Due to the long, skinny, s-like shape of the country, travelers often visit the country from either North to South or South to North. We had 10 days in Vietnam and chose to start in the South due to a cheaper combination of flights from Bangkok. Read ahead to view our entire itinerary and kid-friendly tips along the way or click one of the following links to jump to a specific city.
The city still known by many as Saigon is the progressive business hub of modern-day Vietnam. We arrived in the evening and went straight to our hotel.
We stayed at the budget-friendly Nguyen Shack. We really loved staying here as the friendly and helpful owners made it feel almost like a homestay. However, there are many flights of steep and narrow stairs so be prepared to watch your children carefully. It is walking distance to the War Remnants Museum and is right next-door to a park with playground for kids. The free breakfast was great, especially for the price. They have family rooms with queen sized beds + bunk beds for a very reasonable price.
Dam Sen Water Park
When looking for kid-friendly things to do in Saigon, we came across Dam Sen Water park. It’s far from world class, but it is cheap and fine considering you are in Vietnam. It was fairly clean and nice by Southeast Asian standards. Our water-loving Miss C (age 2) had a blast and even the hubs got in on some of the fun with the zip-line. While it might be less crowded on a weekday, we visited on a Saturday and it was quite busy. They have a fairly large play area perfect for toddlers but again, this area was quite crowded.
War Remnants Museum
We planned a stop in HCMC largely to visit the War Remnants Museum (formerly know as the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression). I had heard that while the museum is quite startling in many ways it is a a must-see for a visit to Vietnam. The museum has several floors of exhibits and it’s best to start at the top and work your way down. Outside there are several planes, tanks and other military vehicles as well as a few (supposedly deactivated) unexploded ordinances in one corner. Especially as an American, the museum provides a very interesting look at the other side of the war which will certainly leaving you questioning some things you learned in history class as well as pondering propaganda.
The museum is not very kid friendly and actually may be too gruesome and graphic for anyone younger than a mature teenager. However, the top floor does have a Peace Room which is designed for young children. If you whisked your kids up to the top and they were okay playing there for awhile you could take turns seeing the museum. There are some cool planes and tanks on the outside that your kids might like but I would avoid taking them through the outdoor section that shows torture devices.
The night before we left HCMC, we visited the Skydeck. The view was phenomenal and gave a good picture of just how modern the city really is.
After that we grabbed dinner at a Mexican place along Nguyen Hue and the kids played in a fountain-turned-splash-pad right in the middle of the square. It was a fun-filled day.
After a good night’s sleep, we hopped a Vietnam Air flight to Danang and then took the 1-hr drive to Hoi An. We booked a 16 passenger van for the trip through Hoi An Transfer for our group of seven including kids plus luggage. They were prompt and easy to work with.
Hoi An is a sleepy seaside town turned tourist haven. The historic town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and contains many interesting historical sites. If you are interested in having clothes made while in Vietnam, Hoi An is one of the best places in all of Southeast Asia and even the world. Check out Trip Advisor reviews before choosing a tailor and be skeptical of recommendations especially from your hotel as many hotel owners get a commission from certain shops.
We spent a day exploring Hoi An on foot and eating delicious Vietnamese food. While in Hoi An, try Cao Lau which is a local dish you can only find here. We loved it! I’m also a big fan of Banh Xeo and of course, Bahn Mi! (I would go back to Vietnam just for the food!)
The city of Hoi An is significantly more friendly to walking kids and strollers than either HCMC or Hanoi and some streets in the historic district are closed to all but foot traffic. However, you are still in Vietnam and I greatly prefer using a baby or toddler carrier. The ones we use with Miss C are the Tula Toddler and the Lillebaby Carryon.
We stayed at Blue An Bahn Villa near Cua Dai Beach. The hotel is budget friendly, family-run, and in close proximity to the beach (about a block away). The beachfront was far from overcrowded, clean and had plenty of restaurants on the beach that will deliver food and drinks (including Vietnamese coffee) right to your FREE beach chair. It is the perfect place to camp out with a book for the day. Our Miss C (age 2) loves swimming but gets a little scared of the waves. She did go in a few times as the waves aren’t very big and the water stays shallow for a long way out. There is no hotel at the pool, but they do have nice, spacious family rooms for a reasonable price which is great for families who are looking to visit Hoi An on a budget.
Hanoi is a city of contrasts. Tiny street carts and centuries old dwellings share street corners with the towering skyscrapers in this up and coming city. Hanoi’s Old City is a major shopping and street food destination. There’s no better way to explore the city than by meandering the Old City, sampling street food and browsing shops selling anything and everything you can imagine.
Water puppet shows are said to be a good option for older kids but we were afraid it would be scary for Miss C (2 years old) and that she wouldn’t be able to sit through it so we skipped it for now. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is the most popular and is easily accessible from most anywhere in the Old City.
The lake is a nice place to enjoy a stroll or chow down on street food you picked up. For a less touristy experience, check out Bay Mau Lake, located a bit south of Hoan Kiem. The lake is surrounded by a park with some play areas and plenty of opportunities to people-watch. We were the only foreigners we saw and felt like we had a good glimpse of everyday Hanoi residents relaxing with their family.
My Nancy Chandler Map of Hanoi was so worn by the trip that I may have to buy another one before my next trip. On the map she has listed several walking tours. We used this as our guide to explore Hanoi and we were certainly not disappointed. The narrow streets are lined with shops and street vendors roughly grouped by the type of goods they sell. Dong Xuan Market is another great place to check out shopping as well.
During our time in Hanoi we also made quick stops by the Hoa Lo Prison Landmark (the famous Hanoi Hilton) and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to see a bit of the historical side of the city.
Note for parents with kids: the streets in the Old City are NO JOKE! Watch your kids carefully and use a baby carrier if possible for your babies and toddlers. I thought I was pretty used to crazy street crossings and small, crowded streets from living in Bangkok, but Hanoi is an entirely different ball game.
If we had to choose just one highlight of our trip it would be the 2-day, 1-night cruise we took on Halong Bay. We almost skipped it because of concerns about child-friendliness and also because Joel gets seasick and we didn’t want him stuck at sea for 2 days if he were to feel ill. However, I’m so glad we went. The water was so glassy and calm, Joel wasn’t concerned about seasickness at all.
As far as child-friendliness goes, I’ve heard a lot of people say they want to do a Halong Bay cruise but “can’t” because they have kids. I understand the sentiment, but we were so glad we didn’t write it off. Miss C was the only child on the boat, but she thought it was so cool. Her favorite parts were the stops we made at a nearby beach and cave as well as the yummy kids meal that the chef prepared especially for her. Of course, you have to pay close attention to your kids with the railings, but the company we used did their best to ensure a fun and safe experience for all ages.
We had planned to book our cruise with Indochina Junk but we drug our feet too long and they were unavailable for our dates. Therefore, we chose to cruise with La Vela Cruise Line. We were very happy with our experience. Halong Bay is one of those places that is so beautiful that you just can’t describe it in words. All I can say is that if you are considering going, just GO! Sleeping overnight in the bay is such a wonderful experience. My only complaint about our cruise is that there were a lot of other boats around and many other tourists on our shore excursion (think waiting in line with hundreds of other people to get inside a cave).
Note: I returned to Vietnam a few months later and cruised with Indochina Junk. Both cruises were great. The Indochina tour did travel to a slightly more isolated part of the bay and our boat had a pool (not all of theirs do) which would have a great way to keep Miss C occupied. However, the cruise was quite a bit more expensive than our Paradise Cruise, which was certainly a great experience as well.