs (though possibly an extra pound or two). We tell the kids that during our travels, we won’t be getting much in the way of souvenirs. Since we travel fairly light, we don’t want to worry about carrying (or shipping) lots of things.

Memories are the best souvenirs. Experiences don’t need to be dusted, yet you can always relive them in the mind, relay them with a story, and cherish them in the heart.

My favorite souvenir from Mexico?

My new phrase. That something has been made with love, given in love, in hope that it will bring you not just nourishment, but joy.

Buen provecho.

“I tore off a chunk of sandwich and crunched into the crackling crust and savory meat spread inside. For quality assurance, of course. So I knew that my family would be okay to eat theirs.”

Southbound train in northern Vietnam

From the train station in Dong Hoi, Phang Nha and its famous caves are about an hour's drive away.
From the train station in Dong Hoi, Phang Nha and its famous caves are about an hour’s drive away.

We hadn’t intended to buy the little bags of banh mi sandwiches, but as the attendant stopped by our cabin and put them in our hands at our lower berths and the children’s hands from their top berths, I figured, why not? We’re going on a long train ride in Vietnam with kids. We might as well feast up.

The scents of warm bread and hot, savory meat wafted through the cabin. We set the four bags of long, slender sandwiches, two to a red and white bag, on the table in between me and Jodie. With a lurch, the engine started forward. I tore off a chunk of sandwich and crunched into the crackling crust and savory meat spread inside. For quality assurance, of course. So I knew it would be okay for my family to eat theirs.

The train rolled its gentle, clackety-clacking way between green, low, rolling hills and clouds so gray and low they could have been the ceiling of a tunnel. Late December mist softened the air and spritzed the outside of our cabin’s window. Sitting back against the wall of my berth, I thought, not for the last time, that winter in northern Vietnam with kids was a lot like winter in western Oregon, except for all the rice paddies.

Our southbound train had left around 8:30 that morning, from out of Ninh Binh. Over the next eight hours, we’d wind our gradual way toward Dong Hoi. Once there, a person from our homestay would then drive us an hour into the hill country. To our riverside room near Phang Nha Cave, in the village of Phang Nha, where a quiet time in Vietnam with kids awaited.

Train time is a special time, especially traveling Vietnam with kids

The four of us nestled into various routines. Reading, chatting, writing, Minecraft, snacks. Above all, we looked out the window. Train time is a special time. I love getting a bunch of writing done on a train. Jodie and I take these quiet times to chat, plan, or talk about something in particular we need to discuss. Here and there, we munched on our sandwiches, or dried jackfruit, or sheets of nori.

A lot of our day, though, focused on paying careful attention to the slow unveiling of the misty, wintry wonder that is this part of Vietnam. The warm train blanketed us with the coziness that comes from knowing you are snug and safe inside, when the world outside is wet and, even in Southeast Asia, a bit on the chilly side.

When travel is not profound

I have, I must confess, nothing of interest to report from our long train ride in Vietnam with kids. We passed by rice paddies, went through villages, and we marveled at the hills. The vastness of the rice paddies always got my attention. Vietnam is the world’s fourth-largest rice producer. Seeing just this little swath of paddies, flooded and fallow in between plantings, I could see where so much of the rice we enjoy could come from this area. Yet even now, in that fallow time between Christmas and New Year, people were out, standing slender little green stalks in the brown mud.

Whether Vietnam with kids or anywhere else we go, sometimes travel is profound. Part of what I love about travel is how being somewhere different, doing something different, can remind us not only to take a fresh look at life and at ourselves, but not to take anything for granted.

But there are also times where travel is calm, reflective, and nothing more than watching the world go by. This was that sort of day. Quiet and peaceful. The train clacked along. The four of us enjoyed each other’s company. Mist-gleaming hill country and rice paddies faded into the distance again and again. Before we knew it, we were getting off the train in the hill country of Dong Hoi, ready for a few more relaxing days—and ready to ride a long boat through a giant cave.

“Pretty much the next hour, I could hardly speak, since my jaw stayed fallen open.”

Cave of wonder

Massive rock formations abound in the huge chambers and passages of Phang Nha Cave.
Massive rock formations abound in the huge chambers and passages of Phang Nha Cave.

Higher than the reach of the floodlights, the ceiling of the cave’s high chamber remained in shadow. And for pretty much the next hour, I could hardly speak, since my jaw stayed fallen open.

I’ve always had a thing for caves. During our 2020 summer road trip, Jodie, the kids, and I explored Minnetonka Cave in Idaho, one of the largest caves in the Northwest. Growing up in the Southeast US, where limestone abounds in the mountains, caves live beneath those forests and hills. In places such as Luray Caverns in Virginia and an unnamed cave in Tennessee, I was happy to get muddy in the dark. During my junior year of college, I remember spending a happy afternoon in a cave, emerging covered head to toe in brown mud, and grinning so stupidly people probably thought I’d fallen in love, albeit with some sort of mud creature.

There are caves in the US I long to visit as well, such as Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Mammoth is particularly famous. With over 400 miles explored, the National Park Service believes there’s at least another 600 miles in the system, and Mammoth is considered the world’s longest cave.

Yet no matter where you find an impressive hole in the ground, the caves of Vietnam have them all beat.

The world’s largest cave

The karst limestone hills of Vietnam are as dotted with caves as the moon is with craters. The Southeast Asian country has 404 known caves, particularly in Northern Vietnam’s Phong Nham area. Even then, scientists estimate that they’ve only found about 30% of the caves thought to lie under the forests and rocks of Vietnam’s vast hill country.

In fact, the world’s largest known cave, Son Doong Cave, is reckoned to be at least 3 million years old, stretches 3 miles, and has chambers over 650 feet tall. The cave system is so massive, we’re still figuring out how big it is. Son Doing Cave was only discovered in 1990 and opened to the public in 2013. A 2019 expedition found the cave was even bigger than we thought. With a total known volume of over 1.4 billion cubic feet, it’s been said that you could fit any other cave into Son Doong and have plenty of room to spare.

Son Doong was also not a place we were going anytime soon. Visiting is, understandably, expensive. Getting to it requires some arduous jungle trekking, and there’s a minimum age of 18. Traveling in Vietnam with kids, we had known this world-famous cave would not be an option.

Yet, just minutes from our homestay in the village of Phong Nha, we could climb aboard a long, slender, blue motorboat and go somewhere just as amazing.

An amazing cave experience in Vietnam with kids

For the traveler who prefers a slightly lower level of adventure, for kids, and for people who have mobility conditions, we found Phong Nha cave an incredible alternative when traveling in Vietnam with kids. As the motor putted us upstream for around half an hour, we came around a curve where the color of the water changed. The bright, almost jade green of the Son River turned to a lighter, brownish green, with a distinct line where the different bodies of water met.

Farther upstream, the river took us past a bend. Before us, a high, broken, forested hill curved toward the sky. And at its base, where the rock met the wide river, a black space arched from the water and waited for us to enter.

 As we neared the cave, the boat’s engine shut off. Down came a single oar. Instead of the sound of the engine smacking off the limestone walls, we could go through the cave with only the sound of wood on water—not to mention all our gasps of surprise and awe.

Pumpkin cave?

I have marveled at plenty of caves, and all their incredible formations. The names can tell the story: the pipe organ, the bacon, the seven dwarves. Phong Nha cave held more bacon than a supermarket gearing up for the Superbowl. Towers and spires of rock dripped from the ceiling and shot up from the floor.

But they were nothing like anything I had encountered before. That’s not because of anything about the type of formation—but the size. Instead of a few feet or a couple of meters high, cylindrical columns of rock rose fifty feet in the air. Floor-to-ceiling formations thicker than redwood trees seemed like something a Tolkien team of dwarves could have formed from years of architectural mining.

The best way I can think of to draw a comparison is this:

Imagine, say, a typical pumpkin you might get for Halloween, to carve and set out on your front porch. Next, imagine one of those giant pumpkins, the sort that breaks size and weight records for a state fair.

Now imagine a pumpkin the size of Buckingham Palace, where every chamber is like being inside a huge gothic cathedral.

Oh, and you’re inside it.

“It’s like an inhale for the year.”

The joy of quiet days

Happy New Year wishes from the Learners and Makers, Anthony, Connor, Aster, and Jodie!
Happy New Year wishes from the Learners and Makers, Anthony, Connor, Aster, and Jodie!

As we continue our travels in Vietnam with kids, I’m writing this from the quiet side of the year. You know the one. After all the hustle and bustle of the December holidays, but before the excitement and expectation of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there is the quiet time. It’s like an inhale for the year. A moment of stillness, the rest between action and action.

For us, as you likely know, November and December are all the busier since we also have to account for a few birthdays. Once Christmas finishes, we go into a rest mode. The next days are typically quiet, a sort of earned hibernation. Jodie and I make ourselves (mostly) take some time off the business. We spend extra time with the kids, have quiet walks, and put on extra movies or streaming series. The kettle never cools.

Vietnamese hill country hibernation

Phang Nha was a misty, cool time, in a part of Vietnam’s hill country that can have a sort of winter. Around our riverside homestay, the green hills held up the sky and kept the clouds from pressing down too much. The weather was cool, but not quite cold.

There’s not much in the way of heaters here though, so we did layer up a bit more than we might have preferred. Still. With blankets, hot beverages, and good company, we passed the time in relaxation. Other than some days off, we had come to Phang Nha to visit the Phang Nha Cave. Otherwise, all we wanted to do was enjoy our between-holidays hibernation time.

2023 would begin not only all too soon, but with excitement to come. During January we would be in four countries. We had many things in our work that we wanted to make progress on after the New Year. There were more travels to plan, and a few big ideas we needed to flesh out.

But that’s also why we take time to rest. We had had such a year of excitement, change, and wonder. Now it was time to rest up, refresh, recharge—so we could have another.

In the meantime, we put the kettle back on, crawled back under the covers, and watched the river outside our window. Taking a deep breath, we inhaled, and held it, waiting for the moment to breathe out, and begin anew.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

2 thoughts on “Week 14, Tam Cốc & Phong Nha, Vietnam with kids”

  1. Love reading about your adventures!

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