Last month, we took our twins to Vietnam. We were on our way to America to visit my family, so it worked out that Saigon would be a perfect layover to break up the trip.
In all honesty, I was nervous about the short adventure. Nervous about navigating one of the busiest, dirtiest cities in the world with twin toddlers in tow. Nervous about sleepy, sweaty babies in a hot city that didn’t seem child-friendly. And nervous that I wouldn’t be able to shove my face with enough Vietnamese street food if the twins were stubborn and annoyed.
Having had a few weeks to digest the trip, I think the best word to describe Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) is unique. It was a ridiculous experience, to say the least. Our trip had beautiful, surprising highs. But it also had some annoying, unexpected lows. That’s why I felt inclined to write this review for any and all families considering a trip to this chaotic and energetic city.
Is Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) actually a toddler-friendly travel destination?
The short answer is no. The long answer is also no, but with some important caveats. It’s a seriously exciting city that is simply not designed for family vacations, at least the way most Westerners think of them. It is, however, a visual spectacle with truly delicious food and lovely people.
That said, if you put your family in the “bold and adventurous traveller” category, then don’t count Saigon out. Let’s kick off this list with some of the positives aspects of travelling there with toddlers to Ho Chi Minh City, shall we?
PRO: CYCLO TOURS
Saigon is a busy city with 7.43 million registered motorcycles buzzing around the streets. It’s the primary means of transportation for locals, but not really suitable for toddlers. Because moving through the bustling city at a fast pace is a key aspect of the Saigon culture that shouldn’t be missed, Cyclos are your best option for an authentic experience.
While Cyclos (traditional taxi-like vehicles driven by a peddler with a seat in the front) are being fazed out due to traffic congestion, they are really fun for toddlers and should be prioritised if at all possible. We found it was the very best way to keep the twins distracted. You are literally exposed to the wild streets but at a slower pace than a motorcycle, so the wind feels nice on your face as you slowly glide through the city.
What’s great about their 2 and 4-hour tours are that they stop at random destinations around the city, allowing you to stretch your legs, sightsee, and pop back onto the Cyclo when the kids get bored. There are day and night tours, with various themes likes food and temples, and our tour guides spoke excellent English.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in local culture while keeping your kids visually stimulated and physically distracted, visiting some of the iconic markets is a no-brainer. Located mainly within the tourist-friendly District 1, these markets open very early in the morning and sell fresh produce, live animals, household supplies, clothes and Vietnamese street food – all at attractive, haggle-friendly prices.
The twins found the fish sections to be the most exciting, as most of them are kept alive in small tanks. We also found it a lot easier to haggle with adorable kids in tow – we got a free fan because my daughter was crying a bit.
For such a chaotic city, Saigon is surprisingly lush and filled with green spaces. Clean, child-friendly, and filled with elegant structures and playgrounds, you won’t find it hard to keep your kids distracted under the shaded trees in one of their many popular parks.
PRO: TEMPLES & PAGODAS
If you think that religious sites aren’t child-friendly, you’d be weirdly wrong. Besides the high volume of people excited to see you, massive statues of wild animals and mythical creatures, and incense burning all around you, there’s an animal factor that most tourists won’t consider when thinking about keeping their young children occupied.
According to religious custom, setting animals free at temples or pagoda will result in wishes or dreams coming true. At one pagoda, we learned that writing your name on a turtle, dropping it into the turtle pond, and hoping that it gets pregnant can result in increased fertility for you and your partner. People also set fish and birds free, so our twins were thrilled to hang by the ponds while we learned about the culture and customs.
Vietnam is a popular food nation, so you can expect to eat well on your trip to Saigon. Our babies are quite adventurous eaters, so they enjoyed the spice and unique flavours that bright Asian cuisine often provides. Some people will flag the risk of food poisoning, but nearly all of these cases in recent years have occurred in fancy restaurants targeted at Westerners.
With young children, it’s important to monitor what they eat. Extreme worrywarts will only drink bottled water, avoid ice and any vegetable that potentially washed in water. But we found that nearly everything was suitable for them as the city is prepared for tourists and has changed many of their food safety practices.
Oh, and Vietnamese Iced Coffee. The kids can’t have it, but damn. Do yourself a favour and order two or five a day!
And now for some of the negative aspects of travelling with children to Saigon…
CON: HANDS-ON LOCALS
One of the things that took us off guard was how affectionate the Vietnamese are with kids. Being Westerners in a city filled with Vietnamese, we stood out. Pair that with their propensity to touch children and you’ll need to be prepared for some unintentionally intimidating interactions.
On a few rare occasions, your children will be grabbed, picked up and surrounded. It’s completely harmless, but your tiny humans won’t know that. We found that holding our babies close and allowing the friendly touches was the easiest way to not make the children serious.
CONS: BUSY STREETS
Saigon is a crowded, bustling city. This makes it quite difficult to get places in a timely manner. But what’s worse, especially if you have young children, is that walking a pram/stroller down the street is really not ideal. Besides being filled with people and small pop-ups, the sidewalks are often broken and difficult to traverse.
If your kids are not capable of walking around for long periods of time – especially in the high heat – you’ll need to take that into consideration when booking hotels and finding places to visit.
CONS: THE HEAT
Saigon heat can be seriously brutal. Most days, in and out of the dry season, are well above 30 with high humidity. That’s totally fine if you live near a body of water, but Saigon is a dirty, concrete jungle. Most of the exciting places to visit – markets, parks, temples – won’t have air-con, so just be prepared to take breaks to head back to the hotel and take a nap.
We didn’t experience this during our travels, but Ho Chi Minh is well known for thieves and scams targeting tourists. Be careful, keep your phone and wallets close, and carry as little as possible when you’re out and about.
Vietnamese people are friendly, but not stupid. They know that you are a tourist and will unfairly increase prices for you. Be prepared to barter. In fact, learn a few words to negotiate a fair deal.
With nearly 5 million residents and even more motorcycles, Saigon suffers from serious pollution. You’ll see a majority of Vietnamese people wearing face masks because about 1.5 million people in Vietnam suffer from chronic obstructive lung disease every year because of pollution. If you’re planning on riding your own bike around the city and are prone to throat sensitivities, you can want to consider joining them.
Hopefully, you found this information useful. We actually went back through Saigon on our way home to Australia, so if you have any further questions about our experience travelling there with toddlers, just drop a comment below.
Until next time, stay crafty.