Vietnam with Kids
Known in the Western world for the famous war fought here, the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s dramatic scenery, fabulous beaches, and warm-friendly people often catch visitors by surprise. But, word is getting out and this once off-the-track traveler destination is quickly gaining popularity. Kids will love the boat-oriented fun on Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta and will absorb history and perspective at the “American War” sites. Plus, the whole family will enjoy exploring the colorful, incense-filled temples, riding bikes through rice paddies and more!
South & Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon:
The south is the old base of the Western allies during the Vietnam War and Saigon (as it was known before the war) is at its center. The War Remnants Museum tells the story of the war from the perspective of the Northern Vietnamese and while it is very graphic (use caution with kids) and somewhat propaganda-filled at times, it does offer an interesting perspective. If you are a war buff, you may also want to head out of town to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Viet Cong (northern Vietnamese) built these tunnels during the war to hide in and stage attacks. At Cu Chi alone there are almost 100 miles of tunnels, many of which open up to small rooms or have trap doors to the surface that measure less than 2-feet across. At the complex, guides show you bamboo traps set by Viet Cong such as trap doors with spikes underneath and you can crawl through some of the tunnels.
West of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta covers tens of thousands of square miles. It is a biologically diverse area, many areas of which have been largely unexplored. Most of the communities are centered around the river and its tributaries and many of the villages are only accessible by water. Many of the people who live here are farmers who come to sell their product along the river. One of the big tourist attractions is to visit the floating markets here. As well, tourist boats run for day trips or live aboard trips along the river.
North & Hanoi:
The north is the old strong hold of the Viet Cong (you can visit the “Hanoi Hilton” where famous prisoners of war like Senator John McCain were held). Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, was once the capital of the French colonial government there. The French influence can still be seen in the old architecture, but also in new design and food, especially in the Old Quarter, near Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Today, the Old Quarter is a packed maze of streets, each one specializing in the sale of a different type of item. .The kids loved wandering the small area here and bargaining in the markets. Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a tourist attraction in and of itself. According to legend, a golden turtle god surfaced here to ask the emperor for a sword he had used to defeat the Chinese. Today, large turtles are said to still inhabit the lake and Temple of the Jade Mountain on an island in the lake, is a holy place worth visiting The kids loved looking for turtles and seeing all the offerings made at the temple including money, fruit and incense as well as boxes of Oreos and tea. At night, there is a nearby market that is bustling and water puppet shows are a fun family activity. In the park nearby, locals also stroll and roller blade.
Another landmark in Hanoi happens to be where we stayed the Hotel Metropole. Built in 1901, the hotel has hosted many dignitaries during the years, including during the Vietnam War. When we arrived, they had just discovered the infamous bomb shelter (which had been sealed off and lost until now) where Jane Fonda and other actresses and singers took cover during air strikes while they visited North Vietnam during the war. It was just under the pool deck and they let the boys have one of the first looks. The boys felt very much like Indiana Jones uncovering a relic as they waded through the mud and dark to take a peek into the hotel’s latest discovery.
Directly east of Hanoi is Halong Bay, an UNESCO World Heritage site. This huge bay is home to thousands of limestone karst formations and little islands and extensive cave systems. The bay is also home to several agricultural communities, some living on the bay’s two biggest islands and some living in floating houses and practicing aquaculture. Today, many small ship cruise companies operate in the bay taking tourists for multi-day tours. We went out the Bhaya Cruises on a traditional wooden junk boat. Redesigned based on a boat used by Emperor Khai Dinh’s in the early 1900s, Bhaya ships offer a handful of luxury cabins with excellent service and world-class cuisine. To really get a feel to the bay, we recommend you choose at least a two-night cruise. We went on a three-night cruise and were able to explore further into the bay including canoeing through holes at the base of the limestone karst formation, exploring huge caves, biking to villages on one of the few inhabited islands of the bay, visiting floating communities and much more. The ship was fabulous…the boys had fun playing pirates and fishing off the back.
Getting There and Around:
Some large international carriers are now flying into Vietnam (mostly via Ho Chi Minh City), but for the most part they are Asian-based airlines. The cheapest flights are through Vietnam Airlines. It is also possible to enter Vietnam by bus or train – we took the 3-day train from Beijing and LOVED it! Check with ACP Rail for tickets before you are in Asia.
Vietnam’s cities are packed with traffic and to the outsider it seems a maddening frenzy of disorganization. But, the locals seem to know the flow. Most people ride motorcycles – you will sometimes see families of four and their cargo all piled on one motorcycle. Even some taxi service is by motorcycle. But, the most popular means of transport for tourists is the cyclo – or bicycle rickshaw. It is a fun, unique and environmentally friendly way to get around, just be sure to negotiate a price before you go (and make sure it is clear whether the price is per person or for the whole group).
Where to Stay:
Caravelle Saigon – Built in 1959, Caravelle Saigon has been at the center of Vietnam society since before the Vietnam War. This landmark hotel offers excellent service in a fantastic location. Spacious rooms offer commanding views of the city, and markets, restaurants and shops are all within walking distance. The spacious pool and rooftop bar make the perfect respite after a long day of exploring the city.
Hotel Metropole Hanoi – Built in 1901, this hotel maintains an air of French colonial charm. It was the place to be during the colonial years and still has an air of importance with visiting dignitaries and press rushing past. The spacious rooms are luxurious to no end, but have not lost the charming atmosphere, and the service is impeccable. My favorite story about this hotel: Seamus broke his foot when we were in Halong Bay. We called ahead to the hotel and they set up a visit to an international medical clinic upon our arrival. An American doctor examined, x-rayed and cast his foot (all for about $30!); however, they only import two sizes of crutches into Vietnam; some were too tall, some were too short. We got the short ones and put them on the tallest setting, but the handles were so high it was very awkward for Seamus to walk on, but he was a trooper and made it work. The hotel staff noticed he was having trouble, asked if they could help, drilled new holes in the crutches and put in new handles…now that is what I call service!!! And it made Seamus feel SO much better (as did the chocolates the staff kept plying him with :-))
Bhaya Cruises, Halong Bay – This cruise ship line is about maintaining tradition while adding luxury and it shows! The architecture of the wooden boats harkens to days gone by while cabins are filled with modern amenities. The service is fantastic and on-board activities like cooking classes and squid fishing make it fun for the whole family.