Notre Dame Cathedral
Outside the famous Hotel Majestic
View from the balcony of Idependence Palace
Sugar cane drink from a street cafe
We spent a total of 16 nights in Ho Chi Minh City, passing through 3 times (due to our slightly illogical & unplanned trip to Hong Kong). However, each time we ended up wanting to stay longer, as there are simply masses of things to do there, many of which children will really enjoy. Travelling with children is easy in HCMC. Here’s what we got up to with our 8 year old triplets.
The website is in Veitnamese, but shows the address, location & phone number.
Our No 1 favorite activity has to be Kiz City. Located just a short taxi ride from District 1 (about 40k dong, just over the bridge into D4). Entry is just over 400k dong for a family of 5, and you can stay all day. Don’t be afraid to go at the weekend; it wasn’t too crowded at all, and it’s open until 8.30pm, with very few people still there at that time we almost had the place to ourselves.
The concept is a city where kids do all the jobs. Children are either paid in ‘Kizo’ notes for doing jobs e.g. firefighters, nurses, doctors, post delivery, bankers, police, army etc (there are dozens to choose from); or they pay in Kizo to do activities like art, ice cream making or learning to drive. There’s uniforms for all the jobs and the children adored getting dressed up and learning about what people do at work. What a fabulous idea!
English is widely spoken, but the majority of the instructions are in Vietnamese. It caused some minor problems with a couple of activities, but overall there was enough English spoken for our kids to join in. They even learned a smattering of Vietnamese by the end of the day.
Parents stay outside the rooms, but can watch through the glass windows. There’s an air con café, lots of meals and snacks etc available to buy (very cheap). Bring a book, as it’s the easiest day out you’ll ever go on. Be prepared to spend about 8 hours relaxing on a bench watching your kids have an amazing time!
If that’s not enough fun, there are a couple of really good playgrounds in the area too, one in each direction from the front gate.
Avoid the restaurant directly opposite (with the fish tanks). We had an evening meal there, and it became slowly apparent as the evening went on that we had accidentally brought our children to, at best, a ‘pick up’ joint. Oops.
The signs outside each activity tell you the no of children, the duration, the age limit and the no of Kizo’s earned or spent
The latest Police recruits are put through their paces
Special care baby unit (where our girls spent time as babies)
Cheryl Cole, eat your heart out!
As this is close to the central backpacker district in D1, we visited the playground here most days. It’s pretty well designed, with ‘cushioned’ flooring like you get in Europe and all the usual playground acitivities. There’s some exercise equipment for grown ups nearby e.g. exercise bikes, pull up bars if you feel the urge! Also, there are public toilets in the park, and a newly opened McDonalds just over the road, plus a fairly authentic fish and chip restaurant nearby. Feels almost like home!
Hanging out in 23/9 Park
War Remnants Museum
Learn about the Vietnam war, or rather the American war as it’s called here. And if you’re homeschooling, you can do a great deal of work on spotting bias in writing here too, which is on the year 4 curriculum. There’s some exciting war planes & bomb shells outside, and lots of brilliant old photographs inside. Entry is only 60k dong for a family of 5.
The museum gets fairly graphic on floor 2 with shocking displays of what Agent Orange did to the country, but there’s a helpful play area there too, so that you can drop the kids off and explore these horrors. I personally don’t feel comfortable leaving the children with strangers, so we took it in turns to watch them while the other went off to have a look around. The displays are definitely not suitable for children.
Cool fighter planes
Bomb shells and souveniers (check out Scarlett’s Vietnamese Harry Potter dress up)
Most people have one image of the Vietnam war that they can recall: the tank crashing through the gates of what is now called Independence Palace, signaling the end of the war and victory for the communist North Vietnamese regime. It helps if you can show this image to your children before visiting, and explain the history. It then becomes amazing to be ‘in’ history! We loved it here.
The building has been left exactly as it was on that historic day in 1975 (except the gates have been repaired, and the tank is now a replica just inside). It’s fun to see the old telephones, the war room where plans were made, and read about the Viet Cong insider who worked in secret in South Vietnam and stole an American plane to bomb the building. Good war stories for children, without too much horror.
…went through these gates!
The conference room
The dining room
Worth a visit of an hour or two, especially if you are also going to visit the temples of My Son, Angkor, Borobudur or Bagan in your trip. The museum helped our children to understand the place in history of some of these ancient sites; and how the map of SE Asia changed from 1000 AD to the modern day.
Entry was 45k dong for all 5 of us.
We visited this museum towards the end of our stay in HCMC, which was great because by then we felt we’d got to know the city a bit, and could make more sense of the old maps etc. It was fun to find out that our favorite park 23/9 used to be the old railway station, which explains it’s long, thin shape.
There’s some fantastic photos in here, and the building itself is a wonderful colonial style mansion, complete with original flooring and staircase. It’s magnificent.
Entry was 45k dong for all 5 of us.
Pouring over maps at the HCMC museum
The famous end of the war picture
Can anyone spot the bias in this picture?
Snap Café in D2
Although it’s a long ride in a taxi (around 150 dong from central D1), this is an excellent place to go if you want to meet up with adults and be able to chat! We met an old friend here, and were able to have a really good catch up while the kids played & played. The food’s OK, nothing special, but the playground is excellent, comprising mainly wooden climbing frames, sand pits and a playhouse. It’s also an interesting insight into the main ex-pat area of HCMC, with a Lego shop, a butchers with refrigerated meat (first one I’ve seen in Asia), and a very cute kids clothes shop (at European prices). Feels like a very safe, if somewhat un-natural, slice of Europe.
Swimming at the Workers Club
For an authentic HCMC Saturday afternoon experience, try the central ‘leisure centre’. We just used the swimming pool, but there’s tennis and badminton courts here too. The changing rooms are, frankly, horrible, but the pool is clean and it’s good to be amongst the locals rather than just in a hotel swimming with other tourists. There’s plenty of seating around the pool, and a cheap eats café with cold drinks etc. At 80k dong for 5 people, it’s almost free.
There’s lot of options to swim in hotel pools in HCMC, if you fancy somewhere a bit more classy. But I would recommend the authentic experience just for the people watching fun!
Take a look at this website for more public pools, some of them look better than our choice! http://vietnamcoracle.com/top-5-public-swimming-pools-saigon/#top5
The Hungry Pig
Although not strictly speaking an ‘activity’, a visit to the Hungry Pig is a sure way to cheer up any homesick young (or old) travellers. Having come from Indonesia, we were ready for some bacon, and this place really exceeded our expectations. Located on the edge of the backpacker area (144 Cong Quynh), the main attraction here is the ‘make your own’ menu, where you get a pen and a pig with tick boxes for what you want to include in your sandwich. We set a price limit of 100 dong per person, and everyone could get exactly what they wanted in their sandwiches (choices of bread, different cures of bacon, veggies, pickles, sauces, cheeses…yum!). So good we went twice, and wanted to go again. Lovely, lovely food. Oh, and you got a free beer with each sandwich (which they swapped for a soft drink for the kids), making it good value for such high quality food.
From the street
One of our favorite menus of the trip
Big mugs of tea or coffee
Indeed they are
Famous bacon faces
Bacon from history
The food arrives
And is demolished
10 Pin Bowling
At the top of the Diamond Plaza mall, there’s a 10 pin bowling alley where we spent a rainy afternoon. It cost 375k dong for 1 game for 5 people, including shoe hire and disposable socks. At the speed we play, this was excellent value for money, as it probably took the best part of 2 hours to take all our turns!
There’s also a token-based amusement arcade which looked a lot of fun, but we were out of time so we didn’t try it out.
A chain of Pho shops across the city that (nearly always) has colouring pictures and pens available. We found this place by chance when we dived in during a downpour, but then sought out various branches to repeat the experience. They always have a special Pho for 29k dong, and spring rolls are just 16k for 2. Water is free if you ask for a glass of water (refuse the bottle). If you stick to this you will get a delicious, filling meal at a bargain price, with the comfort of air con and happy colouring kids! What more can you ask for?
We love Pho 24!
Ferg is a little bit taller than most of the staff
Happy children in Pho 24
Professor McGonagall Tower
OK, that’s not really its name. It’s called the Bitexco Financial Tower, but looks just like Professor McGonagall’s hat, according to our children. The tallest building in HCMC by some margin, you can choose between going to the restaurant for a drink or meal, or going to the viewing platform. We went for a drink, on the basis that a couple of beers each was the same price as the entry to the viewing platform, and according trip advisor, the view’s the same, making the beers free! However, be warned, the drinks are VERY expensive so you need to be prepared to nurse them if you want to stay there a while and watch the sunset and the city light up, like we did. The kids loved being high up, and watching the traffic snake around the streets. All in all, a worthwhile activity.
Professor McGonagall’s hat brim
View by night
View by day
Sunday night is buy one get one free at Scoozi, a great fun way to spend the evening with kids. The list of ‘free’ pizzas is pretty limited, but the quality of the pizza is very good and the atmosphere is friendly. Book ahead if there’s a few of you, we were lucky to get a table.
Suoi Tien Theme Park
You know you’re in Asia when you’re at a Buddhist themed waterpark! This is definitely a full day out; partly because it will cost you around 320k dong in a taxi just to get there. However, it’s a lot of fun!
The place is split into the theme park, and the water park. I would give the theme park a miss, and make a day of the water park. We paid once to get into the main gate (280k dong for 4), and then again to get into the water park (320k dong for 4).
The theme park is giant – I mean really huge, over a massive area. However, the rides don’t look particularly well maintained. Safety standards here are not well enforced, so I would be cautious. We tried out just 2 rides, which had to be paid for individually.
First we did try the Harry Potter Castle (150k dong for 4)…but it was a disaster. Scared the life out of my 8 year old kids…definitely not for younger ones! It’s like a ghost train that you walk though, in almost pitch dark, with things that reach out and hit your legs and head. It’s disorientating and claustrophobic, with extremely loud noises and no exits in sight. Not great with panicking children!
Secondly, we tried the ‘high speed’ rollercoaster (240k dong for 4), which the pictures show with a loop the loop. Evie has been wanting to go on an upside down rollercoaster for ages now, and she’s finally tall enough, so I thought we’d give it a go. It was terrifying, for all the wrong reasons. As we sat down, I pulled down the safety U-shaped restraining bars. They didn’t lock into place. I pointed this out the men working the ride, who said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” as the ride set off. OMG. I was panicking so much! There was also a car style lap-only seat belt that did work, but I was seriously worried that it wouldn’t hold us in – this is a loop the loop for goodness sake! How am I going to ring my parents and tell them we’ve had another serious accident on this trip? I was hyperventilating by the time the ride reached the highest point, then down we went…very slowly and gently. It turns out that the pictures are nothing like the actual ride, and it’s little more than a gentle ‘big dipper’ style rollercoaster, barely getting above 15mph I would estimate. A relief for me, a huge disappointment for the girls, and the end of our experimenting with the theme park.
The water park, however, is a different story. It is excellent! The main attraction is the slide that you have to ride down on your choice of various inflatables, or head first on a mat if you dare! You then emerge from a serpent’s mouth amid peals of laughter. This entertained the children for approx. 6 hours and they would have stayed longer if I’d let them. Elsewhere, there’s stepping stones, smaller slides, buckets that empty water onto your head etc… the usual stuff, but really well done. The changing rooms are a bit grotty (actually, they’re awful) and we seem to have managed to hit some kind of national holiday, so the place was packed. But if you can time it for a weekday (check for holidays) I bet it would be have been even more fun.
One other point to note – you have to pay for a locker, and then if you want to get something out, you have to pay again to put your stuff back in, so try to be organized and not keep going back like I had to. Only 15k dong a time, but it adds up!
The Harry Potter ride…not recommended
The waterpark…much better!
As well as 23/9 park, we also found really good playgrounds at Tao Dan Park and outside Kiz City. Look out for the park wardens! They come along with a whistle and tell you off for various things (sometime we weren’t sure what)! They make sure teenagers don’t hog the swings etc which is really nice, and probably ensure that the parks don’t get vandalised like the do in the UK, where we take so many good things we have for granted.
Get a ‘Proper’ Hair Cut
As one of the most style conscious cities in SE Asia, HCMC is full of great value salons. The skills of the hairdressers here rival Europe and the USA, at a fraction of the cost. So, for the first time in their lives, our girls were treated to a grown up haircut! Cost was 200 dong each.
All lined up and ready to go
The trainee gets to help
Jemima, Scarlett, Evie
Scarlett, Evie, Jemima
Jemima, Scarlett, Evie
Eat a Burger Bigger Than Your Own Head
As everyone knows, Miss Piggy advises never to eat anything bigger than your own head. But there are exceptions to every rule, and the Black Cat Big Cheese burger has to be one of them. Weighing in at half a kilo and costing 439 dong, it definitely classifies as an activity rather than a meal. You could make a day of it.
Overall, we were surprised how many things there are to do for families in this big city. Another big plus is the abundance of air con metre taxis, which are a cheap way of getting around and avoiding having to cross the roads too often! HCMC would definitely make it into my list of most ‘liveable in’ places in Asia, although I do think the motorbikes would drive me crazy.