Do you love guidebooks? Sure you do. Whenever you go to a bookstore (yes, bookstores still exist) you can’t help wandering over to sniff the spines of books that take you to places like Buenos Aires, Tuscany and Beijing. You roll your hands over the maps and phrase books that you would love to pick up as you head out on your next journey.
If you do this, we are kindred spirits. I can’t get enough of guidebooks, but let’s just say, not all are created equal. Too many are vague and don’t give you that practical, step-by-step, insider info you need to actually tackle a new place and book your trip. When my friend Barbara Adams told me she was writing a book, Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working, I knew it wouldn’t be just another guidebook to Vietnam. Barbara, an Australian expat, lives, works and eats in Vietnam.
Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. As I read through the pages and unusual travel tips, I longed to pack up my kids and head over. Heck, I just wanted to hang out with her. Barbara and her husband already run a food tour in Ho Chi Minh City, so I knew we would at least eat well, but she opened my eyes to all of the sights, sounds and experiences we could have in this tropical nation as well. I sat down (email to email) with Barbara to dive into Vietnam travel tips when traveling with kids.
What makes you an expert in Vietnam travel?
Oooh, start with the hard-hitting shock jock questions, why don’t you, Keryn?
I guess I’m an expert in Vietnam because I’ve lived here so long. I’ve spent six of the last eight years living, working and raising kids in Ho Chi Minh City in Southern Vietnam. I also wrote several chapters of the latest Fodor’s Vietnam travel guidebook, which involved extensive travel through the Mekong Delta, the Central Highlands and the South-Central coast of the country.
I also happen to have a live-in tour guide, in the form of my Vietnamese husband, Vu, who co-authored the book with me. He is such a great resource because he knows so much about his own country, and what he doesn’t know he can look up — in Vietnamese. The amount of information on Vietnam that’s available in Vietnamese is extensive. In English, there’s not so much.
So it’s a matter of first-hand experience and my very handsome husband that makes me an expert.
What made you decide to write this book and publish it now?
I was actually asked to write the book by Jessie of Wandering Educators Press, so I can’t take any credit for the decision. The project evolved a bit over time to its current unique format.
I love that you address traveling with kids in Vietnam. Is there one city that you would recommend over another when traveling with young kids? Why?
That’s a very difficult question, mainly because there’s such a diverse range of things to do.
I consulted my six-year-old, who has travelled to many parts of Vietnam. She was torn between Nha Trang — for the kids club at Evason Ana Mandra Resort (which we stayed in as part of my guidebook research, waaaay out of our usual price range), the mud baths and Vinpearl Land theme park — and the Ta Lai Longhouse, about three hours from Ho Chi Minh City, on the edge of the Cat Ba National Park. We had a girl’s weekend at the longhouse last year. I was sneakily checking out the facilities at Ta Lai because they run holidays camps there for kids aged 6 to 12. My daughter, who I refer to as Miss M on my site, was only five last summer holidays. This year she’ll be six and she may very well find herself at Ta Lai for a few days.
What is one must-not-miss stop between Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with kids?
As much as I hate the way it’s heading towards being over-developed, Hoi An is probably my pick. Hoi An, about 20 minutes from Danang airport in Central Vietnam, is Vietnam’s World Heritage-listed “ancient town”. It’s full of beautiful old Chinese-style houses, a 400-year-old Japanese covered bridge, beautiful temples, community houses and bustling local markets.
It’s set on a quiet stretch of river a short bicycle ride from two very beautiful beaches and a picturesque “vegetable village”. Because the place is so popular with tourists, there are all kinds of activities that kids would enjoy, from cooking classes to cycling tours and visits to the nearby My Son ruins of the ancient Kingdom of Champa.
English is widely spoken in Hoi An, and there are many great restaurants as well as some amazing street food options.
What is the ideal amount of time a family should plan to spend when traveling to Vietnam for the first time?
Because Vietnam is such a long (and skinny) country, it does take a while to hit all the main stops. I think you need two weeks here. You can use those two weeks to go hard and fast through Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi, with one side trip to the Mekong Delta in the south or Halong Bay or Sapa in the north. But you only get a few days in each spot, and every third day would be a travel day. This seems to be what most people actually do.
Alternatively, you pick a base and stay there for a week. You could fly into Hanoi and spend some time exploring the capital, then spend some time exploring the area surrounding Sapa. Or you could fly into Ho Chi Minh City, spend some time exploring the city, then head down to the Mekong Delta or north to Hoi An.
Are there any not-to-miss festivals families should try to attend?
Unless you know some locals, I’d recommend skipping festivals altogether. The big festivals are very, very crowded with Vietnamese people, and crowd etiquette is different here, so people do push and shove a bit. What’s going on at these festivals is also quite obscure, so unless you have someone explaining everything to you, most festivals are just a hot and confusing crowd scene.
The biggest celebration on the Vietnamese calendar is Tết, which really isn’t a good time to be in the country unless you’re staying with friends or relatives. Tết is the lunar new year, and, like Easter, the date changes each year. There’s a week or more of public holidays, and for the first few days of Tết, most places in Vietnam are like ghost towns. No shops or businesses are open. Everyone is at home relaxing and celebrating with family.
What’s the best way to really get the taste of a city? Any tips for parents with picky eaters?
Obviously, in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s absolutely vital that you take one of our street food tours.
Just kidding. Food tours are one way to get the low-down on the local food scene, but Vietnam’s tourism market is quite young and some of the food tour options that are available at the moment don’t quite hit the spot service-wise. So make sure you do your research and choose a reputable food tour operator. Preferable one that’s been operating for a few years.
There are many options for picky eaters but parents do have to do their research. Bánh mì the Vietnamese baguette, is usually a winner with kids. However, it’s a central and southern Vietnamese specialty. They’re quite hard to find in Hanoi, and when you do find them, they’re not very nice!
So you need to do a bit of work to organize your playlist. Some of the dishes that please picky eaters include cơm chiên (fried rice), a range of noodle soups including phở and the famous Bánh mì, which can be ordered with cold/deli meat, roast pork, fried egg or cheese AND WITHOUT CHILI.
In the main tourist centres, there are many international restaurants, so if your kids are on the verge of starvation, you will be able to find pizza, burgers, banana pancakes, as well as Mexican, Indian and Chinese restaurants. There’s also an amazing array of tropical fruit, such as banana, lychee, mango, pineapple, longan and dragonfruit, as well as exotic imported fruit, like apples and oranges.
Publisher’s Synopsis: Vietnam: a country of extraordinary food and friendly people, of turbulent history and natural beauty. With this book, you hold a comprehensive insider’s guide to discovering the best of Vietnam – and, if you fall in love with this beguiling Southeast Asian nation, a guide to moving there. Written by an Australian expat who moved to Vietnam and fell in love with a local as well as the country itself, Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips is a cross-cultural guide like no other. Barbara and her husband Vu provide a unique glimpse into the deep and complex culture of this fascinating country that can be quite baffling to first-time visitors. Topic covered include: Geography, Culture and History; Weather; Visa Information; Phones and SIM Cards; Internet Accessibility; Facebook Access; Crossing the Road; Cultural Reminders; Etiquette; Tipping; Toilets; Language; What to Wear; Getting Around; Must-try Dishes; Traveling with Kids; Safety; Health; Banking; Taxes; Recruitment Agencies; Chambers of Commerce; Insurance; Schools; Expat Social Clubs; Costs of Everyday Items; Pet Care.
Title: Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working There
Author: Barbara Adam and Vu Vo
Publisher: Wandering Educators (1st edition)
Publication Date: January 27, 2016
Pages: 208 pages
For ages: all ages
All images courtesy of Barbara Adam and Vu Vo