Places to visit in Vietnam
Whether you are activity mad, a culture vulture or a history buff there is something for everyone in Vietnam. Days can be spent haggling in the markets, making spring rolls with a local family, trekking to remote hilltribe villages or burrowing through the Cu Chi tunnels as you learn about the Vietnam War. We can suggest activities for all different ages of children and will ensure that the itinerary is just right for your family.
We have described some of the most popular family places to visit in Vietnam but if you aren’t sure how to piece these together, or if you are ready to start planning your trip, just get in touch. Whenever you go, allow a few extra days as the family won’t want to leave!
Hanoi is where many people start their trip to Vietnam and it is a wonderful introduction to the country. The narrow streets of the old city are packed with shops selling brightly coloured souvenirs, street vendors push steaming trolleys of fresh doughnuts, wooden carts laden with intricately cut paper art and hundreds of motorbikes vying for space with ponderous cycle rickshaws.
There is lots to see in the city, including the sombre mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh who you can see lying in state like a carved waxwork, as well as the impressive Temple of Literature, dating back nearly 1,000 years and set in a peaceful compound. Here the children will enjoy watching the fish in the carp pond and the garish souvenirs dotted around the shrines (golden laughing cat anyone?). However, the great attraction of Hanoi lies in the colour and chaos of daily life and children will be mesmerised at the hustle and bustle of it all. Grab a cycle rickshaw and sit back and watch the mayhem unfold around you before weaving through the motorbikes to find a local café and a plate of spring rolls.
About a 3.5 hour drive east of Hanoi is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. This is truly one of Vietnam’s most picturesque landscapes with thousands of limestone karst peaks poking through the emerald waters of the South China Sea. Here you can take an 1 or 2 night boat trip out into the bay on a traditional Vietnamese ‘junk’ (sailing boat). Along the way you will stop at some of the islands for a spot of kayaking or swimming on a deserted beach, climb up one of the peaks for incredible views or perhaps visit one of the huge caves for which the area is famous.
Halong Bay has become very busy in recent years and our recommendation is to take one of the boats that sail on to Bai Tu Long Bay, another equally picturesque area but with far fewer tourists. Many families also enjoy spending a second night on board the boat to allow time to get further off-the-beaten-track and to enjoy the many activities on offer. Rise early for a morning yoga or tai chi class on desk, help the crew try to catch fish for dinner, join the chef for a cookery lesson, stop for a barbeque on the beach or dinner in a cave and visit a local fishing village to learn traditional fishing methods from the locals. Time and again Halong Bay is voted the best activity in Vietnam by our younger travellers.
Originally a hilltop retreat for French colonialists escaping the heat and humidity of the plains, Sapa is an area of absolutely outstanding natural beauty. Extremely mountainous and truly dramatic, there are endless peaks appearing out of the mist and steep green rice terraces that were carved out of the hillsides centuries ago. In recent years a highway has been built connecting Hanoi with Sapa and this is now a very popular destination for local families from Hanoi so it can be very busy, particularly at weekend. It is still a beautiful place to visit but if you want to get off-the-beaten-track, there may be other places that offer better opportunities for this.
Mai Chau & Pu Luong
One of our favourite areas in Vietnam will not get much of a mention in the guide books but is all the more special because of it, with very few other tourists around. This is the nature reserve of Pu Luong, a spectacular protected reserve tucked away in the mountains and reached by a tortuous winding road. Here the rivers have carved out deep valleys over the millennia and farmers have sculpted rice terraces into the sides of even the steepest mountains. This is an area of traditional hilltribe villages, meandering rivers turning ancient waterwheels, jungle-clad mountains and terraced paddy fields. The views are breath-taking.
We can arrange for you to spend the night on a homestay which provides a fascinating insight into local life. The children will love spending the night in a stilt house, watching food being cooked over an open fire with chickens squawking around the place. If this doesn’t suit, there is a wonderful new lodge that has only just opened which offers gorgeous spacious bungalows made out of local materials and positioned to make the most of the idyllic views. There is an infinity pool and a restaurant that serves mouth-wateringly good local dishes.
There are activities for all ages including hikes (varying from a gentle village ramble to a proper ascent up a nearby mountain), mountain biking, kayaking and visiting local families in their home.
South of Hanoi is the former capital of Hoa Lu, set in the majestic scenery of Ninh Binh province. The area has been likened to an inland Halong Bay and the description is apt with hundreds of emerald green karst peaks rising up sheer from the rice paddies. Wide rivers flow slowly through the landscape, and over the years have carved out a network of tunnels and caves in the limestone outcrops through which the river still flows. Some of these are navigable and you can take a small wooden rowing boat deep into the mountains on channels several hundred metres long.
Children will love the boat journey, ducking to avoid particularly low hanging stalactites and stopping to climb one of the peaks for superb views. You don’t row the boats yourselves but are accompanied by a ‘rower’ who will start with their arms but when out of view of the officials, usually switch to their feet in the traditional (easier) style.
This area is also perfect for exploring by bike, for although dotted with steep peaks, the landscape itself is very flat. There are endless trails through the paddy fields offering a glimpse of rural life, and there are some friendly village homestays if you want to spend the night, as well as a handful of more comfortable resorts.
Phong Nha-Ke Caves
Phong Nha National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery. Here you can find the oldest limestone mountains in Asia, underground rivers and over 300 caves and grottos, many of which remain unexplored. The children will love taking a zip-line into ‘Dark Cave’, following a wooden walkway through the vast cavern of Paradise Cave, kayaking down the picturesque Chay River and covering themselves in (reputedly!) therapeutic mud.
Hue is Vietnam’s ancient capital and the imperial city is one of the country’s premier sights. Your guide will lead you through endless courtyards to quiet Buddhist temples and open sided golden palaces with curved eave roofs and beautiful decorations. The children may need a little encouragement to get the most out of the site but there are plenty of ice cream stalls dotted around the place that will work wonders!
The town of Hue is situated on the edge of the Perfume River and you can spend a lovely afternoon exploring the pretty Thien Mu Pagoda before taking a boat ride back along the river to the centre of town. When you arrive perhaps head to the vast Dong Ba market where you can get lost in the maze of streets selling huge bunches of fresh flowers, great vats of seafood, piles of spices, fruit and vegetables, fake designer goods and just about everything you could ever want to buy (apart from Pokemon cards, as has been discovered by this writer after an exhaustive search!).
The charming town of Hoi An sits in a picturesque location sandwiched between the Thu Bon River and the sea. Paved streets lined with narrow wooden shopfronts lead to colourful Chinese temples and traditional merchants’ houses. Women wearing conical hats cycle past with freshly cooked snacks balanced on large bamboo baskets balanced on the back of their bikes. Tailors beckon you into their shops promising to kit you out in a version of the latest designer gear and restaurants serve up exquisitely presented Vietnamese delicacies (as well as the occasional pizza and hamburger if required). At night the streets are lit by coloured lanterns and the cafes spill out onto the streets.
When you have had enough wandering, perhaps head out of town to the long white beaches that line the coast here and grab a sunlounger for a day. Or you could take a trip into the countryside to the atmospheric ruins of My Son, best visited in the early morning as the mist rises from the surrounding jungle. Active families may want to take a cycling tour, heading off into quiet rural areas following paths along the edge of meandering canals, stopping for a fresh fruit juice in the shade of a bamboo grove. You can go crab fishing in traditional round basket boats, enticing the purple crabs from the water bamboo or perhaps join a cookery class and learn how to recreate some of the delicious dishes you will have been tasting.
This is a great place to spend a few nights and enjoy some ‘down time’.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon, may not be the capital of the country but it is certainly the commercial hub and vast skyscrapers rise shining above the city streets. There are a few peaceful spots if you seek them out, but for the most part this is a 21st century city and everything proceeds at break-neck speed. There are reputedly more than 7.5 million motorbikes on the city streets and the children will enjoy a game of ‘who can spot the most people on the back of one motorbike?’. Our record so far is 5!
In the city itself families with older children will be entranced (and horrified) by the stories that you can hear at the various museums that document the atrocities of the Vietnam War. This may not be an enjoyable experience but is a very interesting one that fascinates children whose knowledge of 20th century horror may be confined to the two world wars.
Outside the city are the Cu Chi tunnels, built by the Vietnamese first as a means of underground communication and transport when fighting the French and later against the American. Children of all ages find a visit here immensely rewarding; younger children will enjoy being able to climb on the old tank and try to spot the tunnel entrances in the thick jungle. Older children will be intrigued by the gruesome demonstration of ways that you can catch an enemy in the jungle and will enjoy seeing how far they can follow the tunnels underground… often a lot further than their parents!
Dalat and the Central Highlands
The Central Highlands offer truly spectacular scenery, with steeply terraced mountains, lakes, thick forests and waterfalls. Dalat lies in the heart of the highlands, a charming small town with a very French feel (this was a colonial retreat) and oodles of romance… this is Vietnam’s honeymoon capital.
Outside of Dalat there are great opportunities for more adventurous families to get a little off-the-beaten-track, with lots of beautiful hikes and the chance to visit (or stay in) small villages.
South of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong fans out across the plains, endless tributaries branching countless times to create a web of lush islands and tiny canals. This is an area where life was traditionally lived on the river; a journey to school meant a journey to another island and a visit to the market meant taking the rowing boat to a floating market where wooden boats were piled high with produce.
Nowadays much of the delta is connected by a series of vast span bridges and the traditional way of life is waning. However, there are pockets where it can still be seen and you can take a boat to a small off-the-beaten-track island and walk through the fruit farms and vegetable gardens. Later climb in a sampan and float down one of the canals, through groves of bamboo and past small fishing villages.
The area is perfect for cycling as there are no vehicles on many of the roads and you can meander slowly along the edge of the river.
Never heard of Phu Quoc? You’re not the only one, but with the increasing popularity of the island we’re sure this won’t be the case for much longer. Situated right off the southern tip of Vietnam (closer in fact to Cambodia), Phu Quoc has tropical jungle, squeaky white sand and sparkling deep blue water off the dozen or so bays and beaches. Your main activity here may well be lazing in a hammock, however should the urge take you there are plenty of other things to do.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you could head out on a snorkelling trip, visit one of the many islands off the southern coast, or just go exploring on foot around some of the pretty fishing villages.
One thing that you do need to be careful of is your choice of resort as recent development does mean that some parts of the island are no longer as attractive as they once were. Also there is quite pronounced sand erosion on parts of the island so that the beaches may be narrow. However there are exceptions; our favourite resort is the Mango Bay which is on a gorgeous part of the coast, with endless palm trees to provide shade and attractive thatch bungalows dotted around the gardens with wonderful views. The beach here is perfect, and shelves gradually in places so is ideal for even the youngest children.
The best time to visit Phu Quoc is from November to March when temperatures sit around 30˚ with no rain. April to June is the dry season, when it gets hotter but still stays relatively dry. If you go during July to October, expect rain as this is when the monsoon arrives on the island.
The island is very well connected by flights from most places in Vietnam and can also be tagged on to the end of a trip to Cambodia. It is also possible to get here overland from the Mekong Delta but this is a relatively arduous journey.
Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a free-of-charge no obligation itinerary and quotation designed for you.
Vietnam in pictures
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