From Saigon to Hanoi, and surprises in between

8 reasons that make a trip to Vietnam a perfect gift for the family

Vietnam Unwrapped


Hanoi doggo
IG: @thetravelingvs

“What do you want for your 18th birthday? Party or travel?” I asked my eldest daughter several months before she’d finally become of “legal age.”

In the Philippines, turning 18 is a big deal, and many teenage girls on the brink of adulthood traditionally celebrate this rite of passage”with a “debut” party.

Many parents would splurge on these debuts like crazy. Next to weddings, it seems debuts are the most expensive events Filipino families are willing to spend on.

So, I was hoping that my daughter Amber would say “travel.” And thank heavens she did, without batting an eyelash. Good girl.

“Where do yo want to go?”

“Japan.”

That Christmas spirit
Where to, Amber?

Since her birthday fell on a November, she didn’t mind doing the trip during the Christmas break. I didn’t mind either, since three other members of the family would be getting the gift of travel for their birthdays: Arwen and me both in December, and Bretha in early January. And wouldn’t a trip make the best Christmas gift for everyone, especially for the youngest in the pack, our restless Cyan?

There was just a catch: the expense. I checked the numbers, and the fare alone without seat sales to Japan was staggering. Since it was high season, everything costs way more, not to mention that Japan is quite the expensive place it already is.

I’ve always wanted to see Japan, but with five of us traveling, it would be beyond our means at this point in time. We had just wrapped up an unforgettable two-week trip to Indonesia — a vacation we’d saved up for for over a year — so a trip to Tokyo could break the bank.

Travel is all about perspectives

There was this alternative destination Bretha and I always wanted to take the children to, and the cost of traveling there is a third of what we’d spend in first-world Japan. I explained to Amber the situation.

The covered Hoi An Japanese Bridge was built in the 1590s

“How about Vietnam?”

“Yes, Vietnam!” she said, as her eyes lit up. “I want pho!”

Old-school pho somewhere in Hanoi
Still 7 kilos in each bag

Now that wasn’t so hard. Amber had one request, though: she wants “to chill” during the trip. During the Indonesia trip, a change of plans meant I had to squeeze in a number must-see sights, so we were on the road non-stop.

Indonesia still turned out well, way beyond expectations actually, but this time, I needed to come up with a more laid-back itinerary for Vietnam (which I will write in detail in separate posts). Fair enough.

500 steps on a stone stairway is all you need to be rewarded with this magnificent view on top of Mua Cave Mountain in Ninh Binh.

Bretha and I have been to Vietnam once — we landed in Ho Chi Minh then flew to Hanoi. We loved it there: the food, the parks and greenery, the museums, the food, the sights, the charming old buildings, the food. The children will surely love everything as well, especially, yes, the food.

And Vietnam it was.

The beautiful and well-preserved Central Post Office of Ho Chi Minh City
Inside the Central Post Office

So, what’s Vietnam like traveling with children? Rewarding at the very least. And despite the short planning stage, the 15-day DIY trip in December 2018 and early January went without a hitch. Amber couldn’t have wished for a better debut present.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

Our two other kids — Cyan, aged nine then, and Arwen, who celebrated her 14th birthday in Hanoi — had a blast, enjoying a mix of educational, cultural, gastronomic and recreational experiences in a country where the old meets the new, and the East meets West.

And yet while Vietnam seems to be always in a state of flux, this rapidly developing country still manages to retain an identity that’s both unique and familiar in the region at the same time.

Cruising in Ha Long Bay

Here are eight reasons you should give your family the gift of travel to Vietnam:

You and your kids become jedis in Vietnamese streets

Our friend Chad the Pilot welcomed Bretha and I during our first trip to Vietnam in 2014 and guided us through Saigon’s streets, which is notorious — or famous — for the endless river of vehicles, mainly motorcycles, plying its streets.

“When you want to cross the street, just raise your palm and point it toward the incoming traffic, then proceed,” Chad advised, and it’s something every visitor in Vietnam should pay heed to.

Vietnam’s rows upon rows of tube houses can make any traveler a curious spectator on the streets, which is why one needs to pay more attention to the roads and sidewalks.

“Never stop because the motorcycles know how to avoid you, but if you do, you might even cause an accident. Just walk straight toward the other side of the road.” So that’s what we told the kids: “Just raise your hand and point your palm outward, like a jedi.”

A local shows us how to cross properly (observe the jedi moves coming to fore…)

Vietnam is blessed with easy-to-find Unesco Heritage Sites

A visit to Unesco World Heritage Sites is one of the best ways to learn about a country’s history and culture, if not to truly appreciate its natural or man-made wonders, and it’s this sort of learning that we wish to highlight with our kids during our travels.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay

Unesco sites are protected, so kids also learn about the value of conservation. Whether it’s in the capital Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh or Danang, there’s always a Unesco Heritage Site nearby.

Hoi An Ancient Town bursts with color at night

Among the more popular Unesco sites we visited was Hoi An Ancient Town, Ha Long Bay, and the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. We also spent a day in the breathtaking Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, the lesser known Unesco site in Ninh Binh.

Part of Trang An was one of the locations for the Hollywood film Kong: Skull Island. See the gorilla mountain face? Nearby Bai Dinh Pagoda (lower right) is also part of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Enjoy Vietnamese street food right from the source

The Vietnamese love to eat good food. Its streets are lined with shops, stalls and hawkers selling all sorts of food the casual traveler can’t pronounce, much less identify.

This barbecue at the Old Quarter in Hanoi is so good.
Banh mi on the streets of Saigon

Vietnam is more than just banh mi, pho and drip coffee. Since every region has a different cuisine, good luck deciding on your favorites.

Food stalls at the spotless Hoi An Central Market
Arwen draws while waiting for our food
Hoi An’s white rose dumplings

If you have time, make sure to squeeze in a cooking class or two. Bretha and Amber took a cooking classes in Hoi An from the friendliest restaurant owner in Vietnam, Phuong Ngo of Phuong’s Beach Restaurant.

Phuong Ngo of Phuong’s Beach Restaurant shows Bretha and Amber the secrets to Hoi An cooking

The best part? We got to devour Hoi An specialties they cooked: chai go (fried spring rolls), cao lao (rice noodles), banh xeo (crispy pancake), and more.

In sum, not only does Vietnamese cuisine taste indescribably good, it’s healthy both for your body and your budget.

Journeying across Vietnam aboard a sleeper train is idyllic

For 15 days, we traveled from the south of Vietnam to the north by train, and I’d say it was one of the best decisions we’ve made for the trip.

Leaving for Ninh Binh at Da Nang Station

With Ho Chi Minh City as jump off point, we had three main stops: Da Nang, Ninh Binh and Hanoi. That’s 1,600 kilometers of railway in all, and during that trip we saw unspoilt sceneries such as the 21-kilometer stretch of historic Hai Van Pass.

A cove in Hai Van Pass as seen from the train

While many of the coaches are old, some of them have been refurbished and are clean, like the ones we took. We spent two overnight trips with two stopovers: from Saigon to Da Nang, and then Da Nang to Ninh Binh (Ninh Binh to Hanoi was just a two-hour ride).

The experience of sleeping on an unfamiliar train in four-passenger bunk bed cabins — twice — is just priceless, because it also feels like you’re traveling not just to another place but to another time. And we actually did sleep well.

Vietnam’s museums are moving, if not mind-blowing

A visit to another place is never complete without a trip to the museum. And Vietnam’s history and art museums are of another world.

No, their museums aren’t hi-tech (and they don’t need to be), but the displays and the way they were curated will move anyone regardless of age and nationality.

At the War Remnants Museum

Among the must-visit museums are those that remind us of the horrors and ravages of war, such as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and Hoa Lu Prison Memorial (“Hanoi Hilton”).

At the Hoa Lu Prison Memorial, the site of what the West called the “Hanoi Hilton”

Yes, your children (my youngest was nine) can take it, and every parent’s hope is that everyone leaves the museum premises as better human beings.

Exhibit at Hoa Lu Prison Memorial

There’s nothing like Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese drip coffee enjoys a legendary status among coffee lovers the world over.

Hanoi coffee, you want?

In Vietnam, you can find it in every corner, in every establishment in any district from the north to the south. You can enjoy it along the sidewalk on low tables and chairs in traditional coffee shops, or bottomless at the hotel breakfast buffet.

Why the country’s obsession with coffee? For one, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer, and when you have this much coffee, well, your people drink lots of it, and some do the next logical thing: experiment.

The original egg coffee in Hanoi

One of these more successful experiments gave rise to the iconic egg coffee, which was hatched in a quiet alley in Hanoi more than 70 years ago. Like the traditional Viet drip, the recipe is all over the place, but no one does coffee like the Vietnamese.

Cold mornings and Vietnamese drip coffee in Ninh Binh

Score great bargains from commercial districts old and new

Vietnam is an emerging manufacturing behemoth with 300-hectare industrial estates rising all over the country. That means it produces tons and tons of goods branded or not, such as shoes, bags and clothing.

One of the many tailoring shops in Hoi An

During the cold season, Hanoi is a prime spot for hunting bubble jackets and coats of all shapes and sizes. Not only that, however. Vietnam produces quality artisan and customized products, as well as quaint handmade items. If shopping for bargains is your thing, Vietnam is paradise on a budget.

There’s always something to do anytime, anywhere in Vietnam

Walking along the tree-lined streets of Vietnamese cities will always get you somewhere interesting, and the best are the ones you find by accident.

Cold evenings at Hoan Kiem Lake

In one of our long walks in Hanoi, we were headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex when I spotted a rail track up ahead. I’ve read about these train spotting spots in Hanoi, but I didn’t get to squeeze it in our itinerary.

But at that moment, I sensed something was up ahead, so we followed the rail track, and it led us to rows of old concrete houses some of which have been converted into coffee shops where the traveler can wait for the train to pass. One of this ageing yet still sturdy locomotive did arrive minutes later, then proudly blew its horn, and the crowd cheered with childlike delight.

Here it comes…

Having more than a good day in Hanoi