/A Guide to Family Travel in Vietnam

A Guide to Family Travel in Vietnam

In the minds of many Americans, Vietnam is still connected with the war of the 1960s and ’70s. But in 2019, Vietnam is vibrant, thriving, safe, welcoming and endlessly fascinating.

It is also the 15th-largest nation in the world by population (95 million and counting), despite its relatively small land area. With crowded cities, traffic congestion and countryside that can be a challenge to get to, parents may think twice before taking kids to Vietnam. We urge you to think a third time, as there are so many wonderful sights and activities in this Southeast Asian nation. Plus, it’s easier for US citizens to get a visa than you may imagine.

The impressive citadel in Hue (Photo by Elen Turner)
The impressive citadel in Hue. (Photo by Elen Turner)

A Note on Hotels

Vietnam is one of the most developed countries in Southeast Asia and offers a variety of accommodations. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, formerly Saigon), Hoi An, Da Nang and Hue, there’s a wide variety of top-end lodgings. In the smaller towns and cities, travelers will struggle to find international brand hotels but locally run guesthouses and boutique accommodation are usually well-kept, clean, comfortable and a good value.

In HCMC, the Park Hyatt Saigon is a well-appointed five-star hotel that can be booked with points and comes highly recommended by The Points Guy. In Hanoi, the Sofitel Legend Hotel Metropole has hosted US presidents, Charlie Chaplin … even James Bond! The MGallery La Residence Hue Hotel comes recommended by family travelers — the hotel’s cooking classes are a high point. For some beach time, check out the InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort (although you’re better off in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia for a Southeast Asian family beach vacation).

Points-friendly hotels in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Park Hyatt Saigon: from 15k World of Hyatt points per night
  • InterContinental Hotels Saigon: from 40k IHG Rewards Club points per night
  • Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers: from 25k Marriott points per night
  • Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon: from 17.5k Marriott points per night
  • Le Meridien Saigon: from 17.5k Marriott points per night

Points-friendly hotels in Da Nang:

  • InterContinental Hotels Da Nang Sun Peninsula Resort: from 70k IHG points per night
  • Hilton Da Nang: 25k–50k Hilton points per night
  • Sheraton Grand Da Nang Resort: from 35k Marriott points per night
  • Four Points by Sheraton Da Nang: from 12.5k Marriott points per night
Park Hyatt, Saigon. Photo courtesy Hyatt
Park Hyatt, Saigon. Photo courtesy Hyatt

Related: The Best Hotel Credit Cards for Family Travel

Some hotels are bookable via Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal:

Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal
Hotels you can book via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

Vietnam also offers homestay accommodations in more rural parts of the country. These are a great way for kids to learn about life in another culture. Places like the Mekong Delta (south) and Sapa (north) have a particularly wide selection of homestay accommodations. They may sometimes be pretty basic, but that’s part of the experience.

How to Get Around

Getting around Vietnam is easy. Travelers on a lower budget can opt for long-distance buses between cities, though be warned that these are not always very comfortable, even in the deluxe category. If you’re just traveling a short distance (such as between HCMC and the Mekong Delta, or Hoi An and Hue), you may be able to grin and bear it for the convenience.

Alternatively, domestic flights within Vietnam are affordable. Vietnam Airlines (a SkyTeam partner) is a good airline and flights can be booked on fairly short notice, if necessary (aside from peak periods, such as Tet, Vietnamese New Year).

Life revolves around the water in the Mekong Delta (Photo by Elen Turner)
Life revolves around the water in the Mekong Delta. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Pick a Starting Point: Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam is long and skinny, with China to its north, Laos and Cambodia along its western edge, the South China Sea along its eastern coastline and the Mekong Delta in the south.

Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi, the capital, and HCMC, are at opposite ends of the country and are different in character and climate. International airlines fly into both cities and many travelers to Vietnam fly into one and out of the other. Keep in mind that in the winter the north can get quite cold, whereas the south remains hot and humid.

Here are the best ways to fly to Asia in business class. Ho Chi Minh City’s airport code is SGN while Hanoi’s is HAN. There are a ton of airline combinations to get you there but look to American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, ANA, Korean Air, Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, EVA, Japan Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Qatar Airways and Malaysia Airlines for the first leg.

Whichever direction you choose to travel Vietnam in, here are a few sights and activities that families will love.

Cruise on Halong Bay

Halong Bay, a few hours’ drive north of Hanoi, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that will stun both parents and kids. Limestone turrets rise out of the bay, creating picture-perfect views at every turn (no matter the season — even in the drizzly, foggy winter, as we found out).

A popular way of experiencing Halong Bay is to take an overnight cruise. These are available in a range of luxury levels, with the most comfortable offering beautiful berths with large windows, top-notch food and lots of scheduled activities like visiting underground caves and, in warm weather, kayaking and swimming. Don’t miss Halong Bay.

Cycle in the (Flat) Countryside

Everywhere you go in Vietnam, city or countryside, you’ll probably be able to rent a bicycle from your hotel for touring. Parents would justifiably be nervous about biking in the big cities but the smaller towns are great places for kids to let off steam through pedal power. Biking is especially good for getting around the flat villages of the Mekong Delta. A nice way to tour is to hire a local boatman to take you to villages across the delta and have him arrange bike rentals from locals.

Explore the Mekong Delta by boat and bicycle. Photo by Elen Turner
Explore the Mekong Delta by boat and bicycle. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Culinary Capital of Vietnam, Hoi An

Hoi An, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations for good reason. The beautiful and charming city lies on the coast roughly midway up the country and was once an important trading point. There’s still evidence of this in the merchants’ houses, the Chinese temples and the canals that crisscross the old town.

The old town area is mostly for pedestrians only, making it a comfortable place to wander with kids. Need souvenirs? This is the place to do it, as the crafts and curio shops are great for browsing. There are also extensive produce markets, excellent cooking classes (more on that below) and boat rides to keep the kids happy. Don’t miss the night markets, either, which are beautifully lit up with colorful lanterns. There’s also a beach nearby, An Bang Beach, if you need time by the water.

Hoi An has a reputation as Vietnam’s culinary capital, and you can get delicious food here in beautiful restaurants for just a handful of dollars.

Colorful lanterns for sale in Hoi An (Photo by Elen Turner)
Colorful lanterns for sale in Hoi An. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Vietnamese Food

Vietnamese food may not be as famous around the world as Chinese or Thai, but it should be. It’s delicious and it’s hard to imagine even fussy-eating kids not being able to find something they like. It is fresh and relies on a lot of vegetables and herbs. It tends to be healthy and nutritious (a bonus for parents), with lots of noodles, spring rolls, soups and even baguette sandwiches (a legacy of Vietnam’s days as a French colony).

Of course you should take the usual travel precautions: Don’t drink tap water, eat only at busy street-side stalls with high turnover, peel fruit, avoid mystery meat. But you don’t need to be overly cautious about food in Vietnam. It is usually of good quality and delicious.

Markets in Vietnam are a fun place to go sightseeing (Photo by Elen Turner)
Markets in Vietnam are a fun place to go sightseeing. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Try a Cooking Class

Make time for a cooking class somewhere on your travels. Older kids are welcome to participate in many places. Cooking classes often include other activities, such as a market or garden tour and/or a boat ride. They are a great way to have fun as a family, learn new things and eat well.

There are a lot of options in Hoi An, in particular. Almost every other restaurant there hosts cooking classes, but do some research and find one with good reviews. The overall experience can vary wildly, from a lavish morning of market tours and culinary wizardry to an uninspiring demonstration in a dirty kitchen.

See a Water Puppet Show

Water puppets are a northern Vietnamese form of puppet theater, and they’re great fun for adults and kids. While a water-puppet show might sound a bit touristy, the art form dates from the 11th century, so it’s a good way to learn about Vietnamese myths and legends and to appreciate Vietnamese arts. The partly submerged stages are clever and elaborate, with puppeteers in black hiding behind screens. Some English explanations are given at shows put on for tourists, but you don’t really need to know Vietnamese to enjoy the show.

Hike Around Sapa

Travelers with older kids who will enjoy hiking — and won’t mind long travel days — should check out Sapa and its surrounding areas in the far north of the country. The area is famous for its ancient terraced rice fields, as well as being home to Mount Fansipan, one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia. The hiking and trekking in this area is the best in Vietnam and adventurous families who don’t mind the inevitable inconveniences of traveling to and around rural areas will enjoy Sapa. It takes about eight hours to get there from Hanoi by train (usually overnight) or 10 hours by bus.

Bottom Line

Vietnam is an easy destination, well set up for adventurous tourists. It’s especially fun if you enjoy cultural attractions or are a bit of a foodie. There are also natural attractions for families who like the great outdoors, as long as you don’t mind traveling to get to them.

Have you already been to Vietnam? Here are some other Asian destinations your family may enjoy:

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Featured image by author.