Our globetrotting adventures in Ho Chi Minh City & Hanoi with 2 tots
What more perfect destination to test out your family travelling skills than on a city that thrives on organised chaos anyway?
From the moment you land in Vietnam, where disorganisation seems to reign supreme, an orderly calm actually ensues. Bikes, cars and people seem to have an unwritten rule on right of way and horns are rarely used in anger though the city is full of their constant hum.
One of our early Globetrotting adventures with kids (and still to this day one of our favourites!) was a week long getaway to Vietnam with a then 3-year-old Miss Z, one-year-old Master L and pregnant with Master J. Here we give you a rundown of our experiences in the two largest cities, plus top tips for visiting Vietnam with young kids.
Ho Chi Minh City with kids
We start our short break adventure in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC – but still Saigon to many).
The Visa queue on arrival is painful so be prepared after a long flight that there will be some waiting around, even if your paperwork has been submitted in advance (Visa rules for Vietnam vary significantly by your country of citizenship; do check if you need a letter of approval BEFORE flying to collect a Visa on arrival). People were kind and generous to us though with the children clearly getting overtired we are skipped ahead in the queue – thank you kind citizens of the world!!.
This was our first attempt using a serviced apartment rather than a hotel for a city trip, and what a great choice! We stayed at the Sherwood Residence in District 3 and we were spoilt to a room upgrade meaning we each had a bedroom. We tried not to adjust the children’s body clocks for jet lag so with some good blackout curtains we could get somewhat of a lie in before tackling the day. We could also stay up slightly later into the evenings enjoying the bustling atmosphere around the Ben Thanh Night Markets. The other bonus of the apartment, it came with a kids playroom and indoor/outdoor swimming pool which was perfect for post-exploring relaxation.
What amazed me most about Vietnam is how relaxed the parents seem to be about their children’s safety. I feel so incredibly uptight, constantly reminding my children to hold hands, walking them on the far side to the traffic when the local parents are letting their youngsters play in the traffic, literally!
Although we did bring one car seat with us on this occasion for Master L, I put aside some of my objections to travelling without both kids safely buckled in and go with the Vietnam flow. We soon discover that the traffic really doesn’t move fast enough for this to be an issue. Road rage seems non-existent, there are no rude gestures or raised voices, just an underlying understanding that things will sort themselves out. The same rules seem to apply for moving around in the supermarket as well!
For more on parenting in Vietnam, check out our interview with expat mum Terri living in HCMC
Undoubtedly for us, the food was always going to be a highlight of this trip. What you get in a street stall will always taste different to what you get in a takeaway container at home. Fresh spring rolls and crispy won tons were favourites. But most exciting for me was seeing our often food fussy children eating new foods and enjoying it, I will certainly have some new ideas to try at home!
Too much attention?
An unexpected aspect to the trip was the local obsession with fair-skinned children. Our children have nearly hit movie star status by the time we leave; we did not plan on becoming the tourist attraction ourselves. The locals didn’t just want to admire and photograph them, but touch, pinch, be photographed with them, pick them up. This could be a bit overwhelming at times but with some careful handling, you can let them have their fun then politely move on without seeming rude or offensive.
Hanoi with kids
Next up on our agenda is a few days in Hanoi. Hanoi greets us late at night with the same organised chaos we’ve come to expect, except add container trucks and motorcycles on the wrong side of the freeway to the equation. Through nothing short of a miracle, our taxi manages to magically weave its way through the traffic like a synchronised swimmer. (Remind me to never complain about the Abu Dhabi traffic again).
Although it’s dark and poorly lit we see here a similar streetscape of narrow, tower-like houses that we saw in HCMC. They have a striking resemblance in my mind to those that adourn the canals of Amsterdam, except most stand proudly alone until someone else builds next door and juts up against them (this design is apparently to do with taxes being based on the width of your property).
There is a different feel to Hanoi though, perhaps not quite as beautiful as its southern cousin but bustling and inviting all the same.
We again stayed in a hotel apartment with a pool and outdoor playground, though I must say at the time we visited in October the water was freezing!! It was a great location and set up though, we strongly recommend the Somerset Grand Hanoi in the Hoan Kiem District, with a small shopping plaza underneath too for grabbing milk and other essentials.
A side trip to Ha Long Bay, or not?
In a moment of perhaps sheer madness we decided that we would easily suffer through a 3 hour (read 4 hour) luxury bus (read cramped 27 seater bus) journey to Ha Long Bay. This is one of the new seven wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has long been on my bucket list.
Unfortunately, a typhoon hit the Vietnamese coast the day before making it too choppy to sail, as they informed us 3.5 hrs into our journey. So after letting the tourists out to take pictures of our kids (no one seemed interested in anything to do with the boats and the bay by now), having a below average meal, we then headed back to Hanoi for another four hours, bumping up and down on the same road works with another handful of passengers added to our overcrowded minibus for good measure.
It was kind of like travelling 8 hours in economy class with both children on our laps but with less leg room, no trolley service and a hell of a lot more bumps. We felt brave for having tried this journey but I’m afraid this was one epic fail and Ha Long bay remains on the bucket list, sigh…..
A soggy finish to our Hanoi visit sees us seeking rain coats and last minute purchases that occupy our last few hours racing through the sodden streets. There is a different sort of busyness in the rain but the shop keepers still have a bustle about them and some amazing wood fire smells fill the senses from their early morning meals, lots of the food preparation is still taking place in the street with the vendors happily chatting and as usual pointing at our fair skinned travelling circus.
There are so many things we didn’t get the chance to see and do on this holiday, but I think it was more important that we enjoyed the things we did and we took some first brave steps to break away from the package holiday at the beach concept. We started to try some new activities with the children and enriching them with some cultural differences. Maybe too early still for Master 1, but Miss 3 has certainly become the seasoned tourist, mastering the use of the ‘no thank you’ and has already learnt some basic bartering skills.
This trip has been the inspiration to finally publish my travel writing and helping others feel brave enough to keep exploring even in life after children!
1.Watch out for the fair-hair touching – it might be innocent to them but can terrify the kids and really gets too much.
2. Don’t expect a corner shop to sell something as simple as a pint of fresh milk – shops were closed by 10pm so we had to walk for miles on arrival and ended up with a plastic cup of milk from a coffee shop. For the older babies there is plenty of UHT milk with straws available, but for younger babies on formula you may want to bring your own as we couldn’t read the labels.
3. A sturdy workhorse stroller is your friend! Our Maclaren has never let us down and has well paid itself off when you and the kids are tired and you don’t want to carry two kids home along with all your shopping. (Of course we had one kid in the Ergo too – another family travel must have!)
4. Finding clean toilets in some places can be an issue. Be prepared for squatting, standing nappy changes and always take your own tissues.
5. Don’t miss the Water Puppets! A lovely local tradition that all the family can enjoy even the really little ones.
And a bonus travel with toddlers tip:
Always take a spare set of clothes for everyone on the plane. Despite Miss 3 being toilet trained she suddenly developed a mid-air phobia of the plane toilet and promptly pissed her pants with 2 hours still to go. Thankfully, a skinny little thing she still fitted Master 1’s clothing and nappies for a dry arrival.
For more advice on travelling in Vietnam with slightly older children, head over to Our 3 Kids v the World who have a great catalogue of articles on what to do and where to stay with kids, including how they tackled the Cu Chi Tunnels and a Mekong Delta day trip.
Have you tackled Vietnam with kids? What were your favourite highlights? (PS – please don’t tell me Ha Long Bay, it will take me several years to recover from that ordeal and attempt it again!!)
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