Adventure Ideas 8: Real Vietnam for families
Do you sometimes feel you spend time in a country yet never properly get it? Are you too busy being a tourist to pick up on the authentic and notice what the locals are doing? This week’s Adventure Ideas is the first of a new occasional series of ideas posts exploring how a family can get to see more of the ‘real’ side of a country. We begin with some suggestions on getting under the skin of Vietnam for families…
Vietnam. I know the name. I have studied its history. And I’ve gazed longingly at the pictures of lush paddy fields, stilted communities and floating markets. I’d love to take the family but how can we ensure we see the real thing? Here are five ideas for ways to get to know Vietnam without falling headlong into the tourist trap…
1 Eat in the city street
A good place to scratch beneath the skin of a country is in its food in one of its big cities. In Vietnam it doesn’t get bigger than the former Saigon, now known as Hoi Chi Minh City, whose streets are allegedly paved with culinary gold. It’s here on the roadside you’ll find locals getting on with their lives and where you’ll find Barbara Adams, a self confessed food obsessive and owner of Saigon Street Eats.
Barbara, together with her Vietnamese partner Vu, runs tours tasting and testing street food. She says her family have eaten their way around the whole city. (Without, it seems, putting on any weight!) And with their guidance you can too. You can breakfast on a bowl of Vietnam’s unofficial national dish; pho noodle soup, visit a Vietnamese wet market or set off on a night-time adventure from one of the ‘snail streets’. If you prefer your kids to eat indoors, you could try Barbara’s Family Feast Tour, geared towards adventurous travelling families who want to get out of the tourist area. It takes about three hours and is timed so families can catch a show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre before eating out. (If you’ve young kids you really have to do a water puppet theatre, apparently Hanoi in Northern Vietnam has one of the world’s best.)
2 Go bikeabout
Now after all that eating, you’ll need to do some exercise. And did you know the bicycle is still the most common form of rural transport in Vietnam? It’s a great way to get into the countryside either on your own or on an organised tour and there are many companies that run guided and self guided bike tours in different parts of Vietnam, for anything from a day to a couple of weeks or more as part of or an add on to your Vietnam holiday plans. Or if you’re more independent minded, you’ve got time and reasonably fit family members, you could organise your own bike tour. How about between the two great cities, all the way from Ho Chi Minh City in the South to Hanoi in the North?
It’s a journey of almost 2,000km so allow yourself a month or two, but you can’t bike across a country without getting to know it intimately. You’ll ride through amazing environments like the winding waterways of the Mekong Delta, where much of the food in Vietnam is grown. And you’ll get to see for yourself those endless bright green paddy fields, the small fishing villages and legendary floating markets like the one at Phong Dien. Best of all you’ll meet all kinds of people, busy getting on with their everyday lives in the towns and villages you ride through along the way. You’ll visit all kinds of settlements, way off the tourist trail, and through the encounters you have as you stop to ask for directions, get something to eat or find a place to stay, you’ll form a deep and lasting impression of the country and its people.
3 Try a local homestay
One tried and tested way to travel authentically as a family is to tap into the knowledge of other local families. Homestays are great for this, whether formally organised or the result of serendipity.
We’ve been invited into local homes for a bed or a meal in countries across the world and found it a fascinating way to learn more about the everyday life, rituals, customs and identity of a nation and its people. In New Zealand we joined a family for Christmas dinner. In Denmark and Finland families took us in and fed us popcorn in unexpected storms. While in deepest Ecuador a family insisted we stay for our own safety, because of ‘bandits’ outside the village.
Accepting these impromptu invitations does require a leap of faith as you never know what to expect, especially if you don’t speak or understand the language. But remember it requires a leap of faith for hosts too, to invite a strange family into their home. Children are great ice breakers and people everywhere understand family even if they don’t get tourism or speak your language. If you’re a family staying with a family the risks are usually pretty low, and parental intuition is pretty good at spotting anything that feels too dodgy, at which point polite and insistent excuses come in handy. Of course as a family group you have some safety in numbers and can generally be assured another family will understand your needs and concerns. But it’s not always plain sailing and misunderstandings can easily arise, so it’s good to try and clarify arrangements, be aware of any customs or cultural norms to be respected, and establish whether there is any expectation of payment. There’s nothing more awkward and embarrassing than thinking you’ve been invited to stay as a family guest only to discover you’re seen as a paying guest.
If you’d like to try this kind of thing without the risk that comes from a chance encounter then you can organise a homestay in advance of your visit. Several organised tours to the Mekong Delta in the south offer opportunities to stay in one of the traditional houses on stilts and chat about life in Vietnam over a family meal. And there are several community based tourism projects across the country that ensure any money you pay to stay, stays in the communities. In Sapa you can trek to a remote village for a traditional ethnic dinner and after a night’s sleep, your kids can feed the animals and play with the village children when they wake up.
Or you can ask at the tourist board of the city or town you are staying in if local families host visitors for dinner. Last year we had a delightful evening eating freshly caught fish with a family in the capital of the Faroe Islands. They gave us an inside story on the customs of the islands including fishing whaling, weddings and funerals, a perspective we’d have found hard to get any other way.
4 Tour the city with the locals
A good way to see any city is to tour it with a local. A couple of years ago we saw the sights of Krakow with a twenty year old student who we stumbled across through friends back home. Vietnam’s Northern capital, Hanoi, does this on a more formalised basis. HanoiKids is a volunteer travel group where students pass on a passion for their city. They will show you around Hanoi’s main attractions in a walking tour including the Old Quarter, the Ho Chi Minh complex and the Temple of Literature. And they’ll take you to local places to eat and drink. The students are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, their English is good and the tour is completely free. It’s listed as the top attraction in Hanoi on Trip Advisor and many of the reviews are glowing.
5 Go explore for yourself
Of course if biking is too energetic for you, you could rent a car, a minibus (or even a helicopter if you happen to have a pilot in your family group) and journey through the flood plains of the Red River Delta to Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin. It’s one of five UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country and arguably the most beautiful, with around 3000 limestone islands stretching out of the sea. Legend has it they were created by ancient dragon spit; a long and involved story your kids will enjoy. While others take a touristy junk cruise and gather in their thousands at the same old spots you could go off in kayaks or even traditional wooden canoes or basket boats. If you’ve no experience you can get some instruction and go on an organised tour, or if you’re a family of paddlers already you could rent boats, get some ideas on where to go and head off on your own voyage of discovery. If you’re brave and skilled enough you can head off to explore the coast and the many hidden lagoons and stalagmite caves that you can’t get to by foot, stopping off to relax on pristine beaches and swim on secluded bays.
If you like exploring by kayak you could base yourself in one of the national parks like Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park (500 km’s from Hanoi), where you can hire boats from local tour operators and visit the extraordinary system of caves including Phong Nha – considered by many to be the best cave in the world. Have a game of ‘spot the extraordinary rock formation’ or ‘don’t step in the bat dung’ while you are there. There are also hiking, camping and eco touring opportunities available. Check individual National Park websites for details.
6 Pimp your own trip
We think travel is more interesting with a theme – it gives you something to look for, learn about, talk about and discover and encourages you to dig a bit deeper into a country’s history, culture, art, architecture, customs or whatever else tickles your family’s fancy.
So if you’re interested in Buddhist Temples, why not organise yourself a tour of Vietnam’s many religious sites and pagodas? Want to try out all the snorkelling sites of the stunning Vietnamese coastline? Then buy yourself a snorkel and do your research. Having a theme encourages you to research and plan more thoroughly and can help steer you away from the more obvious tourist hotspots. Whether you’re exploring the legacies of war, trying to find the perfect conical hat or on tour to discover the best bowl of soup in the country, having a theme to your tour gives it meaning and shapes and structures your itinerary. And the locals might not just see you as a tourist but as interested and curious travellers.
Have you got any top tips for getting to know Vietnam?
Do leave a comment below!
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Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you thanks to support from Travel IndoChina, including use of images above unless otherwise individually credited. The views, experience and opinions expressed remain, as ever, entirely our own.