When I told friends that my husband and I planned to travel to Vietnam with our two young children, I received many surprised looks. They couldn't understand why we'd want to visit a tropical country in the height of summer – a place where you're cautioned to brush your teeth with bottled water.
The reason for the trip comes from a deeply personal need to travel to the place where my father served as a flight surgeon in the US Air Force from 1962 to 1964.
However, as we began our planning, we discovered a dearth of websites geared toward families vacationing in developing countries. So we talked with people who had visited similar countries and who warned us of possible pitfalls: from chaos in the streets to the possibility of various food-borne illnesses.
But we remained undeterred about our trip. Sure, we had concerns about the flights, the food, and even fatigue, but leaving Nathan, 10, and Zoë, 7, at home never entered our minds.
Overall, we found Vietnam to be incredibly child-friendly. Many Vietnamese – from students at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi to the vendors in Da Lat – asked to have their photo taken with Nathan and Zoë. At first my husband and I were wary, but when our tour guide explained people were excited to see Western children, particularly American children, we relaxed and relished the interaction.
It wasn't until we arrived in Hue – and saw the tombs and the citadel that not only dated back centuries, but had withstood decades of war – that it really sank in how far from home we were.
The Imperial City of Hue – a complex of temples and palaces – rests on the left bank of the Perfume River, about halfway between Hanoi and Saigon. Modeled after Beijing's Forbidden City, it covers almost 2-1/2 square miles.
If you're taking a similar trip, be forewarned: Although water and ice cream were available throughout the compound, it wasn't enough to keep young mouths from getting parched during our high-noon tour. The citadel impressed, but the evening boat ride on the river enchanted our children. They loved waving to locals who were taking a sunset dip in the clear water.
From Hue we drove to Da Nang, which served as a strategic air and seaport during the war. The nearby city of Hoi An proved to be a festival for the eye. Colorful pagodas, narrow houses, and rainbow-colored lantern shops adorn the 16th-century port. Having learned our midday lesson in Hue, we decided on an early morning walk. Nathan and Zoë loved ambling through the mazelike market, pointing at heaps of maggots, squirming crabs, and wriggling eels.
Midway through our trip, we had the choice of a six-hour ride from Nha Trang to Da Lat or a three-hour route. It wasn't a hard decision. The shorter route climbs and winds over mountains while offering incredible vistas of Dr. Seuss-like trees, coffee plantations, and red earth.
In Da Lat we visited the aptly nicknamed Crazy House. Designed by architect/proprietor Dang Viet Nga and opened to the public in 1990, the treehouse/guesthouse swirls with Escher-like staircases, winding passages, and whimsical statues.
Months before our trip, our family had discussed how different Vietnam would be from home. Flexibility and patience would be words to live by, we emphasized. Days would be long; tour guides usually start by 8:30 a.m. and finish around 5 p.m.
During our trip, we learned to ask for later start times to help offset sight-seeing fatigue. We made sure every hotel we stayed at had access to the beach, a pool, or both. After a long day of touring, a dip in the pool revived everyone. In truth, we could have used a day or two in the middle of our trip to do nothing but wade in the blue waters of the South China Sea.
Several guidebooks cautioned that martial music and government announcements would greet each new day from the loudspeakers that bloom from telephone poles in nearly every town and city. Well, we didn't hear any sunrise announcements near our hotels, but that didn't mean it was quiet. From horn-honking trucks and zooming motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City to crowing roosters in Da Lat, noise filled the air.
Despite our planned itinerary, Nathan and Zoë had their best cultural connections when we weren't following a strict agenda – such as when Zoë got up close and personal with a villager's python in the Mekong Delta, or when Nathan carried an elderly woman's wares in the Hoi An market. More than any museum or palace, these moments linked our children to this land and its people.
As we were told, few travel here with young children, but if you do, it will be well worth it. Even though Zoë began to yearn for soft-serve ice cream like that found at home, she also relished the memory of eating an incredibly tender elephant fish wrapped in rice paper in the Mekong Delta.