With palm-framed beaches, magnificent markets, captivating cities and misty mountains enveloped by rice terraces and rainforests, Vietnam is certainly a great place for grown-ups. But how does it rank if you’re traveling with kids?
Well, a lot depends on where you go and how you get around. Traveling by train through the lowlands between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), it’s easy to have fabulous family adventures, stopping at many of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights. The beaches of central Vietnam and offshore escapes such as Phu Quoc also serve up bucketloads of family fun.
Kids will have a harder time in the humid highlands, not least because of the car-sickness-inducing roads. Nevertheless, with a car and driver, all sorts of adventures become possible. And wherever you go, children will receive a warm welcome – here are our top tips for traveling to Vietnam as a family.
Is Vietnam good for kids?
To answer in one word, a resounding yes. But good doesn’t always translate to easy. Vietnam’s fascinating cities, for example, have plenty to keep kids entertained, but you’ll have to balance this against alarming traffic, air pollution and the rapid onset of fatigue that comes with urban exploring.
With younger kids in your group, focus on more sedentary trips to the beach towns and islands. With older kids, you can push the envelope, dropping in historic cities and adventure activities on the water and inland in the hills. For all age groups, set aside several hours each day for relaxing – with the high humidity and summertime heat, wandering the streets can wear down even the most patient child.
Where are the best spots in Vietnam for kids?
This depends on the age of your tiny travelers. Beach hubs such as Nha Trang and Phu Quoc will work for most age groups. You’ll also get mileage from urban adventures in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and boat cruises around Halong Bay. For older kids and teens, the highlands around Sapa and Dalat offer lots of action, from trekking and canyoning to mountain biking and caving, while the central coast dishes out water sports galore.
Best things to do in Vietnam with babies and toddlers
With a baby or toddler in tow, heat and humidity will be your worst enemies. In summer, stick close to water – whether that means the beach or the hotel pool – and focus on seaside resorts and big cities, where the air-con is reliably frosty and baby essentials such as formula and nappies are easy to find. Remember, the north can be quite cool in the winter, so bring warm baby clothes.
Play on the beach
A beach holiday is the obvious choice for babies and toddlers. Book into a resort and you can stop worrying about the crowds and traffic and concentrate on enjoying the warm weather and tropical mood. Phu Quoc is one dreamy choice, with excellent infrastructure, gorgeous beaches and resorts for all budgets. There are also toddler-friendly beach strips on the central coast between Danang and Nha Trang, but be cautious of currents.
Hang out in Hanoi or HCMC
Toddlers and babies may be too young to appreciate the irrepressible energy of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but with comfortable accommodation, easy-to-find AC, and shops selling everything you need to keep small travelers content, Vietnam’s twin megacities are very manageable stops for families. Use a sling or carrier to transport junior and make time for rickshaw tours and trips to see the water puppets and HCMC’s water parks.
Best things to do in Vietnam with younger kids
Once kids are old enough to walk and talk, travel in Vietnam gets a whole lot easier. You can gently dial up the adventure, bringing in boat trips, amusement parks and the odd historic sight and outdoor adventure, as well as days at the beach.
Meet gods and emperors in Hue
Vietnam’s former imperial capital is a great place to introduce kids to Vietnam’s lavish history. Exploring the Citadel and Imperial Enclosure feels like jumping back several centuries, and kids will enjoy Hue’s pagodas and temples, with their colorful deity statues and ornate gateways. A boat ride along the Perfume River to the imperial tombs and the Thien Mu Pagoda is another rewarding family adventure.
Hit the markets
Vietnam’s markets are a riot of color – deeply interesting, highly atmospheric and full of trinkets that kids can pick up for pocket-money prices. Make every market visit a safari of sights, tastes and smells. Stop to breathe in the pong of a durian. Pick up food stall treats or fun tactile fruit such as lychees and rambutans. Visit religious stalls to browse for ornaments and charms. You’re guaranteed a memorable experience.
Spend time at Phu Quoc’s beaches and theme park
Phu Quoc is the destination with everything as far as families are concerned. Much energy is directed towards the beaches, but snorkeling and other watery activities add to the experience, and excursions into the rainforest are easy to arrange. Then there’s the Disney-inspired VinWonders theme park and the waterslides of Hon Thom Nature Park, reached via the world’s longest overwater cable car ride. With direct international flights, you don’t actually need to go anywhere else in Vietnam.
Immerse yourself in history in Hoi An
Travelers of all ages love Hoi An for its step-back-in-time magic. A family stay in a traditional merchants’ house will place you at the heart of the Hoi An story, while you explore museums, monuments and some supremely colorful temples (look for mosaic dragons on the rooftops). Take a tour by cyclo (rickshaw) to add extra atmosphere to exploring at street level. There are clean beaches within easy reach too – it’s less than 5km (3 miles) from the center to the shallow waters and fine sands of An Bang.
Best things to do in Vietnam with tweens and teens
On one level, older kids can be harder to keep happy in Vietnam – tropical fruit and temples can be poor compensation for a lack of same-age company. On the other hand, Vietnam is an amazing hub for outdoor adventures, and bonding over a trek through the hills or a kitesurfing course on the coast is a great way to bring the generations together.
Have adventures around the outcrops
Halong Bay and its calmer neighbors Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay offer plenty to engage active teens. Head to Cat Ba Island and arrange a kayak tour, or just paddle along the beachfront in a rented kayak on Quan Lan Island or Co To Island in Bai Tu Long Bay. Halong Bay is also a popular base for rock climbing, with bolted routes on many of the karst outcrops (local tour operators can arrange climbing day trips and gear).
Go kitesurfing at Mui Ne
If your teens love aquatic thrills, the beach strip at Mui Ne is Vietnam’s top hub for kitesurfing. There are several schools where you can learn as a family, with prime wind conditions in late October and April. Other watery diversions include sailing courses, stand-up paddleboarding, surfing classes and the mud spa and swimming pool complex on the hilltop. For teens who prefer pampering, there are plenty more spas along the beach strip.
Enjoy the beach scene in Nha Trang
Nha Trang is perhaps the best beach town in Vietnam for teens. The sand is just the start of the seaside fun – fill days with dive and snorkeling trips, boat tours, bathing in hot springs and natural mud baths and surfing sessions just south of Nha Trang at Bai Dai beach. Then there’s VinWonders, a boisterous complex of waterslides and rides (including a giant Ferris wheel) on Hon Tre island, a short boat ride across the bay.
Make a splash in Dalat
A few hours inland from Nha Trang, the atmospheric former French hill station of Dalat promises cooler temperatures, hill views, and an impressive menu of adventure activities, from canyoning and trekking to mountain bike trails. During the rainy season from April to September, this is Vietnam’s favorite base for white-water rafting. In between adventure tours, take time to splash in a local waterfall – Datanla Falls comes with a bonus bobsled ride, and you can duck behind a wall of sloshing water at Elephant Falls.
Take a trek in the hills
The hill town of Sapa is Vietnam’s most famous trekking base, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in the surrounding hills, though peace and tranquility can be elusive. Trekking routes fan out from town to a string of minority villages, taking in grand views along the way – for a big family adventure, try the overnight hike up 3143m (10,311ft) Mt Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak (or take the easy way up by cable car).
Many families give Vietnam bonus points for its food – while dishes may be unfamiliar, they’re rarely spicy (heat is usually added separately in the form of chili sauces). Crispy Vietnamese pancakes, banh mi sandwiches, bowls of pho (noodle soup), fried spring rolls and bun cha (grilled pork with vermicelli noodles) usually go down well.
International favorites such as pizzas and pasta are easily available for tots who turn their noses up at things they haven’t tried before. Then there’s Vietnam’s fabulous catalog of tropical fruit and fruit smoothies – every day you’ll find new textures and flavors to sample.
Eating out as a family is generally easy – tourist-oriented restaurants can often provide high chairs or a cushion to boost tots up to table height. Families eat together everywhere, so there’s no need to worry about the kids being noisy during dinner. Use antibacterial hand gel to ward off tummy bugs.
Baby supplies are available in major cities, but supplies of formula and nappies dry up quickly in the countryside – stock up in the cities or bring plenty from home. Cots are available in most midrange and top-end hotels, and even budget places can set up an extra bed to turn a double into a family room. Away from the beach, pick a hotel with a pool to beat the sticky heat.
Transport is trickier. Child seats are hard to find, so bring one from home and use it, even for the shortest taxi journey – with so many cars, trucks and motorcycles competing for space on the roads, accidents are common. Trains are more fun for families than buses, and the Reunification Express line between Hanoi and HCMC stops at many of Vietnam’s favorite destinations.
If you head to highlands, renting a car and driver is the way to go. Keep journeys short and watch for motion sickness on winding mountain roads. River boat rides in the Mekong Delta and trips to offshore islands can be a blast for kids but insist on life vests for all family members if you arrange a boat tour, or stick to the cruise-ship-like junks that cruise around scenic Halong Bay.
Navigating Vietnam’s busy streets and pavements is easier with a sling or carrier than with a buggy. A backpack carrier with a sun shield will give toddlers an elevated vantage point and some precious personal space. If you use a baby sling or chest-mounted carrier, bring an umbrella to use as a parasol. Portable hand fans are also a worthwhile investment. When walking with kids, keep them close and take extra care crossing the roads.
Remember to plan for the weather. The summer heat and humidity can sap energy, and the heavy rain brought in by the southwest monsoon from May to September and the northeast monsoon from October to April can put a dampener on family fun. All this moisture is heaven for mosquitoes – use repellent with a high concentration of DEET (diethyltoluamide), and minimize exposed skin.
When the sun shines, it can be fierce. Bring high-factor sunscreen from home as it’s not widely available in Vietnam. Consider bringing a sunsafe suit or rash-vest to fight off the rays on the beach. Watch youngsters carefully in the water – rip tides can be a problem in some spots, and some families prefer to stick to resort beaches with lifeguards.