Vietnam is huge! We knew that a month in Vietnam would give us a chance to really explore different parts of the country and culture, and were particularly excited by two parts in particular: meeting up with the grandmothers in Hanoi, and taking on the challenge of trekking with the kids in the hills of Sapa. Family travel in Vietnam is ideal. It’s exciting, and different enough without feeling too far off the main tourist trail.
What we loved most…
Cai Be and a day trip to the Mekong River
We booked a small group Mekong Delta tour to Cai Be and the surrounding villages, via our hotel in Ho Chi Minh. It was a fantastic day out! We cycled along the riverside on the Mekong feeder rivers, and all cooked our own Bánh xèo pancakes for lunch. Highlights (aside from the food) was definitely the wet markets and floating river fruit stalls.
Walking through a new marketplace with these two creates quite a commotion… All the locals start smiling, pointing, beckoning, and calling out to two little blonde boys! Harry didn’t mind, and was welcomed by the fishmonger who showed him his entire catch. And Oscar, well he is still cross with me six hours later because I didn’t buy him any chicken legs or frogs…
Roadside stalls and ‘pho’ restaurants
Phở is a Vietnamese soup and popular street food, consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat – usually beef or chicken. It was a perfect introduction into Vietnamese cuisine for the kids, as its gentle flavour is less overwhelming than some dishes (eg. chickens feet!). It ended up being Harry’s favourite dish of Vietnam!
There is something about the roadside tables and little plastic stools that give Southeast Asia a big part of the colours of the evening as the town comes to life!
Renting an AirBnb in Hoi An
We were slightly deterred by stories of tourist numbers in central Hoi An, and knew we didn’t want to stay right in town for this reason. We found a great little AirBnB on the riverside in Cam An and ended up spending a fantastic week, hosted by a Vietnamese family with children a similar age to ours.
They took us crabbing one morning with their kids, and by sunrise we were there. We had a hilarious time trying to catch the little sand crabs, coaxing them out of the holes with a long piece of grass!
We borrowed bicycles and rode around the rice fields every afternoon, exploring different lanes and paths through the villages.
On our second day in Hoi An we met Mai as we were riding through the rice paddies. She and her husband invited us to their home, and took us back into the old city where we shared an amazing meal of real Vietnamese food. We couldn’t communicate more than a few words of English. But with the help of Google translate we had one of the most memorable travel moments of our journey!
Hoi An was definitely a memorable little town for people meeting, even down to the same friendly vendors each morning at the markets. It felt strangely normal each morning to hop on my bicycle with a small passenger and set off to buy fruit and veges for the day!
Some mornings we gave the boys 40,000VND (NZD$2.00) and let them go off to buy their favourite fruits. The markets here were small and they were happy and confident navigating with a bit more independence!
Arrival of the Grandmothers…
We were two months deep in travel ourselves, but were about as excited as our child-selves with the arrival of both grandmothers, flying in to Hanoi to travel with us for a week! Hanoi was a busy but great choice for a first destination to share extended family travel in Vietnam.
We did two trips in Halong Bay; a brilliant spot for family travel in Vietnam. The first trip was a half day trip with our Mum’s and both boys, and then a seperate overnight trip for just Gavin and I (while the grandmothers babysat!).
We booked our tours through Indochina Junk and they were great. The tour even organised transport for us to and from Hanoi, both a day before the tours and for the day after our second one.
In Halong City we enjoyed the wet markets, and spent multiple visits discovering new aisles of sea creatures, stocking up on fruit to try and vegetables to cook in our apartment.
Trekking in Sapa
I think we stood out as four rather overexcited, un-train-educated New Zealanders boarding the night train for Northern Vietnam!
Freely admitting our experience with the language of carriages, platforms, and sleeper berths is about as developed as our Vietnamese… But we muddled/navigated the railway station and were excitedly on our way…
We booked a trek through Sapa Sisters, and can’t recommend them enough! We spent two days trekking; choosing mid-range level tracks that challenged little legs just enough but meant they could complete each days walk with a huge sense of pride.
We stayed the night at our guides house in one of the Hmong villages that dot the landscape and surrounding hills. We all have fond memories of the kids spending the evening playing with the local children, hunting for tadpoles in the flooded rice fields!
Perhaps my parenting emotions were heightened up in the clouds, and my post-trek muscles may or may not have been secretly sore. But I felt so proud of these two little boys, trekking like troupers.
One challenge in Vietnam
No major challenges in particular (if you don’t count the challenge of finding coffee and/or milk that doesn’t already have sugar in it!). But THIS, is a photo to remember the moment where, in the market meat section, Oscar stepped right into the drain full of guts…
Yup, the offal drain.
Toes, shoe, foot, ankle; which he was totally unphased by (more interested in moving on to pick up a squid).
Some of the very kind stall vendors helped me scoop him up and ushered us through the pitch dark hallways (no power) to the toilet right at the back of the markets, and helped me wash his feet off. Definitely one to top off our family travel in Vietnam memories!
We enjoyed the adventure of the overnight train to Sapa. We even got (almost) used to the chaos of seven million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City. We had booked ahead to arrange transport to and from Halong Bay, and otherwise flew with domestic airlines between HCMC, Nha Trang and Da Nang. [My original plan was to overnight train between each of those. However, the pracitclaties of a late night boarding time, and pre-dawn arrival made it less appealing with the kids in tow, and more sense financially this time to grab the cheap flights].
Spot Gavin, being the first in the family to trial one of the Grab motorbike taxis around Ho Chi Minh. (Off on a very important errand to find a supermarket or minimart. One with some kind of recognisable and unsweetened coffee!).
Where we stayed
- Ho Chi Minh City: Kiera Hotel [HCMC is BUSY! Good location, close to restaurants/convenience store].
- Nah Trang: AirBnB [we ended up on the 44th floor!].
- Hoi An/Cẩm An: AirBnB [the perfect location for us! Close to the river, beach, markets, convenience store, and rice fields. Thuong and her family welcomed us entirely into their home and shared all kinds of different experiences with us. Highly recommend as a base to explore Hoi An and surrounds].
- Hanoi: Silk Queen Hotel Hang Gai [central location, spacious deluxe room, rooftop pool, huge breakfast].
- Hanoi: Hanoi Pho Hotel [great budget hotel; basic breakfast; 100m from train street; five minutes walk to downtown Hanoi; one minute to convenience stores; def request room with window! We stayed 4 nights].
- Sapa: Charming Sapa Hotel [great value; friendly staff; early check in; 10 minutes walk to centre of Sapa].