Ever since Vietnam opened its borders in the early 1990s I have been curious to visit. Vietnam is where the old and new collide (bypassing anything in-between). It is a nation steeped in colonial history all the while fiercely retaining it’s strong cultural identity.
When I first moved to Asia four years ago the first and best friends I met were Vietnamese. Luckily for me one of these friends was eager to rediscover her mother country together, helping me to navigate, comprehend and discover the small wonders of Vietnam.
So, with two kids, two grandparents and a husband in tow we set out on a family holiday to Vietnam at the end of the monsoon season. Our itinerary was rather ambitious; we planned to spend a few days in Hanoi, before taking the night train to the mountains of Sapa, and squeezing in an overnight stay on a Junk boat in Ha Long Bay along the way.
Vietnam with kids
A family holiday to Vietnam is well worth the effort. It is one of the hardest family trips I have made, but also one of the most rewarding and spectacular. This is the route that we followed.
Where to go in Vietnam with kids
10-Day Vietnam Itinerary
- Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi and explore the old town
- Day 2: Hanoi – visit the Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake (pedestrianised on weekends), the National Gallery.
- Day 3: Take a tour to Ha Long Bay with the Indochine Junk. The luxury van will take you via an art warehouse, where you can watch artisans create exquisite works.
- Day 3/4: Ha Long Bay – Spend the day cruising past ancient volcanic islands, exploring caves and canoeing through rocky outcrops. Dine on deck and snooze under the stars before retreating to your cabin.
- Day 4: Hanoi – Take the van back to Hanoi via a water-puppet theatre
- Day 4/5: Arrive back in Hanoi and take the night train from Hanoi to Sapa
- Day 5: Arrive in Sapa – recover from the train ride with a meal at the Gecko and a body scrub or massage at one of the many spas
- Day 6: Plan a hike to the Love Waterfalls and rural villages
- Day 7: More hiking/trail running/mountain biking. Relax, rejuvenate and explore with a night’s stay at the Topas Eco-Lodge, which has verdant views overlooking the rice terraces and a gorgeous infinity pool.
- Day 8/9: Take the night train back to Hanoi
- Day 9: Take a trip to the Military Museum – the kids will be fascinated by the rockets, planes and helicopters in the outdoor installation. Treat yourself afterwards with a chocolate éclair from Marou. In the evening venture out to eat Chả Cá (a fish dish particular to Hanoi with dill, noodles, peanuts and spring onions). Hanoi is a city of streets named after their merchandise (there is a street which is lined with Chả Cá restaurants)
- Day 10: Bustle around the old town of Hanoi collecting souvenirs, before flying home.
Hanoi is packed full of chic cafes, art and culture. It’s also a nightmare with a pushchair! With street vendors on every corner, motorbikes parked on the sidewalks and fish markets spilling out onto the street it certainly woke up the senses. Our kids loved watching the market vendors with their collections of frogs, fish, crabs and eels.
Once we got our bearings we took the kids to some of Hanoi’s famous sites including the Temple of Literature, the Military Museum, the National Art Gallery and Hoan Kiem Lake. If you have time for just a couple of these sites then go to the Military Museum and Hoan Kiem Lake.
The Military Museum has a fascinating outdoor area where helicopters, jet planes, tanks and missiles are exhibited – its impressive! The lake is the site of the curious legend of the turtle and the sword. We enjoyed recounting these legends to the kids, enabling them to fuel their creative play. The roads around the lake are pedestrianised on the weekend. This is the one place in Hanoi where the kids can safely roam free (away from the crazy traffic). There are activities for children surrounding the lake including the water puppet theatre and the chance for little ones to drive a moped like a local!
Ha Long Bay with children
After a few days in Hanoi we departed for an overnight stay on a Vietnamese Junk boat in Ha Long Bay. We booked through Indochine Junk and specifically chose a small classic boat (catering to approximately 20 people), which frequents the less touristy areas and stops off at a rural water puppet theatre on the return journey.
The kids loved sleeping overnight in their cabin, being rocked to sleep by the gentle waves and having story time on deck under the stars. We were all awestruck by the cave visit, where stalactites and stalagmites create a natural Cathedral. We were also able to kayak, visit the fishing village and learn about pearl farming. The food on the boat was plentiful and delicious. We didn’t take the kids swimming here due to the strong currents.
Sapa with Kids
Once back in Hanoi we took the night train to Sapa. Using La Siesta Hotel Trendy as a base was a great choice as they organised our train tickets, bus transfers and welcomed us back after each excursion.
We booked the Chappa Express sleeper cabins to take us overnight to the Rice Terraces of Sapa. We slept in a family cabin with bunkbeds – it was charming and bumpy! The memory etched in my mind is of my three-year old son with his head pressed to the window whispering ‘Mummy, this is amazing!’ as the train chugged through Hanoi, past the illuminated bridge and into the countryside. We slept to the rhythm of the train and woke up in the misty haze of daybreak (the train terminates at Lao Cai which is around one hour by car from Sapa). The hotel in Sapa arranged a transfer for us from Lao Cai.
Sapa has imploded on itself. Once a quiet mountain town, it is now awash with ugly hotels and construction. It is sad that bad planning and cash grabbing has ruined what had so much potential for eco-tourism.
However, venture 10 minutes outside the town to the trekking trails, tribal villages and waterfalls and it is magical! While in Sapa we planned family excursions to the picturesque Love Waterfalls and Ta Van Village, which is home to the ethnic minority tribes the Black Hmong and Red Dzao. We bought Banh Mi picnics (baguette with Vietnamese pâté, ham, coriander, cucumber and chilli sauce) in the morning from street vendors, and on our return to Sapa enjoyed Crème Caramel at the Gecko restaurant (a little treat curtesy of French colonialism). The children enjoyed hiking to the waterfall (an easy one hour round trip) and scampering about in the local villages buying handicrafts and watching artisans carve and weave their products.
Trail running is a great way to see the countryside. My friend and I had entered the Sapa Mountain Marathon, organised by Topas Eco-Lodge (the only establishment in Sapa taking eco-tourism seriously). The race route winds around provincial villages, thick jungle, over waterfalls and rice terraces. It is a spectacular trail which culminates at the infinity pool of the Topas Eco-Lodge. My family hired a van and took the bumpy road for one hour to meet us at the finish line, where the children enjoyed a dip in the pool and played with the many flags from different nationalities dotted about the gardens.
Where to stay in Hanoi with kids
We stayed in the heart of the old town down a quiet street at the La Siesta Hotel Trendy. I highly recommend this boutique hotel. They were so accommodating to our comings and goings from Ha Long Bay and Sapa. They were kind to the children and the food was delicious. There was a little mezzanine library above the concierge where the children could colour, read and relax during check in and out. The bedrooms were chic and spacious, with interconnecting rooms, contemporary art work and bijoux chandeliers. Plus they housed a fantastic spa
Where to stay in Sapa with kids
There are numerous places to stay in Sapa. We stayed at the Sapa Elite Hotel, which was a basic guest house run by friendly staff. The Topas Ecolodge is without a doubt the best place to stay in the area.
Art and cultural adventures in Vietnam
Vietnam is a country steeped in culture and tradition, awash with history and a striking blend of ancient customs and modernity. Our children loved the art and culture, which had a huge sensory impact on them. There is art on every street corner in Hanoi, handicrafts at each mountain village and artisan factories set back from the highway. We loved showing the children the different techniques performed by working artists such as lacquering, weaving, egg shell painting, stone engraving and embroidery.
The Vietnamese have preserved their history, retaining ancient legends and customs, the best parts of colonisation (French influenced food and architecture) and documenting invasions and regimes which have built the resilient backbone of a determined nation. My daughter (aged six) was fascinated by the war history at the Military Museum. Luckily, we had Granny with us to fill in the gaps for me. Prior to our trip Granny had bought the children a book of Vietnamese folktales in English and the A-Z of Vietnamese life. These books were treasured by the children throughout the trip and provided a wonderful context for their on-the-road schooling.
Hiking in Sapa with Kids
Sapa is the hub for hiking the Vietnamese highlands. It’s sad that the town has paid no attention to planning, and has allowed an immense amount of construction to ruin a rural idyll. However, the hiking that surrounds the town is wonderful. With the family (and my parents) we trekked to waterfalls, over mountains, alongside rice terraces, and through villages.
The highlands of Sapa are home to five different minority tribes – the Black H’mong, Red Dao, Tay, Xa Pho and Giay. Tourists are invited to visit their villages, watch the embroidery of handicrafts and stone engraving. We took our kids on a number of village tours to experience village life. Many of the villagers rely on the sale of handicrafts for subsistence. Therefore, they can be quite forceful with their trade. Expect to be hassled if you chose to visit a village.
A more serene way to enjoy the countryside is to take a hike, mountain bike or run on a guided trail. We hiked to the Love Waterfalls with the kids and grandparents, which was a stunning, well-marked trail to a magnificent waterfall.
Overnight on Ha Long Bay with kids
There are plenty of tour operators offering tours of Ha Long Bay. We chose the Indochine Junk since it was recommended by a friend of ours who lives in Hanoi. This tour visits the less frequented parts of the bay and includes a stop at the water puppet theatre on the return journey. The boat is relatively small compared to some of the big liners, sleeping approximately 20 guests.
The food onboard was sublime. Each dinner was a multiple course banquet of beautifully created dishes. The children were well catered for as well as one of our group who had some special dietary needs.
The children were enchanted by their cabins. On deck they were Wendy and Peter Pan in pursuit of Captain Hook sailing past the soaring rocky outcrops. The views around Ha Long Bay are incredible and our whole family adored exploring by canoe and on foot. We took a little fishing row-boat to visit the pearl farm, explored an underground cave and went for a swim. However, the current is very strong and not suitable for young children.
Where and what to eat in Hanoi and Sapa
There are many fantastic restaurants in Hanoi Old Town, it’s a culinary paradise. However, here are some of my most memorable easy eats in Hanoi with the kids.
Chả Cá – Go in search of the Chả Cá chain of restaurants in the old town. Their fish and noodle dish is one of the best things I have ever tasted and very social, since everything is cooked on the table in a big wok. The children loved it too!
Marou – Marou is an exquisite French Patisserie in Hanoi, which serves the best chocolate eclairs. The children can watch the chefs making all kinds of chocolate delicacies since the kitchen is partitioned from the restaurant by a huge glass window.
La Place – Opposite the Cathedral in Hanoi is a lovely café called La Place selling great coffee and crêpes. The café offered colouring for the kids and had charming views of the Cathedral.
Hoan Kiem Lake – rest for an ice cream at the café on Hoan Kiem Lake.
Snake Wine – If you are lucky enough to have a babysitter for the evening go in search of the bar on the railway tracks Ray Quan, to sample snake, gecko, or seal penis wine. It’s disgusting but makes for a good night!
Some of my favourite things to eat with kids in Sapa included the following:
Banh Mi – “ake up early and buy freshly made Banh Mi from a street vendor to pack in a picnic ready for a day of hiking.
Pho – Warm your tummy with hot Pho soup after a day trekking.
Gecko – The Gecko is a French fusion restaurant in Sapa with good service and sumptuous dishes. We indulged in comfort dishes such as Beef Bourguignon, chowder and Crème Caramel.
Highlights and lowlights of our trip
Highlights: What tops a sleep-over for kids? A sleep-over on a boat or train! For the children, the highlight of the trip was definitely the overnight train ride to Sapa and the overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay. My little boy had his nose stuck to the train window in awe for a good 30mins as the train pulled away from Hanoi’s neon lights and crazy traffic. The cave visit in Ha Long Bay was also a huge highlight for our little crew. When we entered the cave it was lit with warm yellow lighting. We were alone in the grotto and it felt like we had discovered a secret world. The combination of exquisite food, show-stopping sunsets and spirit of adventure created an unforgettable trip.
Lowlights: There were a couple of challenges on our trip which we had to negotiate. The traffic in Hanoi is crazy! Motorbikes whizz in every direction and there are no regulations. This makes crossing the road with little ones a little fraught! The sidewalks are crammed full of parked bikes and pot-holes making it a disaster for a pushchair. My lazy boy had to get used to walking through this city since there was no alternative!
When to visit Vietnam
The best time to visit Hanoi and Sapa is September to November or March and April when the temperatures are milder. However, September to November is also the typhoon season so beware! We narrowly missed a typhoon and were lucky that the next day the sun shone for us in Ha Long Bay. The rainy season is supposed to last from January to September. This meant that the rice terraces glowed a verdant green during our visit in late September.
How to get to Vietnam
You can fly to Hanoi international airport, Noi Bai, with any international carrier. Ask your hotel to organise a transfer. The tour operator at Ha Long Bay should organise your transfers to and from the Bay. To get to Sapa ask your hotel in Hanoi to book the night train to Lao Cai. Then arrange for your guest-house/hotel in Sapa to collect you from Lao Cai, which is a one hour drive from Sapa.
How to plan a family holiday to Vietnam
If you’d like help planning your family holiday to Vietnam get in touch and we’ll happily put you in touch with our partner agent who is both a mum and an avid traveller! She’ll be able to help create a Vietnam itinerary that the whole family is sure to love.
What to pack for a trip to Vietnam with kids
Do you need a visa for Vietnam?
Some nationalities need a Vietnam visa in advance while others don’t. The standard length of stay for a tourist visa is 30 days; for visa-exempt nationalities including the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, it is 15 days. Visitors from ASEAN member states do not require a visa. Visitors from the USA and Australia do require a visa. As always, it’s best to check whether or not you require a visa prior to travel.
Post and photos by Philippa Langrish
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