Backpacking in Vietnam with young children
Vietnam with Young Children – A brief outline of our December 2019 itinerary
- Hanoi Day – 1 night
- Ha Long Bay – 2 nights
- Ninh Binh – 2 nights
- Hanoi – 2 nights
- Fly to Hoi An – 4 nights
- Da Nang – 2 nights
- Fly to Ho Chi Minh City – 4 nights
In December 2019, we went backpacking through Vietnam with our young children aged three and five. Having done a fair bit of travelling through South East Asia in our time, Vietnam was one of the countries that ‘everyone’ seems to have been to, but we never had. It turns out there’s a reason why everyone goes, it’s brilliant!
There seem to be a few well-trodden tourist paths through Vietnam, but here is ours.
We booked accommodation and the cruise in Ha Long Bay and some transport before we left but nothing else. I had read a lot about taxi scams in Vietnam so when we’re flying into a new destination we had the accommodation collect us, I later learned that Grab operates in Vietnam which is another option and we used Grab whenever it was available.
The weather was split into three distinct mini-climates.
The North – Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh – It was around 18-20°C and obviously cooler at night. There were sporadic rain showers. We live in Malaysia and the chance to wear a jumper and jeans was a welcome break from the heat of Kuala Lumpur.
The Middle – Da Nang and Hoi An – Around 25°C, perfect weather for us.
The South – Ho Chi Minh City – late 20°C /early 30°C, but humid. Similar to the weather we experience in Malaysia.
We recently took a trip around Sri Lanka with our kids and stayed in homestays or guesthouses the whole which worked really well. There weren’t as many available in Vietnam though, I’m not sure why, it was all booked pretty much last minute so I guess that was a factor, anyway, there were a few hotels in there but it was all done pretty low budget. Our average accommodation spend was £35, bearing in mind that included both Christmas and New Years Eve.
So, this is what we did…
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 1 – Hanoi (1 Night)
We flew into Hanoi Airport (Noi Bai) and the hotel sent a driver to collect us. We decided to explore Ha Long Bay first and do Hanoi later on so we were only here for one afternoon.
I really liked Hanoi. The city is around 1,000 years old and there is a lot to do and see which we would later discover. However, it is busy, very busy, with motorbikes…and people…and more motorbikes. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see various tips and guides about ‘How to cross a road in Vietnam‘, it’s all true.
You very quickly learn that your ONLY way of getting across a road is to just pick your kids up/hold them against your leg and step out, walk at a steady pace and keep moving.
In Vietnam, everyone just accepts it and drives around you, there appears to be an understanding between motorcyclists and pedestrians, something that seems completely alien when you first arrive and completely normal 30 minutes later.
We took a walk down to Ho Hoan Kiem lake, where there is a lot going on.
We also checked out St Joseph’s Cathedral with its large Chrismas tree and Nativity scene.
Accommodation – Classic Street Hotel – Good breakfast and very well located about two minutes from the lake.
Journey from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
If you are going to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, it is pretty common for the cruise operator to collect you from Hanoi. It was an early morning pickup as the journey takes about four hours.
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 2-3 – Ha Long Bay (2 Nights)
By far the most expensive part of this trip but certainly only of the highlights. There are a lot of operators out there and when arranging this I was a bit overwhelmed with the advice but we went we these guys on a 3 Day/2 Night cruise and I would highly recommend them. Whether you do, one, two or three day trips will depend on your itinerary and budget but we were really glad we went with the longer option.
If you’re wondering, which we were, the kids didn’t have time to get bored. Also, a lot of people talk about the safety of the kids on the boat, saying that they could climb over the fences and fall in the sea. Basically, if they are young enough that they could potentially do that (which ours are) you just don’t let them out of your sight. Would you send a three-year-old to the park and leave them to go and have a coffee? No, so just don’t do it here.
We went kayaking, visited a floating village with oyster farming, tried squid fishing, joined a small cooking class, had a BBQ on the beach, did a bit of hiking and visited a cave. Our youngest is three and with a bit of carrying here and there, he was absolutely fine and loved it all!
All food is included and, not surprisingly, consists mostly of seafood, not all though. By far this was the best seafood I’ve ever had.
Our room was a bit of a squeeze in what was essentially a double room with a single bed pushed up alongside it. The alternative was to get two rooms but the price would have just made it a bit unrealistic.
We didn’t spend a great amount of time in the room anyway, there was a small heated pool which the kids played in for the time we were not off the boat exploring.
Journey from Ha Long Bay to Ninh Binh
As part of the package, a return trip to Hanoi is often included however we decided against going straight back to the capital and headed south-west to Ninh Binh. We booked a private car through HCTS, for what was another three-hour journey. (do not underestimate how long it takes to get to different places in Vietnam).
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 4-5 – Ninh Binh (2 Nights)
We opted for a homestay in Tam Coc.
Not that we visited but there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on in Ninh Binh City, all the action is definitely in Tam Coc.
Ninh Binh has a lot of backpackers, though surprisingly doesn’t come up on a lot of ‘Tourist Maps’, we heard about it from some friends and I’m really glad we went. There is a lot more open space and compared to Hanoi and later Ho Chi Minh City, there is hardly any traffic so its a lot less stressful getting around.
We were only there for two days, (We could have stayed at least another) but here’s what we did…
Hang Mua – An area with caves, lotus ponds and a mountain (with steps, 500 of them) with a statue of a stone dragon at the top. I loved this!
Bich Dong Pagoda – A series of caves temples and pagodas, worth a visit in you’re staying nearby.
Tam Coc Lake – Boat trips are offered and from what we heard from others, it was well worth doing, however having just spent the last three days on a boat, we let the kids stay on solid ground instead but it was a nice walk around.
Accommodation – Tam Coc Melody Homestay – There are loads of options for accommodation in Ninh Binh (near Tam Coc anyway) but this was great, well located and good food. They also arranged our transport to our next destination.
Tip – When we were on our way to Hang Mua, we couldn’t flag a taxi down (despite being told we could- there were none!). If this happens to you, almost all restaurants, cafes, shops will be able to call you a taxi. Get the driver to stay for a couple of hours and take you back, the chances of getting a taxi back from the mountain are slim as its a bit out of the way.
Tip – There is not a lot of traffic on the roads, hire bikes, it is by far the easier way to get around. We didn’t because there were no child seats for T but we later found out that they often keep them in the back of the shop and attach them whenever needed. They don’t all have them but most will. Ask, we never thought to and wished we had!
Journey from Ninh Binh to Hanoi
We got a ‘luxury’ bus organised by our homestay. ‘Luxury’ is pushing it but it was fine. The journey took about an hour and a half. I wanted to get the train and it looked easy enough it just would have taken longer door to door.
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 6-7 – Hanoi (2 Nights)
Back to the motorbike dodging! It was now time to fit in as many sights and attractions that Hanoi has to offer, in two days.
Heres what we did…
Water Puppet Show – A Vietnamese tradition and something you must do. It’s all in Vietnamese but that’s not a problem, you half get what is going on and the kids loved this.
Hoa Lo Prison – If there’s one thing you can’t really escape in Vietnam, it is the war. We debated whether this was suitable for the kids but it was fine. It does have statues of prisoners in the cells and tied up etc which did prompt some potentially difficult questions from L and a lot of the text you read explains some pretty brutal goings-on during the prisons lifetime but I would definitely recommend this, you just have to use common sense when it comes to what you let the kids see.
Temple of Literature & Go Kim Chau – These places were perfect, open spaces and a lake to walk around, not huge but great if the kids need to run around for an hour.
Den Ngoc Son Temple – Right in the middle of the Hoan Kiem lake. Tells you the legend of a turtle which also made an appearance in the water puppet show.
Cyclo Tour – Time was limited but definitely worth either getting a tour or even just using it as a taxi to get from one place to the other for the experience.
Night Market – A busy market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, selling pretty much everything you can think of!
Tip – Hanoi has ‘Railway Street‘, do a quick google and you will see what I mean. However thanks to ‘Instagrammers’ it’s now closed for safety reasons due to the number of people putting themselves in danger for a selfie with an oncoming train. I read about various cafe owners who will allow you ‘through their back door’ so you can still get on to the track. To be honest, we had plans to do this but just ran out of time.
Accommodation – Hanoi La Cascada House & Travel – Slightly out of the way but still only about a 20 minute walk from the lake. The people running this were the most helpful people we came across in Vietnam, this alone is worth the walk.
Journey from Hanoi to Hoi An
Time to say goodbye to Hanoi and head towards Hoi An. Originally I wanted to get the sleeper train having loved doing this before in Thailand but that was in our pre-kids day, if the kids weren’t in the mood, it would have been a long 13 hours or so. Instead, we opted for a 60 minute Vietnam Airlines flight, which was actually cheaper than the train anyway.
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 8-12 – Hoi An (4 Nights)
We came to Hoi An with high expectations, a lot of people we spoke to before coming all raved about Hoi An. I liked it here, I really did but I think given the amount of praise it was getting I think I expected a bit more from the actual town centre itself. The centre of Hoi An is centred around the old quarter and if you’re into visiting temples and walking along rivers whilst admiring the old architecture and stopping at a cafe every hour, then this place is brilliant. Young kids, however, want to do none of those. Hoi An is a really nice little town but there just isn’t much to entertain the kids, so we had to go further afield.
Here’s what we did both in Hoi An and the surrounding areas.
Walk around the Old Town – As I said Hoi An is nice, there are little cobbled streets you can walk around and lots of shops and cafes to pop into. There is also a small playground on the south side of the river. By the end of the first day doing this however, the kids had had enough of walking looking at buildings.
Tip – If you want to get into any of the ‘attractions’ then you have to buy a ticket which gets you into any five of your choice, this includes the Japanese Covered Bridge. You get the tickets from the tourist information centre, not at the entrance to each attraction.
An Bang Beach – It was actually Christmas Day when we hired bikes and cycled up to the beach, it didn’t take long, about 30 minutes and it was a really nice ride through the rice fields when you get out of the town. The beach itself was brilliant and there are loads of restaurants to choose from (though they all seem to sell the same stuff).
Cycling through the Rice Fields – This is one thing I wish we had done more of, the fields are separated well relatively well-maintained paths and there were loads of people on bikes riding along looking at the various pigs and water buffalo that were milling around.
Catholic Church of Hoi An – Also on Christmas Day there was a festival on at the Church, there were singers, dancers and speakers (all in Vietnamese of course). I’m not sure if there are other things on during the rest of the year but if you find yourself in Hoi An over Christmas I would definitely check out the schedule.
Bana Hills – This is a massive tourist trap but we all absolutely loved this place. The highlight is meant to be The Golden Bridge built to look like two massive ancient hands (actually constructed in 2018…) coming out of the mountain and supporting a bridge.
You take the worlds longest cable car (apparently) into a replica French village high in the mountains with plenty to walk around and see with various churches and cathedrals.
The best bit for the kids though was the theme park. You pay once before you get on the cable car and then that gets you in with multiple entries allowed. We ate at one of the buffet restaurants, it wasn’t cheap but well worth it.
Tip – It’s a little bit in the middle of nowhere, so we paid a driver to take us, wait around for about 4 hours and then take us back to our accommodation. Don’t underestimate the queues to get on the cable car. From leaving the entrance on the ground to getting to the French village took about 30 minutes. Going in the opposite direction took 60 minutes, everyone had the idea of leaving at the same time we did.
Accommodation – Bonsai Villa Homestay – On the south side of the river but they gave us free bike hire to get into the town which took less than 5 minutes. They were building some new rooms the whole time we were there and the banging was beyond irritating at 7am every morning, but this was its only fault. By the time anyone reads this, that will no doubt be well and truly completed and would definitely recommend it.
Journey from Hoi An to Da Nang
A short taxi ride arranged by our homestay to take let us check out Da Nang for a couple of days and to be that little bit closer to the airport for our early flight
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 13-14 – Da Nang (2 Nights)
Da Nang is a built-up city on the coast. We never planned to stay long here although there are a fair few day trips you can do. In fact, Bana Hills is actually closer to Da Nang than Hoi An.
Heres what we did…
The Beach – We spent a day there, it was really nice and the kids spent a fair few hours playing in what were, at the time, very shallow waters.
Sunworld – What appears to be owned by the same guys in Bana Hills, Sunworld is another theme park with a pretty big Ferris wheel (115 meters/377 feet apparently). We went at night and the place was really quiet, no queues whatsoever!
Little T is at that difficult height where he wants to go on all the big rides but isn’t tall enough, but there were still 4 or 5 smaller rides he was able to go on again and again. If you’re not the best with heights, I’d think hard about the Ferris wheel, it’s very high…and slow….and creaky! We again ate at the buffet restaurant which we bought as part of the ticket.
Dragon Bridge – Not really an attraction as such but we walked down to let the kids get close. A bridge with a cool metal dragon overhead. Also on weekends at, I think 9 pm, the dragon breathes fire! We missed it, but watch it here.
If you have more time in Da Nang there are certainly other things to check out, have a read of this for other things to do.
Accommodation – Rosabella Boutique – Didn’t really like this place to be honest, the rooms were alright, the breakfast was poor and the location, whilst close to the beach, was a bit far from the centre. There will be better options.
Journey from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City
We took a Viet Jet Airlines flight. I had read terrible reviews online about this airline but it was our only reasonable choice at the time. Turned out to be absolutely fine!
Vietnam with Young Children – Day 15-19 – Ho Chi Minh City (4 Nights)
I really liked HCMC but if we thought there were a lot of motorbikes in Hanoi, there are 10x more here. 9 million apparently.
So here’s what we did in our last destination…
Cu Chi Tunnels – Something we debated long and hard about taking our kids to after reading the reviews but as I mentioned earlier, you can’t really travel through Vietnam and avoid the war. Plus I really wanted to go, again we had to just use common sense. For me this was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been, if you don’t know anything about it, which I didn’t, you learn so much when you are there. The people here at the time were living on the very brink of survival!
If you’re wondering whether you get a chance actually go into the tunnels, there is a 60m stretch that you have the option to crawl through with exit 20m at 40m, it has, however, somewhat embarrassingly, been made bigger for tourists!
War Remnants Museum – In my opinion, this place is NOT for young kids. However, the owners have clearly realised this and they have created a playroom so the kids can dress up and play games etc whilst the parents take turns walking around. The other places that we had debated taking the kids to, we could sort of bluff our way through without the kids being exposed to too much.
In this museum however, some of the exhibitions on the Agent Orange attack, in particular, are really graphic and shook me, not something you really want to be trying to explain to your inquisitive five-year-old. A must if you’re in the area, but take the kids to the playroom!
Dam Sen Water Park – A really good place to let the kids cool off in the heat. There is a large childrens area and a big wave pool, plus plenty of other faster rides that our kids had no chance on getting on at the minute!
Tao Dan Park / September 23rd Park Trees, grass, playgrounds and ponds. These places aren’t going to win any awards but when you have young kids and they need to burn off some energy, this is the place.
Zoo and Botanical Gardens – This place really frustrated me. It has everything it needs to be really good but whilst the trees and shrubbery along the walkways were all immaculately maintained, the animals’ enclosures were terrible and it seemed as if no one worked there, at all, nothing was open. We didn’t go on a quiet day, it just seems that this is how they run it, build it all and then leave it to rot. You can tell some zoos really care about the welfare of the animals, it doesn’t appear to be the case here.
Ben Thanh Street Food Market – Undoubetly aimed at tourists but that’s fine, that’s what we are. I loved this place and definitely worth checking out.
Mekong Delta Tour – We didn’t actually do this but thought I’d mention it as it was something that we had originally researched and planned to do. The reason we didn’t do it, in the end, was that the traffic in HCM is so bad, what should have been a 3 hour round trip to Cu Chi Tunnels turned out to be 5.5 hours. We just couldn’t risk putting the kids through that again. But we would definitely have liked to do this!
Accommodation – Moka Hotel – Very good location, but that’s where the positives end. I won’t complain about it, I’ll just say…don’t stay here.
After an exhausting almost three weeks in Vietnam, it was time to go home. Many people questioned whether, due to both being unable to escape the war plus the sheer volume of motorbikes, Vietnam is a good place to take young kids.
Is it a bit tiring trying to get across the road in one piece? Yep.
Do you sometimes question if letting your kids sit in the once -torturous prison cells is really the right thing to do? Yep.
But do you also come away having done and seen more things in 3 weeks than could last you a lifetime? Definitely.