Vietnam is a terrific destination for families who prefer to spend their time amid wild nature than lounging by a pool. (But if you DO want to spend your time lunging by a pool- here is a great place for that ?).
The richly diverse country offers unspoilt beaches, mysterious caves and caverns, thick jungle and towering mountains. And while the landscape offers plenty of opportunity for off-the-beaten track adventures, there’s no shortage of organized activities that will thrill everyone from toddlers to teens (while keeping the grownups entertained too, of course). Think ziplining through jungle canopy, kayaking, caving and canyoning, as well as more tranquil outdoor pursuits such a swimming, snorkeling and trekking across mist-swathed mountain passes.
Our 30-day itinerary allows plenty of time for nature-loving families in Vietnam to see the big-ticket outdoor attractions as well as under-the-radar sights, and includes some truly off-the-beaten track spots. It allows time for families to appreciate the route rather than whizzing along ticking items off a ‘must-see’ checklist. A word to the wise: Make sure you have your visa in place well in advance of your family trip to Vietnam.
Day 1-3 Hanoi
It can take a day or so to settle into the seemingly chaotic pace of life in the Vietnamese capital, but after catching your breath and fueling up on pho in the Old Quarter, families can spend a day or so checking out city center outdoor attractions such as Thong Nhat Park (where families in Hanoi can ride swan pedal boats around the scenic lake) and a couple of kid-pleasing water parks. But the best Vietnam attractions for nature-loving families are to be found outside the big city, so don’t plan to stay here for more than a few days.
? Box out: Home stay in Mai Chao
For a real off the beaten track experience, head to Mai Chau (around 3-hours’ drive from Hanoi), where the bright green paddy fields are as picture-perfect as the Vietnamese country gets, and families can bed down for the night in houses built on bamboo ‘stilts’. The vilages of Ban Lac and Pom Coong offer homestays where, for a few dollars, visitors can eat home-cooked meals with their hosts, before heading off for cycling trips in the stunning surrounds.
Day 4-10 Sapa
Nature-loving families in Vietnam will be in their element in Sapa, which at 1500 meters above sea level in the Hoang Lien Son mountains is a little off-the-tourist track, but easily reached by express bus (around six hours, $20) or overnight train (expect to pay up to $140 for a fairly plush private family cabin). There are lodgings in every price bracket and luxury level here, and it’s wise to allow a few days here in case of inclement weather – when the mists descend, the views vanish) Trekking through rice paddies and visiting the neighboring waterfalls are the most popular family activities here, and the scenery is simply incredible. Little legs may tire quickly on the treks, but fit families are often to be seen hiking along with babies and toddlers in slings and baby carriers. Set aside at least a day or so to visit Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfal both of which are accessed by a scenic forest walk and offer terrific views. Hiring a scooter or motorbike is a good way to visit surrounding villages, many of which offer homestays with local families.
?Box out: The Hill Tribes of the ‘Tonkinese Alps’
Nicknamed the ‘Tonkinese Alps’, the mountain region surrounding Sapa includes Fanispan, the highest peak in the country. Close to the border with China, the area is home to several hill tribes who remain apart from mainstream society and who are notable for their colorful dress – visitors can pick up eye-catching handicrafts on sale at the town’s market.
Day 11-16 Ha Long Bay
With towering limestone cliffs jutting dramatically from sparkling green waters, Ha Long Bay is instantly recognisable from countless tourist board images of Vietnam. This incredible part of the country is justifiably one of the country’s top tourist attractions, but there is plenty of scope for families in Ha Long Bay to dodge the packed boat trips and find their own piece of paradise. It’s a little under six hours’ bus ride from Sapa ($10-20 depending on comfort level) and families traveling to Ha Long Bay might want to consider the overnight option if kids are likely to be restless during daylight hours. There’s no shortage of places to stay, and great scope for taking to the water in a kayak – it’s wise to go with a guide, who can lead nature-loving families out to hidden lagoons and secret islands that bigger boats just can’t reach. Other off-the-beaten track highlights include cycling on the spectacular Cat Ba archipelago, notable for its swoonworthy topography – waterfalls, caves and grottoes are hidden in the hills – and rich flora and fauna. Snorkeling here is a treat, with colorful marine life galore.
? Tip: There are a large amount of scam ‘tour boat’ operators in the area. Do your research online before handing over any cash, and make sure you are clear on exactly what is included in the price. Also be sure to check that on board safety is adequate.
Day 17-21 Ninh Binh
Sometimes known as the ‘Inland Ha Long Bay’, the impossibly scenic Ninh Binh remains under-the-radar (possibly not for much longer, as it’s beginning to grab the attention of the international travel press). For now, families visiting Ninh Binh can expect to find rural Vietnam at its most blissfully unspoiled. The crowd-free beauty spot offers rivers, caves and majestic mountains as far as the eye can see, and rafting along a snaking river past golden paddy fields is about as far removed from the packed tourist boat of Ha Long Bay as it’s possible to get. Lodgings range from simple homestays to eco lodges and luxury hotels, and family visitors to Ninh Binh will find enough to see and do here to merit a stay of at least four or five nights.
?Box out: Secret Caves
If there’s one thing that’s certain to impress kids visiting Ninh Binh, it’s the opportunity for exploring dark and spooky caves. The Jurassic Park-esque Thuong Mountain range is filled with grottoes and caverns, some of which are accessed by underground rivers. Grab a guide and visit Dong Thien Ha (Galaxy Cave) which is accessed by boat and remains little-known to tourists – you may find you have only bats for company.
Day 22-24 Cuc Thuong National Park
Vietnam’s largest and oldest national park, Cuc Phuong has a staggering biodiversity, and is one of the best places in the country to escape the tourist hordes and embark on some nature trails. There are several places to stay within the park itself, and families in Cuc Phuong can marvel at the brightly colored birds and butterflies that flit through the trees here. Remote tribes still live on the peripheries of the park, and caves house prehistoric remains dating back over 7000 years.
?Fun fact: Cuc Phuong is home to some of Asia’s rarest flora and fauna – there are more than 120 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 135 types of mammal, including Asian black bears and rare clouded leopards.
Day 25-27 Phong Nha
Another highlight of any nature-focused family trip to Vietnam, Phong Nha (around 9 hours on the overnight train, from $60 pp) is still one of the country’s best kept secrets, best known for housing Son Doong – the world’s largest cave. You’ll need deep pockets to venture in – treks cost thousands of dollars – but families on more modest budgets will find plenty of other caverns to explore. Kids of all ages will relish a visit to Dark Cave (prices vary according to activity and season, from around $4 for basic cave entrance). Brave families can plunge into a giant mud pit, swim in a pitch-black pool, and zipwire across natural lagoons.
?Box out: Kill Your Own Chicken?
One of the most (in)famous watering holes in the park is the place simply known as the Pub With Cold Beer (as per the handwritten street signs), which serves delicious grilled chicken. The gimmick? Diners are offered the opportunity to choose – and kill – their own chicken. Squeamish families should feel free to decline the offer.
Day 28-30 Da Nang
It might be a nature-based trip, but families in Vietnam may well want to tick Ho Chi Minh City off the bucket list, but there’s more family fun to be had at Da Nang – the largest city in central Vietnam, and accessible via overnight or daytime train (from $30), where visitors will be richly rewarded for the trip with some incredibly pretty beaches, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An less than an hour’s drive away.
Try to book this amazing family-friendly hotel in Danang, it will be a great ending to your trip.
From here, it’s just over an hour’s flight back to Hanoi, where you might want to overnight or hop straight back on your flight home.