Vietnam With Kids: 23 More Travel Tips For Families
Vietnam is a great country to visit with kids, even though it can appear quite daunting at first.
Don’t be daunted — just do it! There are many many traveling families who have visited Vietnam and loved it.
Part of the appeal is the Vietnamese love of kids, toddlers and babies. You’re going to be traveling with little rock stars!
As well as being full of people who love kids, toddlers and babies, Vietnam is also full of kids, toddlers and babies, so there’s usually some small person to play with, no matter where you are.
My recent unexpected baby news has made me think about how babies and Vietnam mix. I thought it was time to expand on the 23 tips for taking a a toddler of tour in Vietnam post I wrote nearly two years ago.
So here are some more tips for traveling in Vietnam with kids, particularly young kids. In no particular order.
1. Budget hotels usually don’t have lifts
Many budget hotels are tall skinny affairs. This means there can be a lot of stairs. Because lifts are for extravagant types with more money than sense, right?
Budget hotels won’t always have a spare person to help with your luggage. This is something to keep in mind when you are packing. Pack light. Really think hard about whether you need all the stuff that seems so necessary at home, things like strollers, hair dryers, car seats, kids suitcases and bulky nappy bags.
When you’ve packed your luggage, put it all in a corner and ask yourself if the adults in your family could carry it (and possibly some sleeping children) up three or four flights of stairs after a long day of traveling. Cull accordingly.
2. Take the train over the bus
There is only one train in Vietnam, the Reunification Express, which links Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It takes 33 hours to travel between the two cities by train, which is a long long time compared to the two-hour Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City flight. However, the train is much cheaper and you can stop at most of the big-name tourist places as well as many little-known places.
You can also do the whole trip or segments of it by bus, but the buses in Vietnam are far less comfortable than the trains. Even the sleeper buses are cramped (I can’t straighten my legs) and you have to arrange yourself around your stuff because there are no compartments for carry-on baggage.
Trains have a much roomer sleeper option, with much more bouncing-around room for kids. Even the soft and hard seat carriages have more room for kids, who can play in the aisle and/or traverse the entire length of the train. There’s usually a dining carriage where rowdy smaller types can be fed and watered far far away from the parent who is teetering on the edge of sanity.
Buses aisles are unsuitable for playing for kids of any age, especially when a bus is careening along Vietnam’s open highways or bumping along a smaller road. Buses also often don’t have toilets AND get regularly get stuck in traffic jams so the next toilet stop always takes far longer to get to than expected.
3. Consider taxis for medium-distance trips
Taxis may not be the cheapest way of getting places, but they’re not the most expensive either. They’re usually substantially cheaper than hiring a private car, which is what you’ll get if you ask any tour desk for information about cars. If you find a taxi driver with reasonable English, get his phone number so you can call and ask for a quote on the next leg of travel.
We often hire a taxi for the two-hour trip to Darling Man’s parents’ place for family events. Because the distance isn’t that great, it costs us about US$50 to hire the taxi and the driver for the whole day. For the five-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne, a taxi is US$93 one-way, $130 return. The bus is only $18 each way, but sometimes you are prepared to pay for a bit of comfort.
4. Vietnam has toddler fall-back food
You know your little one. You know he or she will always eat French fries and/or fried rice, right? Well, never fear, Vietnam is awash with both fall-back foods. In fact, Vietnamese French fries might actually be a cut above the fries from home, served as they are with a dipping bowl of butter and sugar. Let your little one decide how good it is.
For other fussy eaters (or junk food addicts), there’s a range of fast food outlets including KFC, Pizza Hut, Lotteria (a South Korean burger chain), Jollibee (a Filipino fried chicken chain) and in 2014 the first McDonalds is due to open in Ho Chi Minh City.
5. Vietnam has indoor play centres
It’s often too hot to play outside, so most major cities have indoor play centres. They seem to be all the rage in Asia at the moment. In Vietnam, entry to indoor play centres cost between VND50,000 and VND100,000 (US$2.50 – $5). Most usually have a cafe attached, so parents can have a coffee or a beer while they wait for toddler exhaustion to kick in.
6. Ho Chi Minh City has Snap Cafe
Snap Cafe has saved the sanity of many a Saigon-based expat. It’s a cafe in the wilds of District 2 that has a playground. We refer to it as “the cafe playground” and we front up for some quality play time in the playground at least once a week.
Snap is licensed and it serves a range of Western and Tex Mex fare, as well as kids meals and ice cream. There’s often special events at Snap, such a movie nights, burger nights and kids activities. If you rock up on a weekend at about brunch-time, your child could gate-crash a birthday party. Birthday parties at Snap Cafe usually involve a magician and/or a balloon folding guy, who entertains all the kids who happen to be there, not just the honoured children who were invited to the party.
And did I mention Snap is licensed?
7. Kids clothes are super-cheap
A lot of kids designer clothes are made in Vietnam. They’re supposedly export-only but it’s common to see Pumpkin Patch, Baby Gap and French brand clothes for sale. There’s also a range of local kids clothing lines. If you’re at the point where you have to decide whether to get laundry done or buy new clothes, don’t dismiss the new clothes option as too expensive. You can pick up really cheap kids clothes in most supermarkets (although they can look a bit cheap). Avoid the clothing outlets in the fancy department stores and try to find local-looking shopping centres, such as Saigon Square in Ho Chi Minh City, or local (as opposed to touristy) kids clothing shops.
8. Vietnamese kids can be loud
Be ready for it. And whatever you do, don’t go to a playground or an indoor play centre when you have a headache. The noise might just kill you.
Vietnamese kids can also be quiet and sweet and shy. I guess I just notice the loud kids when I have a headache.
9. Some places only sell milk with sugar
Although milk – fresh and longlife varieties – is available almost everywhere, in some places, such as the wilds of the Mekong Delta, only the “có đường” (with sugar) milk is available. So if you’re little one is a milk monster, consider carting a few extra boxes of “không đường” (no sugar) milk along with you.
In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a brand of milk called Bong Milk. See how much you can shock the people at home by posing your kids with a bottle!
10. Vietnamese waiters and waitresses aren’t really aware of food allergies
If someone in your group has a food allergy, be extra-careful in Vietnam. Even some of my university-educated Vietnamese friends scoff at the notion of food allergies, thinking it’s just weird Western fussiness. Be vigilant and make sure everyone in your traveling party knows what to do should an allergic reaction hit.
11. Budget hotels usually have family rooms
Hotels at the cheaper end of the scale are usually targeted towards Vietnamese travelers and Vietnamese people like to travel in groups. Sometimes very big groups. This is great news for traveling families, who can all bunk down together in the same room. Triple rooms are easy to find (either two or three queen-sized beds or a queen-sized and a twin). That’s all we’ve needed so far, so we haven’t really researched quad rooms, although I have seen them.
12. Backpacker places usually have book exchanges
Books are heavy and people often leave them behind. A lot of budget places, including backpackers, on Vietnam’s main tourist trail collect the discarded books and offer them for exchange and/or for a small fee. It’s possible to pick up abandoned fiction and non-fiction books in English, German and French. You could even end up reading something outside of your usual genre — and expanding your mind is what traveling is all about, right?
In Ho Chi Minh City, Chi’s Cafe and Snap Cafe have book exchanges. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City also have book shops with English-language books.
13. Vietnam has cheap DVDs
Although Vietnam has signed up to various international intellectual copyright covenants, the practice of respecting international copyright hasn’t yet reached the streets. There’s all kinds of copied DVDs available from street vendors and shops (including shops in government-owned shopping centres). DVD shops in the tourist areas usually have a wide range of English titles, although the quality can be a bit dodgy. These places can save your sanity if you’ve left home with one or two kids DVDs that have been played on high rotation during your travels.
Because most countries penalise people caught with copied DVDs, be prepared to leave your no-copyright DVDs in the hotel you stay in on your last night in Vietnam.
Note: I have looked high and low for original full-price DVDs and failed to find any in Ho Chi Minh City. If you happen to find some, let me know where!
14. Ho Chi Minh City has lots of photocopied books
If you spend any time in Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker area (the streets surrounding Pham Ngu Lao) you will be approached by ladies carrying towering stacks of photocopied books. The titles are usually a random selection of popular backpacker titles, Vietnam-related books and international best-sellers.
The prices of these books will depend on your negotiating skills and the quality will be a bit of a lottery. Some pages might be too blurred to read and some pages may be missing altogether. It’s just one of those you-get-what-you-pay-for situations. Delve into a cheap photocopied book at your own risk. (This is a warning from an avid book-lover.)
15. Schedule some down time
It’s very easy to keep adding things to your itinerary until it’s full-to-bursting. Vietnam is full of amazing and interesting things and it’s so very tempting to try to see them all during your once-in-a-lifetime trip here. But trying to do it all can have horrendous consequences for small people and big people.
Everyone’s body responds differently to long travel days and jetlag. And when you’re traveling with kids, their reactions can vary greatly. Kids also have growth spurts at the most inopportune times so sometimes the hardiest little traveler can suddenly turn into a sleep-deprived wailing banshee hell-bent on destroying your holiday and the eardrums of everyone in a one-kilometre radius. So make sure you’ve got time to stop and catch up on whatever it is your kids feel their missing out on, whether it’s sleep, crappy cartoons or mummy and daddy time.
If you’re arriving in Vietnam on a long-haul flight, it’s a good idea to schedule a few days in your city of arrival, just in case some of your travel group needs some do-nothing time. It might be worthwhile to book a place with a pool to prevent any attacks of cabin fever.
16. Vietnam has pharmacies
The word for pharmacy in Vietnamese is nhà thuốc (medicine house) or nhà thuốc tây (foreign medicine house). These places sell common over-the-country products such as Panadol (a brand of paracetomol similar to Tylenol), Baby Tylenol (a liquid paracetomol similar to Baby Panadol) and rehydration power.
You will usually only need a prescription if you’re trying to buy opiates or sleeping pills in Vietnam. Just about everything else is just handed over. If you know the name of the medicine you want, just write it down and the pharmacist should be able to provide it or a generic equivalent. Just check the expiry date and the country of origin. You’ll be surprised at how cheap some prescription medicine is.
Pseudoephedrine (the snot-drying chemical in cold and flu medicines such as Sudafed) is not available in Vietnam. If you’re prone to colds, you may want to bring some cold and flu medicine with you.
17. Travel south to north
From all the anecdotes I’ve heard, Hanoi seems to be less friendly to new arrivals than Ho Chi Minh City. Ripoffs, scams, overcharging and rude people exist in both cities but it seems most people find the south more friendly in the north. Experiencing the south first means you’ll have a bit of time to get your head around how Vietnam works before you get to Hanoi, where the vendors and shysters are apparently more pushy.
18. Wash and dry the fruit that can’t be peeled
Vietnam has an amazing selection of tropical fruit. Make sure you try a whole range of new-to-you fruits. Peel anything that can be peeled. Sometimes it’s worth washing the fruit first, just because it can get quite dusty sitting in the market waiting for customers.
For fruit that can’t be peeled, wash and then dry the fruit before you eat it. I don’t know what exactly is in the tap water in Vietnam but if the locals don’t drink it then it can’t be good. I also don’t know what exactly is on the fruit in Vietnam but Darling Man used to work for a pesticide company and he is very strict about washing and peeling fruit.
19. Give your stomach a few days to adjust to the new food
Don’t automatically blame “bad food” for any stomach upsets. Sometimes it’s just the change in your diet or even the change in time zones that is responsible for a dose of the squirts. If you don’t have a fever and trembly legs, it’s probably nothing to worry about.
Upset stomachs that are accompanied by a fever should probably be seen by a doctor. That’s the best way to reduce the number of lost travel days from a tummy bug.
I love Vietnamese food, especially street food, but I did get the squirts quite a bit when I first arrived. My stomach has toughened up quite a bit over the past six years, so I rarely get tummy bugs now. I whole-heartedly recommend trying as much local food as possible. Just monitor everyone’s reaction to the new environment. Sometimes it’s not the food to blame, especially with kids who are always touching things and then putting their fingers in their mouths.
Vietnamese people are very health conscious and a local food place selling bad food would go out of business in a matter of days. These places are unlikely to make you sick. Tourist places, on the other hand, do not rely on repeat business and these are the places that should be treated with care.
20. Halong Bay or Sapa?
Halong Bay and Sapa are popular side trips from Hanoi and many people struggle to decide which option to take.
My opinion is definitely coloured by a craptastic Halong Bay trip in 2007 and a wonderful Sapa trip a few days later.
However, where young kids are involved, I would always vote for Sapa purely on safety grounds. There have been a spate of boat sinkings in Halong Bay in recent years and although authorities say they’ve stepped up safety inspections of the boats that ply the bay, I remain skeptical.
Halong Bay hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in February 2011, when a boat full of sleeping tourists sank in the middle of the night. Twelve tourists from nine nations died in the incident.
In May the same year, another tourist boat sank in Halong Bay. Thankfully, no one died but in March 2012, five Taiwanese tourists were not so lucky. They died after two boats collided in the bay.
Sapa, on the other hand, is inland so there is no chance of anything sinking in the middle of the night. It is an overnight train trip up the mountain, which can put some people off. But I had a really lovely time in Sapa pre-kids, including an amazing three-day hike through some ethnic minority villages. I hope to take my little family back there soon to climb Vietnam’s highest mountain, Mount Fansipan (which I secretly call Mount Fancypants).
21. Seatbelts are only compulsory in the front seat
The road safety rules, such as they are, are very different from home. It’s common to see toddlers standing unrestrained in the front and back seats of cars. (It’s also common to see babies and children on motorbikes without helmets.)
Under Vietnamese law, the driver and the front-seat passenger of a car should wear a seatbelt. There is no requirement for back seat passengers to wear a seatbelt. That means the middle and back seat seatbelts are often missing or broken. It’s just one more reason to leave the bulky car seat at home. Because it’s absolutely useless if there’s nothing to attach it to.
Be aware of this fact and try to relax about it. Taxis do drive quite slowly in the cities. I try to ensure that Miss M doesn’t sit in the middle. I think it’s safer for her to be rocketed into the back of the seat in front than out the front window.
22. Think hard about bringing a stroller
Footpaths in Vietnam are not for walking. Footpaths are for motorbike parking, food stalls, barber shops, fruit sellers, games of chequers — anything but walking, basically. For locals, this doesn’t matter because no one ever gets off their motorbikes. For the crazy foreigners who insist on walking, it means that you spend most of your time walking on the road. The exception is the main drag of the major tourist cities (apart from Hanoi’s Old Quarter). So if your little one is old enough to walk, make them walk. If they’re small enough for a carrier, carry them. If you do bring a stroller, expect to spend a lot of time carrying, lifting it up over obstructions or pushing it along the side of the road.
23. Don’t bother with an expensive airport pickup
The taxi situation at the international airport in Ho Chi Minh City used to be a bit of a disaster. Things have improved but it still can be a bit of a disorganised schemozzle once you exit the airport. Don’t get sucked into organising an airport pickup through your hotel. There are taxis at the airport 24 hours a day and they are not so difficult to find. AND there is far less pestering than you would expect.
Here’s the procedure:
Once you clear customs and have your bags scanned (again), ignore all the taxi booths inside the terminal and walk outside. There will be people everywhere, including a few entrepreneurial types who might say “taxi?” in a hopeful voice. Ignore them and steer your trolley to the left. Keep walking towards where taxis are collecting people in a semi-organised manner. Look around for a guy or a girl holding a clipboard and wearing a green uniform. (The 100% green uniform is for Mai Linh taxi company, the green shirt and maroon tie is for Vinasun. They are both reliable taxi companies. Try to use them exclusively.) Tell the person in the uniform you’d like a taxi. They’ll nod, say something into a walkie-talkie clipped to their shoulder and then ignore you. Just wait patiently for five to 10 minutes and then the important uniformed person will tell you that one of the taxis lined up at the curb is yours. The taxi will stop at the exit of the airport to pay a small toll. This will be added onto the metered fare when you arrive at your destination. It’s not a scam, everyone has to pay it.
At Hanoi airport (which is much further from the city than the Ho Chi Minh City airport) there are fixed price taxis. Just join the queue and you should be fine. Expect to pay around VND315,000 (including tolls) from the airport to the Old Quarter, a trip that should take 40 to 60 minutes, depending on the traffic.
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