I have both physically and mentally returned to the Little City after more than three weeks of back-to-back travel. Is there a word for something that’s both tiring and restorative at the same time?
Without wishing to sound like one of the best things about life in Qatar is getting away from Qatar…well, you can guess what I’m going to say.
The trick, given Qatar Airways’ exorbitant monopoly over so many direct routes, is to wait for one of their occasional sales and book way ahead.
It might suck a bit of spontaneity out of life, but with kids and jobs (let alone Qatar’s bureaucratic anomaly of having to request an exit permit from your employer) who’s got time to be spontaneous?
(A: people in between contracts can be spontaneous. I’ve just returned from a surprise visit to the UK where in between assorted check ups and dentist’s appointments, I surprised one of our best friends at his 40th birthday party.
The following day one of his daughters, none of whom had been at the party, asked me, in that blunt way that kids do, what I was doing in the UK. I came over for the look on your dad’s face, I told her. She just nodded blithely and, spotting an adult with some time on his hands, asked me to read her some Harry Potter, which I was more than happy to do.)
If life is about making memories and collecting stories, then I’ve collected some great ones over the past few weeks.
I took Kid A to see Minus-One Direction in Dubai; the show started an hour late and was stopped for another half hour while a barrier was repaired so we didn’t get back to our hotel till nearly midnight.
But what she’ll remember is screaming herself hoarse and nearly passing out at the excitement of it all. Mission accomplished, I think.
Like about 90% of passengers through Hamad International Airport, we had a brief stopover in Doha (in our case, to unpack, repack and collect the rest of the family) before heading on to somewhere else.
At some point over the past year, it became apparent that the kids were of an age where a trip to SE Asia wouldn’t be a mission impossible. Which is why we followed our own advice, and booked ourselves flights to Hanoi in a Qatar Airways sale last year.
The full on rush of Asian city life is not something that easily works for families with younger kids. There’s rarely an inch of pavement that isn’t occupied by traders, street food vendors or mopeds.
(The only other group I’d suggest gives the country a miss is anyone with a peanut allergy; they get scattered like confetti onto everything. I think the only foodstuff without đậu phọng was my toothpaste.)
But we felt they were ready for the challenge; besides, living here, it’s critical to keep them grounded with some concept of what life is like in other parts of the world.
There are trappings of expat life here in Doha – like our casual reliance on valet parking at hotels, for example – that are still so comic to me, because they just don’t represent how most people actually live.
So, on a mission to keep it real, we headed back to Vietnam. Mrs LC and I first travelled there in the month before we relocated to Qatar. It was both the best and worst time ever to go on holiday.
There was so much else to do and think about that it seemed ludicrous to essentially press pause on our move for two of the final four weeks before we left.
But we had no choice; Mrs LC had, implausibly, won a competition and had two return flights to anywhere in the world burning a hole in her pocket.
We wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been before; that was far enough away to get the most out of our prize; but also because we were picking up the bill for everything else on the trip, somewhere that wasn’t going to be ruinously expensive when we got there.
Vietnam ticked all the boxes and we spent two amazing weeks in Hanoi and Nha Trang escaping from the mother of all to-do lists.
Back in town
So we wanted to go back, and – with the kids this time – we split our trip between Hanoi and the coastal town of Hoi An.
The children took to Hanoi like some expats take to valet parking. Utterly unfazed by starting the day with a steaming bowl of beef pho, and then hitting the streets to take in the sensory overload of the city.
There was just as much beeping from the omnipresent mopeds as there is from cars here in Doha, but there’s a crucial difference, which the kids picked up on straight away. It’s a coming through! happy beeping, not the get-out-of-my-lane version we have in Doha.
Like Mumbai’s dabbawalas, the movement of the mopeds is both mysterious and beautiful. I’ve no idea how it flows, but it just does – and in nearly a month across three cities in total I have yet to see a single accident.
As a former French colony, Vietnam still retains many of the best bits of that country – what you might loosely call pavement culture, amazing food, pastries, coffee, drinking from bowls, an obsession with cycling – with all the bustle and community of an Asian city.
I thought the kids might be fazed by the idea of sitting down at a roadside food stall and eating, for example, eel noodles – but no, they dived in and loved it.
It was the same when Amnesiac got his first taste of soft-shelled crab (“You mean I can eat it all?”), so much so that he asked for a second one just for him.
Being a barter economy means that anything can be bought, sold or fixed up by anyone, at the best price you can haggle your way to. It’s a country where a Hoi An seamstress pins you into place for a tailored suit while simultaneously pitching her husband’s skills as a taxi driver.
Where asking a hotel receptionist where we might find a replacement for a well-loved bag leads us being directed to the exact spot on a street full of specialist repair stalls… Thirty minutes later, and the old bag was as good as new.
It’s a trusting, friendly country where we found ourselves manning a shop (and minding a child) for 10 minutes while the owner nipped out on her scooter to get a dress Kid A liked, in a colour she didn’t have in stock. Actions like that tell you more about a country than any guidebook can.
We walked a lot, especially in the torrential rains in Hoi An (because we could), ate something amazing about once an hour and came away reinvigorated by spending time in a society built on working together for collective benefit.
It was a busy trip, yes, but also a beautiful, friendly, fun and delicious one. If the mark of a good holiday is whether you leave a place hoping to return again some day, then it more than did its job.
Here’s to Qatar Airways’ next sale.
Edit: off to Hanoi / Hoi An? Been inspired to go by this post? Then you’re in luck! I’ve posted a bonus post bursting with more photos, great places to eat and drink, things to do… Check it out here.