There is so much to do over a weekend in Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam with kids! Stuff yourselves full of fun (and food!) and make meaningful family memories. Use this detailed account of our 4 days in Hanoi and Halong Bay to help your family navigate the popular and very worthwhile* combo trip to the Vietnamese capital and its scene-stealing neighbor a few hours’ drive away.
*Believe me when I say very worthwhile. I left Halong Bay off the itinerary when my hubby and I made our first trip to Vietnam years ago. I figured it was overhyped…but I regretted skipping it for the last decade. Clichés, it turns out, exist for a reason, but you can do your due diligence by choosing a reputable boat operator and planning around the weather you want to experience.
So, amble through buzzy Hanoi then ponder the otherworldly geology of Halong Bay. Bonus points if you can get there on the cusp of travel reopening to find these destinations celebrated primarily by locals. No matter the timing, though, don’t make my mistake. Hanoi and Halong Bay make a fascinating and fun trip with kids – even for just a long weekend.
Our (detailed!) long weekend in Hanoi and Halong Bay
- Day 1: Coconut Coffee and Water Puppets
- Day 2: Halong Bay at Last
- Day 3 back to Hanoi: Margarita Coffee and Puffy Noodles
- Day 4 in Hanoi: Blocks, Bridges, and Bia Hoi
- Day 5 in Hanoi: Bye pho now
- Other Things to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam with Kids
- Best of Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam with Kids
Day 1: Coconut Coffee and Water Puppets
Getting through immigration at Hanoi was darn easy. Your family may need visas, which can be applied for online. Ours came via email within a three-day turnaround. Happy with a new stamp in our passports, we grabbed our bags and then a Grab to our hotel in the Old Quarter. (Grab btw is the equivalent of Uber that you find across much of Southeast Asia.)
Tirant Hotel (freshly reopened in February 2022 after a complete renovation) was a very decent place to stay with a kid and conveniently located near legendary Hoan Kiem Lake (and a great bowl of pho!). We had a spacious family room with sleeping quarters for both the kiddo (interior) and Mama and Dad (facing the street).
We only had the night in Hanoi before heading out for an overnight at Halong Bay (we’d be back at Tirant Hotel for two nights again afterward), so we visited the ATM then hit the ground running.
First, we set off in a Grab for a late lunch of bun cha at the restaurant that famously served the dish in 2016 to President Obama and Anthony Bourdain. Fans of both, we paid our homage by ordering – what else? – the Combo Obama: 1 special bun cha + 1 fried seafood roll + 1 Hanoi beer. Nick and I were very satisfied, while PB was a bit of a picky eater on this trip. Bun cha was not in her cards this afternoon, but you can try it yourself at Bún chả Hương Liên.
We then strolled quite a ways back up to Hoan Kiem Lake, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword”, and the Ngoc Son Temple. Our visit coincided with a holiday weekend in Vietnam, and the country was in the midst of celebrating both Reunification Day and Labor Day. I was delighted that Hanoi had just reinstated its walking street weekends as of March 2022, and the buzz was palpable from everyone enjoying the area on foot and visiting the stands selling local crafts and services.
Tickets are required to enter the Ngoc Son Temple (VND 30,000 per adult, which is just a little over $1). This includes access to the unmissable Huc Bridge. It was misting on us at this point (but that’s atmospheric, right?). Within the temple are two embalmed Yangtze giant softshell turtles. These extremely rare turtles used to reside in the lake, where they were believed to protect its namesake ancient sword.
👉Tip: Introduce your kids to Vietnam through a book like this, which covers the legend of the lake among other Vietnamese folk tales. Also check your local library to see if they have a copy available.
We continued on a course roughly following Lonely Planet’s Old Quarter tour. We made it to the 19th-century Heritage House (No. 87 Ma May Street) – well worth the $0.30 to access. PB enjoyed exploring the two-story home, restored in 1999, while Nick and I learned more about the floorplan behind the Old Quarter facades.
After this, we went on a hunt for an afternoon pick-me-up at Cong Ca Phe – a cafe chain that had stood out in my pre-trip planning. Woe is me, the first two locations on Google Maps no longer existed! (Edits later suggested to Google ✔️) I felt a little guilty traipsing us around in search of an outlet but was vindicated when we ultimately ended up sipping Cong Ca Phe coconut iced coffees on the third floor balcony of the location overlooking Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square.
And it was amazing. Like a Frappuccino! This drink needs to trend NOW. I’ve tried this recipe in an effort to recreate the taste at home. (Rest assured. Since we’ve all memorized Encanto and know that “coffee is for grown ups”, a sans-coffee version is available.)
👉Tip: Hanoi’s coffee culture was a big (pleasant) surprise to me. If you enjoy coffee, take some time to try out the varieties. By no means a coffeephile, I do take a daily cup, and it was really fun to search out the different varieties Hanoi is blending up. As opposed to a decade ago when we were last here, it’s no longer all about weasel coffee (why was it ever?). Instead, delights like margarita coffee, coconut coffee and egg coffee can be sipped alongside the eponymous Vietnamese coffee.
Sufficiently caffeinated, we braved the circle we’d just been eagle-eying to visit a nearby gallery (in search of art for our bare expat walls), followed by a reservation at Pizza 4Ps.
Again, felt a twinge of foodie guilt for reserving at a pizza place instead of local fare, but it was marvelous and offers a good break from the rice and noodle diet if you’ve been traveling around Asia for a while. Pizza 4Ps had trendy design but was still comfortable, staffed by friendly, watchful servers who were at the ready with crayons and Peppa Pig printouts for kiddos to color, and offered a tight but impressive menu of food and (their own) craft beer. Book ahead. It appeared that people without reservations were unable to be seated.
We planned to end our day at the water puppet theater. Admittedly, we probably wouldn’t have added this to the itinerary without a kiddo in tow, but we all thought the experience was super! The 50-min show is doable for most kids as well as fascinating for adults. Don’t expect any English to be spoken during the program, which is essentially a string of a dozen traditional skits. Trained artists stand knee-deep in water (as they would have when performing historically in rice paddies) and are screened behind a bamboo curtain where they control the puppets attached to long sticks. It was pretty mind-boggling to watch their talent in action.
👉Tip: This is one of the top things to do in Hanoi with kids. Arrive at least 10 minutes early and ask staff for an extra seat cushion for your kiddos to improve their view. There are many but not enough for all kids in the audience. Also, if your budget allows, spring for the VIP section, which will seat you in the first four rows. As the puppets are small, this again improves the view. We purchased our tickets o few days in advance on Viator.com, and the company coordinated with us over WhatsApp to provide seamless ticket delivery to our hotel.
The water puppet theater fronts the lake, so we emerged onto a bustling walking street filled with families and vendors. We couldn’t resist indulging in some unexpected fun that included a souvenir play-dough-on-a-stick (inexplicably popular and more durable than you’d think! Will this catch on?), ice cream and Influencer-spotting.
One of the top things to do in Hanoi
Soak up Hanoi’s lively walking street around Hoan Kiem Lake. This is held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to midnight as well as on public holidays. Suspended in early 2021 as a COVID-fighting measure, the walking streets resumed in March 2022.
Day 2: Halong Bay at Last
The breakfast buffet at Hotel Tirant was fairly simple. (And on the next mornings of our stay, we opted to look elsewhere in the Old Quarter for breakfast.)
Indochina Junk picked us up right on time in a luxury bus comfortably outfitted with rows of 2+1 bucket seats, seatbelts and personal USB outlets (very impressive). But what was supposed to be a 3-hour drive took 4.5 hours due to heavy traffic on the Reunification Day holiday weekend. When we arrived at the port, communication from staff was almost nonexistent and trolleys and people with clipboards crisscrossed in front of us.
This could be chalked up to our bus’ delayed arrival or a kink in the return to tourism, but it felt like our chances of making it on the right boat were 50/50 (less impressive). However, we and our bags all made it aboard the Dragon Legend by 2 p.m., and from then onward, it was smooth sailing (pun intended).
We would hands-down recommend a cruise on the Dragon Legend in Vietnam with kids. In a nutshell, it offers a tight itinerary that kept everyone occupied for the appropriate amount of time with enjoyable activities on a part of Halong Bay that is farther off the tourist trail (Bai Tu Long Bay). Cabins are spacious, clean and lovely. The plated and buffet meals were not only plentiful but also excellent. And the company has a commendable record of responsible tourism, hence its tagline, For a Green Halong Bay.
👉Tip: Indochine’s Dragon Legend has some double-to-single connecting rooms perfect for families. By the time we booked, that option was sold-out, but we were able to fit the three of us in the double cabin bed quite comfortably.
The night time squid fishing was a highlight for our family. My bar was low for the activity, but people were catching squid (little ones), including PB! She caught the biggest squid of the night and was tickled pink. Though we only spent about 30 minutes on this activity, it’s something we still talk about at home.
We opted for the one night cruise and don’t regret going out for just one night. We certainly could have stayed longer on the beautiful Dragon Legend, but with a five-year old, the time on board for one night was pleasantly adequate. (Confession: One of my personal rules is to stop while you’re still having fun.) For a take on their two-night cruise, check out this review.
👉Tip: If you’ve ever been on the fence about Halong Bay (was I the only one?), my response is, Go now. We felt so fortunate to be part of the crew’s return to tourism. Our boat (and their sister junk, the Dragon Pearl) were the only boats we saw after leaving the cruise terminal. It felt serene, not overcrowded, and there are inspiring efforts to mitigate (if not solve) the litter issue.
One of the top things to do in Halong Bay
Find a reputable cruise company. The Indochine Dragon Legend was a memorable boat with a professional crew that we highly recommend. Extend your cruise with them to two nights or spring for an intimate private cruise for your family with another vendor. Whatever floats your boat. Just know that the budget you allocate this experience is proportional to the quality of cruise itinerary and ship you’re likely to have.
Day 3 back to Hanoi: Margarita Coffee and Puffy Noodles
As part of the one-night cruise, we took an eye-opening morning excursion by row boat to the fishing village of Vung Vieng and then were back in port around 11 a.m.
Our return to Hanoi (a smaller transport van this time, still with seatbelts but no personal USB chargers), made great time. Including one pit stop for restroom/snacks, we were dropped off at Tirant Hotel at 3 p.m.
In the afternoon, we explored more of the Old Quarter on foot. PB took home a souvenir kite after perusing the lot up for sale on “Toy Street”. Then we started making our way toward the iconic Tran Quoc Pagoda on West Lake at the edge of the Truc Bach neighborhood.
En route, we stopped at the Lonely Planet-recommended Manzi Cafe. If you’re into art, definitely put this cafe on your list. Their second floor is covered in work by local artists (all pieces are for sale), and they also have some unique coffee on offer. While we perused the selection, the friendly staff kept PB happy by feeding her chunks of fresh mangos (thank you!).
👉Tip: The walk to Truc Bach was a worthy venture to another Hanoian neighborhood. We were able to admire Hanoi’s atmospheric architecture at a leisurely pace. However, I would not attempt it with a stroller (or anywhere in Hanoi for that matter!). The infrastructure just doesn’t make it an easy walk, though it is doable with kids willing to hold your hand and/or listen well to instructions. Alternatively, consider a Grab.
We wanted to ultimately end up at the West Lake island of Ngũ Xã, home to one of Hanoi’s distinctive foods, the phở chiên phồng. These are deep fried puffy rice noodles served in a beefy broth. (Connoisseurs of Tex Mex may be reminded of puffy tacos). They were a big hit with our family.
The area is actually slated for Food Street status, the second area in Hanoi to receive this designation. By the time you visit – which your taste buds say you must – the island may be a pedestrianized version of itself.
That was enough of a day for us, so we Grabbed it back to the Old Quarter. There definitely were some stylish drinking holes to find yourself at if your evening keeps going.
One of the top things to do in Hanoi
Track down some Phở chiên phồng. These deep fried puffy rice noodles – at Phở Cuốn 31 or similar – are unique and family-friendly. Especially delicious washed down with a cold Ha Noi beer. West Lake is enchanting at sunset, so try to time your trip for dusk.
Day 4 in Hanoi: Blocks, Bridges, and Bia Hoi
Our only full day in Hanoi, we spent Monday morning browsing the shops around Church Street (referring to St. Joseph’s Cathedral just west of Hoan Kiem Lake) and sipping another cult coffee variety – egg coffee. Kind of like drinking coffee from under a toasted marshmallow, the version by Loading T Café was decadent goodness.
For lunch, we were eyeing Vietnamese dill and turmeric fish, a dish called cha ca. Specifically, I wanted to try the version at Chả Cá Thăng Long. Nick was dubious about my hype over the place, but we left converted. Unique to Hanoi and unexpectedly delicious, the dish is a must-try. I would almost describe the main room (part of a colonial mansion) as fancy, but the process was very family-friendly. We had no clue how to eat what was cooking in front of us, but the seasoned staff demonstrated the process for us before we even had raised the question. Kudos to them.
With a packed evening ahead, we returned to the hotel for a quick nap. (The true perk of staying in the Old Quarter? Your beds and bathroom are never too far away.)
Revived a couple hours later, we walked to the Long Bien railway station, the starting point for our hike to Bai Giua, an island in the middle of the Red River that cuts through Hanoi. Dubbed “Banana Island” for the banana plantation there, it is accessible on foot or by bicycle or moto from the storied Long Bien bridge. However, it cannot be reached by Grab taxi.
👉Tip: Use your judgment before attempting this walk with kids. The history and sightlines are gripping, but my stress level was very high as: 1), the footpath is only wide enough to walk single file (meaning no hand holding), so the busy lane of buzzing motos felt very close, and 2) the concrete slabs of the path aren’t exactly adjacent, so you can see quite clearly the land or water below your feet.
👉Tip: If you do decide to walk the bridge, you can find stairs up to the bridge footpath on P. Gam Cau, a small backstreet that empties onto the traffic-choked Tran Nhat Duat. A large blue sign (“Welcome to Long Bien Railway Station”) hangs overhead. It’s pretty obvious when you’re there, but I had a heck of a time finding that information while trip planning, so I hope the info is helpful ! Also, do not forget to pack mosquito repellent – an absolute must!
It took us almost 20 minutes of careful walking and photographing to reach the ramp down to the island (sigh of relief!). We gave right-of-way to the practiced moto drivers zooming up from the island to join the traffic on the bridge. After descending, we walked north up the dirt footpath for another 20 minutes, basking in the abrupt contrast of the sounds and view from the chaotic scene left behind above our heads.
While there aren’t specific sites to visit, you’ll want plenty of time to enjoy the backdrop. I wished we’d budgeted about 3 hours for this excursion (walking the bridge both ways and time on the island). Nonetheless, we had a date with an AirBnb Experience, so we were back up on the bridge after less than 40 minutes on the island.
👉Tip: The Long Bien bridge really is a top spot to soak up the sunset in Hanoi. Completely kismet, one of only three trains a day that cross the bridge sped by on our walk back! And it was during golden hour! We knew something was about to happen when every person on the bridge with a camera phone was at the ready. Purely cinematic.
Shortly afterward, we met Lan, our guide for the Unique Local Beer Adventure tour, at 6 p.m. A charismatic university student studying business, she led our family on a private tour of four bia hoi (fresh beer) establishments. A fun way to learn about the bia hoi culture in Hanoi, the only place in Vietnam this exists, the tour flew by. I could have seen Nick and me enjoying this tour pre-kiddo with other travelers, but it was lovely seeing it turn out so fun at this stage of life too.
PB was a trooper – we had just bought a set of colorful blocks from a street vendor so she could play at the tables. It turned out to be the perfect age-appropriate activity as well as an ice breaker for inviting local kiddos to play.
The tour included more than enough to eat and drink, and Lan spent well over the advertised 3 hours with us as we were having so much fun at the different establishments.
👉Tip: Blocks! We have used a myriad of distraction techniques on trips, but these colorful Jenga-esque blocks may take the cake. Easy enough to tote around, and perfect for individual play or with a group.
One of the top things to do in Hanoi
Try cha ca. It’s a simple dish but unlike anything you’ve tried before and is purely Hanoi. Visit Chả Cá Thăng Long for a version that tasted truly fresh. Look for the stately building set back from the busy street down a bamboo-lined drive.
Skip this in Hanoi
Skip taxis. Get a Grab, even when the wait is longer. The quote “metered” taxi we took from the Long Bien bridge to the southern Old Quarter (instead of waiting 6 minutes for a Grab) racked up a charge more than 10x the fee quoted in the Grab app.
Day 5 in Hanoi: Bye pho now
Pho is the meal probably most synonymous with Vietnam, so we couldn’t leave Hanoi without a bowl of broth, rice noodles and beef on its home turf. On our final morning, we set off for purportedly one of the best bowls of pho in the Quarter…literally in the alley behind our hotel at Phở Sướng. Per usual, one of those generous bowls is too big for me to finish, so splitting two bowls between the three of us worked out well. The banh quay, fried dough sticks, were a nice addition. And while I’ve never been pho‘s biggest fan, I would go back for this one. Take note.
From there, we backtracked to the Bach Ma ‘White Horse’ temple, which had been closed for the public holiday when we passed it previously.
Still standing after 1,000(!!) years, the temple honors a white horse, which was a subject that appealed to PB more than the average temple. According to legend, the horse appeared in a vision to the Founder King of the Ly Dynasty after many attempts to build a citadel for the new capital of Hanoi had failed. The horse marked the spot for the citadel’s safe construction.
Once you step through its modest façade, the temple gleams from extensive restoration completed during the pandemic. A lovely 10-minute diversion with kids.
We rounded out the morning by returning to Cong Ca Phe for one last coconut iced coffee. Then, we made a pre-arranged stop en route to the airport to pick up a set of bia hoi glasses of our own from relocation agency Nest. A cheerful reminder of our time in Hanoi.
Other Things to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam with Kids
Have more time in Hanoi, or want to sub something out to on your trip? Here are some more things to do in Hanoi with kids that didn’t make it onto our itinerary…this time.
Help a local student practice English. Take a free tour with HanoiKids
Nick and I spent an afternoon with HanoiKids guides back in 2011 and covered a lot of ground on our private tour! We were shown around landmarks like the Temple of Literature as well as hidden cafes while indirectly helping our two young guides practice their English conversation skills – win win. The organization continues to receive rave reviews on TripAdvisor.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
A little out of the way of the Old Quarter, but a non-standard and interesting museum. On our visit years ago, we had fun climbing into village houses and attempting stilts while covering exhibits on Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic groups. Engaging for adults and kids!
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
We didn’t bring our 5-year-old to see Uncle Ho’s embalmed body this trip, but if your kids are starting to study world history, this is likely on your must-see list. It is a one-of-a-kind experience with security checks that far surpass any airport in Vietnam. Be mindful of dress, date and time of visit. There are strict rules and opening hours, including a lengthy period when Ho Chi Minh’s body is undergoing annual “maintenance” out of the country. We did not previously use a tour guide to visit, though a tour like HanoiKids can make this a stop on your itinerary. The complex is also nearby an unusual site of B-52 wreckage (below).
Hoa Lo Prison and B-52 Wreckage
Relics of war, again depending on your children’s age, may or may not be of interest to you on this trip. If you are tackling the topic of the Vietnames-American War, the Hoa Lo Prison held prisoners of war, including former US Senator John McCain, and has been turned into a museum. A B-52 bomber, still memorialized in the residential lake it crashed into, is another conversation-sparker.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
This one is definitely on my list for our return visit to Hanoi. “Highly recommended” by reviewers on TripAdvisor, the museum shines a light on women’s roles in historic and contemporary Vietnam via three permanent exhibits.
A rickshaw ride
Rickshaws ply the streets of the Old Quarter willing to sweep you off your feet for a few moments. (The driver cycles behind you while you’re seated on a bench in front.) We never took one up on it, but the fancy may strike you. Rickshaws can handle up to two people, maybe one adult and two children. If your group is larger, you may need two vehicles.
Best of Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam with Kids
- Cong Ca Phe coconut coffee or chocolate slushee.
- Runners up: Manzi Art Space and Cafe‘s margarita coffee, if you’re from Texas. Egg coffee, if you’ve got a sweet tooth.
- Cha ca from Chả Cá Thăng Long
Best atmosphere in Hanoi
- Weekend walking street
Best mama moment
- Watching PB invite other kiddos to play blocks with her while on our bia hoi tour
Best kiddo moment
- Sleeping on a boat!
Highest exceedance of expectations
- Water puppet theater
Best kismet travel moment
- The train passing us on Long Bien Bridge
- Original art from Manzi Art Space and Cafe
- Ombre placemats from Ma May Street’s rattan vendors
- Bia hoi glasses from Nest
- Blocks from street vendor
- Starbucks Vietnam coffee mug
Practice these phrases in advance
- Xin chào – “Hello” (Sounds like “sin chow”). While there are different levels of formality, this greeting is appropriate for everyone and can be your go-to.
- Cảm ơn – “Thank you” (Sounds like “gam uhhn”)
Check out these books in advance
A little bit of prep work can help kids get excited about the trip – and you, too!
- Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories for an introduction to legends and folk tales behind many of the sites you see in and around Hanoi. Each is a quick 10 minute read with a handful of color illustrations. I was able to engage PB immediately when we got to Hoan Kiem Lake by reminding her about the legend we’d read in this book.
- Eat Vietnam by Lonely Planet. One of a new series by the company covering country-specific cuisines, I found it so insightful. Even if you’re not food-obsessed, you’re sure to get a lot out of the section on typical Vietnamese kitchens or the discussions about how Northern and Southern Vietnamese ingredients differ that will shed light on the culture in general.
- The Mountains Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen was absolutely absorbing. It specifically takes place in Hanoi, which poetically brings brought to life the streets you’re about to walk and the exhibits you’re about to take in. If your level of knowledge about Vietnam is a basic awareness of the war in the 1960s and 1970s, be prepared for an eye-opening lesson in humanity that will stick with you through and following your trip.