How to spend three weeks in Vietnam (family-friendly!)

We’re just back from a fantastic holiday in Vietnam. A country I’ve wanted to travel to for at least 20 years!

Pre-kids me would have 100% aimed to squeeze in Cambodia (and maybe even Laos!), attempting travel at the speed of light. But the thing I’ve learnt most over the past 10 years touring with kids is that building in some downtime is essential. For everyone’s sake!

So if you’re looking to explore from the north to the south of this country – here are my suggestions for a family-friendly trip! And remember to check if you need a visa before you go! Aussies can organise theirs online for around US $25 per person. It takes about 3 to 4 days for approval.

Start in the north (3 or 4 days)

We flew into Hanoi and spent three days in a budget-friendly centrally-located hotel in the Old Quarter. While we typically rent apartments to give us more space, we had the luxury of spending this holiday with my Mum. Because she had her own room and was happy to have one kid bunk in with her, we opted for adjoining rooms. Being in the Old French Quarter meant we had a great walkable location within 5 minutes of many of the city’s top sights. 

Some family-friendly highlights in Hanoi included:

  • Water puppet theatre – the kids (and I) absolutely loved it. We purchased our tickets on the day and went for the 5pm show.
  • Exploring the Old Quarter – while it can be a little dicey walking in this area due to the number of motorcycles, it is a great area to stroll around with loads of coffee shops and restaurants to explore.
  • Red Bus tour – something I’ve never done with kids before but was a great option for tired kids. We only hopped off once, attempting to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open. Double-check times (even though we had searched online and asked the tour operator!)

Get out of Hanoi and explore the northern region

We chose a one-day tour that included –

  • Bai Dinh pagoda, to see the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam
  • An amazing two-hour boat trip along the Trang An tourist site
  • A delicious buffet lunch offering lots of options (including vegetarian)
  • Climbing up to the top of the Mua Caves provided spectacular views – though it definitely took longer than the 10 minutes our guide indicated and wasn’t for the faint-hearted or anyone with weak knees!

While it was a long day with the kids (pick up at 7.45am and arrive back in Hanoi around 6.30pm), there was lots of variety, which means the day went fast, and the kids definitely didn’t get bored.

We booked ours via Klook.com for around US $40 per person – our youngest was free.

Overnight boat in Halong Bay

While it’s easy to find images of the gorgeous and surreal landscape of Halong Bay with its clear emerald waters and tall limestone islands, there’s nothing quite like seeing it first-hand. We booked a one-night, two-day cruise with Genesis Regal Cruise, which was terrific. 

We arranged a pick-up from Hanoi for an additional fee that took us straight to the dock. On arrival, our hosts checked meal preferences and made any last-minute requests to ensure we (and the kids) were happy with the food options. 

We took off on a smaller boat at around 12pm and cruised through the bay for approximately 20 minutes before arriving at the large boat. We checked in, enjoyed lunch and then were free to participate in activities on offer or relax. The small boat trip through the bay gave us a closer look at the small islands. It was a little chilly for a swim, but a few people in our group braved the cold waters. 

Before dinner, there was a free cooking class on the top deck where the kids rolled fresh spring rolls while the adults enjoyed happy hour and a stunning sunset! 

The following day, after an early breakfast, my husband and our two eldest did some kayaking while my mum minded our youngest. It was such a calm, relaxing start to the day (although not for one family who fell in trying to get into the kayak – be careful on entry!) before we returned to the boat for one last meal. 

A few days exploring Hoi An

Hands down, this town has to be one of my all-time favourite spots. Because we had my amazing mum with us on the trip, my husband and I explored the first day on our own for the first time in years. The streets are chock full of lanterns, cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, and so much atmosphere! Head down to the riverside near the Japanese Bridge towards sunset to soak it in and nab a table looking out at the river to look out at all the lanterns on the boats.

Hoi An is also the place to visit if you want clothes tailored while in Vietnam. My husband got a stack of shirts, trousers and even hand-made shoes, while I got an adorable short jumpsuit made to fit. There are plenty of tailors to choose from, with varying quality. Our Airbnb host worked in one, which made choosing easier, and the quality was exceptional. 

  • Tailor – Anna (347 Nguyen Duy Hieu)
  • Shoes – Leather Leather Song Da (349 Nguyen Duy Hieu St)

We spent a few days exploring the markets, and the kids had some Xmas money and scored loads of gorgeous little trinkets, including jewellery, magnets, hand-made cards and jewellery boxes. On our last night, we opted for a boat ride at dusk. Because there were 6 of us, we chose a larger boat rather than two small boats, which took us further out on the bay and had us arrive back into the main tourist area just as it got dark. The driver let the kids have a turn steering the boat, which was a magical experience for the adults and kids!

While there, it’s also worth the short drive to My Son, a cluster of partially ruined Hindu temples built between the 4th and 14th centuries in a beautiful jungle setting. It takes around an hour by car, and entry is 150,000 VND per person, including a 2-km trip by electric car to the centre. Entry also includes a music performance – double-check the times when buying your ticket.

An extra few days in Danang

Danang is famous for its beach and is a big city with some cool cafes and restaurants, but it probably doesn’t warrant an extended stay if you’re short on time. We spent Xmas Day here and also did a few day tours from here with Danang Private Cars (who were great – easy to organise, pre-pay, offered kids seats and super safe drivers) to explore some nearby sights that were definitely worth a visit, including Hue and Ba Na Hills.

Hue and the Hai Van Pass

Hue is located a few hours from Danang and was once the national capital and the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperor. It has a vast citadel surrounded by thick stone walls and offers lots to explore, including palaces and shrines. There are also many other pagodas and mausoleums to explore in the city.

To get there, we took the famous Hải Vân Pass, which stretches approximately 21 km through the mountain and offers spectacular views. We also stopped at the beautiful Lap An Lagoon, filled with oyster farms and traditional wooden stilt houses. 

Sunworld, Ba Na Hills

Sunworld is an amusement park on top of the stunning Ba Na Hills. While it’s expensive, particularly compared to other places in Vietnam, it was worth a visit for the cable car and the surreal Golden Hands bridge that almost floats at the top of the mountain above the clouds. As well as a purpose-built French-style village with plenty of shops and restaurants, there’s a massive indoor amusement centre with some free activities for kids, such as a huge indoor play centre.

Try to buy your tickets online beforehand, either via the Sunworld website or Klook. We had trouble buying kids’ tickets, so while I had purchased the adult tickets, I had to get the kids on the day. Entry is based on height – so if your child is over 140cm, they’ll need to pay an adult price regardless of age. The lines can be long, and the process painfully slow.

Also, check the weather forecast, as it can impact whether it’s worth going. For example, we had a beautiful clear morning, but the weather turned up the mountain, and our ride back on the cable car was shrouded in fog. 

Finish in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)

Saigon is a vibrant city that offers a fantastic array of things to see and do. Some highlights for us included – 

  • Nguyen Hue walking street – a great street for strolling, especially at night. Look out for the Cafe Apartments, a group of apartments converted into cafes, so each tiny balcony offers a different cafe.
  • Explore the many restaurants on offer – our favourite for the family was Ngon, a stunning and huge restaurant centrally located with pages of menu options, including a dedicated vegetarian section that made our life easier to choose from. If you’re after cheap, super-friendly options with a mix of Vietnamese and Western food, head to the famous backpacker area – Bui Vien Street.
  • War Remnants Museum – if you’re interested in learning more about the Vietnamese (locally known as the American War), then take a trip to this harrowing museum. Thankfully they’ve set up a kids’ play area on the top level, as many images are incredibly graphic and unsuitable for children.
  • Day trip to Cu Chi tunnels and Mekong Delta – The Cu Chi Tunnels, around 50 km from Ho Chi Minh, offer a fascinating insight into the struggles experienced by the local Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War. We were given loads of information by our guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable, and we got to explore the tunnels ourselves. After the tour, we headed to the Mekong Delta, where we took a couple of boat rides to nearby islands, where the kids delighted in taste-testing honey and candies made by locals. Another long day, departing at around 8am and returning around 7pm but definitely worthwhile and a great way to see as much as possible in a short time. We booked our tour via Get Your Guide.

Vietnam really does offer something for everyone and is a vibrant, welcoming country where the people are friendly, the travel is easy, and the cost is very affordable (particularly for a large family). Enjoy!