Taste the Fruits of the Mekong Delta in Ben Tre
Two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City lies Ben Tre, the so-called Coconut Capital of Vietnam. This quiet town, just across the river from the more developed city of My Tho, makes for a quaint getaway with its many fruit orchards, cottage industries and surprisingly rural villages just off the main highway.
A convenient way to see a slice of the Mekong Delta in a day is by arranging a boat trip to the four river islands between Ben Tre and My Tho. Neatly packaged tours take visitors by horse cart and boat between the islands, visiting bee farms, coconut candy factories and scenic orchards where you can sample tropical fruit while being serenaded by Vietnamese folk singers. Cheesy? Yes. A fun day trip without too much hassle or driving? Definitely. You can get there on private air-conditioned buses and mini-vans or motorbike, in a two-hour drive.
Paddle through the Floating Markets and Waterways in Cai Be
The Mekong Delta’s intricate labyrinth of waterways is perfect for a day spent on the water. While smaller than the better-known floating market just outside of Can Tho, the Cai Be floating market takes just two hours to reach from Saigon. You’ll see the same barges with their distinctive painted eyes (said to bring the boats safely home) and long poles with produce hung high up to announce what’s for sale. Smaller canoes can also be hired for trips through narrow waterways lined by water palms. While in Cai Be, Le Longanier Restaurant is a beautiful lunch spot in an Indochine-style mansion serving up elegant versions of Mekong Delta favorites, including deep-fried elephant ear fish rolled up in rice paper.
You can get there on Ha My Bus departs from HCMC's District 8 for the US$4, 2.5-hour drive to Cai Be, where you can negotiate your own boat to take you out to the floating market.
Have a Beach Day the French Way in Vung Tau
Known as Cap Saint-Jacques when it was a beach playground frequented by French colonists, modern-day Vung Tau is Saigon’s closest ocean beach. While its long list of attractions includes a giant Jesus (larger than the one in Brazil), a turn-of-the-century lighthouse and a cable car-accessed amusement park, the main reason to hit up Vung Tau for the day is to laze around on its handful of respectable city beaches. Most are fronted by seafood restaurants with beach chairs for customers (double check your bill as some have been known to overcharge), but you can also lay out in style at the Beach Club at the Imperial Hotel. Modeled after Roman baths, with the addition of an infinity pool and loads of sun loungers, a day pass will set you back only US$12. As a bonus, there’s a covered evening seafood market just behind the hotel where you can choose live seafood and have it cooked to order. Both the US$8 fast boat and US$7 buses take about two hours to get there. Once you’re in the city, taxis are plentiful to explore the sights.
Duck and Pray in Cu Chi
If you’ve ever wondered how Vietnamese farmers were able to defeat one of the most powerful militaries in history, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is in order. Built over a period of 25 years, the 250km of underground tunnels just 40km outside of HCMC allowed the Northern Vietnamese forces to mount surprise attacks and then seemingly vanish into thin air. Visitors can scamper their way through narrow passages – not for the claustrophobic – leading to underground bunkers, living quarters and even a hospital. There are also very loud, pay-by-the-bullet gun ranges on site.
There are two sections open to visitors, Ben Dinh (closer and more visited) and Ben Duoc (where more of the locals go). Both are accessible by public bus #13 from the September 23 Park in downtown Saigon to the Cu Chi Bus Station and then #63 to Ben Dinh or #79 to Ben Duoc for just over US$1. You can also book a half-day tour to visit just the tunnels or add on the Cao Dai Holy See, a colourful temple dedicated to Vietnam’s homegrown religion of Caodaisim that was described by Graham Greene as the 'Walt Disney Fantasia of the East'.
Get Close to Nature in Can Gio
Exchange the urban jungle for a much greener one in the Unesco-listed Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve. Functioning as the ‘green lungs’ of HCMC, this vast area of wetlands, salt marshes and mangroves just 2.5 hrs south of the city is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna including king cobras, saltwater crocodiles and fishing cats. You can cruise the bat lagoon in a row boat or climb up a 25m-high observation tower to look for birds over the treetops.
Getting there: From the September 23 Park near Saigon’s backpacker quarter, take the public bus #75 and hop off at the Vam Sat Ecopark. The trip takes just over 2 hours and costs about US$1. There’s also the option to take a luxury speedboat trip right from downtown Saigon. The journey there is almost as interesting as the destination, passing stilt houses, barges laden down with produce and rustic scenes of life on the river.