The Cu Chi Tunnels

No stay in Ho Chi Minh City is complete without a visit to the infamous Cu Chi tunnels – a tunnel network originally over 250km in length and up to three levels deep in places

The tunnels played a huge part in the Viet Cong’s victory over the Americans, allowing the Viet Cong to control a large rural area surrounding Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese used the tunnels to move their men and artillery around, making it difficult for the U.S. to locate them. Today, some of the remaining tunnels have been opened to tourists, offering a unique insight into what underground life must have been like during the ‘American’ war.

The district of Cu Chi itself was the most bombed and generally devastated area in the history of warfare at that time. It was declared a ‘free fire zone’ by the US, meaning that artillery fire fell on it at night and that bomber pilots were encouraged to drop unused explosives and napalm on the area before returning to base.

Da Lat

The Best of the Highlands: Dalat to Kontum

Just three hours drive from Dalat is Lak Lake, a large natural lake formed by converging rivers and streams. The region is ideal for travellers wishing to spend some time learning about the various minority hill tribes that live in the region such as the Jarai, M’nong and Edeh people. Visitors can explore various nearby villages by foot, bike or dug-out canoe. There is also elephant riding available and a variety of interesting visits such as the former hunting lodge of the last Emperor Bao Dai.

An hour further on is Buon Ma Thuot, one of the largest cities in the central highlands and the centre for coffee exportation for the surrounding region.

Depending on how long you break your journey for in Lak Lake you may decide to stop in Boun Ma Thout for a night or some prefer to push on further to either Pleiku (4 hours) or Kontum (5 hours). Of the two Kontum is by far the more interesting and you are well advised to spend at least one night in the small town. There are a number of points of interests within the town itself but the real highlights are the surrounding Banhar minority tribe’s villages and countryside.

From Kontum you have a few choices, either drop down from the highlands towards the coast at Quy Nhon or continue further north before making your way to the South China Sea at Danang.

Mai Chau

Discover your adventurous side in Mai Chau

Mai Chau sitting to the southwest of Hanoi, Many of Vietnam’s 54 indigenous ethnic minority groups live in the region, making the local Sunday market a colourful place to be! The region provides an excellent base for light trekking or biking, thanks to the picturesque valleys and rice paddy terraces, the friendly locals and the many small villages that make ideal destinations to break from your days activities.

Mai Chau is growing in popularity due to its convenient location, 4.5 hours by car from central Hanoi, offering the perfect solution for visitors keen to escape the busy city streets of Hanoi and elsewhere in Vietnam. Pu Luong Nature Reserve stretches from Mai Chau Valley to Cuc Phuong National Park to the south east, and is rich in both cultural interests and wildlife.

Mai Chau Eco Lodge complements its rural surrounds perfectly, with a handful of thatched hilltop stilt-houses to accommodate guests, and pleasant facilities (including a scenic swimming pool) that are a cut above those offered elsewhere in the area. Alternatively, homestay accommodation can be arranged in a minority-tribe village for the more adventurous.

We say: ‘A great alternative to the hills of Sapa; Mai Chau and the surrounding valleys are so easily accessible. The Mai Chau Eco Lodge is very special indeed, offering the perfect base to explore the region.’

 

Cat Tien National Park

Just three hours from Ho Chi Minh City, on the road to the former Colonial hill station of Dalat; Cat Tien National Park (or Nam Cat Tien) is ideally located for travellers wishing to escape city life for a day or two.

One of the most important Nature Reserves in Vietnam, Cat Tien is home to many of the country’s endangered species of wildlife as well as a wealth of flora and fauna. Amongst the species that live in the 70,000-hectare park are the Asian elephants, yellow cheeked gibbons and sun bears. During any visit you can also visit the park’s Endangered Primate Centre, where you’ll be able to see two of the rarest species in the world – the Delacour and Cat Ba langurs.

Whilst in Cat Tien you will be accompanied by one of the Park Rangers. All are highly trained and experienced, making the perfect guide for even the most advanced twitcher and nature enthusiast. Your programme can be tailored to suit your individual preferences, however typically you will spend two days combining hiking, spotting wildlife, including the wealth of birdlife, and experiencing night safari’s.

As a base, we recommend Forest Floor Lodge – a converted ranger station providing comfortable accommodation in either luxury tents or traditional Vietnamese houses. There is an onsite restaurant with open air terrace, providing nature-viewing opportunities whilst you enjoy breakfast.

Central Highlands

Vietnam’s Central Highlands stretch from the Colonial hill-station of Dalat northwards as far as Quang Nam province to the west of Danang. It’s a fascinating region that receives a far lower number of visitors than the better known coastal region and this is very much part of what makes it such a fascinating journey.

You are likely to either start or finish your journey in Dalat whilst at the other end, where you start/finish, will very much depend on your interests and the amount of time you have.

So what do Vietnam’s Central Highlands have to offer? Well certainly stunning a mountainous landscape rich in agriculture, there’s also the various minority hill tribes (or montagnards as they were known in Colonial times) and a starkly different culture from that you will experience in the more touristic cities and towns where western influence has made its mark.

My Way Travel’s Emily, after returning from a tour of the region, said ‘Your travels will give you an insight into a far more authentic Vietnam, one that has a lot of similarities to when I first visited the country is 1992. The people are slightly more reserved without being unfriendly, you will eat in truly local restaurants, and, due to its strategic location, you can learn a great deal about Vietnam’s recent wars against both the French and Americans’.

 

Hue

Hue is situated in central Vietnam along the Huong River, a few kilometers from Bien Dong. This province was the former capital of nine previous Nguyen kingdoms. Hue has retained its cultural heritage which is rooted in the values of Vietnam. Hue is a tantalizing work of art that blends romantic rivers, picturesque mountains, and stunning landscapes.

We say: ‘Certainly one of the highlights of Central Vietnam, Hue has a wealth of cultural highlights. Despite this a full day, or ideally a day and half, will be sufficient time for most visitors, often eager to head further south to charming Hoi An.’

Vietnam’s Last Empire

In a population of 80 million residents and 800 surnames, Nguyen is the name that dominates. The name, which dates as far back as the 1st century, is first mentioned in texts in the 10th century with a nobleman named Nguyen Bac. The Nguyens have woven their presence and influence through the lives of the rulers in Vietnam’s history, from the Tran Dynasty to the Le Dynasty, as loyal subjects, in-laws and trusted advisors. They finally came into power in the 19th century and established their dominion in 1802 – the last empire to rule Vietnam.

The dynasty’s first emperor, Nguyen Phuc Anh, also known as Emperor Gia Long, established an imperial palace in Hue and declared Hue the country’s capital. He became the catalyst that launched the now united country into seclusion, domination, change and civil wars for the next 150 years. It was a time of influence by Chinese traditions, suppression of traditional Vietnamese values and beliefs, modernisation with the building of new roads, overworking and overtaxing of the lower classes, and later, a time to rise up against the French and Japanese armies.

The last of the Nguyen line was Emperor Bao Dai, who abdicated in 1945 and spent the rest of his life in exile in France. During the Nguyen Dynasty, in order to appease and honour their imperial rulers many Vietnamese had their names changed to the royal Nguyen; which is why today the name Nguyen fills over half the pages of a Vietnamese telephone directory!

Phu Quoc Island

Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc Island is 62 nautical miles south-west of Rach Gia, at the southern tip of Vietnam. Approximately the size of Singapore, much of the island is National Park and many of the island’s famous 99 hills are covered in thick vegetation, creating a safe habitat for the indigenous wildlife.

The main draw is undoubtedly sand, with almost non-stop beach running around the island. Despite a recent surge in development the island is still relatively undeveloped, ensuring there is plenty of space for everyone (although the planned international airport will undoubtedly have an impact on this).

Having been fortunate enough to be visiting the island since the late 90’s, we love it for it’s incredible seafood, laid back vibe and quiet beaches – you can drive for miles at a time without passing anything but the odd fishing village. The island is now coming of age with a handful of world class resorts, whilst local operators have also installed the necessary infrastructure to allow access to some of the island’s natural highlights such as nearby snorkelling hotspots and the Cua Can River.

The island enjoys a sub-equatorial climate with two seasons; rainy (late-July to late October) and the dry season (November to July). Whilst visits to Phu Quoc can be made all-year round, the best time is dry season (although outside of October the chances of sunny days remain high).

The Mekong Delta

From Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong delta just a few hours by boat or car , life in the Mekong Delta often seems a thousand miles away from that bustling modern metropolis. Things here tend to move at a more sedate pace, and the Delta’s friendly residents usually lead a far more traditional existence than their high flying city neighbours.

The ‘Nine Dragons’ as known by Vietnamese people, the nine major waterways of the Mekong Delta region extend from the Cambodian border to the South China Sea. Outside the region’s main cities – like My Tho, Cai Be, Vinh Long, Can Tho & Chau Doc – most people choose to build their homes on stilts along the many waterways that cut through the lush lowlands.

Inaccessible as this sounds, the Delta is actually one of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam. Characterised as laid-back and welcoming, its people intensively farm as much of the region’s fertile land as possible, with orchards, sugarcane plantations, rice paddies, fish and flower farms jostling for space amongst bird sanctuaries and national parks. Farming is a huge Delta industry – around 70% of Vietnam’s fresh fruit and vegetables come from the region.

Many people make their living by fishing the waters, and selling their catch at the floating markets. One of the Delta’s most enchanting – and often surreal – characteristics, the markets can be found throughout the major waterways. You may have to get up early to see them at their best, but they’re so emblematic of Southern Vietnam, and a wonderful, lively experience. It would be a shame to miss them for the sake of a lie-in!

Despite all the water, the Mekong Delta actually has very convenient roads and tracks, easily explored by bike, motorbike or bus. The cities and villages are just as fascinating as the waterways. Chau Doc, south Vietnam’s gateway to Cambodia, is an especially approachable Delta town, with friendly residents, many of whom speak some English. Nearby Sam Mountain, although not very mountainous, offers a panoramic view over the Delta that’s hard to match elsewhere in the lowlands.

A unusual and slightly crazy shopping experience

There are hundreds of floating markets throughout the Mekong Delta region. To truly experience one of these unusual markets at its best, it’s essential that you arrive as early as possible. The early bird most definitely catches the worm when it comes to shopping ‘Delta style’!

Fruits, such as mangosteen, durian, papaya, mango, guava and jackfruit (all grown in nearby orchards) are stacked in precarious piles on the bobbing boats, along with fresh fish, vegetables and ‘fast’ food, like steamed buns.
Most of the goods are bought by wholesalers, who resell to local markets and dealers in the big cities. This doesn’t mean you won’t get the chance to practise a little bartering for yourself!

With a motorised sampan instead of a shopping trolley, you’ll be thankful for your local skipper, who’ll navigate the disordered aisles with nifty skill. This truly is a crazy experience – you’ll come away amazed that it didn’t all end in a huge pile up.

Such an early start requires you spending the previous night in either My Tho or, better still, Can Tho. The nearby Cai Rang market is our absolute favourite (there are other markets close enough to Ho Chi Minh City to make a day trip possible, but you have to question their authenticity) and is just 20 minutes by sampan from your Can Tho hotel.

Con Dao

One of Vietnam’s most promising ‘up-and-coming’ destinations in our opinion, Con Dao is actually an archipelago of 15 islands located in the South China Sea, just 45 minutes by air from Ho Chi Minh City. The archipelago makes up one of Vietnam’s most pristine Marine National Parks, with miles of undisturbed beaches, wild jungle and turquoise waters.

Con Dao also has a few ‘aces’ up its sleeve – firstly there’s the small matter of the turtles that come ashore between the months of June and September, and the large dis-used French Penal Colony–cum-American POW complex that housed political prisoners during the various 20th century conflicts.

The main island of Con Son was once known as ‘Poulo Condor’ and is the largest island in the archipelago. Until recently there was only a couple of mid-range hotels to choose from. The recently opened, super-deluxe Six Senses Con Dao has set tongues wagging however, and is rated amongst the finest resorts in Asia. Whichever you choose, or your wallet allows, your stay on Con Dao is more likely to be about as much about the incredible wildlife and spectacular beaches as the standard of your breakfast!

Ho Chi Minh City

After spending some time under French control, Saigon was liberated in 1975, completing the reunification of Vietnam and heralding the city’s final name change (so far) to Ho Chi Minh City. This honoured “Uncle” Ho, the revolutionary leader who coordinated Vietnam’s 20th century push for independence, although the city is still frequently called Saigon by residents and visitors alike.

A long-established hub of trade and commerce for Asian merchants, Ho Chi Minh City is now also the focus for international investment opportunities. Vibrantly modern, much of its colonial charm remains nonetheless lovely, and easy to see.

Classical European buildings have been converted into apartment complexes, office buildings and up-market hotels. The huge General Post Office, designed by M. Eiffel, and the Notre Dame Cathedral, stand side-by-side with glinting high-rise department stores, all surrounded by luxury cars and modern developments.

Ho Chi Minh City is home to some of Vietnam’s best eateries, be they curb-side at Ben Thanh Market, or one of many fine dining establishments, or something comfortably in between. This city has an energy you won’t find anywhere else in Vietnam, and in our opinion it’s an essential stop on any tour of the country.

The famous Rue Catinat of Graham Greene’s Saigon may be called Dong Khoi Street nowadays, but it’s still the swankiest street in the city, overflowing with boutique shops, art galleries, and excellent restaurants. Greene stayed here, at the opulent Hotel Majestic, when he was a Saigon resident. He reputedly enjoyed its rooftop bar, where you can watch the sampans winding up and down the Saigon River.