Vietnam – Hanoi with kids. Travelling with less plastic
Welcome to our guide of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Hectic, historical, and humble – Hanoi is a sensory cluster bomb for young children. So much to see and look at. We spent 6 days in the heart of the old quarter right at start of our South East Asian adventure. Here we look at how we stayed in Hanoi with kids and kept them, and us, entertained, whilst limiting our plastic footprint along the way.
Having grown up in New Zealand, our girls were in for a culture shock here. At the age of five and three, they were used to nice large sidewalk/pavements where we could all walk hand-in-hand. When crossing a road in New Zealand we had simple rules. We look left, look right, look left again and cross if clear. Easy!
Well, forget all of that when being in Hanoi with kids. 80% of the time you have to walk in the road, particularly in the Hanoi Old Quarter, as the pavements have been commandeered by the shop owners prioritising parking space to mopeds. The roads were like nothing the girls had ever seen before. The good news is there are very few cars. The bad news is there are millions (yes, millions) of mopeds and motorbikes. Us grown ups love it because it’s all part of the fun. For the kids however, it took a little getting used to. Crossing the road seemed almost suicidal at points, but once you get used to it the rules are easy.
How to cross a road in Hanoi
1 – Wait for a very small clearing of traffic.
2 – Step out into the road
3 – Keep a slow and steady walking pace and keep walking. DO NOT HESITATE! AND DO NOT RUN!
4 – You’re safely across the road, with a slightly increased heartrate.
Approximately 30- 50 motorbikes would have passed you in that 10 second period, but although they look fast, their speed is relatively slow. They don’t want to hit you so as long as you’re walking at a consistent speed they will avoid you. It’s not the other way round, you do not avoid them, and you definitely do not run.
We have visited Hanoi before (pre-kids), and I must admit, Hanoi with kids, like everywhere we went in Vietnam, was beautiful and welcoming. They had to get used to be handled by strangers a lot. “Bebe”, “Bebe” the locals would shout at the kids as we walked past any shop (note: ‘Bebe’ appeared to be a term given to almost any child regardless of age in Vietnam).
The hotel staff got to know them well, café owners would want pictures and strangers even gave them presents! Much to our displeasure at the additional baggage weight. The downside to Hanoi with kids is really the lack of child focused activities. We searched high and low for a playground within reasonable distance to the old quarter but couldn’t find one.
Out of town
We did visit the Ho Tay water park which the girls loved. It was about a twenty minute taxi ride north of the old quarter. Entrance fee is based on your height (as are a lot of attractions in Vietnam). Under 1.3 metres is child price (VND 80,000). Over 1.3 metres is adult (VND 150,000). The kids loved the waterpark. We visited during school time so it was relatively quiet. It has sections for all ages from toddlers to teenagers.
If you have the opportunity, try to stay in Hanoi over the weekend. The streets around the Hoan Kiem Lake are closed to all motor traffic. As a result the roads become alive with street performers in the evening. Magicians, singers, dancers, you name it. You can even hire roller-skates and scooters. You’ll need to keep your kids up a little later to really enjoy this but it’s thoroughly worth it.
The Water Puppet Theatre is also another attraction if you’re visiting Hanoi with kids. We didn’t actually go to this but it’s clearly one of the more child focused places in town. There are five show a day and tickets can easily be purchased north of lake at 57B Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Bạc.
Outside the Hanoi Children’s Palace (Số 36 Phố Lý Thái Tổ, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm) at the weekend, a few small fairground rides were on offer. It was fairly old school but the kids didn’t mind. Even in the 30 degree heat at 8pm they still loved the bouncy castle. Each activity was VND 20,000 each and it really entertained the kids after finding no playground for days. We also met some lovely local residents there.
Travelling plastic free
We knew this would be a challenge. Plastic is everywhere. Every Banh Mi you order on the street is thrown into a bag. Every drink you order comes with a straw. Fruit is placed in plastic bags. This is a place where you had to be prepared at every turn to refuse plastic. Say no to the straw, say no to the bag, don’t do take-away food or drink.
We stumbled upon the fantastic Circle Coffee Bar in the old quarter. Not only was a very cool little setting (with live music some evenings), they provided bamboo straws for their drinks!
If you do pick up any plastic along your way, you’ll want to recycle it to offer any hope of it staying out of landfills or the sea. This is another area we struggled. Finding a bin or any type was quite rare, but we did find some recycling bin in the Vườn hoa Cổ Tân square to the south east of the lake. We had a peek in the bins (as we like to do) and it was a bit of a free-for-all, so as always, ‘refuse’ or ‘reuse’ before recycling.
We were fortunate that our hotel had a water cooler that enabled us to refill our bottles at multiple points throughout the day to avoid purchasing plastic water bottles. Most, but not all cafes, offer safe drinking water. You can always use your own steriliser like a SteriPEN to purify drinking water if needed.
As found in other South East Asian destinations, a significant reduction in plastic appears to be a long way off. That said, unlike Pai in Thailand, there were a small collection of plastic-free initiatives paving the way for others. Again, tourism makes demands on a given destination. More than likely, tourists are from developed countries have a good level of understanding of climate change and the effect of plastic pollution on the future of the planet. We must therefore give not only our money in the form of trade, but also our knowledge in the form of education. On a basic level, this can be leading by example. Refuse, refuse, refuse.
The bane of any family travellers existence is trying to find the elusive ‘family room’ and staying in Hanoi with kids was no different. We stayed at the Hangmy Boutique Hotel . They offer a Family Room and a Family Suite. If you can, make sure you get the Family Suite. This offered 2x Double Beds and a 1x Single Bed, plus a nice balcony. Not only was the room huge (60 square meters) one of the double beds was on the other side of the bathroom (within the same room) which provided some much needed separation in the evening. The balcony was a great bonus too. The staff were fantastic and not at all pushy with the tours.
On top of all this, the location was great. It was only a few minutes to walk to the lake and there were hundreds of restaurants and cafes nearby.
Hanoi offers a great range of vegetarian food. We instantly stumbled upon Cai Mam upon walking out of our hotel. The primarily vegan menu gave us our first taste of fresh spring rolls in Vietnam, but was a bit pricier for our daily budget. There were also many options around the French Quarter. Minh Chay Vegan Restaurant offered more on the fancy side, and there was a more budget option over the road.
Be warned though, MSG can be used in most restaurants or stalls. Most places will specifically state if they don’t use it (although even then, it might be that they just use a lighter brand of it, or do not add it once food has been prepared).
Bahn Mi and Pho are the most popular dishes around Hanoi. Most places will offer a vegetarian version of these (swapping the meat out for Tofu or Mushroom). There are lots of great Bahn Mi stalls selling vegetarian or vegan rolls for between VND 15,000 – VND 30,000. These were are great option for adults and kids. Just be sure to check for no MSG (and ask for no plastic bag).
Coffee and Beer
Those who know us will confirm we are beer and more recently coffee snobs. We don’t hide it. It’s just a way of life now (damn you Wellington, NZ for getting us hooked on coffee and craft beer!).
First off, Vietnam is a producer of coffee. And very good coffee at that. It tends to come via a drip filter that will be served on top of your cup. the coffee is great and affordable but it will probably be different than what you’re used to. If you ask for milk you will likely get condensed milk which will make it very sweet. Even black coffee will often have sugar added so you need to specify without.
Hanoi gets very hot in the summer so we often opted for an iced coffee. As always, be ready to say “no plastic straw” and take your own metal/bamboo one if needed.
There are coffee shops and cafes everywhere. As grown-ups, we could have spent weeks just going in and out of these. We went to about 2 or 3 everyday during this trip. The French Café by the Catholic Church has crayons and drawing paper on every table and served lovely fruit shakes for the kids.
Whilst craft beer was offered in Hanoi at the brilliant Pasteur Street Brewery and various craft beer bars, it was very expensive (over VND 100,000 a beer). And as much as we love craft beer, a hoppy IPA is not the most refreshing beer on a hot day.
The most famous of Hanoi’s beer is Beer Hoi, the ‘Fresh Beer’. This stuff is unbelievably cheap. Each glass can be found for as little as VND 5,000. That’s around USD $0.20. That’s correct. 20 cents. It’s pretty light and comes in a small glass but it’s refreshing and at that price, who can complain. You won’t find Beer Hoi in most restaurants/cafes. It tends to be served in more cheaper street stall style shops, often found on the corner of 2 roads. It can also sell out quickly so by around 10pm most restaurants may be out of it… so get in there quick!
Although there wasn’t much that was child-focused, and plastic was all around, we still would thoroughly recommend a trip to Hanoi. The Old Quarter, in particular, with it’s bustling streets, manic roads and endless coffee shops and cafes can keep you entertained for days. 5 or 6 days is easily enough to see the best of the city.
Like most destinations, it’s greatest asset is it people. Our girls were treated like princesses by everyone they came across. Even when they were having grumpy days and we were struggling to get out the hotel room door without a meltdown, the second they stepped outside they would be met by a smiling local resident ready to tell them how beautiful they were.
The attention they received is of course very different to what they experienced back in New Zealand. And due to that, we really saw their confidence grow in speaking to other people. Sure, we still sometimes have to nudge them to remind them to answer someone’s question but we could also sit back and watch them have a conversation with other people that would never have happened back home.
As a first stop in Vietnam, Hanoi it is a great destination. You instantly get a view of their culture and it in no way feels put on for tourists, which is exactly what we wanted.