Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Built by the Viet Cong in the 1940s as protection from French air raids during the Indochina conflict, the Cu Chi Tunnels extend underground for more than 155 miles (250 km) in the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City alone. This network of subterranean passageways later provided vital access to and strategic control over the rural areas surrounding the city during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War or the American War), when the tunnels housed living quarters, hospitals, booby traps, and storage facilities for the Viet Cong.
The Mekong River, the 12th-longest river in the world at 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometers), is the main artery of Southeast Asia. Its flowing waters are the beating pulse for a region that includes the fertile Mekong Delta around Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, the scenic hills of Laos, and the jungle-lined waterways of Thailand and Cambodia.
A former fishing village, the seaside town of Mui Ne has evolved into a boutique beach resort that provides a convenient escape from the metropolitan madness of Ho Chi Minh City. In addition to a golden-sand beach, Mui Ne boasts vivid red and white sand dunes and the otherworldly Fairy Stream.
Adding to the variety of Vietnam’s natural landscape are the White Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, one of the only desert areas in Southeast Asia. Most commonly visited at sunrise or sunset, the dunes are inspiring to budding photographers, and the surrounding pine forest and freshwater lake only add to the visual drama.
The design of Ho Chi Minh City’s Central Post Office, completed in 1891, mimics an old-world European railway station with soaring ceilings and a giant clock face. These rich details lead travelers to pause and soak up the brilliant interior of this architectural landmark, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon) boasts a striking red façade and towering stone arches constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its architecture isn’t the only draw. In 2005, visitors reported seeing a tear flow from the eye of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on a religious pilgrimage.
A must-visit when in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum (Bảo Tàng Chứng Tích Chiến Tranh) is a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. The grounds house American planes, tanks, helicopters, and weaponry captured during the Vietnam War. Pictorial displays cover everything from the My Lai Massacre to the traumas of Agent Orange and the work of war correspondents.
The Saigon River (Sông Sài Gòn), the fast-flowing main artery of Ho Chi Minh City, is flanked by both modern skyscrapers and rural villages that give insight into old Vietnamese traditions. Used by locals to escape the urban bustle, the riverbanks are dotted with picnic benches and greenery, making for a pleasant refuge from the metropolitan mania of Saigon.
Da Ban Stream (Suối Đá Bàn) originates from the Ham Ninh mountain range on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Also known as Da Ban Spring, it’s a popular spot for tourists and nature-lovers, who come to picnic, barbecue, hike, and relax. Although it’s hard to avoid the growing amount of garbage that is left in the area, the natural scenery steals the show, with the stream making its way through huge flat stone slabs against a lush green background. You might spot birds, fish, frogs, and lizards, along with wild fruit, orchids, mushrooms, and other flora that grow in the area. Plan a trek, take a stroll across the suspension bridge, and have a refreshing dip in the water for a full day of natural fun.
You can combine your visit to Da Ban Stream with a trip to a fish sauce factory, a pepper farm, and a sim wine factory to learn about the island's industries. Alternately, you can take a private six-hour tour of the island instead, including a barbecue lunch at the stream and round-trip transportation.
In addition to white-sand beaches and tropical jungle, the island of Phu Quoc—off the coast of Cambodia—is home to the Coi Nguon Museum (Bảo Tàng Cội Nguồn), a natural history museum that exhibits more than 5,000 artifacts. If you find yourself in one of Phu Quoc’s unpredictable downpours, the natural history museum provides a great place to explore until the skies have cleared.
More Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Originally built by the French in 1868 to commemorate the establishment of the colony of Indochina, the Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace) as it stands today was built during the 1960s. Known in Vietnamese as Dinh Độc Lập or Dinh Thống Nhất, it was most famously the symbolic site of the liberation of Saigon by communist forces that reunited the nation on April 30, 1975.
Once known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City sits on the Saigon River in southern Vietnam. Dynamic and modern, it’s the nation’s biggest city. Ocean cruises normally dock at Phu My and sometimes Cai Mep, both about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of the city. River cruises typically dock at My Tho, about 47 miles (75 kilometers) to the south.
The Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon), aka Ho Chi Minh City Theater (Nhà Hát Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), is a landmark piece of French colonial architecture. (Saigon was the colonial name for Ho Chi Minh City.) Built in 1897, it is home to the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, but is best known for evening cultural shows, such as A O and Teh Dar.
Right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is the Ben Thanh Market (Chợ Bến Thành). More than a place to go shopping, the market is also an architectural landmark, a center of local Vietnamese life and commerce, and a meeting point all rolled into one.
Hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam, Sao Beach is the epitome of coastal beauty. Shallow waters lap fine white sands backed by lush jungle and palm trees. The beach’s remote location makes it a less crowded alternative to Long Beach for travelers looking to spend the day sunbathing and swimming in relative tranquility.
Cholon (Saigon Chinatown) is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese quarter, and the largest in Vietnam. It’s full of Chinese Buddhist temples, as well as other religious buildings and markets. It contrasts with much of the rest of the city, with its narrow streets and varied architectural styles. This is a great place to come to see a different side of Ho Chi Minh City.
Thien Hau Temple (Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu), built by Cantonese immigrants in the early 19th century, pays tribute to Thien Hau (sometimes called Mazu), goddess of the sea and protector of seafarers. Situated on a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, the active temple displays intricate porcelain dioramas from Chinese mythology both inside and out.
Often referred to as the “rice bowl of Asia” for its emerald-green rice paddy fields, the Mekong Delta is surrounded by fertile land. On Vietnam’s mighty Mekong, sleepy floating communities live alongside an abundance of tropical fruits, buffalo wallowing in paddy fields, and mangroves rich with birdlife.
A high-speed elevator inside the Bitexco Financial Center zips travelers up 49 floors to a glass observation deck ribbed with neon lights. Visitors say views from Saigon Skydeck are some of the best in Ho Chi Minh, offering a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Ben Thanh Market and Notre Dame Cathedral, among other city icons.
Built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated to the Taoist god, Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang (or the God of Heavens), the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a working temple that’s widely considered to be one of the finest and most atmospheric in Ho Chi Minh City.
Beneath a roof adorned with elaborate depictions of dragons, birds, and animals, this fascinating pagoda is filled with exquisite gilt woodcarvings and reinforced papier maché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The statue of the Jade Emperor, shrouded in robes and flanked by his guardians, resides in the dramatically named Chamber of 10 Hells. Out the door and to the left of this main chamber is a semi-enclosed room presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, sitting alongside his red horse, while the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, an important part of any Taoist temple, has an altar on the top floor.
To the right of the treelined courtyard in front of the temple grounds is an overcrowded tortoise pond, earning the temple its nickname, Tortoise Pagoda.
Near Tay Ninh town, in Long Hoa village, this temple is considered the greatest of all Vietnam’s Cao Dai temples. Founded in 1926, the Cao Dai Temple (Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh) complex functions as a Holy See for the Cao Dai religion (Caodaism), Vietnam’s third most popular belief system after Buddhism and Catholicism. Visitors are welcome at prayer sessions in the Great Temple.
At the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, sits Binh Tay Market (Chợ Bình Tây). Built in 1928 after the original bazaar burned down, Binh Tay is the city’s largest market teeming with vendors selling a mind-boggling array of wares, including pottery, flowers, and cheap souvenirs, as well as piping hot noodles and wholesale produce.
Located southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, close to where the Saigon River meets the South China Sea, the low-lying Can Gio island houses a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This is an important natural wetland with attractions like Monkey Island, Rung Sac Military Base, Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Center, and a crocodile farm.
The Dam Sen Water Park (Công Viên Nước Đầm Sen) is a fun place to spend a few hours when the weather’s hot in Ho Chi Minh City, which is most of the time! Kids in particular will love the waterslides, wave pool, and watery rides. There are landscaped gardens, lounge chairs, and food outlets to keep parents happy, too.
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