Vietnam travel with kids: Destination Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

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We've been exploring Hanoi and Ha Long Bay on an adventure with kids and grandparents in tow...

We’re firm believers in teaching our kids that holidays don’t have to be five-star luxe and non-stop kids’ clubs (at least not all the time), and Vietnam is one of those places that fits the bill when it comes to a family-friendly holiday with more thrills than frills. Having already nailed Hoi An and Danang with the kiddos, we thought it was high time we hopped, skipped and jumped over to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay for a city break and junk boat cruise vacay. Here’s how we aced the history lessons, stunning scenery, chilly weather, two million spring rolls, party mini-vans and a mind-blowing cruise with three kids (and a set of grandparents) in tow…

HANOI

When to go: If you fancy a chance to break out your winter wardrobe, then Hanoi between December and March is when it’s at its chilliest. April to June are warm (but you’ll often need a light jacket), and July to September are hot and humid (and prone to a wild storm). October to November brings about warm weather with clear blue skies. We went in early April, when there was still a mystical fog hanging around on some days, and the need for cold weather gear for our tropical kids.

How to get there: Singapore Airlines, Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar all fly direct routes to Hanoi in around three hours. Taxis are readily available at the airport, but we arranged for our hotel to pick us up.

Where to stay: There are cheap as chips boutique options through to swanky luxe picks in Hanoi, so it’s easy to find something that suits your budget and requirements. We stayed in the very basic but clean and friendly Splendid Star Boutique. The family room was spacious and clean, and the staff wonderful. No pools or all-singing, all-dancing facilities, but the location was great (right next to St Joseph’s Cathedral: you WILL hear the bells!) and it was ridiculously good value. If it’s decadence you’re after, then have a look at the five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole, which boasts a three-storey spa, swimming pool, six restaurants and a central location in a beautiful French colonial building (fun fact: one of the HoneyKids team members spent part of her honeymoon here, as did Charlie Chaplin). 

Beautiful gardens, colourful street artists, conical hats and spring rolls galore: a day in the life of Hanoi. Photography: Tracy Tristram

What to do: We loved the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and explored as much as we could for the three nights we were there. Our highlights included:

  • The traditional water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which has been operating since 1969 with up to five shows per day. The whole family loved watching the Vietnamese folk tales re-told using brightly coloured puppets dancing in the water to traditional music.
  • Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) which is right next to Thang Long and makes for a great stroll in a beautiful setting. There’s plenty of room for the kids to run, quaint little cafes and colourful street artists (we stopped for a family portrait), plus an awesome temple (follow the red brick bridge) where you’ll snap a gazillion Insta-worthy shots.
  • No trip to Hanoi would be complete without piling onto a cyclo (a bit like a rickshaw) to explore the city. Expect the odd moment of sheer terror, and also make sure you negotiate prices BEFORE you set off!
  • For families with older kids (or with kids who don’t have an aversion to keeping quiet for a bit), the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum makes for a tourist spot the family won’t forget in a hurry! Dress conservatively (shoulders and legs need to be covered) and be aware that while viewing Ho Chi Minh’s body, it must be in silence. If long dead leaders don’t feature highly on your holiday checklist, then the grounds surrounding the mausoleum are perfect for exploration and lunch. Don’t forget to wander to the nearby Vietnam Military History Museum too: with heaps of war planes, tanks, a citadel to climb and some interesting war memorabilia, it’s the perfect interactive history lesson the whole fam can get on board with.
  • When it comes to souvenirs, art, street food and an authentic Vietnam city vibe, the Night Market in the Old Quarter of Hanoi is a fun slice of buzzy action. Flex your bartering skills, but keep an eye on your bags and wallets! Head to the nearby Gia Ngu with your bargains for a Vietnamese feast that really hits the spot.

The Vietnam Military History Museum, a ‘stuck at the top of a ladder in wedges’ situation and cyclo tour of Hanoi. Photography: Lee Tristram

  • One of the kids’ fave mini-adventures in Hanoi was to the rather cool Museum of Ethnology, which is packed to the rafters with displays and interactive exhibits from different tribes and cultures found in Vietnam. The highlight? Watching mum try to navigate a ladder from one of the various traditional homes dotted around the grounds – in wedges. Prepare yourself for LOTS of sniggers when the kids spot some of the ruder wood carvings on display…
  • West Lake is another lovely lake worth taking a trip to for pedal boat hire and a wander around the beautiful Tran Quoc Pagoda and Temple , which dates back to the 6th Century! The kids WILL make you buy fish and/or turtles to ‘set free’ at the entrance to the temple.

HA LONG BAY

When to go:  We took to the high seas in mid-April so the water was too cold for swimming and we definitely needed a warm cup of tea in the mornings to get us going. Night time skies were clear, and there was a surreal mist lurking around in the mornings (which kinda added to the charm of the place). July and August are generally considered low season, as this is when storms often whip into the bay and cause havoc. September to November, and March to May are often pitched as the best times to visit the area.

The Hanoi to Ha Long Bay transfer was made infinitely easier onboard this VIP van! Photography: Indochina Junk

How to get there: Either your hotel in Hanoi or your chosen boat operator will arrange the car journey to Ha Long Bay, which takes around four hours (and includes a stop on the way). Pick up is usually early, and our hot tip? Go for one of the VIP mini bus transfers – the kids were so taken with the onboard wifi, TV and DVD player, blacked out windows, bar and disco lights that they didn’t complain once. That’s right; not once.

Our floating home for two nights, Prince 4. Photography: Indochina Junk

Where to stay: There are lots of boat operators on the Bay and research and word of mouth is definitely your best approach. We took a long time deciding which company to plump for, and in the end we went for Indochina Junk. As we were a party including young kids (aged four, seven and 13 at the time) and grandparents, we splashed out on the private three-bedroom Prince 4 boat, with our own personal crew of chefs, waiting staff and tour guide for two nights. The company run a fleet of boats to suit your budget and party size. Our cruise took us from Ha Long Bay through the quieter waters of Bai Tu Long. 

A private beach BBQ, kayaking and breathtaking scenery in Bai Tu Long. Photography: Tracy Tristram and Indochina Junk

What to do: Much of what you do around the Bay will depend on the weather and the size of your charter. The bigger cruise boats will have different itineraries to the private hire cruises, but whatever you choose there will be plenty of fun for all ages. Our two-day cruise included kayaking, a visit to a floating village, trips to bat caves, beaches and hillside temples, plus a truly amazing BBQ on our own deserted island beach where the crew caught and cooked crabs for us fresh (turn away, vegetarians!). A once-in-a-lifetime BBQ if ever there was one (see top image).

Aside from plenty of sailing through breathtaking scenery (the boat is anchored at night, and when it does, prepare yourself for THE most amazing night sky you will ever see) and off-boat excursions, one of the main pastimes is definitely eating! The chefs kept us ridiculously well fed with sumptuous feasts for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and no meal will be complete without an elaborate fruit or vegetable carving), which often ran to six courses! Our fussy kids were wonderfully catered for, and us adults were kept in the lap of food luxury – expect to gain a couple of kgs!

Would we do it again? Absolutely!

Lead image: Indochina Junk 

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