A trip to Asia with kids – especially to Vietnam and Cambodia – is on my travel to-do list. But until I can get there myself I’ll settle for this great interview with Robyn Liebler who went to Southeast Asia with her husband and two sons in June of 2011. Today she shares her experiences from visiting the Killing Fields to eating fried spiders. Thanks Robyn!
Why did you decide to visit Asia with kids? What kind of planning did you do in advance?
Gallivanting across the globe to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Hong Kong isn’t the most common trip for a family of four, but that was much of the appeal. We are fortunate that our two boys, ages 10 and 11, enjoy traveling as much as we do. Over the years we’ve tested the grounds with trips to Mexico, so knew the boys could handle long bus rides, changing accommodations, new foods, and more. So why not Asia?
I’m a planner at heart, so half the fun of a trip like this was starting with a blank slate and filling it in. I bought all the books, talked to friends, and talked to friends of friends. I started down this familiar path, but quickly discovered that times have changed since my last pre-kids Asia voyage. While I couldn’t completely abandon my trusty Lonely Planet guide, I found that TripAdvisor was a great resource. Not only was it helpful in finding hotels; I found the forums invaluable for advice and answers to random questions about traveling to Asia with kids.
We quickly discovered that there was more to see than we could fit into our three-week vacation. We knew that bouncing from city to city wasn’t for us, so we eventually decided to focus our trip on Southern Vietnam, with a detour to Cambodia, and then end with some R&R at one of the beautiful beaches we had heard so much about. We connected both directions in Hong Kong, so also wanted to take advantage of the “free” stop and spend a few days there on the way home. We spent about two weeks in Vietnam, five nights in Cambodia, and two nights in Hong Kong.
Is June a good time to visit this part of the world?
June is not the best time to visit Asia. As a matter of fact, some people would say it’s the worst time. But, with school age children and a husband who is a teacher, summer was the time we could get away. Pre-kids, I took a couple of trips to Asia in the summer, so I had a good idea what we were getting ourselves into, which was hot, humid weather. To deal with this, our plan was to focus on just a few cities, and definitely build in some beach time toward the end of the trip. One of the nice things about Asia is the prices are pretty reasonable, which allowed us the luxury of hotels with air conditioning and, in most locations, a pool; definitely a must when traveling in Asia with kids in the summer.
Where did you start your trip? Was there any culture shock?
When you cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City, (Vietnam), walk with confidence and definitely don’t make eye contact. The motorcycles will just weave their way around you.” That’s the advice I received a few days before heading out on our trip. While I politely thanked my friend for the tip, I secretly vowed we would keep our activities firmly to one side of the street. Adventure travelers we are, but the thought of taking my children’s hands and walking blindly into traffic wasn’t exactly on my radar.
Ho Chi Minh City is actually not the most child-friendly destination, but since international flights tend to arrive and depart here, it was our first destination after leaving San Francisco. We also made several stops here during our trip. Maybe it was the jet leg – or perhaps it was my friend’s advice, but my most vivid memory of our first few days in Vietnam is motorcycles, motorcycles, and more motorcycles. (And my friend was right…they really do weave their way around you!)
How did you choose to travel around Southeast Asia?
After spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, our intention was to next head to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat. Rather than pay $1,200 for the four of us to fly between the two countries, we decided to travel overland and make the journey a bigger part of the trip. So, we booked a tour through the Mekong Delta, and made our way slowly to our destination by boat, car and bicycle. Along the way, we stopped in a village where the boys had a hand at mat weaving, floated along the narrow canals of the Mekong Delta in a “sampan”, and enjoyed elephant-ear fish at a local restaurant.
We woke up early one day to visit the Cai Rang Floating Market, one of the biggest and most colorful floating markets in the area. Local “floating” merchants sold everything from pineapple to motorcycle tires. Eventually we made our way to Chau Doc, on the boarder of Cambodia, where we caught a speedboat to Phnom Penh and had a private driver take us to Siem Reap. Overall, the cost of our three-day “side-trip” to the Mekong Delta was about the same as the one-hour flight between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, but the voyage and experience was well worth the added time.
Another example of how we got around was the trip between Phnom Penh and Hoi An in central Vietnam. Domestic flights within Vietnam are affordable, but international flights between Cambodia and Vietnam are pretty pricey. What could have been a one to two hour flight instead turned into “small bus to large bus to international border crossing to bus to cab to airport to airplane to cab to hotel” so we could minimize expense. The kids handled it pretty well. We played a lot of electronic Scrabble and read books. The high point of the trip was when the boys experienced their very first foot and shoulder massage during our lengthy stay at the Ho Chi Minh City airport. It was only $7, so we had no problem with the splurge. And they loved it.
It also didn’t hurt that our reward at the end of 18-hours of travel was to check into a lovely beach hotel outside of Hoi An on the South China Sea, from which we didn’t budge for a week.
Did anything on your trip surprise you or exceed your expectations?
Siem Reap was not on our list when we first started planning our trip to Asia with kids, but when we learned you could visit a ruin, a jungle, and a waterfall we decide the boys would love it. So, with images of Indiana Jones in mind, we set off to explore the ruins of Angkor Wat and the surroundings. Angkor Wat was spectacular, but our highlight was the lesser-known Beng Mealea, a few hours from the main Angkor Wat temples. We hired a guide to take us to the barely excavated ruin, stopping along the way at the Phnom Kulen waterfalls for a refreshing break from the heat (later we learned that staying on the paths was a good idea considering there are still land mines in the area).
Beng Mealea was everything we imagined it to be. Not only was it set in the middle of a jungle but the temples and the jungle were intertwined, making it all the more interesting to explore.
We left Siem Reap three days later, feeling we could have easily stayed another day or two. Besides exploring the temples, the city of Siem Reap had a lot to offer from great restaurants to shopping, not to mention the added temptation of “fish massage” on every corner.
What’s a “fish massage”?
Basically, the fish massage involves sitting around a large tank of fish and dipping your feet into the tank. The fish nibble at your feet, giving your feet a “massage”. It’s a little ticklish and most likely very unsanitary. But, the boys (and my husband) got a kick out of it and it seemed to do them no harm. Fish massage is popular in the tourist area of Siem Reap. The cost was about $5 for 30 minutes.
Did you do anything to prepare your children to visit Vietnam and Cambodia? How did you explain the region’s history to them? Did you visit any sensitive sites?
We wanted the kids to have some background on Vietnam and Cambodia before the trip but we wanted it to be a mix of everything, not just the politics of the area. The trip would expose them to new foods, languages, people, and of course the recent historical events as well. Before we left I bought some books on Vietnam and Cambodia that were designed for kids. We also watched some TV and movies to introduce them to the different countries we would visit. We had fun watching Anthony Bourdain eat his way through Vietnam and Cambodia in No Reservations. And Good Morning Vietnam gave the kids some background on the war. But, we didn’t really touch too much on the Killing Fields before the trip.
And while Southeast Asia offers plenty of opportunity to enjoy beautiful scenery, food, and culture, the trip also left a strong impression about the harsh realities of life. For example, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City left a strong impression. It showed the “American war” from the Vietnamese perspective, which isn’t a view we usually have at home. It was definitely a learning experience for all of us.
Visiting Phnom Penh was also an important experience. Set on a riverfront, the thriving capital of Cambodia was the halfway point as we made our way back to Vietnam. It’s a beautiful French colonial city that turned into a virtual ghost town during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, although now thankfully it is again alive and kicking. For the boys, one of the highlights of our trip was eating fried tarantulas and stir-fried red ants there. For all of us, the afternoon touring the Killing Fields left us shocked and disturbed, but worth the visit as a reminder of Cambodia’s all too recent history.
And it wasn’t just trips to museums that had an impact; we met people with land mind injuries and spoke with guides and others whose lives were directly affected by recent conflicts. It made for some interesting discussions and a heightened awareness that not everyone lives the lives we do.
What was the most relaxing part of your trip?
Our time in Hoi An, definitely. We enjoyed the beautiful warm tranquil ocean and white sandy beach.
Our biggest adventure was moving down the street to a different hotel when we discovered our current one couldn’t accommodate us any longer. Although we were only ten minutes from the city of Hoi An, we hardly ventured into town. While I had visions of family cooking classes (a popular activity there) and bicycle trips to the countryside, requests to my family were met with blank stares and none of it materialized. In retrospect, I guess I can hardly blame them.
You mentioned that your boys liked eating unusual food in Cambodia – was that generally true on the trip?
Both my boys are pretty adventurous eaters. If you offered them crispy snake heads, or something unusual like that, they would gladly gobble it up just for the novelty of it. So they had no problem eating fried tarantulas, stir fried ants, or crocodile. They also enjoyed trying the different fruits in Vietnam and Cambodia (which were not only tasty but also interesting to look at!) What they did grow weary of was the regular cuisine. They like Vietnamese and Cambodian food but grew a little tired of eating it every day.
Now that we’re home, it’s hard to believe the trip is behind us. But, our pictures and memories help us continue to relive the trip all the time. Did we really eat tarantulas in Phnom Penh? Ride an elephant in Vietnam? Wrap a boa constrictor around our neck in the Mekong Delta? Before our trip to Asia with kids, we thought our boys were good travelers – now we know they are.
Finding accommodations for families in Vietnam and Cambodia can be a challenge if you’re trying to stay in one room. We ended up going upscale a little more than we originally intended, since three and four star hotels tend to have family rooms that could accommodate four of us. And, the price for one family room in a nicer hotel was typically about the same as two rooms in a moderate hotel.
All of the hotels below were able to accommodate the four of us in one room. Most hotels in Asia include breakfast.
- Ho Chi Minh City: The Rex Hotel ($100 to $150). We loved this hotel. It was a great place to decompress after a long flight (and offered one of the best breakfasts on the trip!)
- Mekong Delta, Vietnam: In Can Tho, the Kim Tho Hotel ($80) and in Chau Doc the Chau Pho Hotel ($60)
- Hoi An: Hoi An Beach Resort ($100 to $150) is a lovely place. When traveling with kids in Asia, you can’t go wrong with a beach hotel.
- Siem Reap:, Bopha AngkorHotel ($80). Great hotel in the center of town – one of our favorites!
- Phnom Penh: Dara Reang Sey Hotel ($40). Not a favorite. We went low budget and ended up having to fend off a variety of bugs in the middle of the night.
- YMCA Salisbury ($250) This was our splurge for our last two nights of the trip. We booked the family harbor view room, which was a two-room suite with floor-to -ceiling windows and views of Victoria Harbor from every angle. Spectacular!
A few more travel tips
- Our favorite meal was at Romdeng Restaurant in Phnom Penh. The restaurant is run by Friends International, a non-profit organization that provides training for former street youth. Set in a beautiful colonial building in the heart of Phnom Penh, this is where we dined on fried tarantulas, stir-fried red ants (and other less exotic food). The waiter even brought a live tarantula to the table after dinner. A treat!
- In the Mekong Delta Come and Go Vietnam tours was $1,200 for four people, including three days and two nights, with a private guide and driver, all hotels, breakfast, lunch, tours, speed boat to Phnom Penh, and private driver to Siem Reap
- In Beng Mealea and Phnom Kulen Ratanak Eath – the Angkor guide was $100 including a private driver and guide.
Robyn Liebler is a communication consultant at Wells Fargo. She lives in San Leandro, California with her husband and two sons. With family on both coasts, they have been traveling since the boys were infants. Their most recent international destination was Jamaica last December, but plans are on the horizon for a Europe trip in 2013 to France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco.