Nobody bats an eyelid as about fifty colourful balloons speed past our window on the back of a motorcycle, although it sure is a sight to behold! After a couple of hours on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and we are already accustomed to the pervasive flocks of heavily laden bikes. They choke the roundabouts and add a spike of adrenaline to every attempted street crossing. Looking like she might float off any second, the woman riding tandem on this particular bike keeps a tight grasp on the balloons. The sight fits easily in to the vibrant, bursting landscape of this energetic city. This is why Vietnam with kids is a dream come true. Colourful, energetic and bursting with the unexpected, it also happens to be affordable and just next door.
Perhaps you want a foodie’s foray into local delicacies. Maybe an adrenaline junkie’s jump into thrills and spills. Or a culture vulture’s venture into history and architecture. Perhaps even a luxe lover’s launch into beaches and cruises. Regardless, follow this well-loved traveller’s path from south to north to cross off the best tourist hotspots in Vietnam with kids.
Ho Chi Minh City
Landing in Saigon, as this frenetic city is still known locally, means landing in heat and humidity. My arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, to the soundtrack of motorbikes and horns in the thick night air, set the scene for the friendly people, delicious banquets and animated, old-meets-new vibe I was to encounter for the remainder of my trip. Our explorations of the country’s unofficial second capital fused the French colonialism of the Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office with the military history of the Vietnam War era. You can visit the Cu Chi tunnels, War Remnants Museum or Viet Cong bases in the jungles of Can Gio.
Once a major port and still a popular beachside and riverside retreat, this charming central Vietnamese town can be found in the Danang province. It is one of my top picks when exploring Vietnam with kids. It won’t be hard to spot, illuminated by hundreds of colourful lanterns. The glowing paper orbs transform the Hoi An Old Town streets.Enjoy them after dark with a belly full of Hoi An pancakes. I wish I had spent more time at the Japanese Bridge, and that I’d had a dress or suit made by the world-famous seamstresses and tailors. For history- and outdoorsy-types, the My Son temple complex is another highlight, standing proud atop a lush green mountain. Dating back further than Angkor Wat, these impressive Hindu ruins have survived French and American Wars. They live to tell a proud tale of the Champa tradition.
Bonus: Hoi An by jeep
We took a jeep tour with Rose Travel through a fish market, down narrow streets where local kids waved us by and past the My Son temple complex. It was atmospheric and exciting. As the misty rain set in, we huddled in our ponchos in the vehicles. Most of them were salvaged, engines and all, from the American War of the 1960s. This wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be last trace of the horrific conflict we will see in Hoi An. During our stop at My Son, the presence of deep bomb craters all over the mountain offset the spectacle of the ancient temple ruins.
Our jeeps dropped us off beside the Thu Bon river. We embarked on a sleek wooden boat, once used for fishing, for lunch on board. Despite the rain and dark clouds, the food was delicious, the boat comfy, the view picturesque and the spirits high. Trawling down the river, we alighted at Thanh Ha. This is the pottery district of Hoi An where wizened women spin pottery wheels and clay pots hang from door frames. A great trip if you’re in Vietnam with older kids.
Further north again, in Hue it got chillier as we encountered more spectacular stories and architecture. The Imperial Citadel echoed with the sounds of the Nguyen dynasty, Vietnam’s last imperial family and the former owners and inhabitants. The colourful gates, pavilions, temples and courtyards of the complex were remarkable. They were rivalled only by the beautiful bonsais and peaceful temples of the Thien Mu Pagoda. We also stopped at the lakeside tomb of Tu Duc to enjoy the quiet and meditative majesty of the buildings and gardens.
Bonus: Hue by Vespa
The downpour followed us from Hoi An to Hue. Sadly, it prevented our Vespa Safari, although we were luckily still able to keep to the same route by coach or on foot. The shiny Italian scooters, driven by knowledgeable local guides, usually navigate the Hue citadel and take you up the Vong Canh hill. This is one excellent vantage point over the Perfume River, a prime picnic spot if in Vietnam with kids. If there had been less cloud, the sunset would have been remarkable.
Communist leader Ho Chi Minh is ever-present in Vietnam’s capital city. Hanoi promises a return to the busy traffic and dense population of Saigon, but with a calmer composure and more historic feel. On recommendation, I had a Vietnamese coffee (thick and sweet) on the balcony of one of the tall hotels. I was able to look out over the crowded roundabouts and French architecture. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace and its grounds are worth visiting. So too is the impressive and informative Museum of Ethnology and regal Confucian Temple of Literature. It is here in Hanoi that I would urge you to dip into street food and local treats if you haven’t already. Grab a steaming pho or spicy banh mi.
Bonus: Hanoi by train
On her adventure in Vietnam with kids, our reporter jumped on an overnight train from Hanoi to Hue.
The grand finale, a cruise through the emerald waters and islands of Halong Bay, made for a delightful and very photogenic conclusion to my trip. This is a must-do in Vietnam with kids. Two nights onboard is ample time to explore islets and beaches and onboard activities. I enjoyed a cooking demonstration onboard and a visit to the floating villages of the bay, but my highlight was an early morning tai chi session on deck. Timed perfectly for the rising of the sun, the misty view of the slumbering clifftops and boats passing by was breathtaking.
Stunning though it was, Halong is probably not even Vietnam’s most scenic cruise destination! This title is likely boasted by the Mekong. The long snake of water and its delta are popular for river cruises, although Halong is perhaps more family-friendly being so close to Hanoi.
Bonus: Halong by boat
Obviously, Halong has to be enjoyed from the water. Perhaps you jet out for a day trip, or sleep overnight aboard a traditional Chinese junk. Most tour packages will stop off to sunbake on a beach, climb a mountain on Ti Top Island for panoramic views, and explore floating villages. These aren’t the only vessels you can explore on. I strongly recommend taking a canoe tour of a sheltered cove. You’ll venture where tourist boat can’t, through rocky tunnels to deep green chasms. The experience is an immersive one. As we paddled, we were serenaded with traditional Vietnamese boating songs from a neighbouring rowboat.