Vietnam (with kids) in 8 days?! Seriously? Impossible! How? …
Vietnam had been that elusive place so long on our bucket list. Either the holidays were booked elsewhere, or there wasn’t ‘enough time’, or the pre-teen and young teen would make such a to-do about going to Vietnam because mama was gonna drag them from temple to pagoda to ancient ruins!
Finally, it was time to bell the cat – I bargained with the husband to get at least 10 -12 days off (but got only 8 in the end) and turned a deaf ear to the girls.
Ideally, I do like to take their ideas and consent (for holidays particularly), but these days it seems to revolve only around amusement parks and roller coasters and …Wi-Fi! A bargain was sought – whatever we do….’NO museums!’
Planning took time – routes, cities, what to do, what not to do – what to leave out. Finally a “NS-5/8” travel plan was coded- North to South, 5 cities in 8 days.
It was a great trip, one that I am ready to do all over again. Even my ‘rolling-their-eyes-girls’ agree! I figure a successful trip needs to be shared, so others can take cues from our schedule, learn from our mistakes, and avoid some of our initial planning struggles.
Day 1 – Departure from Singapore to Hanoi (the longest flight in the journey so best to do it first); night in Hanoi
Day 2 – Departure from Hanoi to Halong Bay by road; Arrive at Halong Bay and aboard the cruise ship;
Day 3 – Disembark from cruise ship and drive back to Hanoi
Day 4 – Free and easy in Hanoi; evening flight to Hue; overnight at Hue
Day 5 – Free and easy in Hue; Drive from Hue to Da Nang-Hoi An
Day 6 – Hoi An
Day 7 – Hoi An; evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
Day 8 – Free and easy in Ho Chi Minh City; evening flight back to Singapore
Driving into what is called the ‘Old Quarter’, essentially meaning the old town, there is excitement and awe at the varied sights – old and new; ancient and modern; town and city. From the intricately woven nón lá (leaf hat) to the graceful ao dai; from the cycles to Harley Davidsons; from Gỏi cuốn (spring rolls) to Burger King… there is something for everyone!
A great place to stay is near Hoan Kiem Lake, as there is enough to do within walking distance – for the ‘historically oriented’ mama there is the water puppet theatre; the red Huc Bridge connecting to the Temple of the Jade Mountain; and St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
For the ‘massage-cum-foodie’ dad, every third shop seems to be an eatery of some sort – ranging from Vietnamese specialty restaurants (we hear Barack Obama’s a fan) to multi-cuisine cafes where a truly ‘global’ meal was eaten – pizza, bun cha and beer!
My girls fretted and fumed through the ‘sightseeing’ until they rested their eyes on a ‘shoe street’ with hundreds of Nikes and Converse (under SGD 15). They were also willing to walk the extra mile (and drag the parents) to a sighted-by-mistake Always Café, with all the trappings of Hogwarts, where butter beer was heartily consumed by the Pottermaniacs!
If every third shop had food; every fifth shop had a masseur – heaven on earth for mama and papa! What more did we want? Just a good night’s rest at a comfortable hotel (Hotel Hanoi Pearl), which comes highly recommended for its ultra-comfy beds!
Ha Long Bay
The advice we were given is that this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must see, not to be missed. But that was the easiest part – the tough part was which cruise to take – 1-day/ 2 day/ 3 day? Through hundreds of recommendations on Trip Advisor and various Facebook groups (thanks to all the awesome mamas who gave advice), we decided on a 1-night/2-day trip with Indochina Junk.
Read More: Taking a Ha Long Bay Cruise with Kids
Positives were superb customer service, visa processing, Hanoi hotel bookings, and special meal requests. A highlight was the 7-seater luxury van which had wifi all the way from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay – the girls were in heaven and miraculously saved from what they had feared would be a boring 4-hour drive! The plushy recliners on the van were much sought-after and everyone played musical chairs throughout the trip.
The cruise around the bay is nothing short of beautiful – just nature and the waterway (and the boats)…and no Wi-Fi! Yay for the mum and Nay for the kids but it became a way to prove that ‘we can survive without wifi’. Aboard the junk, it felt like a charter cruise with a total of 15 passengers and 10 staff! Old world wooden junker a la Robinson Crusoe with a twist – 6-course meals! Fantastic seafood cooked in the local Vietnamese style (with special non seafood requests as well).
With just about 24 hours aboard on the boat, there was enough to do (even without the Wi-Fi) – four meals a day; caving to see stalactites and stalagmites; basking on the sun loungers with a cocktail in hand and Uno on the table; dinner under the stars; canoeing for those who wanted to and basking in the sand for those who preferred that; visiting a pearl farm and fishing farm and observing life on the unique floating villages!
An added treat on the return road trip was a stopover at a local village to see a short water puppet show coupled with locally grown fruit snacks.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this is a city that is undersold for its historical value. Many visitors bypass looking at the sites (as we did too – primarily because we wanted to avoid the anti- sightseeing-whining of our girls).
One regret: having hoped to see some of the sights when we drove onwards to Da Nang, I was disappointed as our hired car driver/guide told us that the citadel area was on the other side of town and cannot be booked together. But, I guess this ‘miss’ will be a reason to go back again! In retrospect the boat tour down the Perfume River with intermittent stops to disembark and walk around the heritage sites would have been interesting for the girls as well.
An amazing part of this leg of the journey was the road trip from Hue to Da Nang (and further to Hoi An). The sights to behold (in sequential order): clear blue skies; clouds sitting atop mountains like a halo; fishing and oyster farms in faraway lagoons; the winding road uphill to stunning views of the South China Sea, all unfolding into shades of blue. High up on the Hải Vân Pass were glimpses of history; old war bunkers on lookout points and temple shrines dedicated to local gods.
Where do I begin with my raves about this little town? Hoi An is the new Bali! It has all the elements for a great vacation – old quaint town, French & Vietnamese architecture, heavenly food, relaxing massage and spas, amazing beach, even more amazing food, and even more amazing made-to-order suits, dresses and gowns (made in 24 hours, no less).
A few must do’s and tips: there’s a multitude of restaurants to try out for every meal with special mentions for Morning Glory and Cargo (awesomest desserts!); custom-made clothes (Yaly is the popular couture place); mornings at the beach as the water is super clear at this time as against a visit in the evening; the Pottery village (have a go at the potters wheel and purchase blue Vietnamese pottery straight from the potters’ homes).
Hotels are aplenty and the choice is yours depending upon what kind of holiday is planned, from ultra-luxury with pools overlooking the sea or windows opening onto paddy fields. After much ado, we decided that meals were going to be in different places every day, so we selected to stay at Hoi An Essence – and don’t regret it one bit (and we’re ready to go back for more visits). The hotel is close to the Ancient Town, has a friendly and helpful staff, quaint pool, ultra comfortable beds, rooms with a view (lush green paddy fields), a king’s breakfast, a queen’s spa, and a family-friendly atmosphere (not to mention the Wi-Fi and the iMac with Minecraft!).
A day in Ho Chi Minh City was a bit difficult to plan out; for us it was a toss-up between Notre Dame Cathedral, The Post Office, a quaint bookstore alley near the Post Office, and the Reunification Palace.
The Post Office was the winner so the kids could buy a postcard, write it out and mail it from there to our home address…and the excitement on receiving it in Singapore!
Staying in District 1 was advantageous as most of the top sightseeing places are walking distance or a short cab ride. Our hotel, Sakyo Silverland, was a fabulous Japanese-styled placel with super king-size beds, open-bathroom tubs and gorgeous tiles. A lavish buffet breakfast and afternoon tea in Noritake cups made us feel like royalty.
If only we’d had more time to do the Vespa City Tours (or Food Tours) and the Mekong Delta….but then, something needs to be left for next time!
A visit to the Ben Thanh Market was all that was needed to finish our holiday with a little shopping and lots of bargains!
Handy Tips & Helpful Hints:
- The visa process can be confusing as it’s not truly an ‘on-arrival visa’ and a pre-approval letter is required from Vietnam immigration. There are several online agencies who do this and all charge varied rates. Try and get it done through your hotel/ cruise company as they offer these services at a marginal cost. I must’ve saved at least SGD 100 for a family of four. (Our letters were organised by our cruise operator, Indochina Junk)
- Currency: You can get better exchange rates at some of the Vietnam airports (rates at Hue airport was fantastic)
- Many restaurants (except the specialty ones) are multi-cuisine. This is great for fussy-eater-families as it’s easy to find something for everyone.
- Walk, walk, walk wherever you can as it’s sometimes faster on feet than going on wheels.
Happy travels, mama!
All images courtesy of the author