Was I mad to take my toddler trekking around Southeast Asia?

A kids club in Hoi An offered Greta some distraction
A kids club in Hoi An offered Greta some distraction Credit: istock

Granny, take your shoes off and shhh,” Greta whispered. “Now come and sit.” My mother – on her first ever trip to Asia – followed the instructions of my tiny daughter, who knelt down on the temple carpet, tucking her bare feet beneath her. Bossy (just like her mum), my just-turned three-year-old now considered herself an expert on how to behave around Buddhas.

The thought of taking a toddler somewhere mildly chaotic like Southeast Asia had sparked numerous concerns. I had fretted over the 11 hours crammed on to a plane, the jet lag, the heat, the unpredictable traffic, the tiresome sightseeing, the long car journeys, jabs and strange food. Then there was the possibility of a medical emergency – it was enough to make me want to stay at home. 

Yet travelling with very young children, I was told, is highly doable – they are portable and pliable. Thus convinced, but still a little trepidatious, I opted for a tour of North Vietnam with Fleewinter. Designed specifically for toddlers, it promised to tackle many of the stressful aspects of long-haul travel at a gentle pace, with all car journeys limited to two and a half hours. 

It sounded ideal – not only for us, but also for another couple who were looking for some easy-going exploration: my parents. Having recently retired, they wanted to book a big trip to Asia that avoided rushing around or doing anything too challenging. 

So it was, then, that we all found ourselves in Hanoi, one of my favourite cities, at a theatre beside Hoan Kiem Lake. There, three generations of us stood bewitched by a traditional water puppet show accompanied by singing and music from the zither-like dan tranh. At the Temple of the Jade Mountain, Greta was enchanted by the storybook legend about the giant turtle which returned a sunken sword to a king.

The dramatic scenery of Ninh Binh Credit: istock

Later, when exploring the old quarter, it helped that our daughter was still small enough to be scooped up from the narrow pavements where much of daily life takes place, and whisked through the torrents of motorcycle traffic that give the city its energy. 

After a couple of nights in Hanoi, our tour took us to Ninh Binh as an alternative to the standard, more touristy two-night boat trip around Ha Long Bay. The river and mountain scenery was just as dramatic and we took shorter voyages more suited to a toddler, slipping quietly between vast stone crags in little wooden boats nudged forward by locals who row with their feet.

Greta was excited by the river caves we passed through, and was entrusted with a torch with which to spy bats in the crevices overhead. The three days spent exploring the striking green landscapes also included time making spring rolls with a local family, which gave her the chance to run about with children of her own age, almost oblivious to the language barrier. 

Greta was excited by the river caves we passed through Credit: Natalie Paris

A few days later, we found ourselves in Hoi An, an old riverside trading port made up of rows of yellow and dark wood-shuttered merchant houses, traditionally lit with lanterns. I was sad to find that this Unesco-preserved heritage town has lost some of its quiet character in recent years. At night, coach parties, hordes of street sellers and illuminated boat rides made it feel like a theme park. But Greta loved it – entranced by the buzz and the brightly coloured lights.

The heat in central Vietnam in April reached 90F (32C), making visits to old shop houses and Chinese temples very focused. The close atmosphere made our toddler grumpy but the upside was that she took extra naps, giving my husband and me a couple of hours off as the retired folk joined her for a siesta. We escaped to the pool at our beachside hotel, where the palm trees had nifty buttons on them that made cocktail waiters appear.

When the toddler was awake, a lantern-making activity was a big hit. Crafting is something that Greta does a lot at nursery, so it was a welcome burst of familiarity. She was more cautious when it came to food but, despite her always having been a tricky eater, we were pleased to find we could rely on egg-fried rice, fish, chicken skewers, plain noodles, chips and weird fruit to keep her fuelled. The varied hotel breakfasts also allowed her to bulk up on cereal, sausages and toast if she’d been picky at a street stall the night before. What’s more, with spoons and forks commonly used in Vietnam, there was no need to master chopsticks. 

Greta and Natalie's husband on two wheels in Vietnam Credit: natalie paris

The hotels were all rather luxurious and well kitted out for kids. Each had a great pool and, in Ninh Binh and Hoi An, well-organised kids’ clubs that kept Greta distracted. We don’t often bother to get a guide on holiday, but those who did join us as part of our itinerary provided context that helped Greta make sense of the trip, rather than Mummy and Daddy taking her to new places each day for no obvious reason.

They were all eager to showcase their home towns and were wonderful with Greta. One, Loc, plaited Greta’s hair “like Elsa from Frozen”, showing me up for having only seen the Disney film once. Another, Lily, made toys out of strips of bamboo. And all of them remarked on what an attentive dad my husband is to Greta. 

On a fishing trip, Lily told us how, to her parents’ shame, she had been one of the last women in her village to get married. “I talk too much,” she laughed, painfully, but then described how years of working in the tourist industry had given her the strength to stand up to societal pressures and fight for her independence. 

It’s a story that I’ll repeat to my daughter when she’s older, if she’s ever in danger of taking her own freedoms for granted. But at that point, while she was spinning around, dancing to Lily’s traditional folk music, I let her be – she was much too young to understand.

How to do it

Fleewinter () offers a Toddler’s Tour of Vietnam, which visits Hanoi, Ninh Binh and Hoi An, staying in selected hotels for 12 days on a B&B basis, from £1,800 per adult and £300 for a child under five (under-twos free). The price includes guides, transfers and internal flights, and is based on two adults travelling and the toddler sleeping in a cot.