Saigon and the South
Hanoi may be the political capital of Vietnam, but when it comes to business, Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, is king. Vietnam is known the world over for its tropical beaches and the best of these are in Southern Vietnam. Nha Trang is the principal beach town of the South, while up and coming Mui Ne is gaining popularity thanks to its proximity to Saigon. Further south still, off the coast of Ha Tien is the island of Phu Quoc, ringed with silicon sand and tropical palms. There are many other popular beaches in this area of the country, including the tranquil Dai Linh beach and the lovely beaches lining the coast north of the brash beach town of Vung Tau.
To the south of Saigon lies the Mekong Delta. The mighty river splits into nine tributaries in Vietnam, breathing life and vitality into the landscape and giving the local name Cuu Long or the dragon of nine tails.
Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, is the commercial dynamo driving Vietnam into the 21st century, a vibrant city bringing together Asia’s past, present and future all in one. Despite the rapid development of the last decade, there are still many charming remnants from the French period here and the shady, tree-lined boulevards of District 1 make exploring on foot a pleasant option. Some of the finest buildings include the restored Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the elegant Hotel de Ville or City Hall. Also worth a visit for fans of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American are the grand old hotels such as the Continental and the Majestic, located on Dong Khoi St, once known as Rue Catinat. There are several popular sites to visit with a direct link to the American War in Vietnam and most popular of all is probably the War Remnants Museum, a chilling reminder of the damage war can reap on a country. Reunification Hall, the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, has been left exactly as it looked when the first North Vietnamese tank burst through the gates on the morning of the 30th April 1975.
As well as sightseeing in Saigon, there are plenty of other activities to keep the visitor on their toes in this city, including quality shopping, classic dining, and happening nightlife. City landmark Ben Thanh Market has anything and everything for sale, while the many shops in District 1 sell a range of inexpensive souvenirs. Further afield in Cholon or Chinatown is a more traditional and hectic shopping experience in the massive commercial markets. When it comes to wining and dining, the city has an unbeatable range of Vietnamese and international cuisine, all at very affordable prices, and for those that like a long night there are some lively clubs and bars in the centre. Saigon is also a great place for exploring some wonderful places nearby, including the Cu Chi Tunnels, the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh and the Mekong Delta.
Cu Chi Tunnels
This massive underground tunnel network allowed the Vietnamese communists to continue their operations, even as the Americans set up bases just above. An incredible feat of engineering and endurance, there were more than 200km of tunnels in Cu Chi district and individuals lived underground for months at a time, with hospitals, schools and homes all established in the tunnels.
Cao Dai Temple
The Cao Dai religion is a unique fusion of the world’s leading faiths that is popular in Vietnam and the huge temple at Tay Ninh is an incredible sight, a fantasy church straight out of a fairytale. Time your visit to witness one of the morning services.
This is Vietnam’s number one beach destination with the longest municipal beach in the country. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful spot, but the seafront is edging skywards and some feel it is overdeveloped. It is a major town with international standard facilities and has offers good connections by air, road and rail to both Central and Southern Vietnam. As well as soaking up the sun on the beach, this is the best place in the country to take a boat trip to the offshore islands around Nha Trang, complete with a fresh seafood lunch eaten aboard. And for those that want to take a closer look at life under the water, this is also the leading dive destination in Vietnam and boasts several international operators that can introduce visitors to the South China Seas.
Mui Ne is fast becoming the most popular beach on the southern coast, with new resorts and hotels opening up every year. Stretching north from Phan Thiet is more than 20km of tropical beach, fringed with swaying palms. Stretching south, the coast is also very beautiful and there are lots of isolated but luxurious beach resorts lining the beaches towards Vung Tau. A short walk inland are Vietnam’s most impressive sand dunes, like something straight out of the Sahara and popular with local photographers. It is also the number one kite surfing destination in Vietnam, drawing people from all over the globe.
Phu Quoc is a large tropical island off the coast of Cambodia with some of Vietnam’s best beaches. Originally a Cambodian island called Koh Tral, it was given to the Vietnamese during French rule. As well as the empty beaches to explore, it is also famous for black pepper and nuoc mam (a locally popular fermented fish sauce).
Dalat & Central Highlands
The central highlands of Vietnam includes a vast terrain of mountains stretching north west of Saigon to the borders with Cambodia and Laos. The premier destination here is Dalat, the city of eternal spring, established as a hill station under the French. The area around Dalat is known for its lush forest, large waterfalls and picturesque lakes and is rich in romance for the Vietnamese that flock here today.
There are many examples of fine French buildings in Dalat, including several former palaces of the last Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai, and two historic hotels which have been renovated into luxury palaces to welcome guests in ultimate comfort. The Dalat area is famous for its market vegetables and fresh flowers due to the temperate year-round climate at 1475m, so is a good place to sample less exotic fruits such as strawberries and plums, not found in lowland Vietnam. Railway buffs will be interested to take a ride on the Vietnam’s only cremaillere railway which used to connect Dalat with Thap Cham/Phan Rang on the coast but was mostly destroyed by the Viet Cong in 1964. Today, short rides are possible. Beyond Dalat are numerous interesting minority villages that can be explored, as well as the option of elephant treks and canoeing trips into remote areas.
The Mekong Delta is a carpet of vivid greens in the deep south of Vietnam, where the mighty Mekong splits into many tributaries before spilling into the South China Sea at the end of its incredible journey from Tibet. Pancake flat, it is a region of canals, rivers and waterways, where fishing and rice farming are a way of life. Cantho is the commercial heart of the Mekong Delta, a bustling riverside town which makes a great base to explore nearby floating markets and traditional islands. Mytho is a popular town for day trips from Saigon and a boat trip to the nearby fruit farms offers a glimpse of delta life for those on a tight schedule. Those with more time can delve deeper into the delta to the charming town of Chau Doc, nestled on the Cambodian border.