Not long ago, we decided we were ready for an adventure in Asia with kids. We wanted an active family vacation in a culturally interesting destination with the availability of beaches for some relaxation. Originally, we were thinking Thailand, however, once we started talking with the owner of Ciao Bambino’s preferred tour operator partner who has led trips throughout Vietnam for decades, we were swayed towards Vietnam as he raved about the gregarious people and how authentic and un-Westernized northern Vietnam is for travelers.
Sure enough, we were often the only Westerners in view. This was trip was more than a vacation; it was a meaningful learning experience for the whole family. Here are my top five reasons to visit Vietnam with kids.
Over 12 days, we explored Hanoi, then went to Halong Bay and stayed on a private junk. Afterward we traveled to Nihn Bihn and finally Hoi An. From there we continued to Cambodia and Laos for another four days. We were gone for 16 days in all.
We spent the majority of our time in northern Vietnam because it is less developed and Westernized than the south. Getting firsthand knowledge about living in a Communist country was one of the most valuable experiences for the whole family, plus learning about Buddhism and meeting with monks were other firsts for us. Finally, the historical connection with America was very interesting.
I found myself deeply moved at different points in the trip and appreciated that it wasn’t just a light and fluffy destination; there were important and sometimes very sad discoveries through many of our experiences. Hearing about the American influence on Vietnam from a local’s perspective is fascinating.
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Biking through small rural villages and rice fields near Nihn Bihn, kayaking and hiking in caves in Ha Long Bay, and traditional net fishing in floating baskets and riding a water buffalo in Hoi An were some of the many physical pursuits that kept our active family busy.
Patrick explained that Vietnam is a foodie’s paradise. He was right. Literally everywhere, from the nicest hotels — like Hanoi’s fabulous Hotel Metropole Hanoi and Hoi An’s Victoria Hotel — to fine restaurants and simple noodle shops, our kids were treated like VIPs. We found the Vietnamese people open, welcoming, bright and incredibly engaging; they embraced our children and took pleasure in sharing experiences and teaching them about Vietnam.
Our goal was to create a trip with a mix of activities to keep all ages engaged and on the move, with a very well planned itinerary thoughtfully tailored to each person’s interests.
In addition to the physical activities, we scheduled home visits in Hanoi and Hoi An, market tours, cooking classes, a meeting with a North Vietnamese war veteran and a monk, a bomb shelter visit, a tour of a floating village and a photography walk through a predawn fish market. We also checked out all types of transportation, including boats, planes, cyclos, and oxcarts. A real highlight was dressing up and trying our hand at traditional Vietnamese Opera.
By far the most important moments were those when I could almost see my kids’ minds opening in front of me. Vietnam absolutely expanded their exposure exponentially. Some concepts, like freedom of speech, are easy to talk about in theory, but to see them in front of you is a powerful experience.
We learned about resilience, starvation, empathy, freedom and simplicity. For example, one day in the market, my kids started to get grossed out by something (either bugs or frogs) that locals were eating. Our guide explained that when people have experienced not having enough to eat, they will eat anything. That was it: My kids didn’t say another word about any of the exotic things that were eaten for the rest of the trip.
Waking up on a Chinese junk with the sun rising over the karsts in Ha Long Bay; stretches of lily pads and lotus flowers among rice fields in Nihn Bihn; Hoi An’s white sand beaches … all are images that will travel with us forever.
TIP: I’d feel remiss not to mention the flights, because people’s first question is almost always, “How was flying there with four kids?” Really, it was surprisingly easy, even though it took 23 hours. The 12-hour time change was also shockingly fine. I think it’s harder when heading back to the East Coast from California. My kids were great on the drives and planes. They are getting older, they want to be able to go on these trips and, let’s be honest here — Apple products help.
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Resilience: Many people spoke about the hardships of surviving the war and communism, yet in a peaceful, accepting way — Buddhism at work, in my eyes.
Hunger: The kids learned that hunger really does exist and people will eat anything when they are starving. We also witnessed the effects of long-term malnutrition.
Empathy: The firsthand exposure to so many different things allowed us to see how limited our understanding is of another culture. Because of that exposure, we are more empathetic and less judgmental.
Freedom: To see the limitations of personal freedom, such as not being able to criticize the government without fear of retribution, was very impactful. We all learned that our freedoms should never be taken for granted. We also learned to appreciate the opportunities that we have in our lives, especially when it comes to access to medical care, infrastructure, education and career choices.
Simplicity: The beauty of life is sometimes its simplicity. My kids got to see how few things you really need in a home. Hearing a self-sustaining older farming couple living on $500 per year say “Why would we need more money when we have everything we need?” struck all of us and made us all think about our materialism. Seeing families celebrating together in their home and sleeping all in one bedroom was beautiful, and we were all taken with small village life.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Nancy Solomon.
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