With more must-see destinations along Vietnam's 1650km length than can easily fit into a two-week itinerary, it’s tempting to spend your holiday flying from one city to the next on a whirlwind tour of the country.
However, more and more travellers are seeing the wisdom in staying a few extra days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to explore the many day trip options, making forays to visit historic wartime sites, relaxing beaches and the rural Mekong Delta. Not only will you likely save money, but you’ll escape the stresses of long travel days and come away feeling a more authentic connection that comes from spending more time in one place.
A boat drifts through a Mekong coconut plantation © Cuongvnd / Getty Images
A Taste 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.
Day trips from Ho Chi Minh City offer the opportunity to get away from the crowds and discover appealing towns like Ben Tre © James Pham / Lonely Planet
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.
Fresh fruit and folk singers are among the highlights of a trip to Ben Tre © James Pham / Lonely Planet
Getting there: Join the better-off locals on private air-conditioned buses and mini-vans for the two-hour, US$4 road trip to Ben Tre, where you can arrange a boat and guide to visit the islands. Easier still are day trips bookable from HCMC for as little as US$10 including lunch. If you’re confident on a motorbike, two hours is a manageable drive, and you’re free to veer off onto the many small paths leading to village markets and authentic countryside scenes completely devoid of tourists.
A Vietnamese woman rowing a wooden boat in Cai Bei, the Mekong Delta © InFocusVideo / Shutterstock
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.
Getting there: The Ha My Bus departs from HCMC's District 8 for the US$7, two-hour drive to Cai Be, where you can negotiate your own boat to take you out to the floating market. If you’d rather leave the hassle to someone else, budget-friendly day tours are plentiful and easy to book from HCMC's backpacker area (Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao Streets). For those with a little more cash to flash, a private day-cruise offers the ultimate in comfort.
Chilling beachside in the pool at the Imperial Hotel, Vung Tau © James Pham / Lonely Planet
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.
Getting there: Both the US$10 fast boat and US$5 mini-van take about two hours, with the mini-van able to drop you off at a centrally-located Vung Tau hotel. Once you’re in the city, taxis are plentiful to explore the sights.
The Cu Chi tunnel network stretches for 250km – visitors can explore narrow passages and bunkers © View Apart / Shutterstock
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.
Getting there: 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'.
A woman manoeuvres a boat around the waters of Can Gio, Vietnam © James Pham / Lonely Planet
Getting 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.