Mountainscapes and bountiful bays
The Travelers: Australians Lachlan and Johanna Jackson and their 2-year-old daughter Siena, along with friends Tamara and Peter Sharp and their 2-year-old son Harry (both children were 18 months old at the time of the trip).
The Destination: Vietnam
On Foot: Setting out on the eight-day trip, the families hit Hanoi by foot. They strolled around Hoan Kiem Lake and explored the maze of thousand-year-old streets in the Old Quarter, marveling at the throng of art galleries and handicraft shops. The kids loved the grounds of the Serenely Divine Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), a university where Confucian scholars once studied. The families also visited the austere Mausoleum housing the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. The Jacksons warn that parents should think twice before taking small children to see Uncle Ho, however, as complete silence and reverence is expected. Another option with little ones is Uncle Ho’s Yellow House (1 Bach Thao, Ba Dinh, +84 4 234 760), which features a pond where kids can summon fish by clapping.
What to See: The Hanoi Zoo (www.hanoizoo.com) sits on a beautiful landscape built around a lake and offers a peek into the lives of an impressive array of big cats and monkeys. To cool down, head to Hanoi’s Ho Tay Lake Water Park for slides, tube rides, a wave-making pool and splashy areas for kids of all ages (+84 4 753 2753, 9am-9pm). For even more fun in the sun, catch a traditional water puppet show (mua roi nuoc) on Hoam Kiem Lake. The shows include traditional Vietnamese instruments and folk songs (www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org). Older kids may enjoy a visit to the Military History Museum (+84 4 733 4682, 8am-11.30am/1pm-4.30pm) or the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison, +84 4 824 6358, Tue-Sun, 8am-4.30pm), where U.S. presidential candidate Senator John McCain was held prisoner during the Vietnam War.
Where to Stay: The families booked a three-bedroom apartment at the Somerset Grand (www.somerset.com; search “Hanoi”). This reasonably priced option, located centrally in Hanoi, easily accommodated both families, as well as the Sharp’s ayi. For their stay in Sapa, the families booked the luxurious Victoria Sapa Resort (www.victoriahotels-asia.com; search “Sapa”), adjacent to Fansipan Mountain. The stunning resort sparkles with costumes and decor typical of the region’s colorful ethnic tribes.
By the Bay: A number of tour operators offer overnight junk stays on Halong Bay, and the experience is one the families say they will never forget (book online or upon arrival). The hotel offers varying degrees of luxury but all provide a quintessential Vietnam experience. The Jacksons cruised in style on the Halong Jasmine (www.cruisehalong.com), a magnificent 22-berth vessel featuring a vast, silk-bedecked room, private bathroom, and even a charming balcony and chairs. Prices include all meals and round-trip transportation by private car, and the hotel provides cots for children.
The Cruise: The Jacksons say gliding around the lofty karsts that jut in and around Halong Bay was a surreal and breathtaking experience. The family climbed one of the conical peaks to a gazebo resting at the top, taking in stunning 360-degree views. The junk boat cruised into small fishing villages and there were optional side trips such as canoeing, rowing and a cave tour (Lachlan took Siena along the cave’s walking trail in a metal-framed backpack). In warmer weather, visitors can cool down by taking a swim off the boat or from the sandy beaches.
Mountain Retreat: Sapa is famed for its cool climate and pristine environment and is home to more than 30 traditional hill tribes. Both families took advantage of affordable local tours of the natural scenery and culture. Along the way, they caught sight of lolling cows, pigs and water buffaloes dotting the lime green, rice-terraced hills.
Noodle Time: The quality of street food in Hanoi is excellent and the families recommend trying the fresh and dazzling variety of dishes. Because of its French colonial history, Hanoi has superb baguettes and breads. A favorite eatery was Quan An Ngon (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, tel +84 4 942 8162), which welcomes patrons with a leafy outdoor area with ample seating. Dishes are inexpensive and include the traditional beef noodle soup (pho). The Jacksons also dined at the Green Tangerine, a French restaurant in an Old Quarter colonial house (48 Hang Be, tel +84 4 825 1286, 9am-11pm), which ranks high on their list of favorite spots.
Money Matters: Most vendors accept US dollars, making trading rather convenient. One US dollar equals about 16,000 Vietnam dong.
Special Tips for Trips: Both families enjoyed the advantages of taking an ayi with them, and many Beijing ayis can easily obtain a Vietnamese visa. The families took portable DVD players and, having lived in Cambodia, always carry Imodium and the antibiotic Norofloxin when traveling to Southeast Asian countries. Make sure all vaccinations are up-to-date before going.
The Seasons: The northern mountainous regions of Vietnam can get quite cold in winter, and temperatures can even plummet in the mid-regions. The families recommend going between spring and autumn for the best weather. For Saigon and the far south, they recommend winter. Tania McCartney