As I was saying in my other articles, Vietnam is so contrasting and diverse that it was hard for us to say if we love it or hate it, and there’s no middle way!
The same applies to the places you can visit in Vietnam. There are lots of famous locations, countless photographs and hundreds of articles on the Internet; but still, it is difficult to understand anything before seeing with your own eyes.
We spent 18 days in Vietnam with our son. We established a base for each area we planned to cover and visited the surroundings from there, as follows:
- Hanoi (3 days)
- Tam Coc (3 days)
- Hoi An (5 days)
- Ho Chi Minh City (4 days)
- Can Tho (3 days)
We were flying between the main regions (Hanoi-Da Nang-Ho Chi Minh), took the train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and traveled by car between HCMC and Can Tho. For what we visited we either took an organised tour or traveled short distances on a motorbike.
See below what we loved from what we’ve seen in Vietnam and where our expectations were much higher than the reality.
Hanoi was our first encounter with Vietnam, and it was quite a shocking one. We were coming from Chiang Mai, which we loved for its relaxed atmosphere and beautiful nature. So the crowded and polluted Hanoi was very different!
I can understand why Hanoi is such a popular destination for young travellers. It has a distinct vibe and amazing nightlife. The streets seem to be crowded and packed with people 24 hours a day. It is also very budget-friendly, especially if you can make a bit of a compromise from a food hygiene perspective.
But for me, Hanoi is one of the few places we’ve been that I don’t consider enjoyable to travel with kids.
Ninh Binh region was our favourite place in Vietnam. No wonder why the surreal karst landscape earned its nickname “Inland Ha Long”. But, unlike its more famous counterpart, you won’t find the same crowds in Ninh Binh. We enjoyed to explore Ninh Binh by ourselves, at our own peace. It is best to be experienced on two wheels, bike or scooter, depending on your personal preferences. The area is getting popular, but still remains authentic, not at all over-touristic.
We stayed in Tam Coc for 3 nights, so we had 2 full days to explore the surroundings. I would say this is perfect to get a taste of the area. We loved Trang An and the views from Hang Mua, even though January is not the perfect time to explore Ninh Binh. It was quite cloudy and foggy, drizzling at times.
If you visit Ninh Binh with kids, don’t miss Chookie’s Beer Garden for a tasty meal or a relaxing drink. For us it was the perfect place to take a break from local food, as Eric was missing the meals back home. They even have heaters on the terrace, perfect for Northern Vietnam winters, plus a playground, which you don’t see often over here.
Ha Long Bay
The iconic image of Vietnam, we could not miss seeing the unique islands from Ha Long Bay. Unfortunately, we felt this is a huge tourist trap. Don’t get me wrong, the landscape is amazing, truly worth seeing, but the crowds and poorly organised tours can ruin your whole experience. Plus that the travel brochures don’t really set the right expectations: I doubt the waters in Ha Long Bay are ever that blue!
Since we were in Hanoi with a toddler, we were reluctant to go to Ha Long Bay for a few days. We’ve been with him on a boat before, even for more than one week, so this wasn’t an issue. But here I wasn’t sure about the facilities, food etc. on the boat and reluctant to be trapped on a place I wasn’t sure we would enjoy. Plus the January weather is not the best in Northern Vietnam!
Instead, we chose a day trip from Hanoi. Not a very smart idea, as we were on the road for about 7 hours (including two unpleasant 30 minutes stops on the way at some souvenir shops), just to be on the actual tour for less than 3 hours. Doing such a short trip did not allow us to see enough of the bay and islands and we basically spend the time in the most crowded areas.
I would advise you to visit Ha Long Bay, but only if you can allocate minimum 3 days/2 nights to this activity. Otherwise, I don’t think it is worth the time and money and it is better to skip it altogether!
Even if we were flying to/from Da Nang, we chose to spend all our time in Central Vietnam in Hoi An. This was a great idea! The little town, listed as UNESCO heritage site as well preserved Southeast Asian old trading port, is an oasis of calm and relaxation. It is totally different than the large Vietnamese cities. Hoi An is made of tiny streets, with old architecture, lit in the night by colourful paper lanterns. There are lots of tiny terraces and bistros where you can try delicious Vietnamese dishes or fresh seafood. Eric loved the evening walks by the river and the wooden fishing boats.
Not very far from Hoi An, there is My Son temple, another UNSECO site. This used to be an important center of the Champa civilisation, starting from the IVth century. Unfortunately, a significant part was destroyed during the Vietnamese War, bombed by the Americans. But what remained untouched is impressive, well preserved due to latest efforts, a must-see in Central Vietnam.
If you are in Hoi An with kids, I recommend you to have breakfast or lunch at Dingo Deli. Actually you might spend there a while! This is a nice bistro, with sandwiches, awesome desserts and great coffee. But you will not be here for the food, the playground is the big star! Dingo Deli features both an indoor and an outdoor space for kids Eric was thrilled about. He enjoyed his time here so much that even pasta with tomato sauce could hardly convince him to take a break from playing (and he loves that too!). Each time we stopped by Dingo Deli we met families with kids from all around the world; it was lovely to see the little ones playing together, with no language barriers.
Ba Na Hills
The image of the “hands bridge” close to Da Nang is all around the internet and social media. It appears as an iconic place, a must-visit in Central Vietnam. It is indeed an interesting idea and the way up there is truly magnificent. The cable car holds several Guinness World Records and the ride up to the clouds, above the rainforest and waterfalls was one of the best we ever had. Still, the bridge itself is not as impressive as seen on Instagram. It has an interesting architecture but it is basically going nowhere. Extremely crowded, you can hardly take a picture of yourself or enjoy the views without compromising other people’s photos. This if you are lucky enough to see anything. The panorama from up there is amazing, but is covered in fog and clouds most of the time.
From the Golden Bridge you can take another cable car to go to the French Village, which we found quite kitsch. Seeing European architecture in real life and size we can’t find really appealing a small, pale copy of it… but maybe we are biased on this.
When you visit Ba Na Hills, make sure you take at least a light jacket with you, the weather up there is unpredictable and much colder than on the coast.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh is a crazy, chaotic city. It is one of the busiest and crowded cities we’ve ever experienced. You get tired very quickly over there!
But you must visit Ho Chi Minh City when you are in Vietnam, to see the War Remnants Museum! We spent a whole morning there, but could stay for much longer. Prepare yourself for a heartbreaking experience, that will leave a strong impact on yourself. No matter what you heard or read about the Vietnam War before, you can’t be fully prepared for what you see here! Luckily, inside the War Remnant Museum there is a small playroom room for kids, where I took a break at some point to stay with Eric. Playing together cheered me up up and I got back my positive mood.
In Ho Chi Minh we also recommend Ben Thanh Market, the best street food market we’ve experienced in Vietnam. It has a great atmosphere, with live music in the evening and the food is awesome, with various Vietnamese, Thai or Indian specialties.
Mekong delta was one of the first things on my list when planning for Vietnam. Maybe I set wrong expectations, but it didn’t impressed me as much as I would have expected. Or maybe you need to go deeper into Mekong for a more natural feeling.
We chose to stay in Can Tho, 2.5 hours away from Ho Chi Minh City as this is supposedly the most authentic side of Mekong delta. Anything closer to Ho Chi Minh City is mostly crowded and touristic. Can Tho is the largest floating market in Vietnam and one of the few that still functions as a real market for the locals. You can see here people trading agricultural products from all around the region. Sellers stay on the boat for days and even weeks and some even have their family and young kids over there. We were floating around to see large boats, wholesale only, but also smaller ones approaching us to sell fruits or drinks.
Apart from the floating market we visited a farm where we had a chance to see various tropical trees and taste their fruits. We’ve already seen most of them before, in Sri Lanka, but it would be an interesting walk for a first-timer. They also had a pond with pangas fish and now I understand better the advice from various nutritionist to avoid eating this type of fish. At the end of the tour, we passed through a rice-noodles factory which was quite interesting, even though I doubt it is “the only one” in Can Tho, as indicated by our guide.