When we decided on a family vacation to Vietnam, I didn’t know much about its history and culture. I had my impressions about the American Vietnam War largely based on novels, and some experience with Vietnamese food, mostly fried. What a delightful trip it turned out to be! We spent 4 days in Central Vietnam – explored the cultural city of Hue, indulged in mouth-watering food in Hoi An, lazed around at the private beach of our luxury resort in Danang, and took a cycling tour to experience the village life beyond the cities.
Pick a Beach resort in Danang for a family vacation
You could be based in Hue – erstwhile capital of the Nguyen emperors that reminds one of the past glory of imperial Vietnam or the historic town of Hoi An, that manages to stay atmospheric despite the hordes of tourists.
But for a family vacation, my recommendation would be to stay at a beach resort in Danang and explore these nearby areas as day trips. Danang is well connected via flights to both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and also to Bangkok, Siam Reap and other cities internationally.
Amble around the historic town of Hoi An
This historic riverside town, with its car-free streets, is a delight to walk around in the evening. Touristy and cliched in parts, it yet manages a dreamy atmosphere.
Hoi An owes its wonderfully well-preserved state to the silting-up of the Thu Bồn river in the 19th century, which put an end to its importance as a trading post. The town escaped modern development and US bombing.
While ambling around this town, you would come upon Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples, ancient warehouses and more. You would also come across tailoring shops – too many of them – and boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Some streets and the main bridge can get very crowded as the evening progresses. So make sure you hold your kids close.
A large number of shops advertise quick and cheap tailoring services, but since that skill is easily available in India, I was more interested in the stylish boutiques with silk dresses hung in their window-shopping area.
Hoi An gave us some of the best food experiences in Vietnam, and that is a lot to say considering there is fresh, delicious food to be had everywhere in this country. You will find some restaurant recommendations at the end of this post.
Hai Van Pass
We had booked a day trip to Hue the next day. The 3 or 4-hour journey would be more convenient to travel in an air-conditioned car. For some reason, we thought it would be a hoot to travel in an old topless jeep, probably left behind by the US army. This trip was booked with Hue Adventures.
The Hai Van pass – which you cross en route to Hue – is the highlight of the road trip and has some stunning vistas. Overall, it is a beautiful drive, and I was constantly surprised by the quality of the highways.
Our guide suggested a break at the Elephant waterfall. While a nice stop for the locals to cool in the water and spend the day picnicking, I wished we hadn’t taken this detour – it meant getting into Hue much later than what I had planned for. My daughter thought the opposite though. She loved getting into the cool water and it took quite an effort to get back on the road. We finally reached Hue, had a quick lunch and went to visit the main attraction of the city.
Visit the Citadel in Hue
Huế is a city in central Vietnam that was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the national capital from 1802 to 1945.
A major attraction is its vast, 19th-century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. The Citadel is a large open complex, with beautiful buildings and trees-laden pathways. It was too large for us to explore in half a day, that too with the June sun beating down.
We also visited the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, around 3 km from the Citadel and on the northern bank of the Perfume River. Its iconic seven-storey pagoda is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the city.
Take a cycling tour
While the cultural cities of Hue and Hoi An are a must-visit, do travel beyond them, and enjoy some of central Vietnam’s laid-back scenery. You can explore this by bicycle, motorbike or boat trips.
We had booked a countryside cycling tour with Heaven and Earth Tours, a little shop in Hoi An town. They had our bicycles ready – one for my husband with a seat behind to comfortably seat our daughter and another one for me.
First, the cycles had to be loaded onto a boat and we crossed the river to the other side. In many places, nets were pulled out of the water, seemingly sunning themselves. Our guide explained that the nets are lowered in the water mornings and evenings to catch the fish.
The cycling trip began once we reached the other side of the river – what a lovely way to experience rural life in Vietnam. It was not strenuous and had sufficient breaks. It gives an insight into the traditional village life, we visited a traditional house in the village, saw a mat being painstakingly woven by an old woman, visited a small shed and saw how rice liquor is made (you may wish to keep your kids outside the room where rice is being fermented!), saw a coracle being painted and readied for water. You can even take a joy ride in a coracle. A bit like a typical Kerala village life, I think.
My husband tried mountain biking on dirt paths (a strenuous off-road 30 – 50 km trip with Heaven and Earth tour), away from any of the sightseeing areas the next morning and had a great time. Highly recommended for serious cycling enthusiasts!
Four Seasons Nam Hai
We were based at the uber-luxurious Nam Hai for this stretch of the family vacation. It boasts of a kilometre-long stretch of one of Forbes “best beaches in the world”.
We had a wonderful stay here. My daughter enjoyed exploring large cottage, with its open shower and garden in the backyard and the patio in the front opening into a white sandy area. We spent one day lazying around at the hotel pool and making sand castles at the private beach.
If Luxury is your style, book Four Seasons Nam Hai now!
Food in Hoi An
We had some of the best meals of the trip to Hoi An.
We loved the traditional Vietnamese dishes at Morning Glory. It gets really crowded in the evenings, so best to reserve a table in advance.
As an aside note, my daughter only liked eating fried fish, not steamed or poached or even pan-fried. Morning Glory has very different local recipes to enjoy. But there was no deep-fried fish on the menu. Once we explained what was required of the staff, they were more than happy to get us de-boned fried fish with some vegetables and chips.
Another recommended restaurant is Mango Mango; it had some interesting twists to traditional Vietnamese dishes. Their small balcony on the first floor is a nice area to spend an evening and indulge in people-watching.
Have you visited Central Vietnam? Which is your favourite – Hoi An or Hue?
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