It has been 22 years since I backpacked around Southeast Asia, so my return to the region was long overdue. The decision about which country to visit, however, was mainly influenced by what would best suit my 10-year-old daughter.
Within a 2-week timeframe during the Easter holidays, we were keen to achieve a good balance of culture, adventure, and relaxation. The more research I did, the more I realised that Vietnam was the perfect choice.
In Vietnam, it’s easy to combine cities, beaches, and rural destinations in one trip. In addition, the comprehensive train and domestic flight network means that travelling around the country is straightforward.
On top of that, I think my daughter Maya was born with a natural aptitude for chopsticks (far exceeding her knife and fork abilities!). Her favourite food is pho (pronounced Fur) – noodle soup! This classic Vietnamese dish makes a regular appearance in our household, so I knew I was on to a winner in terms of cuisine.
My biggest regret from the month I spent in Vietnam 22 years ago was skipping Hoi An, as I later discovered that it’s a highlight for many travellers. This was my chance to see what I missed the first time around. Whilst this was my partner’s second time to Hoi An, he had never been further north, so there was the potential for something new for each of us.
We were conscious of not trying to squeeze too much into a fortnight, so we decided to start in central Vietnam and end in the north. We flew directly to Hanoi, which is an 11-hour journey from London. From there, we picked up our bags and took the shuttle over to the domestic terminal for our onward connection to Danang (near Hoi An).
Essentially, our flight times meant that we missed a night’s sleep, so we were very grateful for our pre-arranged transfer on arrival. It took us 45 minutes to reach the beautiful and super-chilled An Bang Beach, just a couple of miles outside of Hoi An town. It turned out to be the perfect place to recharge our batteries after the journey.
I had been conflicted about whether to stay in the town or at the beach, but given the high temperatures and glorious sunshine, was so pleased to have settled on the beach. We stayed in a small local guesthouse with rooms arranged around a gorgeous little pool. After a much-needed nap, we threw Maya into the pool for a rejuvenating splash and then wandered to the beachfront for dinner and a beer!
Overlooking the beach, you’ll find a row of restaurants offering relaxed seating, hammocks, and quirky areas to hang out with a drink and a choice of local or Western food. By day, you can use the beach sunbeds and umbrellas in exchange for buying food and drink. Surf lessons are also available further up the beach, so there’s something for everyone!
My top tip for getting around in Vietnam is using the simple Grab App. This works much like Uber, with fixed-price rides and a live GPS tracking the driver. It’s a really useful service that I would highly recommend.
You also need to teach the kids to temporarily forget everything you taught them about crossing the road, as all vehicles travel in all directions, everyone gives way, and no one ever seems to get stressed out! Crossing the road is all about maintaining a steady pace and staying confident. Motorbikes are the king of the road, and you will see entire families, animals, boxes, and baskets piled high.
In the late afternoon of our second day, we headed for the colourful and lively streets of Hoi An Old Town. This place is famous for housing great tailor shops and some of the best food in Vietnam. I spotted a lovely outfit, but Maya loved it more and it suited her better, so within minutes we were having a beer across the road whilst a seamstress adjusted the top and trouser combo to fit her perfectly.
Shopping fix achieved, we headed through the narrow streets to the packed riverside in time for the Full Moon Lantern Festival, which was already in full swing. Before we knew it, we were queuing for a boat, equipped with paper lanterns to release onto the river as part of this colourful spectacle.
We ate in a local restaurant where we were introduced to the art of wrapping meat into rice paper together with veg, herbs, and sauce for a delicious Vietnamese taste sensation. This was washed down with some perfectly palatable local beer, all for just a few quid.
On a friend’s recommendation, I booked an afternoon cooking tour for myself and Maya on our third day. We walked around the market selecting ingredients, before heading to a nearby village where the narrow alleyways led us to our restaurant. Here, we began our brilliant cooking experience. We chopped, crushed, and peeled our ingredients before cooking up a host of dishes and then sitting down to sample them.
The tour was topped off with a hilariously funny wicker basket boat trip, complete with crazy locals, crab fishing, singing, chanting, and boat rocking galore. From our little round fishing boat, we caught four crabs, three of which we dropped into the boat, resulting in both squeals and laughter. It was a wonderful experience that I would highly recommend to other families travelling in Vietnam.
The next stop on our itinerary was Hue. We wanted to make the journey by road in order to take in the stunning Hai Van pass. A motorbike is often the preferred option for this route but with a child in tow (and soaring temperatures) we opted for a private driver in an air-conditioned comfy car and were grateful we did.
Stopping off at Marble Mountain, a series of limestone peaks dotted with pagodas and caves, I foolishly took the flippant advice of our driver who told me flip flops would be fine. Top tip, wear trainers if you’re planning to climb up through the cave temple and down through the rocky outcrops. Though busy, this place is well worth a visit, and you can still find peaceful spots to lose the crowds.
From here we headed over the Hai Van pass, an impressive meandering drive with stunning views even on our slightly hazy day. After lunch and a visit to another beach, we arrived at our posh hotel in Hue in time for a pre-dinner swim.
Built in 1901 by the French, the Saigon Morin Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in Vietnam and it’s set around a lovely courtyard and pool. We lucked out and got upgraded to a huge suite overlooking the Truong Tien Bridge, which spans the Perfume River.
Whilst in the City, we were compelled to visit the impressive walled Imperial City of Hue which was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled until 1945. Dotted with palaces and shrines set in beautiful gardens there is much to see, and the fan-filled onsite cafe offers a welcome break from the heat.
After a blast of culture and history, we boarded a train for the 4-hour journey to Dong Hoi, the gateway to Phong Nha National Park, home to the largest cave in the world. Following a forty-minute drive from the train station, we arrived at Phong Nha Farmstay, which put an immediate smile on our faces.
Set up by a Vietnamese-Aussie couple, this place has a stunning setting amongst paddy fields, offering an open-air restaurant with a pool table set around a gorgeous pool. I instantly knew this would be the perfect break from the chaotic pace of the cities and towns. We couldn’t wait to settle in and start exploring the area.
Our three-day Phong Nha adventure started with a ride on quirky single-speed bikes through the paddy fields to Phong Nha village. Here we boarded a motorboat to Phong Nha Cave, where our skipper cut the engine and rowed slowly inside to marvel at the magnificent formations. It was magical.
On the second day, we took advantage of the Phong Nha Riders, a group of locals who have been approved as sensible, safe drivers to take homestay guests on a motorbike tour of the area. Afterwards, we did a circular walk from the botanical gardens which ended with a refreshing dip in a waterfall. From there, we headed to the phenomenal Paradise Cave, stretching over 31km in length.
There are options for longer day treks, and for multi-day treks where you camp overnight on cave beaches. For us, the cleverly lit first kilometre of the cave gave us an insight into its vast magnificence. We finished our tour with a scenic motorbike ride taking in two suspension bridges and a teeny ferry boat river crossing.
On the third day, we employed the services of 8-year-old Howie, son of the owners. Once again, we mounted our rickety push-bikes and set off to explore. I must praise the initiative of the locals in creating tourist attractions for passers-by. Our adventure took in lunch at the ‘pub with cold beer’, the ‘crazy swing’, the ‘monkey bridge’, and the totally bonkers ‘duck stop’.
That evening, we said our goodbyes and boarded the overnight train to Hanoi. You can book the whole 4-berth sleeper cabin for your family, but we opted to share. The exceptional snoring from the elderly Vietnamese on the fourth bunk had us giggling throughout the journey! While it wasn’t a super-smooth trip, we found the train pretty comfy and managed to get a half-decent sleep.
The weather in Hanoi was grey and drizzly on arrival at 6am in the morning. In hindsight, a pre-booked night with early check-in may have been a good idea, because we were all weary.
After a wander to the lake to see the locals doing their morning exercises, we stumbled upon a Starbucks, and Maya couldn’t resist. As parents, it’s important to understand that sometimes the only answer is to let your child indulge in the comfort of an iced Frappuccino and a panini!
Refuelled, we had the energy to take on the Women’s Museum, which offers an insight into the roles of women throughout Vietnamese history. It’s quite poignant, with many tales of the street sellers who come from the countryside to make enough money to send their kids to school. Impressively, the museum also showcases the extraordinary women’s contribution to the war.
We stayed in the Tirant Hotel, offering a super central Old Quarter location with a fabulous rooftop bar and swimming pool. This was our base for exploring the city. However, we decided to limit ourselves to one more tourist site, before spending the rest of our time soaking up the atmosphere, doing some shopping, and trying any food we had missed so far (which actually included a really brilliant pizza restaurant called Pizza 4Ps, to give us a little break from Vietnamese food).
Of all the places to visit in Hanoi, Maya chose the Hoa Lo prison or ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as it was later dubbed by the American POWs. After insisting that we hire the audio equipment, Maya lapped up all the information about the Vietnamese political prisoners incarcerated here by the French, and later the American Air Force.
We spent the final two nights of our trip cruising between the karst mountains of Halong Bay aboard the luxurious Orchid Trendy. We knew that this would be a great way to end our Vietnam adventure.
Though the weather was mixed, and popularity has had its impact on the serenity of the place, we enjoyed a couple of relaxed days hopping on and off the main boat to visit caves, cycle through local villages, and kayak to beautiful bays. Topped off by great hospitality and multiple happy hours at the bar, we disembarked feeling very happy indeed!
After the cruise, we had just enough time for a final wander around the old town in Hanoi, a water puppet show, and one last splendid meal! The city is noticeably different on the weekend, as they pedestrianize much of the area surrounding the lake and old town. This creates a far more relaxed atmosphere, so it’s certainly worth scheduling your city stay for the weekend, if you can.
If you travel to Vietnam in April, my advice is to pack light with a couple of thin layers and bring a raincoat as the weather can be variable. We found that the weather in April was hot in the middle of the country and mixed further north, but this allowed for greater comfort when exploring and doing activities. In short, Easter is a great time for a family holiday in Vietnam.
I have missed Asia so much, and Vietnam really did not disappoint as a family destination. It feels safe, and not at all edgy. The food worked perfectly for Maya (and us) with a variety of noodle dishes, rice, and plenty of chicken. It’s also easy to get a Western fix, as there’s a huge range of restaurants. We had a fantastic trip, and the pace was perfect for us.
We can create tailor-made family holidays to Vietnam of all shapes and sizes. Whether you want to travel the length of Vietnam or build a bigger trip through Southeast Asia, we can help. Simply give us a call on +44 1273320580 or send us a quote request by email.