There was a time not that long ago when parents had to be convinced that a Vietnam vacation would be kid-friendly. Not any more. As more and more families demand meaningful learning experiences in addition to fun and relaxing moments together, Vietnam’s popularity has skyrocketed. But choosing where to go can be difficult, especially if you want to get out of the crowded cities and off the beaten path.
A family’s first trip to Vietnam typically covers stops like the capital city of Hanoi, Halong Bay, the Mekong Delta, and Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon). And though some travelers might consider these the must-do highlights of a Vietnamese adventure, smaller and lesser-known cities can be just as culturally engaging with a more relaxed, family-friendly pace.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An in central Vietnam was once a bustling trading port. Now the pedestrian-friendly ancient town is ideal for wandering. Colorful boats line the Thu Bon River and offer a great way to see more of the city when your family’s reached their walking limit.
The Japanese Covered Bridge, dating from the 18th century, is always bustling with visitors. The bridge itself can be crowded. After walking across, be sure to head toward the river for the best view.
Tailors can be found throughout Hoi An. If you have fashion-forward teens, or even just kids who like to shop, the perfect souvenir might be a great addition to their closet. Along with ready-to-wear clothing, the tailors often can create custom clothing in 24 hours or less.
For an authentic introduction to Vietnamese cuisine, consider signing up for a cooking class. Taste Vietnam by Ms Vy offers family-friendly cooking classes that include a boat trip to Hoi An’s central market. If you’re traveling with older children, Taste Vietnam also offers a countryside bike tour and cooking class a couple of days a week.
Colorful silk lanterns can be found at just about every turn. Made with bamboo frames, they come in a rainbow of colors, shapes and sizes. Just across the road from Taste Vietnam is a stall where you can watch the lanterns being made. If your schedule allows, try and schedule some time in Hoi An at night to see the lanterns aglow.
About a 45-minute drive from Hoi An (suitable as a day trip), Da Nang isn’t truly a small city, but too often travelers just pass through without taking the time to see all that it has to offer.
After snapping a picture of the canary-yellow Dragon Bridge, head to the beach to watch fisherman mend their nets and head out to the water in basket boats. Just like the name implies, these vessels look more like floating baskets than boats. They’re traditionally made from woven bamboo, but newer models made with fiberglass are becoming more frequent.
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What’s said to be the tallest Buddha statue in Vietnam is located about eight miles from Da Nang’s city center — and it’s a woman. Set atop a lotus blossom, the Lady Buddha Da Nang towers 220 feet (67 meters) into the city’s skyline. She stands next to the Linh Ung-Bai But Pagoda; to reach her you’ll walk through the pagoda’s main gate.
Though you might be inclined to rush to get a full view of the Lady Buddha, take your time exploring the pagoda, its garden and Buddha statues. A small snack stand near the statue sells mango popsicles, providing a good excuse to find a place to sit in the shade and enjoy the Da Nang city views.
Keep your eyes open during your visit. Monkeys are known to hang out in the surrounding treetops, though I didn’t spot any when I was there.
Fans of amusement parks may want to set aside a day for a trip to SunWorld Ba Na Hills. Home to a number of attractions, the park is arguably best known for its Golden Bridge, which opened in 2018. If you have a tween or teen at home and you bring it up, expect them to have a strong desire to visit one of the newest popular destinations in Vietnam. Social media has made it a sought-after spot to snap a picture.
If your family is in need of beach time during your trip to Vietnam, Nha Trang can offer a well-deserved day off from sightseeing. But if your brood’s energy level is high, skip the sand and make the climb to the Great Buddha at Long Son Pagoda. There are more than 200 steps, but there’s plenty of room to stop when breaks are needed, and the view of the 78-foot statue at the top of Trai Thuy Hill is well worth the sweat.
To celebrate your family’s scramble to the top, go for a rickshaw ride. (Take in the scenery, but also peek at the rickshaw pedals — some have modernized and now have electric power to add a little extra push when needed.) The Dam Market is a fun, final destination. Kids and parents can practice their bargaining skills on everything from purses to Polo shirts.
If you’re not feeling temple overload, the Niet Ban Tinh Xa monastery in Vung Tau boasts a beautiful reclining Buddha and postcard-worthy coastal views.
Surprising to some, Vung Tau is also home to a statue of Jesus Christ that stretches more than 100 feet (32 meters) into the sky. You don’t necessarily have to visit to catch sight of it atop Mount Nho. It has a way of popping into the city view from time to time, so be on the lookout. If you see folks walking along the figure’s shoulders, know that making the climb involves close to a thousand steps.
Most of these locations are toward the middle to the southern stretch of Vietnam, but if you have extra time, don’t miss the northern end of the country. To travel to a place like Vietnam is to experience some of Asia’s finest cultural moments, like paddies tucked along rice terraces, shopping at a floating market or touring important Vietnam War sites. But these lesser-known cities are also key to experiencing the full breadth of life in this vibrant country.
Editor’s Note: Dana was introduced to many of these locations on a hosted cruise of Southeast Asia with Holland America Line. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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