Upsides and downsides Vietnam with kids, a disability, and/or a mobility condition
Our first 30-day visit to Vietnam with kids left us hungry for another. Even as we left, we were already evaluating Vietnam pros and cons for when we returned. Over four weeks traveling from Hanoi in the north to Da Nang in central Vietnam, we’ve also learned a few of the downsides and upsides to traveling in this beautiful, vibrant Southeast Asian nation.
Our experiences are based on traveling with two children (ages 8 and 11 at the time). Plus, Jodie has a prosthetic leg, so figuring out what’s best for her mobility is a big factor in our travels and decision-making. With all that in mind, here are some of the pros and cons we’ve observed during our first visit to Vietnam with kids.
8 downsides of traveling in Vietnam
Every country and society has its cultural downsides or aspects that simply aren’t to our personal tastes. We’d like to get those out of the way first.
Getting around with kids, and/or with a mobility condition or disability, can be challenging
Elevators in older buildings tend to be small and narrow, and may not be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Streets and sidewalks are not set up for accessibility.
About 50% of Vietnam’s male population smokes (5% of women). Sometimes places have smoking inside too. But outside it’s hard to avoid smoke.
Whether covered with signs, chairs, or parked motorbikes, Vietnam’s sidewalks are not a straight line of access. Signs sometimes span the full width of the sidewalk. Expect to have to often veer into the street or just walk on the edge of the street. Sidewalks are also de facto motorbike parking lots.
Cars not motorbikes
Motorbikes are the most prevalent form of transportation. Odds are your accommodation will even have some for rent. If you have kids or a disability like Jodie’s though, motorbikes aren’t necessarily a great option. Plus, Jodie can only ride a motorbike as a passenger, not a driver. Even then, in order for it to work she’d have to tie her prosthesis to the bike so it doesn’t slip.
Instead, we stick to cars for transportation, usually arranged via Grab or through our accommodation. It’s not necessarily a big deal, but since motorbikes are so common in Vietnam, we sometimes have to explain why they’re not a good fit for us.
Poor air quality
Hanoi can out-smog Beijing or Bangkok in terms of bad air quality. General vehicle exhaust, rice field burning, smoking, and lots and lots of charcoal burners can all contribute to Vietnam’s air quality getting bad throughout the year.
Air quality varies from place to place and season to season though. Other than Hanoi, we didn’t have any problems with air quality during the rest of our stay in Vietnam, including Halong Bay, Tam Coc, Phang Nha, Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An.
Unsafe tap water
While Vietnam is working on its water quality and water treatment infrastructure, typically the best practice is to avoid ingesting water straight out of the tap. Accommodation providers often provide some bottled water per guest per day. Other places maintain a safe, filtered water source that guests can use.
We primarily used our portable water filter for drinking water, and we drank lots of hot beverages using freshly boiled water. We never had health or stomach problems with drinking either the water we filtered, water from a filtered source, bottled water, or beverages made with boiled water. So while not drinking the tap water is a best practice, it’s also pretty easy to ensure that you and your family are ingesting safe water.
Shelving and storage in your room can be hard to come by
Granted, this may be a quirk of the homestays and hotels we stayed in, but our experience of Vietnamese accommodation has usually been along the lines of, “Nice room. Where do we put things?” Rooms generally have been clean, bright, and recently updated. However, there’s not often been much in the way of shelving or storage. Sometimes there are built-in cabinets, shelves, or drawers. Other times we’ve mostly had our bags on the floor. This is one where your mileage will really vary. Not a big deal, but something to be aware of.
We’ve traveled enough to have worked with cash in plenty of cash-dominant societies, from Morocco to Japan. While more and more places in Vietnam, such as restaurants, accept cards, it’s still good to have a lot of cash on hand. And it will seem like a lot. When we visited in 2022 and 2023, the exchange rate for a US dollar to the Vietnamese dong was about USD$1 to 25,000 dong. You get used to carrying lots of large bills with big denominations. However, whenever we could use our card in Vietnam, we did so, to help us accrue rewards points.
8 upsides of traveling in Vietnam
When it comes to Vietnam pros and cons, we wanted to get our downsides out of the way so we could get to the good stuff, because Vietnam abounds in amazing. Here are a few upsides from our experience:
Only a 30-day visa…not anymore! [UPDATE BELOW]
As of our visit in December 2022 and January 2023, the only tourist visa available to American passport holders is for 30 days.
UPDATE 2024: Longer visas are available again! Tourist visas for stays up to 90 days are now available for many passport holders, including U.S. citizens.
(Of course, anything with visas and entry requirements is subject to change. Check with your passport country’s requirements for Vietnam.)
If you have a disability, people check if you need or want help
For example, whenever Jodie was getting in and out of boats, or on or off a train, someone was always willing to see if she needed a hand.
Kids are appreciated
Everywhere we went in Vietnam, people adored Aster and Connor. We also felt that it could be easier to ask for help or directions, simply because people could tell we were visiting and they wanted us to find our way.
English is common
We learned a few Vietnamese basics (such as yes, no, hello, and thank you), but our Vietnamese still has a long way to go. Translation apps such as Google Translate don’t always work well with Vietnamese. However, in part because of growing tourism and business throughout the country, it was common to find people who spoke English (especially in the cities).
Affordable food is plentiful and amazing
Vietnam abounds in small-scale and large-scale agriculture. Along with classics such as pho (noodle soup) and banh mi (meat and pickled veggies sandwiches), it was easy to find affordable food. Especially when feeding a family, food and drink costs can add up quickly, but you can have fresh, amazing food on an affordable family budget in Vietnam.
The coffee is incredible
Vietnamese coffee culture can hold its own with the Pacific Northwest, and at excellent price points. Picking up ground coffee for pourovers was also easy. In addition to local roasters and coffee retailers, the Highlands Coffee chain was a reliable source of affordable ground coffee.
A range of cities, towns, and rural areas has something for everyone
If you want big, bustling cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have got you. If you want dazzling, lush green countryside, villages and rural areas abound (and we enjoyed more than our share of green space and natural beauty in places like Tam Coc and Phang Nha.). Our personal sweet spot has been Vietnam’s mid-sized cities, such as Hue and Da Nang. They’re big enough to have plenty to do, but not so big that they feel overwhelming.
There are seasons
Granted, some folks might not consider seasons an upside. However, if you like some occasional cooler temperatures, accompanied by a bit of gentle rain, northern and central Vietnam can be just the place. Our December and January visit coincided with winter. Instead of snow and freezing temperatures, we could wear sandals and rain jackets, and be quite comfortable.
What will be your Vietnam pros and cons?
Every country has its upsides, downsides, aspects you love, and bits that really grated on your nerves. And that’s okay. No place is meant to be all perfect. Travel, as with any other part of life, is all about taking the good with the bad. Our first trip to Vietnam certainly brought its share of things we weren’t as keen on.
However, the upsides outweighed the downsides. Vietnam’s people, history, culture, and food impressed and humbled us at every turn. We felt welcomed, and we in turn did our best to be good guests.
In the time since we left Vietnam, we continue to share stories of our adventures there—especially the edible ones. Vietnam pros and cons? Of course. But Vietnam is one of the countries we will prioritize returning to. Not only will our experience help us accept the downsides and take them in stride. Our memories of the upsides will have us ready to experience and appreciate this amazing country again.