Because of its geography – long and narrow – there is a great range of climatic and cultural variation in Vietnam. Here are some highlights for children and tips on how to maximise their holiday enjoyment.
I expected rapturous applause when I announced a family holiday to Vietnam, but I was disappointed. “If we can afford to go overseas, why don’t we try a resort in Fiji?” was the response.
Are my children spoiled brats? Not really, but as anyone with teenagers will tell you, the peer group always triumphs, and our daughters’ peer groups seem to have done the Thai, Balinese and Fijian resort scene pretty thoroughly. Then I recalled the other golden rule of parenting adolescents: get them involved and they’ll be committed to a positive outcome.
With the availability of Internet travel bookings, this worked a treat. Our tentative itinerary was Hanoi, Sapa Valley, Hue and Hoi An. I start the ball rolling by booking the grand old lady of Hanoi hotels, the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, thus ensuring a soft landing in this challenging destination. I also booked the Victoria Express overnight train to the Sapa Valley, as its sleeping cars fill very early.
After that it was open slather, and 14-year-old Lucy and 16-year-old SJ spent hours checking out guidebooks, brochures and websites before booking our accommodation in Hue and Hoi An. The result? A diverse and rewarding family adventure which all now agree was the very best thing we’ve done.
The traffic in Hanoi was our first shock. Well over three million people live in Hanoi and three-quarters of them seemed to be on motorbikes, with the other quarter evenly divided between car, cyclo, bicycle and foot. With a paucity of pedestrian crossings, or indeed traffic lights, our road-crossing styles varied as much as our personalities. Dad strode out purposefully, regardless of traffic density, speed or direction.
SJ had a more tentative approach, but her inner determination meant she was usually the first to reach the other side. And Lucy and I? Well, we clung to each other, teetering on the kerb, until a grandma with a long pole, balanced by a tray of pineapples on either end, offered to shepherd us through the relentless traffic.
Our five days in Hanoi allowed us time to explore many aspects of the city, mostly on foot. We visited KOTO restaurant, established by ex-Sydneysider Jimmy Pham to create training in the hospitality industry for local street kids. Afterwards we spent time soaking up the ambience of the Temple of Literature, site of Vietnam’s first university in 1076, and an oasis of peace in the traffic chaos. We spent much of our time in the Old Quarter, where the thirty-odd streets are all named for various guilds: Hang Dao, the street of silk, Hang Non, the street of hats, Lo Su, the street of coffins. Not surprisingly Hai Tuong, the street of sandals, was the runaway winner with the three females of the family.
At the end of our Hanoi stay we took the Victoria Express to Lao Cai near the Chinese border in the far north. Dinner in the wood-panelled dining car was a great treat.
From Lao Cai it was a 45-minute bus trip to the town of Sapa. The surrounding valleys offer stunning scenery, trekking opportunities and diverse local markets. They are also home to the montagnards or tribal hill people, who are easily identified by the rich colours of their clothes. Our two-day break was not long enough.
Next we flew to the ancient imperial city of Hue in Central Vietnam and enjoyed a boat trip on the Perfume River, visiting temples and the tombs of the emperors.
But our favourite destination was Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the perfect town in which to relax and enjoy Vietnam up close. On arrival, we headed straight for the Old Town and Japanese covered bridge, near which we discovered a beautifully preserved Chinese trading house where Michael Caine stayed during the filming of The Quiet American. It was just a short ride or cycle out of town to the coast and a meal of fresh seafood served on the beach.
We had started our trip at five-star level and gracefully descended to one star, but the longer our stay in Vietnam, the less interested we became in being served and the more interested in connecting with local people and their daily lives.
We found Vietnam to be a safe, inexpensive and intensely rewarding destination for independent travellers – particularly curious teenagers. Siblings often differ, but on the topic of Vietnam, SJ and Lucy are in total agreement: the landscape, food, culture and, most of all, the friendliness of the local people are just unbeatable.