Saigon, Cu Chi tunnels, Phu Quoc Island, Mui Ne beach, and much more!
The South is dominated by the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, still often called Saigon, which sprawls across a huge area from the Mekong Delta almost to the Cambodian border. Its traffic is dreadful, petty crime is rife, land prices are soaring, and social problems abound, but its bustling chaos makes it easily Vietnam’s most exciting city. There is plenty to see and do, some of the best hotels in the country, and a vast range of places to eat and drink from simple street cafes to ultra swish (and ultra expensive) Vietnamese and international restaurants.
Ho Chi Minh City is a mecca of commerce. Practically anything can be bought in its malls, shops and markets. Stylish stores bursting with famous international brand names down to the wicker baskets of fruit and the trays of lighters and shoelaces carried by humble street sellers: something for everyone and prices for everything. Modern office blocks house the many trading and financial businesses that have their headquarters in the southern hub.
It’s also a city with a chequered history and a rich culture. Its pagodas, museums, public buildings, parks and boulevards make it a magnet for international tourists who arrive in increasing numbers at Tan Son Nhat, Vietnam’s busiest airport, or by road train or ship.
Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple
Apart from the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc Island, Ho Chi Minh City is a centre for several interesting destinations. A day trip will take in the well-known Cu Chi Tunnels, 75km to the northwest and, 60km further, the Cao Dai Holy See. Cu Chi is the amazing network of underground tunnels originally dug by the Vietminh fighting the French and greatly extended by the Viet Cong who created a 200km maze on three levels, with underground homes, offices and hospitals, all virtually invisible from the surface. One can only marvel at the ingenuity of their construction. Entries, exits and ventilation shafts were cunningly disguised, the passages could be quickly sealed off to prevent flooding or gas attacks and vicious booby traps lay in wait for an enemy soldier entering a tunnel. The Cao Dai Holy See is the centre of the Cao Dai Church, established in the 1920s. Its remarkable temple is a riot of colour and symbolism. Visitors are welcome to attend the thirty-minute mid-day ceremony of worship (photography is allowed, wearing shoes is not). During the service, the monks, nuns, acolytes and worshippers wear coloured robes according to their status.
Vung Tau and Con Dao Island
About a 110km to the southeast is Vung Tau, a Vietnamese resort and the centre of the country’s oil industry, with a few average beaches, an attractive summer palace, a Cao Dai temple and not much else. About seven thousand Australian soldiers were stationed in the area during the American war. Many former soldiers, and the families and friends of the 423 who died, return to visit the battle grounds and graves.Vung Tau is also the place to board a boat or a helicopter to visit the remote Con Dao Archipelago, 180km from Vung Tau. The main island is a much feared former penal colony. It has some good beaches, clear water with pristine coral, pine trees and coconut groves, and few visitors. Accommodation is limited.
Phan Thiet and Mui Ne Beach
To the northeast, 200km from Ho Chi Minh City, is the undistinguished town of Phan Thiet and 20km further, the excellent 21km sandy beach of Mui Ne. Phan Thiet has an average beach, a good hotel, and a golf course.
Mui Ne Beach is backed with trees and hotels facing a road that runs the length of the beach, with restaurants on the inland side. The hotels range from small ‘backpacker’ places to superior resorts. The development has been well handled: all the hotels are low-rise, and many have wooden or bamboo bungalows on the edge of the beach. Most have good to excellent gardens and tree screening, which gives a sense of seclusion. The beach is safe, and the facilities are good. At the far end of the beach, Mui Ne fishing village and several hectares of massive rolling sand dunes make a pleasant diversion from relaxing on the beach, swimming and windsurfing