Bridge at Sun World Ba Na Hills.
Bridge at Sun World Ba Na Hills.


Not sanitised and homogenised but a full-blown kaleidoscopic, dramatic place with beaches and motorbike rides and mountain tribes and steaming heaving markets of culinary surprise, Vietnam can change and enrich you. Yours and your kids’ palates will dance to new flavours, your eyes will rest on both beautiful and saddening sights, and your equanimity will be challenged as chaotic swirls of humanity surround you. Your family will be perceived as something you may have never considered it to be – an exotic (and wealthy) entity. You may be uplifted or shaken to find people living simply and organically, and ultimately your new understanding of the East and West’s impact on each other will broaden your world view.

It’s not easy to travel in any developing country with children, but the Vietnamese adore kids and are especially fascinated by Western ones. Younger children are a source of awe and delight – little hands will be thrust with lollies, and kids will be cuddled and catered to in restaurants by gushing and indulgent staff – while older children love the inherent anarchy and adventure of travel here (the weasel poo coffee will definitely keep many of them amused).

Vietnam is nothing like what you have come from. The streets and pavements are often crumbling and sometimes simply disappear, making a buggy cumbersome or even useless. There are also rather a lot of smells – massive pots of beef bones for pho stock bubbling away outdoors, walls used as urinals, intense pollution from the motorbikes (locals wear cloth masks), perfumed incense from pagodas, durian fruit reeking like rotting flesh being sold on street corners or to motorists at traffic lights – and plenty of begging, rubbish, rats and victims of Agent Orange. Vietnam is a quick and shocking lesson for both adults and children: all life is not governed by health and safety and the rules back home do not apply here.


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Things to do with kids in Vietnam

Do your research. Though Vietnam has welcomed tourists in recent years (part of a move to re-establish diplomatic relations around the world), unless you go totally high-end, tourism runs at a very Vietnamese pace. For instance, visiting the limestone pillars of the beautiful World Heritage site of Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin by boat is very popular, but some of the cheaper tours include unadvertised setbacks such as overcrowding on the bus to get there, unscheduled stops and boat-hopping to reach your own badly parked boat – not very practical for anyone with agility issues or a two-year-old wedged on their hip. So research your tour carefully – it is amazing to drift through the spectacular seascape, seeing traditional fishermen at work in the bay and finishing with an afternoon swim off the boat and a dinner of fresh-caught fish. You can also go kayaking in the bay.

Follow the well-trodden trail of attractions starting at Hanoi in the north, gateway to Halong Bay and the hill tribes of Sapa. The Vietnamese capital is often described as the ‘Paris of the Orient’, and the French colonial architecture is indeed both lovely and unexpected, romantically decaying amongst the pagodas and skinny concrete terraces. Don’t miss the water puppets (57B Dinh Tien Hoang St) – the tradition of water puppetry, largely unchanged over its 1,000-year history, tells stories and legends about harvesting, fishing and festivals against a background of traditional Vietnamese music.

Venture two hours south of Hanoi, to Ninh Binh province, where the Bai Dinh pagoda is the largest Buddhist complex in South-east Asia, with several temples and 500-plus intricately carved Buddhas.  

Head to the northern mountains, home to Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the Sapa hill tribes, whose dress and crafts have attracted the imagination of many tourists – there are markets where you can buy textiles and handmade silver jewellery. This region is colder than the rest of Vietnam, which may be a welcome relief in the summer, but it can even snow in the winter, so be prepared. The landscapes are stunning, from wild rivers to rice terraces descending hills and bamboo forests. Plan your trip around your kids’ constitution – operators offer packages ranging from one-day treks with a night in a hotel to more adventurous three-day treks with homestays. There are also tours based around visiting various tribes and their market days. Do, however, be aware that some think tourism has been both a blessing and a curse here – the demand for local handicrafts has meant many children are made to work by relatives.

In central Vietnam, inland of Da Nang, check out Bà Nà Hill Station with its cable-car, iconic Golden Bridge with two giant stone hands and surreal Sun World theme park.

Get bamboozled in a good way in Ho Chi Minh City, which you’ll probably both love and find one of the most difficult places you’ve ever been to. Grab a taxi or motorbike taxi (or two in tandem to accommodate the family – just put an arm out and one will appear) and head to the famous Ben Thanh market, where you can get both weasel poo coffee and replica Rolexes and Gucci bags and eat at one of the market stalls. While there are many touristy things to see in Ho Chi Minh City, including the war museums and Reunification Palace, the kids will probably best enjoy swimming in your hotel pool and getting to stay up late like local kids, who sleep in the heat of the afternoon and hang out after dark in city parks and by fountains, where balloons and cheap toys are sold by cruising street-sellers. They’ll also enjoy the fabulous French ice cream at Fanny’s (29-31 Ton That Thiep St, District 1) and generally just being a part of this flamboyantly coloured, scented and soundtracked world. If you’re lucky, your night may include a free live opera outside the Saigon Opera House, with dragons dancing through the narrow alleys as cymbals clash and acrobats perform on towering stilts, but even if you miss the organised parties, the streets are always alive with industry – painters selling huge Van Gogh imitation canvases, women crouching on the concrete making sweet waffles, and calls to ‘manicure, pedicure, massage’ mingling with the beep of motorbike horns and the cries of the noodle-hawkers.

Make for the beach. Vung Tau and Mui Né resorts provide a wonderful respite from Ho Chi Minh City’s bombardment of the senses. Binh An Village in Vung Tau is a hour's boat-trip across the Saigon River from the city centre. Mui Né is about a four-hour bus or train ride from the city; if you hire a taxi, insist on a final fixed price (about $70–110). Once you’re there, let the stress of the travel slip away and enjoy the tropical surrounds. This is a great place to hire a motorbike as the roads are relatively quiet and there’s nothing like whizzing off to your evening meal through the balmy night air with flip-flops a-flapping. 

If you feel the impetus try to improve matters in Vietnam, put some of your holiday budget or time aside to help a local charity involved with wildlife preservation, animal rescue, orphan support or community development.

Women choosing guava in a Vietnam market.@VietnamTouristBoard

Women choosing guava in a Vietnam market.


Try try try! Pho, the nation’s most famous dish (noodles in a meaty broth with fresh herbs and sprouts and slices of beef, chicken or pork) is addictive. Also try the pancakes stuffed with roast pork, spring onions and bean sprouts, the spicy, chewy fishcakes, and the crispy spring rolls wrapped in lettuce and sharp piquant mint. The local version of orange juice has kids in raptures. It’s made by putting many spoonfuls of sugar into tall glasses, topping it with crushed ice and the sweetest, yummiest freshly squeezed orange juice ever to form a kind of iced lolly in a glass – bliss on a steamy sticky hot day in the city.

But if kids don’t embrace the different flavours – lemongrass, Asian basil, star anise, fish sauce – pasta, pizza and burgers are easy to find at the tourist-oriented restaurants in the main cities, which can certainly help on family holidays with younger kids. In Ho Chi Minh City, Au Park (23 Han Thuyen, District 1) serves delicious Mediterranean food in an atmosphere of cool and calm.

Trekking with a mountain tribe member.@VietnamTouristBoard

Trekking with a mountain tribe member.

When to go to Vietnam

Family holidays in Vietnam are good year-round. The weather varies by region – the northern hills are frosty and cold in winter, while the southern areas are divided into the wet, monsoonal months (May–Oct) and the dry months (Nov–April). During the monsoon the rain is frequent but also short-lived and can actually be rather pleasant as it seems to wash the cities clean. 

Bai Dinh pagoda, Ninh Binh Vietnam’s largest temple complex.@VietnamTouristBoard

Bai Dinh pagoda, Ninh Binh Vietnam’s largest temple complex.


Vietnam is expensive to get to but the cost of living is very low and both food and accommodation can be extremely cheap, making for good-value family holidays. Having said that, it is advisable when travelling with kids, especially young ones, to opt for the highest standard of accommodation you can afford (which will still be a bargain by Western standards) and to budget for taxis to some of the sights.

Destination stats

Capital cityHanoi

Flying time13hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.

Carbon footprint CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.

TimezoneGMT +7

CurrencyVietnam Dong

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Sunworld Cable Car to Hon Thom - Phu Quoc.@VietnamTouristBoard

Sunworld Cable Car to Hon Thom - Phu Quoc.

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Fishing village near Vung Tau.@VietnamTouristBoard

Fishing village near Vung Tau.