Over 2000 miles of coastline with some fantastic beaches. No hordes of tourists (as yet) like some of its neighbouring countries. Great fresh seafood (not withstanding some of the articles about mercury poisoning in the fish). So don’t let the violent patches in the country’s history keep you away. The country is changing rapidly. Go to Vietnam now, and take your kids with you.
North Vietnam – Hanoi & Ha Long bay
We started our trip, like a lot others, in Hanoi. The city, despite the hot and humid weather that we encountered in June, is beautiful and stately. (The immediate comparison to Lutyen’s Delhi comes to mind while Ho Chi Minh City is more like Mumbai).
We took a connection via Bangkok and after the night flights, reached in the morning, checked into the hotel and promptly crashed. Alas, I had messed up Rule #1 – never plan anything on the first day post night travel! I had booked a really interesting and unusual tour with HanoiKids Voluntary English Club and with great reluctance, husband (R) and daughter (K) got out of bed. These are university kids who take you to see places in the city, all for the chance to practice their English and to get some insight into your culture (you can find them on FB, but best to e mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org with the sites you want to cover).
Our first stop was very interesting – The Temple of Literature is a sort of place where Confucius is worshiped and the place of the first university in Vietnam.
But after an hour or so within the complex, the heat sapped our energy. K had slept off and it was getting increasingly difficult for R to walk carrying a sleeping child. We ended up cancelling the visit to Ho Chi Minh palace / museum post this and were happy to go to a little hole-in-the wall café in the old part of the city. We were so glad we didn’t give the old quarter a miss. While R was happy with the local beer, I tried the egg coffee – thick, creamy, intense, and a complete delight. K slept through the coffee break peacefully on a bench.
With energy restored, we meandered through the French quarters, took in the beautiful buildings in that area including the Opera House and called it a day. Our hosts were so keen to show us a typical book store, talk more about education, lifestyle, culture in India (that can take months!) but we bid goodbye and decided to have a drink at the grand Hotel Metropole before heading back to our hotel.
Ha Long Bay. – A UNESCO heritage site with over 2000 lime karsts rising out of the water.
K really enjoyed this part of the trip. This may end up being a bit difficult with kids, but she thought staying in a boat cabin was heavenly. The road trip to reach the bay was a different matter altogether. It takes 4 hours from Hanoi – through some really dilapidated and un-scenic parts and in my opinion, this is worth only if you are going for a night stay. It is too crazy to do this for a day trip! We booked ‘Dragon Legend’.
Also the bay is loveliest in the evening when all the other junks (yes, that’s exactly what they are called!) that carry day trippers have gone.
After a hearty lunch, there was an option to visit a small beach via a smaller boat or a kayak. We opted for kayaking. We all got a quick theory session on dos and don’ts and a stern warning about the presence of jelly fish in the water in parts. Our guide, an expert kayaker, offered to take the 5 year old daughter in his kayak, leaving us to enjoy in a separate one. K was a bit psyched about being alone with a stranger, but she stayed calm and kept us in her vision.
The destination was super fun for her – she thoroughly enjoyed the pristine beach, making sand castles and frolicking in the bay. We took the boat back to our catamaran.
Central Vietnam – Da Nang, Hoi An & Hue
Central Vietnam with its endless beaches and the charming town of Hoi An is a delight for kids. There are several beach resorts at Da Nang, and this would be an ideal place for families to stay.
Our first day was spent lazing by the poolside and doing pretty much nothing all day. Bliss! In the evening, we took the hotel shuttle to go visit the Hoi An town. It is a nice stroll within the town where cars have been banned. However, It can be quite crowded on some streets in the evening so make sure you hold on to your kids / toddlers. Hoi An has some amazing restaurants (the best food in Vietnam according to many travellers) and kids would have love the dishes, be it vegetables, fish or meat. My personal recommendations for the restaurants – Morning Glory, Mango Mango.
As an aside note, my daughter only eats fried fish, not steamed or poached or even pan fried. Morning Glory has some amazing food and very different local recipes to enjoy. But there was no deep fried fish on the menu. However, once we explained what we want to the staff, they were more than happy to get us de-boned fried fish with some vegetables and chips.
The next day, we were all set for our countryside cycling tour. We took a taxi to the Heaven and Earth Tours shop in Hoi An town. They had our bicycles ready – one for R with a seat behind to comfortably seat our daughter and another one for me.
First the cycles had to be loaded onto a boat and we crossed the river to the other side. In many places, nets were pulled out of the water, seemingly sunning themselves. Our guide explained that the nets are lowered in the water mornings and evenings to catch the fish.
The cycling trip began once we reached the other side of the river. This is a beautiful way to experience the countryside and the village life. It is not strenuous at all, with breaks to visit a traditional house in the village, see an old woman weave a mat, see how rice liquor is made (you may wish to keep your kids outside the room where rice is being fermented!), see how a coracle is painted and even take a joy ride in a coracle. A bit like a typical Kerala village life, I think.
We had booked a day trip to Hue the next day. The 3 to 4 hour journey would be more convenient to travel in an air-conditioned car. For some reason, we thought it would be a hoot to travel in an old topless jeep (probably left behind by the US army).
The Hai Van pass (which you cross en route to Hue) is the highlight of the road trip and has some stunning vistas. Overall, it is a beautiful drive – with me constantly surprised by the quality of the highways.
Our guide suggested a break at the Elephant waterfall. While a nice stop for the locals to cool in the water and spend the day picnicking, I wished we hadn’t taken this detour – it meant getting into Hue much later than what I had planned for. My daughter thought completely the opposite. She loved getting in the cool water and it took quite an effort to get back on the road.
We finally reached Hue, had a quick lunch and went to visit the main attraction of the city. The citadel, from where the Nguyen emperors once ruled is a really large complex. Too large to explore in half a day. While open with beautiful buildings and trees-laden pathways, it can be challenge to explore on a hot day. After exploring the To Mieu Temple complex, R and K decided to laze on a bench while I explored some of the other buildings and gardens.
We decided to ditch the jeep and come back via a car. The journey back was on a different route, and there is loads to keep you engaged looking out the window – the coastline, green fields, the rows of boats where people cook and live.
We rounded up the stay at Hoi An with a day spent entirely by the pool side and the beach, before flying to Ho Chi Minh city.
South Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh city & Con Dao island
You could do away with Ho Chi Minh City from a family holiday itinerary without feeling the pinch. North & Central Vietnam have much more to offer to kids than this. It was a short break, 2 days before going to Con Dao island. We decided to skip the war museum in HCMC as friends suggested that some of the stuff / information displayed would be too gory for a 5 year old. But we did go to Cu Chi tunnels with K. And I think she was fine with all the American Vietnam war information – over-whelming in parts – that is available there. Cu Chi tunnels are out of the city and a good 1.5 / 2 hour drive one way. So stock up on water and snacks for the journey. The jungle, though largely sanitised for tourists, is quite thick and dense and its scary to imagine the guerrilla war being carried out there. There is a good documentary film shown and a model on display that shows the various tunnels at various levels. Guides who take a small team of tourists through a well-marked path on a regular basis are well informed.
One highlight for those who are not claustrophobic is to experience the thrill of going through a short or a long tunnel. I tried the short one – no steps to climb into, you can get in and do a short drop. I could walk standing up but not the American tourist behind me who was 6 ft 4 inches. It is clean except for some dried leaves / twigs and gives you a good sense of what it must have been for the Vietnamese soldiers / villagers to live, plan, cook in these tunnels. R tried the long tunnel later but here the guide leads.
There is also a section at the end of the walk before the souvenir shop, where you can try your hand at an AK-47. We didn’t try because of K.
The last leg – Con Dao island
We had researched and debated a lot before deciding on Con Dao island as the last leg of our holiday. Na Trang is for the party goers and Phu Quoc for both couples and families but this sleepy island where nothing much happens suited us perfectly.
Con Dao – a penal settlement used by the French and the Americans to house prisoners once upon a time – has been off the tourist track for so long that its really pristine. A small airplane service from Ho Chi Minh city connects to this island in the south on a daily basis. The plane was small, trembled violently in the rains, and was largely full of local tourists.
4 days of R & R is what we went for at this island, so the rains in the first 2 days didn’t bother us as much. The island is perfect for mountain biking and scuba diving (and also hiking) and we tried both once the rains stopped. K had decided – very conveniently for us – that the lady at the resort’s kid centre was her best friend and that she didn’t want to see her parents much.
The town centre is really tiny and we tried a café, but compared to the dining options at our resort – didn’t care for it much. One can go to visit the prisons used at one point of time, but we decided to give it a go
We flew back to Ho Chi Minh city and spent a day there before heading home. This last day was spent in shopping and trying out a bohemian café in the city.
Vietnam is not a natural choice for a lot of Indian families. We don’t know anyone from our circle of friends and acquaintances who has been there with kids. And after the trip, we kept wondering – why not? Great beaches, stunning scenery, fresh food, good resorts and no crazy crowds unlike its neighbours – whats not to like.
This is a guest post by Shweta Singhal.
Shweta is a corporate executive, mother of a 5 year old, generally enthusiastic to plan and try out new things in life. Loves to read and of course travel. She’d like to believe she is NOT an adventure junkie but has tried sky diving, rappelling, glacier climbing, trekking, para gliding, mountain biking, scuba diving.