Guest Blogger: Goldie, a New Zealand native, lives in Australia with his wife where they are busy raising their two kids through adventure and travel. You can follow along with their journey on Instagram and at GoldieRutherford.com!
In mid-2017, as I approached my 40th birthday, my wife and I decided it was time for a real family adventure. Even though we would be bringing along our children, ages two and six, we did not want to take the safe road. After tossing all sorts of ideas around, we eventually settled on spending six weeks in Vietnam. Kate had been there before 15 years prior and had loved her experiences, and I have always wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity.
We decided to limit our trip to North Vietnam, as we did not want to lose a lot of time traveling from one place to the next. After a bit of research, we discovered that getting from any one place in North Vietnam to another would require traveling through Hanoi. That worked great for us, as we liked the idea of having a “home” base where we could spend a good portion of our time, getting to know local people and culture at a slightly deeper level.
Our trip began with five days in Hanoi. It was crazy, busy, hot, and sticky, but it was also a fantastically colorful and vibrant place to be. We stayed at a great homestay, the Hanoi Homestay in the Old Quarter, which was walking distance to everything. The hosts were fantastic and also ran a travel agency, so we were able to book everything through them and with their assistance. We spent almost two of the six weeks in Hanoi and really came to love the city. The food, the people, the busy and ramshackle nature of everything. During our combined two week stay in Hanoi, we visited the Bat Triang Pottery Village, the Museum of Ethnology, Times City Play Area, and much more. Here, I’m going to tell you about the side trips we took during our six weeks in Vietnam, using Hanoi as our home base.
#1: Cao Bang Province
Cao Bang, a province in the northeast region of Vietnam, is about six hours north of Hanoi. We hired a driver to take us the six hours up to the Cao Bang, from Hanoi, and then two hours further north to Ban Gioc Waterfall, located on the Vietnam/Chinese border. From there, we spent a few nights at Ba Be National Park, before returning to Hanoi. This was a magical trip through stunning terraced areas covered in rice paddies, soaring peaks covered in jungle, ramshackle country towns, and windy roads that seemingly went on forever. Our driver, Tuan, did not speak a word of English, but was perfectly pleasant, and we were glad to have hired a driver as we weren’t game to take on Vietnamese traffic. This allowed the kids to sleep along the way. Note, however, there were no car seats for the kids at all during our time in Vietnam (which they loved and we adjusted to), so they just used the regular seat belts.
Ban Gioc is simply breathtaking. When we arrived, it was raining heavily, but the glimpses of the waterfall from the parking lot were so tempting that we could not wait and donned raincoats, bought tickets, and traipsed down the muddy track, past the trinket and food vendors, to emerge at one of the most magnificent views I have ever seen. Ban Gioc straddles the China border and is the fourth largest waterfall in the world marking a national border, after Iguazo, Victoria, and Niagara Falls.
#2: Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
Cat Ba Island is the largest of 367 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site. We stayed on Cat Ba Island for a few nights, in a cheap but decent hotel in the main town. Cat Ba is nice, but it was the least favorite part of our entire trip. It was extremely hot and humid and the power went out for significant periods at least five times in our three day visit. Our stay was also marred by the fact that Archie, our six year old, was bitten by a monkey when our boat tour at Ha Long Bay stopped on Monkey Island. We tried to rush back to Hanoi for rabies treatment the next day, but the boats were cancelled due to a tropical typhoon that blew through as we were trying to board the boat. We stood in the rain and wind for an hour or so, before we got back onto the bus and went back to our hotel for the night.
The next morning was clear, so were able to get back to Hanoi and get Archie to Raffles Medical, where they started day zero of the two week treatment. The treatment plan required injections on day zero, three, seven, and 14, as well as seven different medications, thus requiring us to rethink our itinerary somewhat. Fortunately, we were able to rebook all of the trips we had planned, just on different dates.
#3: Sapa and Mt. Fansipan
Sapa is beautiful mountainous town, located in North Vietnam along the Chinese border. On day three of Archie’s rabies treatment, we took the overnight train to Sapa. The beds were rock hard, and Kate and I did not get much sleep, but the kids slept fairly well. Sapa was lovely, the two highlights being a night at Lazy Crazy Homestay in Ta Van Village and a trip to the top of Mt. Fansipan, which was well worth blowing our daily budget for.
For $80 for the four of us, we took a cable car that holds the words record for being the longest non-stop three-rope cable car, up to the top of Mt. Fansipan. We enjoyed magnificent views as we traveled up the valley to the station at the top of Fansipan. At the top, there is a fancy, modern building, with shops and restaurants, and further up, there is a pagoda. The last part of the trip, to the pagoda, can be done by foot (approximately 600 steps) or Funicular. Even with clouds blowing over us, the view from the peak was amazing.
#4: Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is a small city in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. Although we briefly considered cancelling this portion of our trip, due to the monkey incident, but I’m so glad we didn’t as this was one of th highlights of our journey. The city of Ninh Binh wasn’t much, but the surrounding area was simply stunning. We stayed at the Ninh Binh Family Homestay, located near the Bai Dinh Temple and used the free bikes they provided to explore the local area. Exploring the pagoda at Bai Dinh was at least a half day experience and our host took us on an amazing tour through Van Long Nature Reserve. We also enjoyed a boat trip through Galaxy Grotto, a series of caves under one of the local mountains.
#5: Hoi An
We spent the final week of our trip in Hoi An, a city we absolutely adored. We reserved two rooms at a hotel about 20 minutes biking distance from Hoi An. The hotel had a swimming pool, which the kids spent a lot of time in. We all struggled with the heat in Vietnam, the kids in particular, so the pool was a welcome respite. We cycled into the Ancient City a few times, took a boat ride to a coconut village, road the round boats, purchased tailored clothes, climbed the Marble Mountains, hiked through My Son Sanctuary, walked on the beach, took a cooking class, and much more. Yet, it still felt like a relaxing place to be.
Tips for Traveling in Vietnam with Kids:
Traveling in Vietnam with small children was not always (or ever, to be honest) easy, and at times it was a bit overwhelming. With some forethought and preparation, though, we managed well and had an amazing, unforgettable adventure. We made sure to plan our days around our two year old’s nap wherever possible, although she quickly became quite adept at sleeping almost anywhere (a skill she has sadly lost now that we are back at home). The kids both struggled with the constant attention, touches, requests for photos… and we had to help them learn to say a firm “no thank you” in these situations. We researched what activities to do with children wherever we went and generally managed to find a few fun activities for them in every place we stayed.
Our pre-trip research led us to make the following pre-journey purchases which proved indispensable:
- wheeled backpacks, gave us the flexibility to drag or carry our luggage, in case our two year old needed to be held. We settled on two Caribee Fast Track 85’s, which have detachable daypacks, and also used an Ergo Sport baby carrier, which was excellent and put to good use.
- water filter bottles, so we could avoid having to buy bottled water, which is a major cause of pollution in Vietnam. We opted for Lifestraw bottles, which worked well, but there are many other options available.
- packing cubes and cable organizers, a fantastic investment as we really appreciated being able to pack and unpack so easily and quickly.
- Vietnam has an amazing AirBnB network, which we used for almost all of our accommodations. Make sure you read the reviews, though. We did not on one occasion and ended up in a hotel with rock hard beds.
- Uber, and its local counterpart, Grab, are the easiest and cheapest ways to get around bigger cities in Vietnam.
- If flying with Vietnam Airlines, check out Option Town, where you can put your name down for cheap upgrades or other flight bonuses. We were able to get three extra seats for $60 for the flight from Ho Chi Minh back to Sydney, so the kids could stretch out and sleep.
- Don’t book your tours or train tickets from your home country. You can get exactly the same tour for a lot cheaper within Vietnam.
- Google docs and sheets are a great way to share itineraries and budgets and keep changes up to date.
- Most people spoke passable English and the Google translate app was extremely helpful, even allowing us to have full conversations with non-English speakers.
- There is free WiFi everywhere you go in Vietnam, even in the mountains, and phone data is also cheap, with great coverage. Buy a SIM card upon arrival – most tourist shops sell them for cheap.
- We spent about AU$65 (USD$50) per day on food and activities, and our accommodations cost about AU$30 (USD$24) on average. A blank copy of the Google Sheets spreadsheet, which I used to track spending, can be found here.
- Don’t expect luxury, and be prepared for a few uncomfortable nights. Expect an adventure, and don’t eat the street food. Vietnam is beautiful, and I know we will be back.
Goldie’s adventures in Vietnam are absolutely intoxicating! Northern Vietnam is definitely topping our list of places to go!
For more details on Goldie’s family adventures in Vietnam, visit A Whirlwind Tour of North Eastern Vietnam; Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay; Sapa – Mountains, Magic, Music, and Mud; Ninh Binh – adventures in a magical world of temples, caves, and mountains; Hoi An – a magic city.
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