Mai Chau

Heading east from Hanoi, through the mountains towards the Laotian border, lies the rural province of Mai Chau. Buses leave the My Dinh station in Hanoi and take up to five hours to arrive in My Dinh. Once you have arrived, the best way to get around is on foot or by renting a motorbike.

The main attraction of the area is its stunning verdant landscapes, along with its lakes and rice paddy vistas. Many travelers are eager to see the Thai stilt houses – built, as the name suggests, on stilts above the ground. Mai Chau is home to a number of ethnic minorities, including the Black Thai, from whom the houses get their name. For a fee, you may be able to stay as a guest with a local family in one of these houses. This is a great way to get an inside look at the lives, culture and traditions of the local ethnic minority groups.

Other popular activities in the area include trekking, off road cycling and kayaking. There are also waterfalls and hot springs in the area that won’t be flooded with tourists. If you’ve become disappointed with the number of tourists flocking into Sa Pa, Mai Chau offers a quieter and more serene alternative.

Cat Tien National Park

Cat Tien National Park covers almost 280 square miles of primary lowland tropical forest, around 100 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. It is one of the few places in Vietnam, where visitors can encounter many species which are rare in the rest of the country.

The bus from Ho Chi Minh City takes around four hours and depart every 30 minutes during the daytime. It is also possible to enter the park from other parts of the Central Highland, by road. Getting around the park itself is done on foot and should be done with a guide. There are several good reasons for this – firstly, the guides do these walks on a daily basis, they know they habits and hideouts of different species, and therefore you have a greater chance of seeing more wildlife if you go with a guide. The second, and most important reason is your own safety. The trais in this part of the country can be very hazardous for all kinds of reasons. Risks are posed by flooding, swamps, landslides, poisonous snakes and insects, as well as dangerous mammals and reptiles. Furthermore, the terrain can be quite tricky – ever year a number of foreign tourists die on the trails of Vietnam. Using a guide means you are much less likely to get into trouble, and that help is easier to find in case you do. By far the biggest danger faced by lone hikers is that of getting lost in the jungle. Even if you are an experienced hiker, now is a good time to swallow some pride and concede that the local guides know better.

The main trails lead to Crocodile Lake, Elephant Hills and Ta Lai. You can stay overnight at the lake. This is a good idea if you want to wake up early and have a chance to see gibbons and even Asian black bears in the forest. The national park is also home to a variety of macaque species, wild boar, leopard cats, a variety of bat species, turtles, crocodiles, kraits and cobras. If you do stay at the lake, you may have the chance to catch your own fish to be prepared for supper.

If you’re planning on coming to Cat Tien, ensure you wear long pants and long sleeves to protect yourself from mosquitoes and leeches.

Central Highlands

Vietnam – Getting to know Vietnam’s Central Highlands

One of the least visited, yet most intriguing and beautiful areas of the country is Tay Nguyen – known in English as the Central Highlands. The striking scenery, ethnic diversity and striking traditional homes are a big draw for those who are intrepid enough to make the journey. Stretching westward from the borders with Cambodia and Laos, this area comprises a series of contiguous plateaus, mostly notable the Lam Vien Plateau, which reaches 1,500 meters in elevation.

The easiest way to get into the Central Highlands is bus local bus from the major cities, including Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City and even Hanoi. The main terminus for arrivals is located in Dalat. Getting around, you won’t be able to rely much – if at all – on public transport, but there are still a number of options available to you. You can hire a motorbike, hire a local driver or boat owner to take you on a tour. Cycling is also an option, but most people who pass through here do so on foot. The real appeal of the area lies in its scenery and charming villages, which are best appreciated while trekking. Unlike much of the rest of the country, this region is still home to wild animals such as the Indochinese Tiger, Asian Elephants and the Asian Water Buffalo.

Dalat itself is home to numerous restaurants catering to all tastes. If you’re hoping to experience local ethnic cuisine, it’s better to try your luck in one of the smaller villages dotted around the area. The area has a surprisingly wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other delicacies. Most notable among these, should you wish to try, are the artichoke tea, dried venison and avocados. Dried fruits and local candies are on sale at the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai market, which also sells a variety of locally made clothes and handmade goods.

The journey from Dalat to Kontum is punctuated with a number of scenic and interesting spots that are well worth the visit. The first of these which you will come across, is Lak Lake, which you can tour on the back of an elephant, taking you to and from a number of tribal villages spread around the perimeter of the lake. Getting closer to Kontum you will begin to spot the villages of the Banhar tribal group, with their towering, thatched structures. The combination of the area’s natural beauty, the opportunity to spot rare wild animals, and the serene peacefulness and charm of the Banhar villages, give this area an almost other-worldly feeling, for those more used to the hustle and bustle of modern day city life.

Hue

Nestled on the banks of the Perfume River, slightly inland from the coast of Central Vietnam, lies the imperial city of Hue. Famous as the seat of the Nguyen dynasty, which dominated the country from the 1600s right up until 1945, Hue is most often visited for its Imperial Citadel, which remains largely intact despite American artillery bombardment.

The city is one of the main hubs of central Vietnam, around 400 or so miles south of Hanoi, and approximately 700 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. Many visitors arrive by train, and there are both soft and hard-sleeper carriages running this route. Coming into Hue by train gives you an opportunity to enjoy the scenic views of central Vietnam, on your journey towards the city. Those arriving from Da Nang may choose to take the bus, which takes around three hours. Some travelers arrive by air – either at Hue’s own airport, or at Da Nang, which has a greater choice of international connections. Getting around the city can be done by taxi, motorcycle taxi, bicycle or even on foot.

In case you’ve worked up an appetite and you want to sample some of the local fare before taking in the sights of Hue, you’ll be pleased to know that this city has its own cuisine. Hue food is associated with imperial splendor, and presentation is a key element in its preparation. Perhaps the most liked local dish is Bun Bo Hue – beef noddles with chilli. It is not difficult to find an eatery in the downtown area, or you could head over to Dong Ba market to enjoy an authentic Hue dining experience with the locals.

As mentioned, the main attraction of Hue, for travelers, is usually its Imperial Citadel. At one time, all of Vietnam was governed from this huge complex. Highlights include the courtyard of Ngo Mon and the gardens of the Truong Sanh residence, which can both easily inspire thoughts of a distant time, when the world was not the global village it is today, and the Nguyen dynasty ruled in splendor over this East Asian country. The Imperial Citadel is so large and has many surprising and charming corners, that it is worth taking a full day to try to take it in at your leisure.

The other main attraction for visitors are the Tombs of the Emperors – another large attraction, which warrants at least half a day or more to take in properly. These really are the elaborate tombs of Ngyuen emperors from the 1800s. In many cases, the emperors played a major part in designing their own tomb – aiming to ensure that it was more splendid than the nearest neighboring tomb. The best way to see the tombs is by riverboat, and you’ll find it relatively easy to find someone who will take you there, as well as serve your lunch on the boat itself. If you prefer, you can rent a bicycle to cycle around the area, too – giving you more freedom to stop as and when you want.

Phu Quoc

It may surprise visitors to learn that Vietnam’s largest island is actually in the Gulf of Thailand. Directly south of Cambodia (which disputes the ownership of the island), Phu Quoc is a densely forested and highly mountainous island, complete with sandy beaches and a deep blue sea.

Visitors can reach Phu Quoc by air from Ho Chi Minh city, although it is much more common for travelers to arrive by sea. There is a fast ferry which leaves from Ha Tien, on the Cambodian border, and takes less than two hours. It is possible to book the bus and ferry tickets together in Ho Chi Minh City, and simply transfer once you arrive in Ha Tien.

Until a few years ago, Phu Quoc was relatively untouched by tourism, and was widely regarded as one of the cleanest and most unspoiled island in Southeast Asia. However, the construction of resorts, hotels, bars and restaurants, along with the typical dive schools and watersports centers, has seen an increase in visitor numbers year on year. No more are the unlittered beaches and quiet sleepy villages. There are, however, plenty of unspoiled places to explore inland.

As Phu Quoc is such a mountainous island, relying on walking or a bicycle will inevitably restrict your exploration to the beach and coastal areas, for the most part. If you want to have a chance to see a bit more wildlife and greenery, be sure to rent a motorbike and a map to take you up into the trails. These trails are quite safe in general, although some of them have become overgrown in parts, so it’s important to stay aware of your bearings and not venture too far away from the visible trail.

If you want to get out onto the sea, there are numerous opportunities to charter a boat for a fishing trip. One of the more popular activities is squid fishing at night – you will take a boat out into the bay and try your hand at catching a squid. Once there is enough for everyone, this will quickly be prepared into a dinner, which you can then enjoy on the boat, under the stars.
If you’re still not ready to go to bed, you’ll find a string of bars along Duong Dong which cater to tourists.

Don’t leave Phu Quoc without visiting one of the many markets, including the night market at Duong Dong, where you can purchase some of the island’s local produce, such as its famous fish sauce, peppers, seafood and even pearls.

Mekong Delta

Heading south from Ho Chi Minh City for a few hours, we begin to approach the market garden of Vietnam, with its own monsoon climate – the delta of the mighty Mekong River. At this far point of the Southeast Asian peninsula, the Mekong splits into nine separate rivers, which then cascade eventually into the South China Sea.

As with any major river delta, the area is excellent for growing certain types of grain, fruit and vegetables, however it does have its drawbacks, too. In this part of Vietnam, you will notice a great number of houses built up on stilts, due to the potential for flooding, especially during the rainy season. These characteristics and features give the Mekong Delta a slightly different, although still thoroughly Vietnamese, appearance and ambience.

Not all of the region’s people live in stilted homes, however – there are a number of cities which are well protected from the course of the rivers. These cities have grown up as hubs for the surrounding farming industry, which supplies an incredible 70% of all Vietnam’s fruit and vegetables.

While there are interesting towns with lively markets of their own – such as Chau Doc, close to the Cambodian border – it is a much more thrilling and authentic Mekong experience to travel through the region by boat. This also gives you the advantage of being able to visit a number of the area’s famous floating markets. Here you will see an astounding array of tropical produce – boats piled up with durian, papaya and jackfruit, being transferred to the sampans and paddle boats of large resellers and private customers alike.

Con Dao

Con Dao is the name given to an archipelago around 100 miles off the coast of mainland Vietnam, in the South China Sea. The group is centered around the main island of Con Son. These islands were once part of the Khmer Empire, falling to the Vietnamese as late as the 17th century. Until recently they were largely undeveloped, save for a number of times they were put to use as prison camps during times of war. The remaining prisoners and guards make up the population of just 5,000, and now appear to have buried their differences in favor of a peaceful life.

A peaceful life is exactly what you could expect, too, if you spend any length of time in Con Dao. This is perhaps the quietest part of Vietnam, with its untouched tropical beaches and spectacular wildlife. Nevertheless, tourist have started to arrive, partly to enjoy the beaches in peace, and to observe the turtle colonies here.

Visitors usually arrive by air, with a regular service from Ho Chi Minh City, run by Vietnam Airlines. There is also a ferry which departs from the port at Vung Tau and takes around 12 hours. Con Son itself is quite small, and it is possible to explore the island on foot. However, due to the mountainous terrain and lack of shade, it’s more advisable to rent a motorbike to avoid fatigue.

All of the beaches genuinely look like something from a picture postcard. The beach nearest to the port is An Hai Beach, and here you’ll be close enough to a group of hotels and restaurants if you are worried about getting hungry. It is quite possible that the other beaches will have very few, if any people, there, so you may very well have a pristine white sand tropical beach to yourself. The cleanest of all the beaches tends to be Dat Dong Beach. There is also a resort here where you can find food and something to drink. Snorkeling and diving are popular on the islands and you will be able to rent kit and perhaps even an instructor by visiting one of the many small shops, or asking at a resort.

Aside from the beaches, there are other interesting things to do in Con Dao. Due to the role the prison camps played in Vietnamese history, the island’s cemetery is a popular place to visit for Vietnamese nationals. There is also a shrine to Vo Thi Sau – a Vietnamese schoolgirl who took up arms against the French occupiers, and who was martyred in 1952. Visit on an evening and you will be able to observe the burning of incense and the offering of prayers for her soul.

Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam’s largest city is still commonly known by Vietnamese and foreigners by its pre-1976 name: Saigon. Once a Khmer fishing port, it was conquered by the Vietnamese towards the end of their drive southward in 1698. Under Vietnamese rule, Saigon grew into a major port and it’s population began to grow rapidly. By the time of the French invasion, it had already become one of the country’s most important centers.

The French occupation made a significant mark on the city’s appearance, with plenty of grand, colonial-style buildings appearing in the central district – most of which still stand today. These days, part of Saigon’s charm lies in its blend of French villas, Vietnamese pagodas and supermodern skyscrapers. Following the capitulation of American forces, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975, and the following year the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Today it stands as the economic powerhouse driving the phenomenal growth in Vietnam’s economy. The city is responsible for one-third of the nation’s industrial output and also one-third of its shipping. As Saigon’s metropolitan population is expected to reach 20 million people in the coming years, the former fishing village has truly taken its place among the world’s greatest cities.

Most visitors arrive at Tan Son Nhat Airport – the city’s international hub, which is around an hour away from the central district. Air conditioned buses leave at 20-minute intervals all day long, and provide the first-time visitor with a more relaxed journey into the city, as opposed to taking one of the many taxis. Saigon is also a major hub for bus and rail travel, and you won’t have any trouble finding connections from any major town in Vietnam or the surrounding countries.

Getting around Saigon, you also have a wide range of options, although perhaps the most important thing to remember at this point is to keep your wits about you. Whether you explore the city on foot, by bicycle or on a motorbike, you should be aware of the extreme driving skills of the Saigonese, who have a ‘me-first’ attitude to seemingly everything once they are behind the wheel. Take extra caution when in traffic, crossing roads and at junctions. Taxis are unregulated and first time visitors are highly likely to be overcharged. If you really need to take a taxi, try to get a local Vietnamese friend to negotiate the fare in advance, and note it down in front of the driver. Failing this, plan in advance, make sure you know where you want to go and roughly how much the fare should be. To get a real feel for the city and the lifestyle of its citizens, get yourself a map of the city’s bus routes and hop on. The fares are cheap and, due to the heavy traffic, bus journey are often just as quick as taxi rides anyway.

Saigonese cuisine has been heavily influenced by that of their former colonial masters, the French. Thus, you will find menus offering cheese dishes and baguettes, alongside pho and other typically Vietnamese dishes. Banh Xeo are Saigonese omelets often filled with locally grown ingredients such as bamboo shoots. You are spoiled for choice with places to eat, from the most basic street food, to the most opulent upscale restaurants, Saigon has too many options to get through in a lifetime.

Saigon: The Main Sights

The first place you’ll probably want to see is the magnificent Reunification Palace. It is by no means the grandest or most beautiful building to have been called a palace – its architecture is distinctly 1960s kitsch in some respects, but its attraction actually has little to do with the architecture. As you approach the building, you’ll see a replica tank, which commemorates the moment a North Vietnamese tank smashed through the gate of the building in 1975, signaling the final downfall of the US-backed capitalist forces. The interior of the building is also an authentic throwback to the 1960s, with some rooms left just as they were when Communist forces took over the building – complete with old phones, maps and radios.

A stone’s throw from the Reunification Palace is the War Remnants Museum. This attraction is particularly popular with American tourists, as well as those from the rest of the world, who can see real American war material – some spent, some captured by the victorious Vietnamese forces – in a series of exhibits. This military hardware includes American tanks, airplanes, bombs, rifles, uniforms and grenades. There are also numerous opportunities to learn about the horrors of the American campaign in the country and the devastation and suffering caused by the use of illegal weapons such as napalm and Agent Orange.

For a further insight into the Party’s view of the country and its history, take a look at the Ho Chi Minh museum, which documents and celebrates the life of the mercurial leader. The museum itself is housed in one of the city’s many beautiful French colonial buildings, while the interior and contents are just the way the Party would like the world to view its most famous champion.

For a taste of modern Saigon, head over to the imposing Bitexco Financial Tower. This building stands at 68 floors tall and has a Skydeck, from where you can gaze past the other skyscrapers that adorn the central district, to the colonial and traditional buildings of the past. This view is best appreciated around sunset, when you will see the city transform into a sea of shimmering lights. If you’re looking for somewhere to start off the night, there is something of a swanky bar on the 50th floor – be sure to dress to impress.

There is also an endless list of activities for you to take part in when you’re in Saigon. Perhaps one of the most appealing is to take a personal guided tour with a local. Rather than struggling with maps and transport on your own, let a Saigonese native take you to the places the locals go to eat, enjoy the parks and walks where they get away from the tourists, see a real Vietnamese home and soak up their stories of life and love in exotic Saigon.

The Ao show at Saigon Opera House is also a great way to start off an evening. Don’t be put off by the idea of watching a circus in an opera house – this is strictly modern circus, with an enthralling display of agility and finesse by some of the country’s top athletes, set to a backdrop representing Vietnam’s colorful culture and heritage. It’s also a winner for music lovers, who will be treated to a soundtrack which wonderfully fuses traditional elements of Vietnamese music with more modern influences.

Dam Sem Park is a great place to cool off from the sticky heat of the city. Here you’ll find an assortment of water slides to please children and adults alike. There is also a collection of moving dinosaurs to captivate the kids’ imaginations as they dry off.

The Chu Chi tunnels are well worth a visit. Originally over 150 miles in length, they were used by the local resistance fighters – the Viet Cong, to plan and stage operations against the US aggression. Military strategists agree that these tunnels played a key role in the liberation of Saigon – so much so that US military top brass declared them a free-fire zone – a place for pilots to drop unused ordnance indiscriminately in the hope of damaging them. Today tourists are shown what life was like in the tunnels for the freedom fighters – enduring harsh and dangerous conditions in their struggle to overthrow the oppressor.

If you’re hoping to make local friends, head over to 23rd September Park on a late afternoon. There are plenty of groups playing games and taking part in activities, from traditional games to badminton. Many people come here simply to chat, relax and enjoy the sunset before embarking on a night out in the city. It is particularly popular with university students. As soon as these students become aware that you’re not local, there will be no shortage of people hoping to make friends with you – partly to satisfy their inquisitiveness about the world outside their country, and perhaps to practice and hone their English skills on you. Either way, it’s a great way to make new friends and get an insider’s viewpoint on Vietnamese and Saigonese life.

Saigon is a huge city, so if you find yourself looking for less exotic comforts and activities, there are plenty of theaters, restaurants, cinemas, live music, nightclubs, bars, gyms, markets, libraries, art galleries and the whole host of attractions that you can find in any big city. These are great places to meet regular locals who are just relaxing on their day off or after work. In Saigon, you’re far more likely to meet people who can speak English, French, Mandarin and Japanese than in the rest of Vietnam, and the chances are that they will be eager to practice their language skills with you.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is one of the less commonly visited cities in Vietnam, but those visitors who do make it here, usually come in search of the beaches and the lifestyle that goes with them. Nha Trang’s beaches stretch out for five miles along the coast, giving visitors plenty of room to spread their wings. Aside from the beaches, Nha Trang has a vibrant and interesting urban core, and some fascinating sites in the surrounding area.

Buses from Ho Chi Minh usually take around 12 hours to arrive in Nha Trang, whereas those coming from Hoi An can take up to 16 hours. Express buses from the major cities tend to drop people off in the tourist areas around Biet Thu, rather than at the central bus station. Nha Trang is popular with Vietnamese beach-goers and scuba divers, and therefore most of the activity happens around the beaches and the areas that are geared up fro tourism. If you want to see more of the city, the pubic bus system is convenient and reliable. If you don’t feel confident getting on a bus, there are also the usual options of hiring a taxi, cyclo or motorbike.

The beach itself is not the most pristine or serene in Vietnam – if you want a paradise-like scene in which you can relax under a palm tree listening to the waves lap the shore, you might want to head on to Qoy Nhon. However, if what you’re looking for is beach activities, water sports, diving and the rest, you are in the right place. As with other coastal cities, Nha Trang has a good selection of local seafood restaurants, plus a good number of bars for you to relax in after a long day in the water. If you are looking for authentic, locally-caught seafood, you might want to head up to Doc Let beach, where fishermen will prepare their catch for you in the local style.

If you want to take a boat out on the water, you can hire a captain and a vessel from the Nha Trang Sailing Club. If you prefer to indulge in a spot of surfing, look out for The Shack on Bai Dai Beach, where you can hire equipment and even book lessons. This is also a great place to spend the evening, with an authentic barbecue steak grill and plenty to drink. There are also diving shops all over Nha Trang and you can hire equipment and take diving courses for a snip of what it would cost you in some other countries.

Away from the beaches, there are plenty of other outdoor activities you can take part in around Nha Trang, such as off road cycling, climbing, trekking, hot springs and mud baths. One of the most popular places is the Thap Ba Hot Springs and Mud Bath, on the north side of the city. This place is geared up rather like a resort, with various pools, a restaurant, cocktail bar and massage service.

If you don’t feel like taking part in too many outdoor activities, you can always head over to the National Oceanographic Museum of Vietnam, where you can see various endangered and rare aquatic species. Alternatively take a look around the central core of this pleasant and vibrant city, perhaps stopping in the French-built cathedral for a rest and to enjoy the cooler air.