Vietnam Backpacking - Travelling with kids in Vietnam
Welcome! My name is Nina and I am a married photographer with 2 children (9 & 12) and a new found love of backpacking! My husband and I never travelled after university so it was something we planned to do when our kids were old enough to carry their own bags!.
Our first adventure was to Thailand in the Summer of 2017 (see blog post here ) and we met a lot of families and couples who had come into the country via Vietnam. All of them had raved about how authentic Vietnam was and that planted the seed for us to come back in the Summer of 2018. My Thailand post has helped a lot of families new to travelling to come up with a plan for their holiday so I thought I would do the same for with our Vietnamese trip.
The 1-minute video below shows some of the incredible places we visited and I then delve into each area in detail if you would like to learn more about where we went. All images were taken on my small travel camera the Sony A6000 and you can find all the details here.
If you have any questions about anything in this blog please feel free to ask in the comments below. I hope this inspires some of you to head over to this side of the world!
Thailand vs Vietnam
A number of people have asked how we felt Vietnam compared to Thailand so I thought I would begin by sharing my overall impression of the two countries.
The biggest difference was Vietnam did feel a little more authentic than Thailand as the tourist industry isn’t quite as developed. We found this a big plus as we realised quite soon into our Thailand trip that we wanted to be as far away from touristy areas as possible. After a few days our plan was to immerse ourselves in the culture and lives of real families. The downside is that getting around isn’t quite as easy as Vietnam compared to Thailand. It is a country on the rise, after all of it’s troubles, but there’s is still a noticeable difference in income for the families – when we got back to the UK I went to read more about it and the GDP per capita is 3 times more in Thailand.
In terms of cost, both countries were very similar – there was hardly any difference in meals and transport costs. In both countries, the people were wonderful and especially accommodating of our children. If you weren’t savvy you could be open to being overcharged or shortchanged but in neither country did we ever feel in any danger.
Our overall impression was that Thai beaches are probably more scenic and Vietnam’s Northern Mountains are more pituresque than Thailand’s North.
In conclusion, our suggestion would be if you are planning your first backpacking trip I would start with Thailand, if you are more experienced I would head to Vietnam.
Our route around Northern Vietnam
This year we had just over 3 weeks to travel so we decided to focus our trip from the North to the middle of Vietnam. The country is so incredibly long (over 1000 miles from North to South – nearly 2 x times longer than the United Kingdom) we didn’t want to lose too many days travelling on planes and trains.
We decided to focus our trip around Ha Noi, Ha Long and Hoi An (it took us a week to stop mixing the city names up) and we chose the North rather than the South as our Thailand trip taught us that we love being in the jungle/ mountain areas. Like our last trip, we planned to end at the coast for a few days rest before heading home.
One of the challenges when organising our route was the number of days we would pass through Ha Noi. To get to any of the locations we wanted to head to, whether on boat, coach or plane, we usually had to travel through the city again. If we were to do the trip again I would do more research to see if there is a way to travel straight through from one location to another.
Day 1 – 3 Ha Noi
Day 4 – 6 Ha Long Bay (collected by tour company)
Day 6 overnight bus to Sapa
Day 7 – 11 Sapa (Ta Van)
Day 11 bus back to Ha Noi
Day 12 Fly to Da Nang
Day 13 – 16 Hoi An Homestay
Day 17 – 19 Hoi An Riverside
Day 20 – Fly Da Nang to Ha Noi
Day 22- Flight back to the UK
Weather in August in Vietnam
Just like Thailand in the Summer, in August in Vietnam it’s the rainy season. Overall we did see more rain in Vietnam with around 5 days of our trip being wet (only 1 of these days was none stop, the rest were short heavy showers). Most of the rain was in the North in Sapa and Ha Noi. We did expect to see some rain and it didn’t really affect our enjoyment as we weren’t in these areas to sunbathe it was more about exploring, trekking and learning about the local area. We packed lightweight raincoats but it was never really cold. If you plan to travel at this time of year I would assume you will see some rain. The rest of the time it was very warm, around 90 degrees, and very humid around 90% most days.
The further we travelled towards Hoi An the weather significantly improved and we didn’t see any rain on this leg of our journey.
You can see from the images below the variety of weather that we had over our 3-week trip.
The City of Ha Noi
We landed in Ha Noi very early in the morning so paid for an extra night in our first apartment so we could put our bags somewhere as soon as we arrived. We had pre-booked a studio apartment in central Ha Noi (walking distance of the lake) called wind chimes studio. It cost £26 a night for the 4 of us. It had everything we needed and most importantly had air conditioning as it was incredibly warm and humid!
We spent the next few days exploring the city on foot, walking around the lake, trying lots of new food and generally getting our bearings. We preferred to eat traditional Vietnamese food where possible but there were lots of food options like in any other city in the world.
At night (especially on the weekend) the city really comes alive with street theatre, street food, dancing and kids playing feather kick “do long” in the streets. We also visited the water puppet show which was a really fun way to spend a couple of hours.
Each time we came back to Ha Noi we chose to stay at a different Airb’n’b so we could see different areas of the city. We booked 1 day in advance and also stayed at the following 2 hotels which were £12 and £15 a night Family hostel & The Especen Hotel.
** Our Ha Noi highlight **
The absolute highlight of our stay in the city was our vintage Russian Bike Tour with Hanoi Backstreet tours. In fact, I would say this was one of the highlights of the entire trip! Before booking, I had a long chat with the team about taking the kids on the bikes and they really reassured me. On the day itself, they were very professional and incredibly safe with the children. Most Vietnamese families use motorbikes to get around – the roads look mad but it is organised chaos. We paid $39 dollars each and it was worth every penny! It was the best way to see the city and we also tried lots of authentic food and went to a local pub. The video below is a 2-minute overview of our afternoon on the bikes.
Cat Ba & Ha Long Bay
Our first major trip after landing it the City was a boat trip to Ha Long Bay. I spent a lot of time researching the best way to see this world heritage site and after reading lots of blogs I decided to find the budget to have our own boat. So much of what I had read were from people who had been to Ha Long and it had been incredibly busy – they had kept ending up in the vicinity of party boats which they felt had ruined their trip (no judgement from me as that would have been me 20 years ago!)
In the end, we went with eco friendly tours and we could not have been happier. We went on the 3-day 2-night trip which included kayaking, visiting secluded beaches, visiting a village and a hospital in a cave from the war. All transfers, food, drinks and tickets were included in the price which was around £900. This was a real investment but it was worth every penny. The team were amazing and having our own guide meant we really got to see the best of Ha long. Some nights we didn’t even see another boat. One thing we did notice is how much plastic and rubbish is in certain areas of the bay and we did our best to collect up as much as we could. We nearly filled our kayak on one trip!
** Highlights of Ha Long **
Highlights of the trip included cycling through the mountains to the village, swimming to a hidden beach, watching the kids spend all day diving off the boat, and kayaking through a cave with bats above us.
The 3-minute video below shares some of our favourite photos plus video snippets – please excuse mine and the kids videoing! Its on my list of things to learn to do in 2019 🙂
Sapa town to Ta Van village
Looking back on our trip now, Sapa has left us with the most amazing memories and was probably my favourite part of the trip. We met some incredible people and I feel as if we got a real understanding of how families live day to day in the Northern half of Vietnam.
We arrived early in the morning on the Sapa Express coach (see details in flights and coach section at the end of this blog) and checked in for 2 night to a hotel so we could explore the area. We stayed at the Son Ha hotel which was £9 a night and right in the centre of the town. We booked this hotel via booking.com (we basically switched between booking.com and Air b’n’b throughout the trip).
Considering Sa Pa is only an overnight coach ride from Ha Noi we felt as if we were in another world. It was incredibly mountainous with lots of amazing men women and children dressed in traditional tribal clothing.
We spent a couple of days in the town and then headed out to our favourite homestay in Ta Van Village about half an hour away.
** Highlights of the North – Ta Van and the Lazy Crazy Crew **
I had a vision before we left for Vietnam of staying in a house where we really made friends with local families and spent some time getting to know how they really lived. We were so lucky to have found the amazing Lazy Crazy homestay and we loved it so much we stayed until the last day that we had to leave to go back to Hoi An.
The house itself was halfway up the valley with an amazing river running through the middle. They had pets (which made my kids so happy) plus the dog next door had just had puppies to every day my kids went up to visit them. At the time of our stay, there were travellers from France, Germany and the UK as well as a number of Vietnamese students who were learning to speak English. In the day we would go on trips, go for a swim in the river, meet the local artists, have a spa and in the evenings we would play board games, help wash up after dinner and have cocktails!
John (not his Vietnamese name) organised a trek for us to meet a local family who still dye and weave clothing in the traditional ways. The kids had a go themselves making yarn from grass and then creating their own design with melted wax over a fire. We also hung out with Huew who was a Vietnamese student staying at the home stay to learn English, He was also really into his photography so we often went into the village together to take photos.
We also visited the herbal baths (£3 each) and spent some time trading practising English with local artist Nagh for her teaching the kids how to use paints properly.
The 3-minute video below is a tiny portion of the photos I took in Ta Van. We met 2 young girls called Mimi and Lilly and the made such an impression on us that we made a box up for them this Christmas of things we thought they would love (as well as some chocolate at the request of John!)
I could honestly not recommend this village, and this particular home stay, more!
Hoi An & Da Nang
After our mountain adventures, it was now time to head to the coast. We flew from Ha Noi to Da Nang (see flights section for more details) and a landed early in the morning and headed straight to Hoi An (the city of lanterns).
The day before we left we booked a home stay and they offered to come and collect us from the airport for a very reasonable price. We stayed at the Sunshine home stay which was £15 per night (£3.75 per person!). We chose this home stay because it had a small pool and also bikes that we could borrow. It was also a 10-minute taxi ride to Hoi An city centre.
** Our highlights from the first few days in Hoi An **
Our favourite memories of Hoi An were being in the city for the lantern festival plus our day trip to Cham Island.
I had read online about how Hoi An was famous for its lanterns and floating candles and we were not disappointed. Along the river, on the weekend the main lights are turned off for a period of time and the restaurants and boats are lit only by lanterns. It was a gloriously warm evening and we just enjoyed walking around. We also found some very good restaurants just off of the main streets which were incredibly reasonable at around £3 a meal.
We also decided to book an excursion to Cham Island with the Cham Island Diving Centre. The trip was $48 per person (with Sophie being half price) for a full day trip (8 am to 5 pm). This included transfers, snorkelling in 2 spots, a really great lunch, chill out time at the beach and being dropped back to our home stay. The snorkelling was really good and the team on the boat were excellent and also very good with the kids. We would have no hesitation recommending this company at all.
After we had spent a few days at Sunshine house we decided to make our final move to a hotel right on the river for a change of scene. We picked up an amazing last minute deal on the River Beach Resort on booking.com. They had a private area on the beach and a large swimming pool which was the last treat for the kids. It was here that we met a great family from Australia and the kids spent loads of time hanging out with their new friends.
We also decided to plan one last trip to the Golden Bridge which I had seen on Facebook just before left. We booked a day trip through a local tourist office up to Bana hills not knowing what to expect. It turned out to be a strangest but most fun day! To get to the top you ride one of the worlds longest cable cars and at the top are man-made European castles!
They put on shows, had amazing mazes you could get lost in and the kids favourite part – two floors of FREE arcade games and rides inside the mountain. We headed straight for the Golden Bridge and managed to get onto it before it got too busy. My advice would be to get to Sun World as soon as it opens in the morning and head straight for the Golden bridge. If you can be the first people up in the cable car that would be ideal!
You can see some of the photos I took on this final leg of the journey below.
Flights & Coaches around Vietnam
London > Ha Noi > London
After doing lots of research into indirect flights we decided to pay the extra and fly straight in and out of Ha Noi with Vietnam Airlines. We paid £770 each (compared to approx £600 if we had gone via the South or Bangkok) but as we didn’t have a full month to travel we didn’t want to lose any time changing flights.
The plane and service levels were excellent (787) and I would have no hesitation in recommending them. There were lots of food options, blankets and pillows provided plus an excellent entertainment system for the kids. We also had a lot more leg room than expected (in standard seats)
Ha Noi > Sapa > Ha Noi
To get from Ha Noi to Sapa we decided to travel on Sapa Express coach. It was only 12 dollars per person and left around 9pm and got into Sapa at around 6am. This was a surprisingly good trip with the seats being more like beds. Also the team at the office gave us first priority getting onto the coach as we were a family and we shared one giant triple seat so someone was sleeping with the kids. We had blankets, pillows, snacks and drinks included and the kids found it a real adventure. Just one word of warning these bus drivers drive FAST! Unlike the UK there don’t seem to be many speed restrictions so we found it best to just not look and sleep!
Ha Noi > Da Nang > Ha Noi
To get from the North to the middle of Vietnam we decided to fly with Vietjet air. This is the countries main airline and is comparable to EasyJet/ Ryan Air when flying economy. We paid £50 per person return for our flights. One word of caution our flight times changed around 10 times in the run-up to our trip so make sure you don’t have any trips or major activities planned on the day of your flight as it could change from afternoon to morning.
What we ate & drank
Firstly I want to start by saying my kids are pretty good a trying new foods and like seafood so this certainly made it easier for us BUT the food choices are much more complex in Vietnam than Thailand. Pad thai, red curry, chicken and basil are pretty much the same wherever you are in Thailand but this isn’t the case in Vietnam. The same dish across regions can be very different and we found that little street restaurants that had pictures of the food were a huge help!
As I mentioned before the average income in Vietnam is a lot lower so we did find the meat quality different to Thailand. It was all very tasty but they do use all of the different types of meat and a lot of the food is on the bone. Again its just took a bit of getting used to knowing what to order. What I would suggest is doing some research into dishes for each region before you go so you know the name of what to try.
The biggest revelation of the trip was the Vietnamese coffee! Hot or cold this was just amazing and probably very bad for us as it was made with condensed milk. Since getting home I have found a Vietnamese supermarket which stocks it so happy days! I am also slowly converting everyone that comes over to our house 🙂
What we packed
Below is a list of everything we packed – my husband and I carried around 7kg and the kids 5kg each. We packed as light as possible to make it easy to move when we wanted.
My husband and I used the same backpacks we had from Thailand – they were 45 + 5 litre backpacks from Mountain top. They are very good and we would happily recommend them. They were comfortable to wear and shower proof and cost around £35. The children carried Skysper 30 Litre water resistant packs which cost £20. Again these were very good and we will use all of these packs again next time. The kids carried their bags the entire trip which we were really pleased with!
We planned to pack as light as possible so we took the following clothes for each person. We either washed our clothes in the washing machines along the streets (50p) or paid to have our laundry done for us for £1
- 1 pair of zip off trousers from Mountain Warehouse
- 1 long sleeved lightweight jumper . I wore a yoga breathable top which was great.
- 1 good quality Berghaus waterproof jacket
- 5 sets of underwear
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 3 tops – 2 sleeveless, one with short sleeves
- 1 cotton day dress, 1 cotton evening dress for the girls
- Swimming costume
- 1 pair of trainers, 1 pair of walking sandals & 1 pair of flip flops
Our medical kit included
- A St Johns Ambulance first aid kit – we actually only used the plasters out of the kit for cuts but I felt this was important to take. I bought this from Amazon.
- A pack of Sterile needles
- Sun cream – I was surprised how expensive the sun cream was so was pleased that we packed enough to get us through the first 2 weeks.
- Mosquito spray. I took an Avon so soft and jungle formula with deet and both of these were useless! In the end, I purchased a local product (around £1 and could be found in any 7 eleven) and it was excellent. See image for the actual cream.
We took some other items which we found invaluable whilst away
- Camping towels. Super lightweight microfibre camping towels from Amazon which we got a lot of use out of.
- Torches. A couple of nights in the North we had no electricity so our torches were well used.
- Portable washing line. We used this so many times I am really glad we packed this! We took a heavy duty one and it worked really well.
- Kindle & Ipad mini – when travelling we often read our kindles and we did take the iPad mini with us. We downloaded a couple of movies but the kids used it most to play solitaire
- A pack of cards
- Compact Camera – I took my Sony a6000 to take photos and video.
Our overall impression of Vietnam was really positive and we are really pleased we travelled back to this side of the world. We are hoping now to head to Borneo or Costa Rica (after our house renovation project is finished).
I hope you have found this blog post useful if you are planning a trip to Vietnam and I would love to hear how you find it! Please feel free to ask any questions or write comments below.