According to my sons, Vietnam’s french fries are the best in the world. In the fall of 2005, our family moved to Hanoi for a year and the boys—Jesse, 8, and Sam, 5—made this culinary discovery quite early. It wasn’t until relatives arrived for a visit in December, however, that they got a chance to demonstrate what they’d learned.
"Trust me," said Jesse, leading the way to his favorite fries spot, a restaurant a few blocks from the balconied town house we were renting in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance of the city’s Old Quarter.
Jesse’s cousins, Maya, 10, and Noa, 8, merely nodded. They’d just flown in from Brooklyn with their parents—my sister, Lynne, and her husband, Mark. Shuffling along the crowded sidewalks, the girls stared at the wandering fruit sellers carrying baskets of mandarin oranges on poles balanced across their shoulders, at the old ladies dishing up noodles from sidewalk stands, at the motorbikes roaring by on the narrow street. The smells of ripe fruit, grilling pork, and engine exhaust were so substantial that you could almost reach into the air and grab them. How could thoughts of french fries compete with all this?
When we reached our destination, the grown-ups ordered spring rolls and a whole grilled fish. The children chose bit tek—"beefsteak"—topped with a mound of sautéed garlic and served with the blue-ribbon spuds. As Jesse had predicted, Maya and Noa loved the fries, but it was the sautéed water morning glory that they devoured. They couldn’t get enough.
Which is the way I feel about Vietnam. I fell in love with this country in 1990, and I’ve been returning to and writing about it ever since. My memoir, The House on Dream Street, describes my life in Hanoi for part of the 1990’s, and half my new novel takes place in Vietnam. When my husband, Todd, an associate professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and I were offered Fulbrights here, we felt we’d hit the year-abroad jackpot. I would conduct research for a book on Operation Babylift, the evacuation of displaced children from Vietnam at the end of the war, and Todd would teach at Hanoi’s University of Theater and Cinema. Jesse and Sam, whom we enrolled at the United Nations International School, would study Vietnamese—and start becoming citizens of the world.
Vietnam itself is in the midst of a big leap. Long associated with war and deprivation, the country currently has the second-fastest-growing economy in Asia. The nation’s poverty rate is also declining—between 1993 and 2003 it went from 58 to 29 percent, and is expected to drop to 17 percent by 2010. Not only are the rich getting richer, many of the poor are finally making headway, too.
We found ourselves living in Vietnam at the perfect moment—which also made it an ideal time for my sister and her family, as well as my brother, Ira, from New York, to visit. Over the next two weeks, the nine of us would follow a route mapped out by the outfitter Trails of Indochina, traveling from Hanoi and the Red River Delta in the North to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta in the South. Jesse and Sam could show off their adopted home. And I’d be able to demonstrate why I’d been making such a fuss over Vietnam all these years.
Hanoi: Welcome to the Land of Paper Cell Phones
Vietnam’s capital is 1,000 years old and has four million residents, but it feels more like a cluster of distinct villages. Among them is the Hai Ba Trung area, with its century-old European-style villas, and Hoan Kiem, given over to crowded outdoor markets (fresh tofu! live snakes!) and dark, incense-filled pagodas. Armed with a map and guidebook, you can navigate the more central neighborhoods on foot, and if you get lost, you just flag a passing cab and flash your hotel’s business card to return to home base.
We, of course, had our own guides in the family. One afternoon, my boys hailed a fleet of cyclos, Vietnam’s three-wheeled pedicabs, to take us to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. The puppets—foot-high dragons, phoenixes, fairies, and foxes—danced and scampered across a stage of waist-deep water, manipulated by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. (Imagine Esther Williams as a marionette). Another day, we wandered through the Old Quarter, a circus of anarchic traffic and mazelike streets that have traditionally specialized in particular crafts, trades, or products. We strolled down Hang Than (Charcoal-Sellers’ Street), which is famous today for Vietnamese candy, and sampled banh com, a rice field-green sweet cake, and banh dau xanh, a yellow, halvah-like mung-bean treat that foreigners love or hate (we split down the middle).
I’d worried that the noise and congestion of the Old Quarter might be too much for the girls, but Maya, who’d brought along a camera, shot pictures the whole time, and Noa, who loves animals, kept pausing to look at one more impossibly cute thing—a porcelain poodle, a Snoopy pillow, a Chihuahua barking in a store doorway. On Hang Ma (Votive Paper-Sellers’ Street), vendors specialize in vang ma, the paper facsimiles of money, cell phones, eyeglasses, and other worldly goods that Vietnamese burn as offerings to their ancestors in the netherworld. The shops and sidewalks were so full of bright tinsel streamers that it looked as though the entire block was gearing up for a party. We had our own fest at the Metropole, Hanoi’s century-old premier hotel, where we dove into the chocolate buffet (chocolate fondue, chocolate pastries, chocolate truffles, hot chocolate). As Maya recorded in her journal, "there was even chocolate-covered fish (which, disgustingly, one of us mistook for something else and took a huge bite of!)"
Mekong Delta: The Canoe Caper
In Hanoi, we knew our way around. But once we took the short early-morning flight south to Ho Chi Minh City, even my family became tourists. Our Trails of Indochina guide, Linh, met us at the airport with a roomy van, and we immediately headed southwest for the three-hour drive into the Mekong Delta, where we would spend the next two days. Known to the Vietnamese as the Song Cuu Long, or River of Nine Dragons, the Mekong ends its nearly 2,600-mile journey from China here, creating an agriculturally fertile region with a water-based society that’s unlike any other in Vietnam.
At our first stop, the sleepy river town of Vinh Long, we were joined by Hai, a thoughtful local guide who had learned his English working for the U.S. military during the war. We took off by motorboat, first crossing the river itself, then traveling down smaller tributaries lined with pomelo trees and coconut palms. We saw a woman standing knee-deep in the shallows, washing her hair. A blue and yellow kingfisher watched us from a tree. I had heard that these waterways serve as the major commercial thoroughfares of the delta, but I didn’t fully understand their importance until I saw the narrow sampans sliding through, one entire boat weighed down with coconuts, another with grape-sized longan fruit, a delicacy known in Vietnam as "dragon’s eyes."
The value of boats was, at that moment, especially pertinent. When we first began to plan our trip, we decided to participate in a charitable program that Trails of Indochina sponsors in rural areas. For $400, we could donate a sampan to a poor family. Despite the fact that the percentage of people living in poverty has declined substantially, many Vietnamese remain destitute, and a profound economic disparity has developed between city dwellers and people in the countryside. (The woman washing her hair probably had no running water.) Giving away a single boat would, of course, do little to remedy the situation, but it would ease one family’s suffering. And we liked the idea that our children would meet the people we hoped to help.
When our motorboat pulled up at the village of Hoa Phuoc, a group of children ran outside to watch us step ashore, then trailed along as we followed Hai to a one-room shed looking out on the waterway. Holes in the door had been patched with empty rice sacks. Our kids, who’d been laughing with the village kids a minute before, suddenly grew silent. A tall, thin man with ruddy skin and few teeth stepped outside. Hai introduced him as Mr. Kim, the 66-year-old father of the family we had come to meet.
I knew that Mr. Kim and his wife had six children, so I’d expected a house full of people. Their strained financial circumstances, however, meant that only Mr. Kim, his daughter, and a single grandchild remained at home. The rest of the family—the older children and mother as well—were working as day laborers in nearby towns. We sat on the porch with Mr. Kim while Hai explained to our children that the family could hire out their new boat or fish with it and sell their catch.
"Do you have any questions for Mr. Kim?" he asked.
The kids hesitated. Then Sam raised his hand and asked, "Do you like your house?"
Hai translated. Mr. Kim smiled at Sam, then nodded. "I do."
We walked down to the water to see the boat. Built of wood from the dau tree, it was brand new, deep red, still sticky with resin. Long and thin like a canoe, it would move easily through these waters, as such boats have done for generations. Mr. Kim stood next to me, gazing toward the bank. "When can you begin fishing?" I asked. Mr. Kim looked up toward the sky, judging the light, the weather, the wind. The sun had just begun to set. After a moment, he said, "I’ll start tomorrow."
The Mekong on Two Wheels
Traveling by van along the roads of the Mekong Delta felt a bit like eating rice without salt. It wasn’t bad, exactly, but we sensed we were missing something. So everyone was excited when, the morning after our visit to Mr. Kim, Linh and our driver pulled out mountain bikes and helmets from the back of the van. Linh would ride with us while the driver followed, ready to load us back into the van if we ran out of steam.
We got off to a wobbly start. Jesse, who hadn’t been on a bike in months, nearly careened into a flooded rice field. But the road was flat and wonderfully empty, and soon we formed a neat single-file line. Our route wound past rice fields and over mangrove-lined canals. We glided by prim little houses glowing with fresh coats of pink, green, and orange paint, and one-room shops selling Vietnam’s national dish, the noodle soup called pho (pronounced "fuh" as if you’re asking a question: "Fuh?"). The day was hot and bright, but also breezy.
The night before, we’d stayed in the town of Can Tho, at the palm-shaded, colonial-style Victoria Resort. After hamburgers at the Victoria’s restaurant, the kids swam in the pool until 10:00. Watching the fun they had simply playing in the water, I’d wondered whether they would have been just as happy to spend this vacation in Orlando, at a Holiday Inn. But this morning’s bike ride taught me otherwise. The kids clearly found it challenging, but they were also having a blast. And there was something more, as well. Every couple of minutes, a young child or two would appear in the doorway of a house, dash out to the side of the road, and call as we passed, "Hello!" I responded at first, but eventually got tired. Noa, however, riding just ahead, kept at it the entire ride—calling back greetings 50, maybe 60 times. Later, when I asked her how she had maintained such enthusiasm, she said, "It didn’t take much to say hello." Clearly, you don’t have to be a grown-up throwing around terms like "cross- cultural understanding" to recognize the value of spreading goodwill.
War and Peace in Ho Chi Minh City
If Hanoi is Vietnam’s Washington, D.C., brash and flamboyant Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the nation’s L.A. In 1975, after Communist forces overran the onetime capital of South Vietnam, they renamed the city in honor of the former president, closed the nightclubs and boutiques, and instituted a 10-year period of draconian, and nearly ruinous, economic reform. Thirty years later, however, the old Saigon is back. The neighborhood around Dong Khoi Street is lined with shops selling silk couture and salons specializing in facials. Skyscrapers are replacing Communist-era housing blocks, and the year-old Park Hyatt Saigon (yes, Saigon) is one of the best new hotels in Asia.
The key for visiting families is finding ways to enjoy the city’s charms without becoming overwhelmed by its size, the crowds, and temperatures that regularly soar into the nineties year-round. We stayed at the Caravelle Hotel, which is so central that we could duck back in for a midday break. One morning, for example, we explored Cho Lon, the city’s Chinatown, and the children lit incense at the fantastically elaborate Quan Am Pagoda. But the heat and the smog made all of us crabby. The only "exploring" we did that afternoon was playing Marco Polo in the Caravelle’s pool.
We started our days with French toast and pho at the breakfast buffet—and then kept eating. During a cooking class that Trails of Indochina arranged for us with TV chef Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van, the Julia Child of Vietnam, the children made fresh spring rolls and banh xeo, a shrimp-, pork-, and beansprout-filled "sizzling cake." One night, we took a dinner cruise along the Saigon River, feasting on green-papaya salad and prawns while looking out at cityscapes dense with tall buildings and flashing neon. At the legendary Bo Tung Xeo, a barnlike restaurant, we grilled beef cubes on tabletop braziers. And at Nam Giao, tucked down an alleyway behind the famous Ben Thanh Market, we sampled noodle dishes from Central Vietnam. The restaurant’s dappled light, traditional blue-and-white dishware, and worn tile floor reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Saigon in the 1970’s. In those days, U.S. soldiers would gravitate to noodle shops like this one, which offered down-home food and a feeling of normalcy in a nation torn by war.
In Vietnam, you constantly come upon reminders of the war. We found them in Vinh Long at a restaurant built on an old U.S. military helipad. We found them in Hanoi’s Unification Park, one of our boys’ favorite hangouts, where the airplanes on the kiddie ride look like Russian-built MiG’s. We even found them at the Caravelle, where, in 1964, a bomb ripped through the fifth floor. Nothing about the renovated hotel hints at the incident, but guests get to read all about it in a special brochure.
One day, Ira slipped away to visit the War Remnants Museum. Housed in the former U.S. Information Service building, the museum has reconstructions of the torture chambers that the French colonial government used against Vietnamese patriots and, from another era, displays demonstrating the horrendous effects of the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange—definitely too disturbing for children under 10. Even with our young children, though, we ended up talking about the war quite often. Once, in Hanoi, Jesse tried on one of the green army helmets that middle-aged Vietnamese men still often use as hats. "Would this helmet have protected a soldier’s head if someone shot at him?" he asked. I had no precise answer. "Yes," I said. "No. Well, maybe."
Ha Long Bay: The Emerald Isands
From Ho Chi Minh City, we flew back to Hanoi for a couple of nights, then took off on the three-hour drive to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s great natural wonder, a series of 1,600 limestone islands spread across nearly 600 square miles of the Gulf of Tonkin. The islands, many nothing more than rocky outcroppings covered with emerald-green vegetation, jut dramatically from the turquoise water, creating a setting so eerily beautiful that Vietnamese writers and artists have memorialized it for centuries. As part of our tour, organized this time through Handspan Adventure Travel, we cruised on a wooden junk, indulging in a many-course lunch that included the never-fail fries and prawns so fresh they might have just been scooped from the water.
At dusk, we arrived at Cat Ba Island and checked into the Holiday View Hotel, well situated downtown, and well-priced at $50 for a two-room family suite (though our rooms were pretty basic). The main commercial area borders a bay filled with brightly painted fishing boats; twisting roads climb hillsides rising above the waterfront. On the central pier that evening, children chased each other, teenagers flirted, and families sat snacking on roasted dried squid (a Vietnamese equivalent of beef jerky) at makeshift stalls. Near the market we found a karaoke establishment that was entirely blue (blue walls, blue curtains, blue leather sectional sofas) and doubled as somebody’s living room. As Sam belted out "Hound Dog," a group of passing young men clapped with the kind of big-brotherly affection that we’d all come to expect in Vietnam.
The next morning, the day before our visitors were scheduled to fly back to the States, we hiked a mountain in Cat Ba National Park. The kids raced up like monkeys, calling back to us every so often, "It is so, so, so steep," their voices full of fake fear and real delight. In the afternoon, as we boarded a hydrofoil for a bumpy ride to Hai Phong (one leg of a shortcut to Hanoi), the children swaggered like adventurers who’d explored some far-off land and lived to talk about it.
And they had. We could have chosen a less challenging way to spend the vacation, but I don’t think we would have been as happy. My brother-in-law reported that Maya cried on the plane going home. She had fallen in love with Vietnam, she told him. Of course, I could relate.
Dana Sachs is the author of The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam. Her novel, If You Lived Here, will be published by William Morrow in March.
For a thrilling street-level tour of a city, you can’t beat a spin in one of Vietnam’s pedicabs. Negotiate the rate ahead— $4 is typical for an hour—and don’t hesitate to tip.
2. Pagodas and Temples
Southern shrines are wild and wondrous, those in the North more lacquered and somber. Visit on full- or new-moon days—ask at your hotel—when Buddhists come to light incense and pray.
3. Pickup Soccer
Vietnamese children spend their park time caught up in da bong (soccer), and they’ll be thrilled if your kids join them.
4. Custom Tailors
Let your junior fashionistas design their dream outfits— and get overnight results!—at one of Vietnam’s affordable tailors.
In recent years, Vietnam’s tourist industry has exploded with options. Families who don’t want to go it alone can hire an outfitter, or join an organized trip.
Two firms that plan vacations and book trips: Trails of Indochina (84-8/844-1005; trailsofindochina.com; 10-day tours from $2,500 per person) and budget-oriented Handspan Adventure Travel (84-4/926-0581; handspan.com; two-day tours from $115 per person).
Butterfield and Robinson (866/551-9090; butterfield.com; nine-day tours $5,600 per person; kids must be 12 and older) leads top-of-the-line trips that combine biking with stays at palace hotels.
United is the only U.S. carrier with direct flights to Vietnam (one a day to Ho Chi Minh City). Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Airlines offer domestic flights.
Base your group in Hanoi and/or Ho Chi Minh City and take short trips, using an outfitter to make travel arrangements and hook you up with guides. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are linked by an easy hour-and-40-minute flight (about $100).
Where to Stay
Sofitel Metropole Hanoi The grande dame of Vietnam’s colonial hotels. Even if you don’t stay here, stop in for the afternoon chocolate buffet. 15 Ngo Quyen St.; 800/763-4835; sofitel.com; doubles from $375; buffet $15 per person.
De Syloia Hotel Small, pretty, and located in the French Quarter, an easy walk from the center of town. 17A Tran Hung Dao; 84-8/824-5346; desyloia.com; doubles from $80.
Ho Chi Minh City
Caravelle Hotel What the Caravelle lacks in Vietnamese charm it makes up for in amenities, such as a free-form outdoor pool, full spa, and high-speed Internet access. 19 Lam Son Square; 84-8/823-4999; caravellehotel.com; doubles $180.
Hotel Majestic Another of the famous French-era hotels—simpler and less pricey than the Caravelle. 1 Dong Khoi St.; 84-8/829-5517; majesticsaigon.com; doubles from $120.
Park Hyatt Saigon The city’s newest luxury arrival, with a colonial-style facade and a 60-foot pool in landscaped gardens. The in-house Italian restaurant serves wood-fired pizzas. 2 Lam Son Square; 800/233-1234; saigon.park.hyatt.com; doubles from $200.
Can Tho (Mekong Delta)
Victoria Can Tho Resort This lovely riverside hotel is part of a small chain of resorts in out-of-the-way spots in Vietnam and Cambodia. Cai Khe Ward; 84-71/810-111; victoriahotels-asia.com; doubles from $155.
Cat Ba Island (Ha Long Bay)
Sunrise Resort Charming small hotel on a hidden cove about 10 minutes’ walk from town. Cat Co 3 Beach; 84-313/887-360; doubles from $100.
Holiday View Hotel Standard rooms, in a central location. Road 1/4; 84-313/ 887-200; family suites from $50.
Ha Long Bay Cruise The latest trend is to take a day trip from Hanoi to cruise the bay on a luxurious wooden junk (overnight sails are also available). For details, see hand span.com, trailsof indochina.com, or cruiseshalong.com.
Where to Eat in Hanoi
Au Lac House Located in a beautifully restored 1930’s French-era villa, Au Lac House is the place to go for a special occasion. Quiet and elegant, though not extremely expensive, it’s also fun for kids, who can feel as if they’ve stepped back in time. 13 Tran Hung Dao, 84-4/933-3533; dinner for four $50.
Cam Chi Street This little food alley at the southwest end of the Old Quarter has dozens of tiny rice and noodle shops where you can eat like a local. Try xoi, a mound of sticky rice served with your choice of toppings, or lau, a party favorite, in which diners add meat, seafood, noodles, or vegetables, to boiling broth, then ladle the melange into bowls.
Highway 4 Kids will enjoy the climb up two flights of steep stairs to the covered rooftop dining area, where you sit on the floor, traditional-style, around low tables. Grownups will like sampling the wide array of rice liquors (a mild introduction: the apple-flavored version). Also recommended: catfish spring rolls and non-alcoholic nuoc ngo (corn water). The flavor of sweet summer corn-on-the-cob makes a surprisingly refreshing hot-night drink. 5 Hang Tre St., 84-8/926-0639; dinner for four $18.
KEM Caramen 29 Celebrated for its crème caramel and French-style yogurt. The "dining room"—a row of plastic stools on the sidewalk—is crowded day and night. 29 Hang Than St., no telephone, crème caramel about 15 cents per serving, yogurt, 20 cents.
Quan Cu A neighborhood restaurant with the same sort of dedicated clientele that you’d find at a little no-name bistro in Paris. We love the fries, rau muong sau toi (water morning glory sauteed with garlic) and Ca Qua Nuong (grilled snakehead fish, smothered in sauteed peanuts, carrots, green onions, and garlic): place a morsel of fish and various condiments (pineapple, basil, sliced green banana) on a piece of rice paper, roll it into a cylinder, dip in tangy sauce, and devour. 31 A Phan Dinh Phung, 84-8/734-4048; lunch or dinner for four, less than $20.
Where to have Clothes Made in Hanoi
Whether you bring along a loved-to-rags piece of your own or an alluring photo from a magazine, these stitch masters can whip up a well-made copy of virtually anything—often in 24 hours, and typically for $10 to $30. Tourist-oriented establishments on Hanoi’s Hang Gai Street specialize in Vietnamese silk: an especially good bet is Le Minh Silk (79111 Hang Gai, 84-4/ 828-8723). For other fabrics and a more trendy look, try VIS Fashion (16A Ly Nam De, 84-4/733-0933; ). Bring a translator and plan to return for a fitting. This is one travel experience your budding Miuccia Prada won’t forget.
Thrilling Day Trips from Hanoi
The city lies at the heart of the Red River Delta, a region known for its traditional culture. Here are some wonderful places to visit.
Bat Trang, a pottery town. Only 30 minutes south of the city, this ancient craft village has, over the last few years, transformed itself into an international center for export-quality pottery and ceramics. Kids will love watching the intricate ceramic-making process, and if you wander down the back alleys you’re likely to find traditional kilns. Taxis from the center of Hanoi cost about $6.
Craft Village Tour For a guided outing, sign on for Trails of Indochina’s one-day tour of the Red River Delta. You’ll visit a home-based lacquerware factory, a village that specializes in wooden musical instruments, and a village where people make Vietnam’s famous conical hats. All three offer wonderful examples of traditional rural architecture, but the conical hat-making village, with its maze-like pagoda and tree-shaded market square, is particularly charming. 84-8/844-1005; www.trailsofindochina.com; $150 per person.
Dau Pagoda, Ha Tay Province. Adults love the serenity and beauty of Vietnam’s pagodas, but children rarely get excited about ancient architecture. They might want to visit the 11th-century Dau Pagoda, however. Located 25 minutes southwest of the city, it’s both exquisite and a little bit creepy: two of the pagoda’s statues are actually mummified monks, who, hundreds of years ago, went through a rigorous regimen to purify their bodies before taking arsenic to kill themselves. Taxis from the center of Hanoi cost about $6.
Thien Son-Suoi Nga Resort, on Ba Vi Mountain. Located in the lush forests of Ba Vi Mountain, about 40 miles west of Hanoi, this new eco-resort offers a wonderful respite from the heat and congestion of the city. Bring bathing suits—the kids will want to play in the mountain stream—and don’t forget to try the deservedly famous Ba Vi yogurt. Whether or not you sample the local moonshine is up to you. Van Hoa Commune; 84-34/881-411; doubles from $50, no website.
Where to Eat in Ho Chi Minh City
Bo Tung Xeo Full of boisterous groups of locals, Bo Tung Xeo has two important qualifications for kids. First, the menu offers several jaw-dropping options: scorpion, field rat, goat testicles. Second, the food you’ll be brave enough to order—marinated beef barbecued at the table, grilled prawns, fresh sauteed corn—is all delicious. (31 Ly Tu Trong Street, 84-8/825-1330; dinner for four $25.)
Dragon-Boat Dinner Cruise. Take in the cityscape, while you feast on seafood. For details, see Trails of Indochina. 84-8/844-1005; www.trailsofindochina.com; dinner for four $160.
Nam Giao After some shopping at Ben Thanh Market, duck into this tiny café off Le Thanh Ton Street to sample the banh beo (steamed rice-flower cakes) and tiny shrimp dumplings of Central Vietnam. 136/15 Le Thanh Ton; 84-8/825-0261; dinner for four $20.
Quan An Ngon The delights of Vietnamese street food presented in a hip setting. Our favorites: banh hoi nem nuong (rice noodles with barbecued pork), cuon banh trang (grilled pork pate wrapped in rice paper), com rang toi (garlic fried rice), and sinh to sapoche (sapodilla shakes). 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St., 84-8/825-7179; lunch or dinner for four $20. N.B.There’s also a branch in Hanoi at 18 Phan Boi Chau; 84-4/942-8162.