Backpacking through Vietnam is something that we have wanted to do for a while and we finally did in June with our 3-and-a-half-year-old. We gleaned ideas from loads of travel blogs and designed our 16 day trip from northern to southern Vietnam.
One of our aims when planning the trip was to make it interactive and exciting for Sophia, not just us, so our backpacking ideas morphed into an incredible backpacking ‘Transport Trip’. The objective was to try to travel by as many different modes of transport as we possibly could in 16 days. We flew, we sailed, cycled, we travelled by sleeper-train, basket boat, traditional junk and cyclo to name but a few. It was wonderful seeing our little girl get so excited by our family travels and was a great way to involve her throughout the trip. She was constantly on the lookout for different modes of transport and kept a little book of doodles of all the vehicles that she had travelled on. Spot the teacher’s kid- poor child!
- Day 1: Hanoi
- Day 2: Bai Tu Long Bay cruise (3D/2N cruise)
- Day 3: Halong Bay cruise
- Day 4: Hanoi. Overnight train to Hue
- Day 5: Hue and Da Nang
- Day 6: Da Nang
- Days 7-11 Hoi An
- Day 12 Ho Chi Minh
- Days 13-14 Mekong delta (2D/1N trip)
- Day 15 Cu Chi Tunnels day trip
- Day 16 Ho Chi Minh
First stop, Hanoi
Our journey began in London. We flew to Hanoi via Kuala Lumpur and jumped in the airport shuttle from arrived at the lovely, clean and reasonably priced New Palace Hotel at about 4pm. We chose accommodation right in the heart of the Old Quarter, and headed straight off to explore on foot and attend the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Show, which we had prebooked tickets for online in advance. The showings were at 3.30pm, 5pm, 6.30pm and 8pm and well worth the ticket price. We went for the 5pm and we all absolutely loved it. Sophia was captivated by the live music, the puppeteers, the fireworks and amazing wooden creatures. The story was told through music and words and although there was no English translation, it was incredible how even at 3-year-old could follow the thread of the story relatively easily. It was great recommendation to pay for seats near the front that you could take photos from. For some shows you need to pay extra in order to have permission to take photos and videos.
Early the next morning set off for a pre-booked three day, two-night cruise experience with Ethnic Travel from Bai Tu Long Bay to Halong Bay. The minibus from Hanoi to the Tuan Chau port took 4.5 hours so we packed loads of colouring in books, pre-downloaded cartoons and headphones (because who wants to sit for 4.5 hours listening to a screaming kid, or worse…..kids cartoons!). The journey through the varied scenery of the bustling city, then peaceful paddy fields was fascinating. We arrived at the port in time for lunch and food was served on board shortly after setting sail. It turned out that we were the only people on day one of the cruise, so we had the entire traditional junk and tour guide to ourselves. Meals and bottled water were included on this fabulously rustic experience and they catered really well for our vegetarian preferences. There was so much food at every mealtime: delicious sweet potato bites, stir-fried vegetables, cucumber, pineapple rice and watermelon and much more.
Next stop: Bai Tu Long Bay
After not long we docked at a Floating village in Bai Tu Long Bay. The place was secluded; no other boats, no other tourists. It was absolutely breathtaking and blissfully quiet. We kayaked around the bay for over an hour in complete awe of the beautiful rock formations and the noisy insects. Of course, Sophia sang loudly and tested the echoes for almost the entire duration! Apart from that, it would have been silent. Kayaking here was one of the highlights of our entire trip.
Quan Lan Island
The traditional junk docked at Quan Lan Island shortly after the kayaking where we were collected in an electric buggy (transport tick!) and driven through the island to our home-stay accommodation. Apparently, the island previously transported tourists on tuk-tuks but has taken drastic steps to reduce their carbon footprint by banning the vehicles. After dropping our bags, we borrowed bikes from the host family and cycled through the relatively quiet streets and countryside to a nearby beach. We sipped on coconuts until it was time to head back for dinner with our host family. Back at the home-stay, our host taught us to how to make vegetable spring rolls, which Sophia loved making and eating in between playing with the host family’s kids and their toys. A delicious homemade feast was prepared for us for dinner and another for breakfast before we jumped in another electric buggy and headed for a different port. It was a very ‘real-life’ experience at this village, no-frills but amazing hospitality.
On day 2 of 3D/2N cruise with Ethnic Travel, we travelled back to Tuan Chau port where we boarded a different cruise ship and set sail for Halong Bay with a group of 8 additional tourists. The cruise ship had a viewing deck, an indoor dining area with a couple of cabins on the same floor. Below deck there were more cabins, all of which were ensuite. We had a room on the same floor as the dining area to avoid the outdoor slippery steps leading above or below deck with our adventurous little lady. The cruise was comfortable, clean and the food was great.
Halong Bay was beautiful but felt crowded with boats and tourists in comparison to the quiet experience at Bai Tu Long the day before. We kayaked around Halong Bay to some caves, where we parked up the kayaks and set off exploring on foot. Sophia loved it. We couldn’t swim in the ocean due to jellyfish so built sandcastles and paddled instead. The beautiful rock formations sticking out of the ocean were picture perfect. Before booking this trip we were undecided as to whether we should go for the 3D/2N tour including Bai Tu Long bay (which we hadn’t heard of) or the 2D/1N Halong bay. With hindsight, we would recommend Bai Tu Long bay over Halong bay.
On day 3 of the cruise we awoke to torrential rain, but undeterred, donned our raincoats and swimwear and hopped in a kayak to another beautiful secluded bay, where it brightened up quickly after the monsoon-like downpour. For the rest of the morning, we set sail back through the bay, enjoyed the epic scenery of Halong bay and ate another delicious lunch before disembarking and heading back to Hanoi by minibus.
Someone playfully described Hanoi to us as ‘an assault on the senses’ and nothing could be truer! From the moment we arrived the noise of hundreds of hooting motorbikes, the smells of sizzling street-food, the intense heat, and humidity, combined with the busyness of the streets was a huge shock to the senses after a few tranquil days at sea. We returned to the same hotel after our Halong bay trip and asked at reception if they could recommend a day trip tour of Hanoi. The tour that they arranged took us to more sights than we could have possibly navigated by ourselves, sorted out entry tickets, guides, etc and took out any hassle of finding transport between sights. It was very reasonably priced and included many of the main sights that we had planned to visit, including the B52 museum, Temple of Literature, Imperial Citadel, Pagoda, Hoi Chi Minh Mausoleum and much more. It was extremely hot in and around the city and we were very pleased to get into the air-con minivan between stops!
One of the stops on our Hanoi City tour was Bat Trang, a traditional village, famous for its ceramic making. Located 10km south of the city, it was quiet, peaceful and cool in comparison to the hot, busy, noisy streets of Hanoi. Sophia was able to get involved with painting ceramics and have a go at creating egg-shell mosaics.
The city tour ended with a must-do cyclo tour through the crowded streets of Hanoi. Our cyclist driver took us around the busy scooter-filled streets, the lake, Train Street and back to the hotel where we grabbed our bags and hopped into a taxi to the train station.
Overnight train to Hue
Our next mode of transport was the overnight train, the Laman Express, from Hanoi to Hue, and this was another highlight of the entire trip. The 13-hour Laman Express departed Hanoi at about 8.10pm for Hue, meaning that we had an entire day to see Hanoi before grabbing some local delicacy, Banh mi for dinner and making our way to the train station. We were delighted to be given an upgrade to one of their VIP cabins which comprised of 4 very comfortable, clean single bunk beds (bedding included) and refreshments. Best of all, it meant that we had the cabin to ourselves! Under 5s travel free so technically, as we had only paid for 2 of the 4 bunk beds, we could have ended up with a cosy night with at least 2 adult strangers in the other two bunks of the same cabin…We had read up a lot about travelling by train in Vietnam and decided for a pleasant experience we would pay extra for one of the nicer cabins. Having the cabin to ourselves was a bonus. The toilet down the hallway was clean, (included toilet roll) and a security guard was on duty in our carriage all night long. All in all the overnight journey was comfortable, we got loads of sleep and enjoyed breakfast delivered to our door about an hour before we arrived at Hue the next morning. All in the total train journey cost 2566,000 VND which is about £85 GBP, which was one of the pricer options.
Our intention was to jump in a Grab from Hue train station and find a coffee shop in a more central location, but no Grabs were available at this location. Enter stage right: a friendly taxi driver. We thought we were about to get absolutely fleeced, especially when we were invited into the local cafe and presented with some taxi tour options. However, in relation to prices we had researched online, the packages being offered were reasonable. The main things that we wanted to do in Hue were: take a trip in a Dragon boat along the Perfume river to Thien Mu Pagoda, visiting the Imperial Citadel and the Forbidden City, all of which could be arranged by this taxi company. We ticked off an unexpected number of transport options throughout the day: a yellow taxi drove us to the riverside where we jumped in a dragon boat to the Pagoda and Monastery. The dragon boat then sailed along to a different part of the river where we jumped on the back of a scooter (!) to the Citadel and later were collected in a 4×4. Tick, tick, tick!
Hai Van Pass
By midday in Hue it was 40-something degrees. The citadel and pagoda were amazing, but 3 hours of wandering and exploring in the heat was plenty. We were absolutely melting, Sophia was over it and we all needed some air-con and a snooze. After we grabbed some lunch we made our way to Da Nang by private 4×4 transfer (sorted out by our friend the taxi driver from Hue station. He had given us his mobile number and told us to call him when we got too tired-sounds like he may have done this before!). The three-hour mountainous journey was exhilarating to say the least. Filled with tanker trucks and motorbikes overtaking each other at breakneck speed, this scenic mountain route twisted and turned all the way to Da Nang city. We stopped at stunning viewpoints along the way and were really glad to have seen the beautiful mountain views this part Vietnam had to offer. The quicker, safer and more direct option is to take the tunnel toll road through the mountain.
Accommodation can be super cheap in Vietnam, but remember you get what you pay for. We usually choose to spend as little as possible on accommodation as long as it is clean and safe. Upon arrival at our prebooked hotel in Hanoi (not the one listed above), we were promptly told that they couldn’t honor our booking due to a bed bug infestation….So we were more than happy to hop on Agoda.com and find somewhere different to stay! It pays to spend a wee bit more for accommodation in Vietnam- about £18 per night will have you staying in bed-bug-free-luxury. Rooms for £10 per night or less, may include creepy-crawly extras! Booking a day or two in advance for accommodation using booking.com and agoda.com was really straightforward and meant we had the flexibility to stay an extra couple of nights in towns/cities we really liked.
We did not research this thoroughly in advance before booking our flights. At the time of travel, June 2019, Bris could have 15 days in Vietnam without a via, but as we were staying for 16 days including travel days, we had to pay for an online E-visa in advance. Unlucky.
Booking day trips and tours
We researched and planned loads in advance to maximize our time in each location, however Vietnamese travel tour companies and even hotel reception desks seem to have competitively priced itineraries available in each city for the popular sights. These can be tailored to your preferences and removes the stress of having to arrange transport to and from individual places yourselves.
Part 2 of the trip: Hoi An, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh and Mekong Delta coming soon in the next installment.