Sitting on the top deck of a dodgy old tour boat in Lan Ha bay, swigging on an ice-cold Bia Hanoi, and lapping up the stunning limestone scenery in the hot, clear sunshine—a member of our group interjects on my utopian moment with the comment: “You don’t see many, if any, men backpacking with their mothers, do you… what’s it like?”
As we pootled past yet another brightly colored floating abode, wrapped in its own private Caste Island bay, I considered… should I give the simple answer, or the more complex response?
“It’s great,” I replied. “Refreshingly good fun.”
The more detailed response follows:
For the sake of context, I am a 31-year-old career expedition leader/traveler. My mother is a mildly unfit, charmingly hippy-esque, vivacious 67-year-old extraordinaire. It had been a longstanding dream of Mum’s for us to take a trip together before she reached decrepitude, and before I finally hang up my worn-out boots of wandering. Things then suddenly conspired to come together for us in early 2013 when, after watching a program about our shared favorite subject—street food—we spontaneously booked tickets for a 12-day adventure in northern Vietnam. Booked and paid for, there was no turning back!
Following the commitment, the reactions among the majority of friends, of all ages, and to both of us, was pretty universal, and along the lines of “Oh, how nice, that will be special … not sure I could cope with 12 days of intense company with my mother/son! But good for you guys!”
I have always found it amazing the number of psychological barriers human beings can subconsciously build in front of their potential to do things. I understood their response—the belligerent teenager in me (who occasionally re-surfaces) was horrified at the thought of spending this much time in the company of an older lady, particularly one with such an emotional attachment to my childhood, and who is the original donor of my genetically inherited traits of need for control, occasional lack of tolerance, and an exuberant approach to the travel philosophy of “go, go, go!” But the mature son in me was fully aware of the uniqueness of the opportunity ahead—to share a concentrated period of time with a woman who had spent 31 years ensuring I was OK. This was an opportunity to share the things we both love: adventure, new people, food, and challenge—and for me to spend some time ensuring she was, indeed, ok. It was my choice which of these emotional roads I chose to walk down in approaching this trip, and, being fully aware that I may get diverted from the path on more than one occasion, I chose to begin with a smile and set off with the latter approach firmly in my heart and mind (and my first-aid certificate/travel insurance tucked neatly in my pocket).
After our first night of street food in the torrential rain of Hanoi, it was the next day’s overnight train journey which raised the first humorous realization of inter-generational travel. Having asked to travel as I do on my independent journeys, my mother was delighted when I informed her we were not booked on the tourist “soft-sleeper” but on the local train, with only “hard-sleepers” available (saving a truly significant $4 per ticket). On arrival in our allocated carriage, I was immediately drawn to an oversight in my planning of this rustic adventure. Mum was booked into a middle bunk of three. I don’t know if you’ve ever been lucky enough to observe a jovial, slightly round, athletically challenged 67-year-old grandmother attempt to climb and wedge herself into a small ledge on a rickety train—but if you haven’t, it’s well worth the ticket price. Once in, there was no going back, and nine hours later, following a slightly less jovial extrication exercise, I sincerely promised that the return journey on the “soft-sleeper” would prove far more salubrious.
Travel and adventure for me, in general, is all about opening doors of interaction with as many people who call a destination home as possible; with a cheeky smile and a healthy lack of reservation when meeting new people, I am fairly successful at getting invites to family do’s, or my favorite—to spend some time in a Mumma’s kitchen. On this trip I learned that taking a verging-on-aging mother only helps these interactional opportunities. It is easy to forget the respect that is paid to people who have lived for a good while (the old) in a positive majority of world societies. Living in London subconsciously conditions one to forsake all others in the pursuit of individual success. But in the mountains of northern Vietnam, it was the respect paid to my Ma that encouraged others to approach us, offer assistance, and pay their respect to an impressive woman, who at 67, by backpacking, was doing something not many people of her age, from anywhere in the world, would attempt. A whole posse of Red Dzao ladies insisted on holding my mother’s hands to keep her steady for the entirety of our two-hour walk to a local school. The cynical among you will, at this point, no doubt offer the chime of ulterior motives among the craft-making women, suspecting that an investment in my mother’s well-being would surely lead to guaranteed sales of hand-sewn bags and bracelets—that’s how the world ticks, surely? What actually was sure in this interaction was the natural, intercultural respect between mothers and grandmothers; something I was outside of, not privy to. Not that it was exclusive. It was just genuine appreciation of the lives, however different, these older ladies had lived, and the mutual respect for what it means universally to be a life-carer.
There were, however, some no-no’s in our shared experience. Downhill mountain biking was an adventure too far. My mother’s journey of thousands of miles began (unlike Lao Tzu’s) with a giant leap of courage, rather than a meager single step. It would take physical coercion to get her to join me cycling through the villages in the hills surrounding our eco-lodge (www.topasecolodge.com), and so I quickly discovered that if I wanted to do something a little more physical than strolling through markets and homes, I would need to do it solo—which coincidentally provided both of us with necessary personal space, and meant that the previously mentioned popular concern for spending that level of intense time with a mother was negated. It ultimately improved the quality of the time we were together.
The ethos of engaging with travel in a way that enabled us to share experience while also partaking in individual activity permeated the whole trip, and was typified by our day cruising through Lan Ha and Halong Bay on an old wooden ship. We enjoyed interacting with fellow travelers and bearing witness to stunning scenery and marine-based ways of life—but I was also able to head out exploring in a kayak, while my mother was left to sunbathe and suffer the delights of a drunken boat captain with a penchant for ladies’ knees (but that’s another story).
Not only does inter generational travel open doors with the local population, but fellow travelers appear to be intrigued by their inability to put either of us into their regular box-shaped categories of traveler. By sharing the experience together, it was as though we became a “safe” option for other travelers, as if the concept of a mother and son represented a guaranteed openness and source of reassurance in an increasingly individualistic world. Mum and I enjoyed the company of young international school-based teachers on their (booze-based) summer holidays; we spent a night in a shared railway carriage with a newly married Danish/Canadian couple who thought Mum was the coolest thing since the iPod; and we shared inter-generational stories with a mother and daughter travel team who we spent time with in Ha Long Bay. These and other experiences helped us to realize the special nature of our adventure: What had begun as a dream of my mother’s, to share a food-based travel adventure with her son, grew into an appreciation of the unique opportunity that a shared experience with an older parent or mature offspring can provide. A mother/son travel team is rare—but then, the bond between mothers and sons across the world is often a special one—and it was an absolute pleasure to experience a society in which elders, and particularly female ones, are revered within the family, and respected in society as a whole. Mum fit right in.
You don’t see many men backpacking with their mothers. I imagine that’s due to a misplaced concept of what it means to be “cool.” But in answer to the question “What’s it like?” I would answer, in consideration of all the above, that it is not one single story—it’s not all roses, of course, and certainly both of us made compromises and met in the middle a few times, but it was hilarious, unique, brilliant, and most importantly opened up so many opportunities for interacting with others, and with each other. It was truly great to have some quality time with Mum that didn’t involve one or the other of us cooking a roast dinner for a hectic family occasion in the grey drizzle of home.