Asia with Kids
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I let each of my kids choose any annual destination that he/she wants. And sometimes I’ll stretch the rules and let the kids choose multiple destinations and/or go all the way around the world. Well, sometimes we add on extra trips too. Why not max out the summers?
My 11-year-old son had already chosen the Faroe Islands for his annual trip, but then he started asking about communism and about how communist countries are different. That’s all it takes for me to start planning a trip! I made Vietnam and Laos the priorities. And then it turned out that we could easily fly through Seoul and head to the border with North Korea. We added Cambodia, because temples, and Thailand, because of an invitation from an amazing resort there. And then flying back from Bangkok it worked best to stop in Hong Kong, part of communist China. So we would be traveling to six Asian countries and in the process visiting, or at least seeing, four of the five communist countries in the world in one trip (Cuba is the fifth).
Planning Our Asian Adventure
It was a relatively easy trip to book, despite requiring 15 flights. We booked Colorado Springs-Denver-San Francisco-Seoul and then Hong Kong-San Francisco-Santa Barbara on one United ticket. Then we purchased one-way tickets for Seoul-Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines, Siem Reap-Bangkok on Bangkok Airways and Bangkok-Hong Kong on (randomly) Emirates. Our resort in Thailand handled our Bangkok-Koh Kood flights.
All of our Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia planning, including all flights in and between those countries, was handled by Signatures of Asia out of Vietnam. Ten years ago I traveled around Vietnam with my cousin and we chose Signatures of Asia for all of the logistics (hotels, flights, guides and drivers). They did a great job with that trip, so I emailed them again. Very easy to work with.
Virtually every element of this trip could have its own blog post, but we didn’t travel deeper this trip so I think it’s silly for me to do, for example, a Seoul with Kids post when we only skimmed the surface of the city. I’ll go through the entire trip (all six Asian countries on our agenda) in this post and do a couple of breakout posts when experiences dictate them. Plus I’d rather inspire you to book a crazy trip like this, show your kids a lot of countries/cultures, and then let them decide where they want to return for a more immersive cultural experience.
Country One: South Korea
We arrived in Seoul around 3pm and hopped on the subway to the Four Seasons Seoul, changing lines once. It was only $6 or so for two tickets, but took maybe 80 minutes, which annoyed my son since a car would have been faster. We checked in and did nothing except order room service for dinner (we had a $100 food credit with our room because we booked through a Virtuoso agent and used pretty much all of it on that one meal).
The next day was why we visited: the DMZ. On TripAdvisor we booked a full-day tour with DMZ Spy Tour. Alfonso picked us up at the hotel at 8am and we had a great 10 hours – definitely one of the highlights of the trip. We did a little sightseeing in Seoul, then drove to an overlook where we could see a North Korean farm village across the Imjin River. From there we headed to an army post just meters from the barbed wire of the DMZ that very few tourists see. They took our passports before we entered, we had a soldier with us the entire time, and we weren’t allowed to take photos of the DMZ. We loved it – absolutely fascinating, with Alfonso giving us all of the history of the war and DMZ, North Korea’s documented plans to invade South Korea, and South Korea’s hopes for reunification.
We then had lunch at a nearby restaurant with a mix of North Korean and South Korean dishes – primarily duck and vegetables roasted on a small grill at our table. It was good – we ate three lettuce-wraps with duck, veggies and spices in each. Then we went down into the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, one of several tunnels North Korea has built over the years with the ultimate goal of sending in troops, and visited the Dorasan Rail Station, built for the sole purpose of welcoming trains from North Korea…someday.
The next day we explored Seoul. We walked to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, near Four Seasons, and then over to Bukcheon Hanok Village, an area of traditional houses that was a letdown – other than the watermelon ice we bought from a local vendor. We got an excellent Indian lunch nearby (Indoro), went back to the hotel, repacked and headed to the airport, this time on the Limousine Bus. It’s a little more expensive (roughly $12), but was easier than the subway. On to Hanoi.
Highlights: The DMZ Tour and Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Lowlight: Bukcheon Hanok Village. Unexciting, and too many tourists.
Where We Stayed: Four Seasons Seoul. Small room, good service, good location, expensive room service, great breakfast.
Country Two: Vietnam
Of the entire 21-day trip, nine days were in Vietnam: roughly one and a half in Hanoi, two in Ha Lang Bay, one in Hue, one in Hoi An, one in Da Nang and two in Nha Trang, with some time spent traveling from place to place. I loved my previous trip to Vietnam and, with Tommy at Signatures of Asia, crafted a Vietnam itinerary that seemed kid-friendly and visited some of my favorite places from before. Plus I wanted to see the famous Golden Bridge, so I added that in, and we love Six Senses resorts from several previous stays around Asia and Africa, and added Six Senses Ninh Van Bay at the end.
Hanoi was my favorite stop the first time I traveled around Vietnam (from Sapa in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south), and I loved it this time as well. Our guide kept saying how much things have changed in the last ten years, but in the Old Quarter it didn’t feel very different, other than there being more mopeds and fewer bicycles now. After getting an egg coffee with a traveling family who was passing through at the same time, we did a half-day city tour, visiting the train street, the peaceful, gorgeous Temple of Literature and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (far more interesting that we thought it would be). We then had a great lunch at the museum cafe (bún chả) and visited our guide’s house and met his dad and nephew. Loved the chance for my son to see life in Hanoi away from standard tourist areas! After the house visit we cut the day short and returned to the hotel for a little down time since it was hot and we were still a little jet lagged.
In the late afternoon, we met up with chef Bach Quy from H2H Vietnam. She took us through the markets of the Old Quarter, purchasing everything we would need for dinner from multiple vendors, and then we drove out to her traditional house for a cooking class and dinner. We loved this experience! Bach Quy’s house is amazing, and we made a half dozen excellent Vietnamese dishes. I love that Tommy with Signatures of Asia brought his kids over to join my son – made it more fun and more social.
Highlight: The cooking class with H2H Vietnam
Lowlight: The heat
Where We Stayed: MK Premier Boutique Hotel. Loved the location, and breakfast was good.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is one of the prettiest places on the planet, a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of hundreds of small tree-covered limestone islands. It’s several hours by car from Hanoi and well worth the journey. You can do a day trip to see a section of Ha Long Bay, but it’s far more enjoyable to stay overnight on a junk, or even two nights if you have the time. We went for one night (23 hours total) and wished that we could have stayed longer.
We chose to go with Hera Cruises. The boat was gorgeous, we had a large private deck and the food was amazing (including an excellent afternoon tea). While we were sailing I got a massage ($40). Otherwise we just enjoyed the boat with a few other couples/families.
In the morning my son and I got up for sunrise (because how often do you get to watch the sunrise over Ha Long Bay), had breakfast and went kayaking. We also could have chosen to visit caves, but I had done that my first visit to Ha Long Bay and it’s by far the most popular/touristy thing to do. By contrast not many others were kayaking.
Where We Stayed: With Hera Cruises
Hue is the former capital of Vietnam (13 kings lived there in the 1800s and 1900s) and is full of amazing temples and sites, with the perfectly-named Perfume River flowing through the middle of town. Yet a lot of tourists skip Hue and go straight from Hanoi to Hoi An. They shouldn’t!
This was my second trip and my son’s first. We both really enjoyed our one day there exploring the Imperial City, the Tombs of the Ancient Emperors and the Thien Mu Pagoda. And I started my day with a walk along the Perfume River at sunrise. I’d love to come back and spend several days exploring the city and area, but one day is enough to see the highlights.
Highlights: The Imperial City and the Tombs of the Ancient Emperors
Where We Stayed: Azerai La Residence Hue. It was the home of the French Governor in the 1940s and 1950s and it’s an iconic property. I had stayed there ten years ago and the breakfast was among my favorite breakfasts anywhere in the world – perfect French pastries, amazing tropical fruit (including some of the best mango I’ve ever had) and Nina Simone on the stereo. So I booked the hotel again. The hotel is beautiful and our room was perfect, with a view overlooking the river, but breakfast wasn’t what I remembered. The food wasn’t as good – especially the pastries – and the music and setting were bland. So disappointed!
Hoi An was just voted the best city in the world in Travel & Leisure’s annual reader survey. I disagree. It’s a cute lantern-filled, tourist-friendly town and it’s definitely worth a stop for a night, but it’s not one of the world’s great cities. It’s simply Instagrammable. We arrived in the afternoon, relaxed at our hotel a little, walked 10 minutes to the center of town, got dinner at a Greek/Vietnamese cafe, let a lady row us up and down the river at sunset, bought banana pancakes on the street and enjoyed the town for a little while before walking back to the hotel. Then the next morning we left.
Highlight: Our rowboat ride at sunset. We didn’t intend to do it – a lady simply started talking to me and ushering us onto her boat. But we loved it.
Lowlight: All the tourists! The pedestrian walkways are jammed with people taking selfies in front of lanterns. So different from 10 years ago, when tickets weren’t required for the Japanese Bridge and there were very few pedestrian areas.
Where We Stayed: The Almanity Hoi An Wellness Resort. We checked in and the front desk person said that every booking comes with a massage and that I should call immediately to book my massage. I did! After dinner when we returned to the hotel, I headed to the spa and got one of the best massages I’ve ever had. Beyond that, our room was nice and the hotel’s pool was excellent. Breakfast wasn’t exciting, but I’d stay there again just for the pool and spa.
Da Nang / Ba Na Hills
After Hoi An we drove to Da Nang because I had told Signatures of Asia that I wanted to see the Golden Bridge. I had done no research. The bridge looked like it was in the middle of nowhere. I assumed there would be a hike to get there. Nope. It turns out it’s at an amusement park, Sun World Ba Na Hills. No one tells you that on Instagram!
From the Ba Na Hills parking lot we took a shuttle to the main ticket office, bought tickets, got on a very long cable car up a mountain, transferred to a funicular and we were at the bridge…along with hundreds of others. The experience was disappointing and not one that I would recommend. It was difficult to even walk across the bridge. We ended up spending a couple hours at the park, getting lunch, seeing the giant Buddha, walking through the fake European village and crossing the Golden Bridge several more times. We’re not theme park fans, other than Universal Orlando with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and neither one of us enjoyed anything about Ba Na Hills.
Lowlights: A very crowded theme park and disappointing Golden Bridge experience.
Where We Stayed: We woke up in Hoi An and went to sleep in Ninh Van Bay. No need to stay overnight in Da Nang.
Nha Trang / Ninh Van Bay
Our next stop made up for the theme park! We love Six Senses resorts, having stayed at their properties in Oman, the Maldives and the Seychelles the past couple years. I knew that much of our Asia trip would be cultural, so I planned three nights at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in between Da Nang and Laos. We arrived fairly late at night after our Da Nang – Nha Trang flight was delayed an hour and enjoyed two full days at the resort.
I wrote up a separate blog post on our stay. Highly recommended as a total escape, or as a beach break in the middle of a broader Vietnam itinerary.
Highlights: Bike riding, relaxing, a singing bowl workshop
Where We Stayed: Six Senses Ninh Van Bay
Country Three: Laos
Neither of us had been to Laos, so I asked Signatures of Asia to coordinate three days in Luang Prabang. Unfortunately flight schedules meant that we were restricted to two days, but we loved both days and want to return.
We arrived from Nha Trang via Hanoi, got our visas on arrival, and headed to our hotel. The next morning we woke before sunrise in order to watch the daily procession of monks through the streets gathering donations of rice (our guide Boun took us over). I loved the scene, but my son wished that he had stayed in bed!
After breakfast back at our hotel, we met up with Boun again and visited the Royal Palace Museum, climbed Phousi Mountain, and explored half a dozen temples. We then drove to Kuang Si waterfall just outside the city and swam in the falls. I loved the garra rufa fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet – no need to go to a fish spa! We then had an excellent lunch at a restaurant by the falls (maybe $3 per person) and drove back to town, stopping to explore a local village on the way.
For dinner we walked across town to Popolo for a disappointing dinner, but enjoyed walking back to the hotel through the Night Market, getting drinks and snacks along the way.
The next day we woke up, had breakfast and decided to run up Phousi Mountain again. This time we came down the back of the mountain (to the river), which was far more interesting than the front, with a monastery and many Buddhas along the path. We then wandered around town until we needed to leave for the airport to fly to Cambodia.
Highlight: Kuang Si waterfall, Phousi Mountain
Lowlight: Dinner at Popolo. Our cheap local meals were better.
Where We Stayed: Satri House. We loved the colonial feel and the pool. Very good breakfast too. It was maybe a 10-minute walk to the night market and base of Phousi Mountain.
Country Four: Cambodia
I had been to Siem Reap before and loved everything about the town and the nearby temples, except for sunrise at Angkor Wat – too many people trying to get the same (largely uninteresting) photo from the same spot. So I booked a return visit with my son, telling Signatures of Asia that we wanted a day at the temples (but not sunrise) and a day doing “something else”. We also wanted some time in town. We had a great visit and easily fit everything into 2.5 days.
We arrived in the afternoon from Laos and obtained our visas on arrival (we brought passport photos per the online instructions, but weren’t asked for them). We then picked up our luggage, met our guide Sopeep and headed to our hotel.
My first visit, ten years ago, I stayed at Shinta Mani – a small hospitality-training hotel. I enjoyed it and wanted to stay at Shinta Mani again. It’s changed! They now have three properties in Siem Reap – Shinta Mani Shack, a boutique hotel, Shinta Mani Angkor, a “luxury boutique” property, and Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Siem Reap, a small luxury property with pool villas. They also have an amazing-looking luxury tented camp a few hours away that’s on my travel wish list. I thought we were going to stay at Shinta Mani Shack, but they upgraded us to a pool villa at Bensley Collection. It was amazing – maybe the nicest place we’ve ever stayed. So our first day we were happy to relax and swim at the villa, walking in to Siem Reap at one point to get dinner (Mamma Shop, excellent). Then more swimming.
The next day we had breakfast at the hotel and then met our guide and driver at 7:30am, stopped for tickets and were at Angkor Wat by 8am. This is the perfect time to arrive – the sunrise visitors were back at their hotels having breakfast, and the tour buses hadn’t arrived yet. We explored Angkor Wat (my son loved the monkeys), and then headed to the two other famous temples nearby, Ta Prohm (taken over by trees) and Bayon, with its 200 carved faces. We had intended to visit other temples as well, but it was so hot and humid that my son wanted to return to the hotel and swim. And I’m always fine with that. These trips are about the kids, and there’s no point dragging him to temples if he doesn’t want to be there! So we swam and then walked across the river to Palate Angkor for lunch. Another great meal, this time Cambodian. Then more downtime and swimming, a tuk tuk ride across town to a great dinner at Rasoi Ghar (Indian), and then a leisurely walk through town back to the hotel.
Our third day was our “something else.” Signatures of Asia booked a quad bike experience for us outside the city. Sat picked us up at Shinta Mani at 7:30am in a tuk tuk and we headed out to Cambodia Quad Bike. We got a quick tutorial (me driving, my son riding) and then spent four hours exploring the countryside with Sat, from ruins (pretty sure we were alongside Angkor Wat at one point) to rice fields, temples and villages. We loved it – nice to get away from tourists and see a little of the real Cambodia. But we got extraordinarily dusty! So we came back to the hotel, took showers, washed our clothes and then swam for a while before heading into town for lunch (Mamma Shop again, it was that good). Then we checked out and flew to Bangkok.
Highlight: The hotel, Bayon Temple, the quad bike experience
Lowlight: The nighttime vibe of Siem Reap – so much more touristy/commercial than it was ten years ago.
Where We Stayed: Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Siem Reap. Seriously impressive on every level. Our shower head even played music via Bluetooth – the only time I’ve seen that anywhere!
A Note on Logistics (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia)
If it seems like I skipped a lot of details above, like how we got from airports to our hotels, or to Ha Long Bay and back, or from Hoi An to Da Nang, it’s because Signatures of Asia handled absolutely everything. A guide and driver met us at the Hanoi airport and took us to our first hotel, and from that point onward we had a guide, car and driver to/from every airport, hotel and activity. We don’t do this many places in the world, but it definitely made our trip easier and let us explore more. And all of our guides were flexible. A few days we shortened our itineraries due to heat. We ended our theme park visit early. And twice we told our guides that we were happy to explore on our own (in Hoi An and our second day in Luang Prabang). It was the best of all worlds – transportation and active guiding when we wanted it, free time when we didn’t.
Country Five: Thailand
We flew into Bangkok, overnighted at the airport (at the Novotel), and then flew out the next morning for Koh Kood and Soneva Kiri – an absolutely incredible resort. I have a separate blog post on our stay at Soneva Kiri.
Highlight: Our amazing villa, the golf cart we used to get around, dinner at Benz’s, the chocolate room
Lowlight: That kids aren’t allowed to drive the golf carts!
Where We Stayed: Soneva Kiri
Country Six: China (Hong Kong)
There was no good option for flying back to LA from Bangkok given that we needed to leave after 1pm or so (to coordinate with our flight from Soneva Kiri). Looking at the rest of Asia, Kuala Lumpur worked well for both the Bangkok flight and the continuing flight to LA, but it was out of our way. Tokyo flight times didn’t well. Hong Kong timed perfectly, though.
We had a lot of hotel options in Hong Kong. We could have stayed close to the airport, but I love Hong Kong and wanted to have at least a little time in the city. And we could have stayed at a hotel in either Kowloon or on Hong Kong Island near the Airport train stops. In the end I booked the Kowloon Shangri-La, not near the airport or the airport train, but simply because it’s one of the best hotels in the city, the view is great, and it’s virtually always the best value. We arrived from Bangkok, got our luggage and jumped in a taxi. Unfortunately we got a terrible driver who didn’t map the route based on traffic, and the drive took half an hour longer than it should have. When we finally made it to the hotel, we were hungry and got dinner at the hotel – not great, but easy – and then walked around the Avenue of Stars, enjoying the junks on the water and the gorgeous view of Hong Kong Island.
We flew out the next morning, so we really didn’t get a chance to do much else. If we had just one more day we would have visited the Buddha on Lantau Island, taken the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island and gone to the top of Victoria Peak. But we were ready to be home.
Highlight: Our walk from the hotel up the Avenue of Stars. And breakfast at the hotel – always excellent.
Lowlight: Dinner at the Shangri-La. Love the hotel, but dinner was mediocre.
Where We Stayed: Kowloon Shangri-La
The bulk of this trip was coordinated by Signatures of Asia for $2,080/person. That consisted of everything in three Asian countries (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), including hotels in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Luang Prabang, the cruise on Ha Long Bay, five flights (Hanoi-Hue, Da Nang-Nha Trang, Nha Trang-Hanoi, Hanoi-Luang Prabang, and Luang Prabang-Siem Reap), and all guides, entrance fees and transportation in those three countries.
The Four Seasons Seoul was $624 for two nights.
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay gave me a media rate. Rooms normally would have been a little under $600/night.
Our night at the Bangkok airport Novotel was $168.
Soneva Kiri also gave us a media rate. Rooms start at $665/night.
Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Siem Reap hosted us. Our room would normally (in the low season) be $529/night. We loved it, but would be just as happy at the Shinta Mani Shack next door for $124/night.
The Kowloon Shangri-La was free as I’ve accumulated a lot of free nights using my Capital One Venture card at hotels.com (not a paid endorsement!). It normally would have been $228.
Ground transportation in Seoul and Hong Kong, including subways, buses and taxis, didn’t add up to more than $150.
Our flights not covered by Signatures of Asia were roughly $1,300/person – primarily Colorado to Seoul and then back from Hong Kong. Flying within Asia is cheap.
I generally tipped our guides $40-50/day and drivers $25/day.
Meals everywhere except for Soneva Kiri were inexpensive – anywhere between $3 and $15 per person for lunches and dinners. Breakfast was included at every hotel.
This trip was undoubtedly a splurge, since we chose the nicest boat on Ha Long Bay and stayed at several of the best hotels in the world – largely thanks to generous media discounts. A similar trip with less-expensive properties would be under $6,000 total. And if you booked without a tour operator at all and simply used local transportation to get around, it would be even less. But you would see less.
This was a great trip, even if we were ready to be home by the end. The stop in Hong Kong didn’t add anything – if the flight schedule from Bangkok had worked out better, we would have loved to have skipped HK (it’s a great city, just not for one night).
Our favorite destinations were Luang Prabang, Ha Long Bay and Hue. I loved Hanoi but my son didn’t. It was really the only thing we disagreed on.
Our ten favorite activities of the trip were:
- The Kuang Si waterfall outside Luang Prabang
- Kayaking on Ha Long Bay
- Our sunset boat ride in Hoi An
- The singing bowl workshop at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay
- Walking up Phousi Mountain (twice) in Luang Prabang
- The DMZ tour in South Korea
- Exploring the Imperial Palace in Hue
- Making coconut oil at Soneva Kiri
- Quad biking in Cambodia
- The Ethnology Museum in Hanoi
Our best breakfasts were at Four Seasons Seoul, Soneva Kiri and Six Senses Ninh Van Bay.
Take your kids to Asia! And go crazy while you’re there. It’s what summer is for.