Vacation in Vietnam
This is an account of our trip to Vietnam in August and September of 2009. We traveled the country from north to south, visiting Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, Saigon and the Mekong Delta.
Age of kids during trip: 3 and 6.
We flew with Delta Airlines from Seattle to Seoul and then Seoul to Hanoi arriving very late at night. We took a taxi into Hanoi, which took about 40 minutes and were dropped at the Hanoi Lake View Hotel, a place we had booked over the internet. As often happens with internet bookings the hotel assumed we were just 2 adults without children. And so they did what most hotels do in this situation: upgrade you to a family room at no extra charge. The room was great, with AC, 3 beds and a very large balcony overlooking the lake.
Hanoi was one of the highlights of our trip. Not so much for any one or collection of sights but more for the old asia of the Old Quarter. As you walk the city streets bouncing in and out of markets, up and down bustling alleys, you get that “This is why I travel” feel.
Things We Did: Water Puppets. Daily performances are held at the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre near Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s so hyped up I was preparing myself for a big let down, but definitely worth it. Both our kids were right into it (until they fell asleep anyways). Hanoi Water Park. A little ways out of town but a must for the kids. There are many water parks sprinkled throughout the country but if you get to only one, make it this one. It’s a little surreal climbing to the top level for the slides, looking around and seeing a collection of rice paddies. A little closer to the city center and much more low key and relaxing is the Army Hotel swimming pool. It’s open to non-guests for about $5 a person. It’s a huge deep pool with a small shallow area for kids. I read some fairly negative reviews of this place before we went but it seemed great to me.
Where We Stayed: Hanoi Lake View Hotel ($45). Nice clean room. Very nice staff. A little out of the way, so you do spend a bit of time and money on taxis, but it puts you right beside a lake ringed with a sidewalk. There’s often a market on the western and northern sides of the lake that is fun to browse through. You’re also not far from Lenin Park. It features what was probably the nicest playground we saw in all Vietnam. A couple of nice climbing structures and some simple but entertaining rides. Very shady and relaxing too.
Royal1 Hotel ($30), in the heart of the old city, surrounded by bustle and excitement. Clean, functional and unmemorable.
Places To Eat: Mediterraneo. The best Italian food we had in Vietnam. Authentic and delicious. It’s situated in a very cool, trendy neighborhood that we hadn’t seen or explored until stopping here on our way to the train station.
Green Tangerine. Full disclosure: We didn’t eat here. But we so consistently heard great things about this place I have mention it. Probably worth checking out.
Getting Away: We had two departures from Hanoi. The original plan was to first go to Ninh Binh, about 60 miles south of Hanoi, stay a day or two then keep heading south on an overnight train. It turns out the sleeper train doesn’t stop in Ninh Binh which meant we had to retrace our steps north – hence the two different hotels in Hanoi – then catch the overnight train going to Hue.
The kids were very excited to sleep on the train. It was something we had all talked about endlessly since first planning the trip, and for the most part, it didn’t fail to deliver. We had a private room with 4 sleepers in the typical arrangement – the bottom benches turning into beds and two bunks above. The kids roamed around the car for the first hour or two and then it was time for bed. The night was uneventful and we all had a fairly good sleep. The “dining car” was basically just a few tables with a big pot of pho cooking on the stove. That’s all they had – which was fine by us – so that’s what everyone had for breakfast. We were due to arrive in Hue at about 8am but didn’t get there until about 11:00. The last few hours did start to get a little long, but probably just because everyone was so hungry. Be sure to take plenty of snacks and fruit for any train ride.
NINH BINH (TAM COC and MUA CAVES)
This is a short 2 hour train ride from Hanoi. Saying the town is unremarkable is being generous. Dusty and busy with transport trucks it’s almost a little depressing. This isn’t why I travel. But it serves as the gateway to the incredible Tam Coc region. Dubbed an inland Halong Bay it was an incredible experience for both the kids and the adults. The owner of the hotel where we stayed arranged our visit to Tam Coc and surroundings. Probably the easiest and most efficient way to do a visit. We took a rowboat down the river and through the caves. I’ve heard horror stories about how busy the river can be at times, but when we were there it was peaceful and quiet with very few other western tourists around. We also did a visit to a couple of nearby sites, most memorably to Mua Cave and the karst that towers above it. Supposedly 500 steps to the top, the view is stunning and worth the hike. It was a long trek up for our youngest but he was determined to keep up with big brother and made it within a couple of steps of the peak. When you get to the top it’s rice paddies or the Ngo Dong River wherever you look and you can easily trace the path your boat took through Tam Coc.
Where we stayed: Thanhthuy’s Guest House. Clean and cheap with a nice little (very little) courtyard and restaurant. It was decent but not the character-ladened traveler hangout some of the guide books would imply.
We made a very quick 1 night stop in Hue and didn’t give it a fair opportunity to impress us. We did do a relaxing trip up and down the river and take a swim at the riverside pool of the Century Riverside Hotel.
Where We Stayed: Hue Sports 1 Hotel. Clean and cheap but almost totally lacking in character. If you do stay here, don’t eat here (besides the free breakfast). They get a lot of their menu delivered from neighboring restaurants, making the food a little more expensive and a lot colder than it would be otherwise.
Places To Eat: La Carambole. Good French food. Great coffee and espresso.
CHINA BEACH (DANANG)
We planned to stay a night or two at Hoa’s Place and like just about everyone else who stops here stayed longer. A great great great traveler hangout place. Family meals are had every night in the open air restaurant. It’s a really special place. The beach just down the road was the best one we saw in Vietnam. Clean and shallow, the kids loved it. And if you do get tired of the beach there is the Sandy Beach Resort a short walk south along the beach that has a pool open to non-guests for a $5 fee. Good pizza, beer and ice cream too. As well, there are a couple of beach shacks that do a pretty mean stir fry with fresh seafood, at much cheaper prices.
A short 1/2 mile walk from Hoa’s is Marble Mountain, which is definitely worth a visit if you can drag yourself away from the beach. It consists of 5 small mountains with cool pagodas and fascinating caves seemingly around every corner.
From China Beach it’s about a 45 minute drive to Hoi An. This is a fantastic place that you could easily spend a week in. We were there 5 nights and loved it all. Great food, great cafes and dessert shops. We – like many travelers – got clothes and shoes made here. Even the kids got in on the act as they had some shoes custom made for them. They had their feet measured, then got to pick the style, pattern and color of the shoes. We returned in a few days to pick them up. It was a lot of fun for them.
The market is fun to wander through and doing a boat ride on the river is easy to arrange and worth it.
Where We Stayed: Thanh Binh Hotel. Nice pool (as long as you don’t mind a little algae buildup along the pool walls, slime doesn’t kill you though does it?). A short walk from the center of town.
Places To Eat: Cargo Club – great food and desserts. The kids loved it. There’s an open air market style restuarant with long communal benches at the corner of Le Loi and Thai Hoc which is a lot fun. Each table has a different cook. We went with Ms An and were never disappointed. Streets – a restaurant the helps train local kids employable skills. Good food too. Casa Verde. Good Italian food and gelato.
Getting Away: It was either a 12 hour train ride to Nha Trang or 1 hour flight so we shed our hard core family traveler facade for the few moments it took to book the tickets on the Air Vietnam website.
This was probably our biggest (only?) disappointment of the trip. Nha Trang had a sleezy busy touristy feel. Like just about every place we go we still had fun but we were planning our departure from the minute we arrived. Vinpearl Land. I can’t really recommend this place. It’s a big American style amusement park. But if you are in Nha Trang and have some little ones with you, it would be hard to deny them some time at the water park. The aquarium is undeniably really cool, though it doesn’t take much more than 30 or 40 minutes to walk through at a leisurely pace. The tram ride over is fun too, especially if it’s a little windy as it was on the day we went. OK, now that I consider it a little more I guess Vinpearl was worth a visit but when you’re on the island you certainly aren’t in Vietnam which maybe for some families is the whole point.
Phu Dong Waterpark is right on the beach in Nha Trang and while nowhere near as elaborate as Vinpearl it’s one of the places you can’t help but have a lot of fun (maybe because there are very few rules enforced so it’s a bit of a free-for-all for the kids).
Where We Stayed: The Dream Hotel is no dream. But it is directly across from the beach and the Louisiane Brewhouse (see below) and very cheap ($25).
Places To Eat: Louisiane Brewhouse. A great place. Delicious beer. Good food, desserts, coffee. A nice deep swimming pool. And just a few steps from the beach. We spent a good deal of time hanging out here.
Getting Away: We then headed up into the hills to Dalat. This was a 5 or 6 hour drive in a hired car, much of it in hard driving rain. There was some pretty impressive scenery and fascinating little villages along the way even through the rain and the mist.
I’m not sure which way to go on Dalat. It would be easy to dismiss it as overrun, busy, without much of interest. But there is some appeal mixed in there somewhere. It has an interesting layout as it’s spread out over a number of fairly steep hills. One highlight is the great value you get on accommodations. As for things to do right in town, the best is probably Crazy House. Designed by a local architect with some eccentricity to burn, the house is, well, crazy. Each room has a different theme, staircases, ladders, walkways and tunnels lead in, around and through many of the them. Tourists take over the place through the day but at night it transforms into a functioning hotel. Book well in advance if you want to stay here.
Where We Stayed: Dreams Hotel. Great rooms. Super friendly family. Incredible breakfasts. All for only $25.
Places To Eat: There are a couple of little Vietnamese places right across from Dreams that do some good pho and other good traditional dishes. Check ’em out.
Getting Away: We booked a car with one of the Easy Riders taking us from Dalat to Mui Ne spread out over two days and a night. The Easy Riders are a loosely coalitioned group of guides who typically take people on motorbike through the Highlands of Vietnam – though they seem to be pretty much everywhere nowadays, even the Mekong. Having two kids we added a couple more wheels and did it with a car, but the idea is still the same. The guides take you to a collection of sites based on what you want to see, where you are heading and how long you have to do it. We saw: coffee, tea and silk farms, a couple waterfalls, a concrete factory, a pig and chicken farm that has seemingly branched off into wine making, and 2 or 3 minority villages along our route. The kids became best friends with both the guide and driver and we felt free to stop pretty much anywhere we saw something of interest. “What is that fruit growing there?” we’d ask as we saw something unique on the side of the road. And almost immediately the driver was hitting the brakes, we’d pile out of the car and the guide would give a quick talk about how and where it was grown. “Here have a taste.”
It cost about $200 which got us from Dalat to Mui Ne, of course, and included the car, driver, guide and gas, but no food or entry fees to any sites you might visit (e.g. the tram ride we took just outside Dalat).
A beach town without much of a beach (in spots) but a very laid back feel. Accommodations tend to be a bit on the pricey end compared to what we saw elsewhere in Vietnam. The town boasts two interesting sites nearby: The sand dunes which are pretty much what they sound like, a seemingly endless expanse of desert-like sand. And the Fairy Spring, basically a shallow creek that runs through the sand dunes. It’s a lot of fun – especially for kids – to walk up it for a few miles, the whole time splashing, jumping, rolling and frollicking in the cool water and its deliciously goopy sand.
Where We Stayed: Suoi Tien Mui Ne Resort. A nice clean place with a pool looking out on the beach. We paid about $60 for a fairly roomy bungalow – cheaper rooms are available.
Getting Away: We took a hired car from Mui Ne to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for about $60.
SAIGON (Ho Chi Minh City)
Our last stop on the trip – with a few side trips planned. If I had to do it again I would have spent this time exploring the Mekong more in depth. I was expecting a bigger version of Hanoi, but never really found the same ambience or sense of magic that so pervades Hanoi. We went bowling (fun), took in a water park (Dam Sen), went to a Vietnamese circus (fantastic) and toured through a couple of markets. It was enjoyable but lacked a little something when compared to the rest of our time in Vietnam.
Where We Stayed: Canadian Hotel 281. $40. Nice place, good location, decent clean rooms.
Places To Eat: Pho Quynh in the Pham Ngu Lao (Backpackers) area. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Anytime is a good time when the pho is this good. Mumtaz. We searched for good Indian food from Hanoi to Saigon and finally found it here. The butter chicken and chicken tikka masala are fantastic.
We did a long day trip from Saigon down to the Mekong town of My Tho and a boat trip through neighboring Ben Tre island and the Mekong River itself. Though this could hardly count as an extensive exploration of the Delta, it was enough to give us a taste and made me wish we had devoted more time to the area. Numerous places offer package trips from Saigon, they all seemed pretty touristy so we stayed clear of these and arranged it ourselves, grabbing a taxi from Saigon and heading down to the riverside in My Tho to hire a boat. The boat trip included stops at farms, small villages and more touristy places like a coconut candy company (delicious, by the way). The next time we go we’ll definitely be heading farther afield to places like Cai Be, Can Tho, and Chau Doc.
The single biggest health consideration that stood out for me, was the fact that if we stayed away from the highlands, hugging the coast from Hanoi down to Saigon the kids wouldn’t have to take anti-malarials. This map of Vietnam shows where malaria risks are highest.
Staying healthy in Vietnam involves luck as much as anything. There are a number of different things you can do to stack the odds in your favor – wash hands thoroughly before eating, brush your teeth with bottled water, ensure meat dishes are hot when served – but anyone that tells you they know the secrets to avoid illness is misinformed or dishonest.
We flew with Delta Airlines. It was about $675/person for our Seattle to Hanoi, Saigon to Seattle tickets, which I found through a pretty extensive search on Kayak.com. I have no great complaints or raves concerning Delta. As long as they get me there I rarely even notice whom I’m flying with. Flying through Seoul was a nice change as I’m usually going through Taipei, Hong Kong or Tokyo.
If you’re considering making Vietnam part of a larger tour of SE Asia take a look at Air Asia as they have incredible prices and fly from Hanoi to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur and from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok, Phuket, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
We used primarily train, plane and hired car as we made our way from Hanoi down to Saigon. The train was our favorite. Easy to book and use, low stress, relaxing for the kids as they had the luxury of walking about the train cars and meeting people. Check out Seat61 for great tips on train travel throughout Asia.
Our daily expenses varied between $50 and $150 depending on where we were and how many meals, desserts and beers we had a day. Obviously being a family of 4 drastically changes your expenses. A single person spending modestly could get by on $30 or $40 pretty easily.
We traveled through most of August and early September and our weather was great. The sea was calm and inviting, and everyday featured at least a few hours of sun. The only rain we got was when we ventured away from the coast (Hanoi, Saigon, Mekong Delta) and up into the hills (Dalat and the Central Highlands).
It’s very common for hotels with a pool to allow non-guests to swim for a small fee (usually less than $5). If you’re a family of 4 or 5 this can obviously add up, but it’s still usually much less than the difference in room price between comparable hotels with and without a pool.