Hanoi is a fascinating city — and one that’s completely suitable for families, offering an ideal mix of centuries-old architecture, a rich culture with Chinese and French influences, fun activities, and diverse and kid-friendly cuisine. Around two hours by flying from Bangkok, the Vietnamese capital is a great place to introduce children of all ages to a new culture in a relatively short amount of time. Here are some highlights and tips.
The Old Quarter
At the heart of Hanoi, the Old Quarter bustles with activity. Its narrow streets, 36 in total, are named after some kind of product or skill (e.g., “silversmith,” “baskets,” “hats”, “rafts”) as the city was organized by trade. It is still laid out that way, with clusters of stores providing the same products or services, but now encompassing things like appliances, scissors and hardware, sneakers, etc. Try to stumble upon Luong Van Can Street (where all the toys shops are located!).
Basically, wander around and soak in the colour and character the Old Quarter: fruit hawkers, art galleries, sidewalk noodle stalls, cafes, basket sellers… Keep an eye out for the sidewalk vendor who makes customized rubber stamps and get one carved with your child’s name.
Be very careful of extensive motorcycle and foot traffic, especially with small children. Other (less stressful) ways to see the Old Quarter include taking an hour-long cyclo ride or electric car tour; both services can be found around Hoan Kiem Lake. You may have to haggle a bit with the driver for the cyclo ride.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
The Water Puppet Theatre, located in the Old Quarter, presents an elaborate art form that dates back to the 11th century. Here, large rods are used to support wooden puppets, from babies and warriors to fish and dragons, making them appear to be gliding across a stage filled with water. Several stories are performed, accompanied by live music played with drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes and cymbals.
There are five show daily, lasting around 45 minutes each — a good length for kids. It’s recommended that you buy tickets at the venue in advance; there is an additional charge for those wishing to photograph or film the show.
Hoam Kiem Lake
Located not far from the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the major scenic spots in Hanoi. It plays a big role in the locals’ daily lives, where recreating and fitness are taken seriously. Older folks congregate to play checkers or speed walk, while youth play a variety of sports or games, or hang out with friends.
Besides walking around the lake and people watching, you can visit Ngoc Son Temple (Pagoda of the Jade Mountain), a pagoda sitting in the centre of the lake on a small island. Accessible via a classic, red-coloured bridge, the temple honours several individuals: 13th-century military leader Tran Hung, scholar Dao Van Xuong, and Confucian writer Nguyen Van Sieu.
The lake is shrouded in legend, which describes how an emperor was once given a magical sword that helped him defeat the Chinese, and in doing so saw the Golden Turtle God come to reclaim the sword from the waters. The Turtle Tower refers to this tale; apparently there are also endangered large soft-shell turtles swimming in the lake and spotting one is considered to be very good luck. At the temple, there’s a preserved specimen of a giant turtle, weighing 250 kilos, found in the lake.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Gain some insight into all 54 different ethnic groups of Vietnam at the Museum of Ethnology, packed with information in indoor and outdoor zones. Learn about the various groups’ traditional ways of life, religious events, rituals, everyday objects and cultural heritage such as water puppetry and calligraphy. There is also an on-site research centre, library, auditorium and gift shop selling ethnic crafts.
Thong Nhat Park
When the chaos and crowds get to be too much, Thong Nhat Park, the largest park in Hanoi, provides an escape. There’s plenty of space to run, play and of course, people watch. Like with Hoam Kiem Lake, people from all walks of life are here daily, exercising, playing badminton, walking dogs and catching up with friends. Children will like the rides scattered throughout the park, such as a mirror house, a small railway, and swan paddle boats. Although the equipment has seen better days, the boats were especially enjoyable and relaxing.
- The Old Quarter houses a number of small, inexpensive hotels that resemble the tall and narrow shophouses in Bangkok’s Chinatown. They are fairly easy to book online; other options include both locally operated and internationally branded hotels, catering to all budgets.
- The best time to visit is around autumn, from September to November, and spring in March and April, when the weather is mild. Winters can get a bit cold, with temperatures dropping to 10 degrees C.
- The above highlighted attractions can all be done in a weekend. For longer stays, consider day trips to nearby artisan villages, temples, national parks or scenic areas (some ideas here). You could also plan for a few nights in the mystical Halong Bay (3 hours by road from Hanoi), including staying on a barge.
- Introducing children to completely different foods is one of the best parts of family travel, and there are plenty of savoury choices in Hanoi that children may like, such as beef/chicken/seafood noodle soup (Phở), baguette sandwiches with a variety of meats, herbs and pickled vegetables (Bánh mì), rice flour crepe filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion (Bánh xèo), fresh spring rolls (Gỏi cuốn) with shrimp and veggie fillings, and grilled pork served with vermicelli noodles (Bún chả). Pickier ones could always go for fried rice (Cơm chiên), steamed buns (Bánh bao), and fried chicken (Gà Nướng).