Our Intrepid Vietnam tour starts with a dead body.
“Well that was weird,” my son, 11, says.
Ho Chi Minh is revered as the revolutionary father of Vietnam. If we want to do Vietnam like a local, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi is the most logical place to start any tour. And that’s exactly what we are doing on our Intrepid Family Tour of Vietnam.
Ho died of heart failure on September 2, 1969. He never saw the end of the Vietnam war. After the north won, Vietnam embalmed Ho Chi Minh’s body and put it on display in a granite mausoleum modelled after Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. It’s now one of the most visited spots in Vietnam.
After security and bag checks we join the snaking line inching towards the stark grey mausoleum. We walk two abreast, in silence, respectfully through the entrance and into the chamber.
The security guard insider the doorway spies my daughter, 9 on the outer line. He points and gestures for her to swap with me so she takes the inside line – “for a better view”.
For anyone coming from a western background, it certainly is weird to line up to see an embalmed corpse. My daughter thinks it’s strange that they want her to see more. But the Vietnamese are proud of “Uncle Ho” and they want to share that joy with everyone.
Ho Chi Minh led Vietnam’s independence movement from 1941 onward. It was here at Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi that Ho founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. He was instrumental in creating the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
Ho Chi Minh is not the only former leader in the world who has been embalmed and put on display by a proud nation. China, Russia and North Korea have all embalmed their founding leaders with help from the Soviet Union’s “Lenin Lab” which created a secret mix of chemicals to preserve the bodies. This is a better history lesson than any that could be taught in a classroom.
The Intrepid Family Tour makes visiting Ho Chi Minh easier for families. Our incredible guide explained the process of the queue, the security to expect, what clothes to wear and what we could expect to see inside to the kids. He gave the children the chance to discuss their ideas afterwards and explained why the Vietnamese are so proud of Ho Chi Minh. He also gave us the option to opt-out – which no-one took.
After the mausoleum, we tour around the gardens of Ho Chi Minh’s former home. The communist leader believed in living a simple life, shunning the grand former French residence (above) in favour of a small home by the lake. Later, his followers built him a simple home on stilts. It was from here that he and his generals directed the troops during the Vietnam war. Beside the house, a huge concrete bunker, built to protect the leadership from bombing raids, is slowly succumbing to tropical vegetation.
Intrepid is one of a few B-corp certified companies in the world. That certification means Intrepid Group’s tours are always environmentally responsible and give something back to the communities they tour. Our kids took great delight in examining the straws each restaurant used – many were paper, or metal but some were also edible pasta: “Can we eat it?”. “Yes, you can”.
In Hanoi, we eat lunch at KOTO, a restaurant that gives street-kids the opportunity to learn to become a 5-star chef or waitstaff. Koto was founded by Vietnamese-Australian founder, Jimmy Pham. The food is incredible, the service impeccable.
Ha Long Bay Vietnam
After Hanoi, the tour moves on to Ha Long Bay. We pack an overnight bag for our cruise and leave the rest of our luggage in a secure room at the Hanoi Hotel.
The Vietnamese Government limits tourism in Ha Long Bay to protect the environment. Now only 500 boats can enter the bay on any day of which 150 can stay overnight.
Expect all the boats to leave and return at the same time. You will be part of a flotilla of tourists and this is the only way to see Ha Long Bay.
The cruise is one of the highlights of the Intrepid Family Tour. The kids love the novelty of sleeping onboard. They begin a murder mystery game, exploring every nook of the boat.
On the Ha Long Bay cruise, you will explore the caves, spend time on the beach (where they sell fresh coconuts) have loads of time resting in sun lounges gazing at gorgeous limestone islands.
In the morning, you have the option to take the lagoon tour, and I would highly recommend doing so. We boarded a rowboat and paddled through a small cave into the stunning green lagoon. Our Intrepid guide told the kids to bring a banana “in case we see monkeys”. And we saw loads of them.
The overnight train from Hanoi to Hue
The next stage of our tour involves an overnight train ride from Hanoi to Hue, something my son, 11, thinks will be a highlight. I’m more apprehensive and have loaded my phone with Netflix downloads just in case I can’t sleep. I also have eye-blinds, earplugs and warm clothes for everyone.
Our tour guide organises take-away dinner on-board the train and guides us through the Hanoi Train station so we don’t have to worry about finding the right entrance or carriage. It makes the whole journey so smooth and easy with kids.
Each family on the tour has their own room, with bunk beds, a table and a lockable door. Our two kids quickly scramble up to top bunk to claim their territory.
Each bunk has two hooks to hang your hat or bag, a towel rail, a reading light, a pillow, a brown quilt and a thin pastel yellow runner along the length of the bed. The bottom bunk has an old-style thermometer on the wall that the kids loved checking.
The mattress is incredibly firm and covered with a dull brown vinyl, presumably so they can be easily wiped down and disinfected between passengers. Fortunately, Hanoi is the first stop on the express train – so you know the bedding is fresh, clean and unused for that day.
The toilet is at the end of the carriage. Make sure you pack toilet paper – if often runs out by morning. The toilet paper must go in the bin next to the toilet, otherwise, it will block the toilet up (and that’s not pretty in the morning).
We stare out the window transfixed by the view into businesses and homes as the train bumps and rattles its way out of Hanoi. The train track here runs down the middle of the street. The shops stop trading and the street closes only when the train comes through. Market stalls spread their wares almost to the track’s edge.
We settle into our bunks for the night and lock the cabin door. It’s a long journey from Hanoi to Hue – about 12 hours.
Sleep is restless, as you would expect on a train that bumps and rattles and jerks to a stop. But it does come.
When we wake, it’s around 6am and nearly time to arrive in Hue. We breakfast on pastries we bought at a bakery in Hanoi and watch the sunrise over the rice fields.
Hue was once the capital of Vietnam so you can expect plenty of grand old buildings. The Imperial Palace partially destroyed during the Vietnam war, is currently under restoration.
On the day we arrive, the heat is relentless. It’s 38 degrees with barely a breeze. Our Intrepid Guide ensures that everyone has water and finds plenty of spots to stop in the shade.
After exploring the Imperial Palace and hearing about the different entrances for different power levels and genders in the court, we head to an incense village and learn to roll and make incense sticks.
Duc, our guide, gives us tips on the best local restaurants. We join another family from Perth to hunt them down. The kids use Google maps to plot the route and we all delight in navigating the traffic using the “sticky rice” method – stay in a tight ball and the scooters will go around you. The kids also loved walking along the Perfume River and seeing the bridge light up and change colours at night.
But the absolute highlight is the rickshaw ride. Hue is the best place in Vietnam to try it out thanks to the mix of city streetscapes, village life and farmland. In one hour you can see it all.
Hoi An old town is everything you think Vietnam is – cheap shopping, tailor-made clothes and gorgeous laneways covered with colourful lanterns.
The Intrepid Family Tour stops here for three days, enough to have a full wool coat tailor-made for myself and a three-piece suit made for my husband. In between fittings, we spend time lazying by the beach, exploring the shopping streets and markets and drinking cocktails at “Happy hour”. We join a lantern-making class to create our own lanterns with the locals. The kids are delighted by their hand-made souveniers.
Intrepid also organises a bike tour – which I would highly recommend. It takes you through the rice fields and into a vegetable village where the kids take turns trying to water the garden using traditional equipment.
Later, we journey up the river to another village where we hop into bucket boats with the locals and see who can catch the most crabs in the mangroves.
Ho Chi Minh City
From Hoi Ann, the tour travels to Ho Chi Minh City by plane. This is a one-night stop on the way to the Mekong Delta, but enough time to wander around the city, checking out Notre Dame, the Post Officer and have coffee on the top floor of the tallest building.
The tour returns to Ho Chi Minh after the Mekong Delta too – and you will have the chance to travel out to the Chu Chi tunnels if you want to. You can also check out the War Remnants Museum. Warning – this may not be suitable for younger kids as the details and exhibits can be quite gruesome.
From Ho Chi Minh City, the Intrepid Family Tour heads to the Mekong Delta for a homestay adventure. This one night allows you to experience life as a local. We loved staying up late drinking beer and tea with the owner on the banks of the Mekong and chatting about how life has changed in Vietnam since the war.
The Mekong Delta was once known as the Rice Bowl of Vietnam. But these days, you will find loads of coconut plantations. Our tour visits a coconut candy factory. We watch how the coconuts are harvested, the pulp extracted and turned into delicious candy. Of course, sampling the different types is the kids’ favourite part of this adventure.
But it gets better. To get to our lunch destination, Intrepid organises a jeepney ride through the jungle. Kitted out in helmets we ride in the back of the jeepney dodging banana and coconut palm leaves. The kids can’t stop laughing and squealing and they all agree – at the end of our trip – this ride was the best part of the whole Intrepid Family Tour of Vietnam.
This Intrepid tour made exploring Vietnam so easy. We loved the focus on sustainability and it was much easier to have a guide and easy transport in Vietnam’s relentless sticky heat. Now we just need to find another Intrepid destination to explore.
Intrepid Family Tour of Vietnam – what you need to know