The Meehan family – Chris, Dominique, Nina and Connor - went to Vietnam recently. Holidays with Kids interviews Dominique about the trip.
How long did you go for?
We went to Vietnam for 21 days, which included a side trip to Cambodia at the end of the trip.
How old were the children?
Nina was 10 and Connor was eight.
Where did you go?
We started in Hanoi in the north, exploring the old quarter of the city and surrounding areas. Highlights were the Temple of Literature, which is an ancient university with row upon row of massive stone turtles inscribed with the names of graduates. We saw the famous water puppet show, rode on a cyclo through the old quarter and visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum – a stern and bizarre attraction.
In Hanoi we booked two different three-day trips. One was by junk on Halong Bay, which is a stunning World Heritage listed area with more than 3000 islands which rise dramatically straight up out of the water. The highlight for all of us was spending a night on the boat in the bay, with mist rising in the morning and little fishing boats chugging past. We also got to swim and kayak in hidden inlets, climb up to temples and huge caves, and we completed a challenging walk up the side of a rocky island and down again, to visit a family of subsistence farmers. We had a cup of hot lemon tea with them, which was a lovely way to interact with the local people in a less touristy environment.
For something completely different, we also caught the night train up to Sapa, which is in the mountains near the Chinese border. A not-so-modern but adventurous sleeper cabin gets you there in the morning, just in time to see the clouds clear and fantastic mountains appear in front of you. Sapa is home to several hill tribes of minority people and the tour we did included a 10 km guided hike through rice paddies to visit villages of the different groups. The kids loved that chance to see the real, living Vietnam.
After Hanoi, we flew south to Hue, where the imposing Citadel sits on the Perfume River. We took a cyclo to the Citadel and after almost being stepped on by a gaily decorated elephant, we found ourselves in one of the imperial buildings, where the kids could dress up as the Emperor and Empress. Nina and Connor did it, and loved it. Afterwards, we took a boat trip down the river, to see other temples and pagodas which were also World Heritage listed.
From Hue, we took the bus to Hoi An to spend a few days on the beach. It’s a great place to walk around, and it’s just lovely to eat at one of the riverside restaurants, wander through the food markets and browse through local pottery shops. It’s most famous for the fast and cheap made-to-measure tailoring, so take your favourite dress or suit to be copied. We did a one-day boat trip to an island, where we snorkelled.
From Hoi An, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which is more westernised than Hanoi. There is some fantastic shopping for local products and brand names, but for the kids, the highlight was the water park where they spent the day zooming around water slides – not a bad thing as it gave them a chance to be kids without the need for sightseeing.
Did you go on an organised tour or did you do everything yourself?
We chose to book it ourselves. We booked flights through Vietnam Airlines (which flies direct) and also booked a couple of days’ accommodation for the beginning and end of the trip. The rest we organised en route.
How was your first “crossing the road” experience?
We had heard about crossing the road before we went and were given the tip: get the family together on the kerb, then step out together and walk across slowly but surely. It’s true – the traffic just opens up around you without a problem.
Did the children learn much about the culture?
They were overwhelmed by the number of people and asked why is it so crowded. They found it confronting that people wanted to touch them but were okay once we explained that in some places the locals don’t see many western children. They asked about the Vietnam War, but we chose not to take them to any war museums or war related sites like the Cu Chi Tunnels. They are way too confronting for young children.
How did everyone cope with the food?
No problems – the food was varied and delicious. We ate at small local restaurants as well as some street stalls and mixed Western/Asian restaurants. We all loved eating pho (noodle soup).
What would you recommend for readers who may be thinking of organising a family holiday in Vietnam?
Explain to the kids what they can expect and treat it like an adventure. It is quite humid, so take it easy and break up the day with stops or swims. Freeze bottles of water to take with you. For longer trips, it would have been good to travel with another family to give the kids a break from each other.
Consider a short side trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City. It will give you the chance to take the kids to Angkor Wat – they will know it from movies filmed there, such as Tomb Raider. We rode to the temple on elephants and explored all around it. We also did a boat trip to a floating village.