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A Family Holiday in Vietnam

Water puppet theatre in HanoiWater puppet theatre in Hanoi

We’re at our second fitting. Me and the two girls – teenager and 10-year-old – having our little silk numbers made to measure in Hoi An, the town of tailors in central Vietnam. Storme, the teenager, is having a dark-pink sleeveless dress with a neckline we’re arguing over. The tailor, as petite as Storme herself and no taller, sews it up. Storme pulls it down. Out comes the tailor’s nifty needle again. They reach an agreement somewhere inbetween high neck and plunging. It’s been a whole afternoon’s entertainment.

Hoi An is an ancient town, stuffed with ornate assembly halls, pagodas and temples. Each narrow street is lined with centuries-old ochre Japanese merchant houses from when it was a bustling port. It’s all so perfectly preserved it felt like walking around a film set, the colours bright and the buildings uniform. However, it wasn’t these UNESCO protected sites but the experiences offered by the town and country beyond that attracted my kids. They’re not so good at looking; they’re much better at doing. I don’t mean daring sports. I mean unusual things they wouldn’t do at home. And Vietnam has lots of these, such as having a made-to-measure dress.

We’d been driven to Hoi An over the mountainous Sea Cloud Pass, on our tip-to-toe romp through this string bean of a country. We couldn’t drive ourselves – it’s illegal for anyone to drive without a Vietnamese licence, so there’s no such thing as hire cars. From the small delights of Hoi An we moved on to the grand city of Hue on the banks of the Perfume River (‘It’s a bit smelly for a name like that!’ says teenager), home of the Imperial Citadel, a vast complex of buildings inside a 2m-thick, 10km-long wall, where we spent a whole day wandering around and clambering over the remnants of Vietnamese royal life, pretending to be princely ourselves. From Hue we took a short internal flight (they’re very very cheap) to the capital Hanoi, built around a giant lake, with mighty white colonial buildings, wide boulevards, coffeehouses (Vietnamese coffee is excellent – sweet and thick) and night markets in the warren of roads in the Old Quarter, selling furry fluorescent Hello Kitty pyjamas, jade jewellry and palm-leaf conical hats.

When we’d had enough of shopping, we started eating. The 10-year-old could even order in Vietnamese, making her feel most important. The language can be simple. Pho is noodles, bo is beef and ga is chicken. So she just said ‘Pho bo!’ or ‘Pho ga!’ and ‘Fan-ta!’, and her idea of a perfect meal would be delivered, plus chopsticks. While the menu was scrumptious and, as important for kids, predictable, the seating wasn’t quite as comforting. Every street was lined with makeshift cafés – a couple of low square plastic tables, either bright blue or bright red, and a few even lower plastic stools. These pop-up cafés appeared everywhere. Once, we were waiting at a bus stop when a fellow pedestrian unpacked a set of stools, pulled out a giant flowery flask of boiling water, and set up business in the bus shelter. 

But the highlight of Hanoi was the water puppet theatre, originally staged in paddy fields and lakes. The puppeteers wade waist-deep to make a crowd of balsa-light puppets on long wooden poles splash, skim and dance across the water, telling fairytales with the help of a live band mostly playing instruments with just one string. Getting wet in the front row was far more fun than splashing in any hotel pool. Vietnam does have beaches (although not the best) and many sights (although not the biggest), but that’s not what my kids remember nor what the country’s best at. What makes it special is the smaller experiences. For my kids, it’s the pho bo. And their furry Hello Kitty pyjamas.

Read more about family holidays in Vietnam including our hand-picked recommendations for family-friendly places to stay.

By Dea Birkett

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