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.