The first thing to strike you about Ho Chi Minh City is how the streets teem with family-laden scooters, bicycles, cars and carts that weave their way between pedestrians in conical hats and covered faces, as all go about their business with colourful determination. Yet beyond this frenetic welcome is a city brimming with a wealth of history, art and culture, one that is home to a distinct blend of Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences.
Visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and see the Cu Chi tunnels, which represent the sheer grit and determination of the Vietnamese people. The War Remnants Museum brings the harsh realities of war into focus, while the Mekong Delta and floating market showcase the soulful farmers who grow the country’s rice and intensely flavoured fruit. Stop at a Buddhist temple for welcome contemplation and get a feel of what life in modern Saigon is really like, as you explore by foot or on a bike.
These are my recommendations for day trips from Ho Chi Minh City.
1. Visit the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta, known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, is an area carpeted in green, with the mighty Mekong offering intricate waterways that are home to boats, houses and markets that all work to the rhythm of the winding canals and streams. You’ll find buffalo wallowing in rice paddies, coconut and fruit-laden boats and cities that play home to ornate pagodas and Buddhist temples.
One of the loveliest things to do here is take a traditional boat trip, sitting back to be rowed down the canopy of mangrove swamps and estuaries of the Mekong river, quiet but for the rhythmic lapping of the water, the presence of swamp creatures and islands that offer a reprieve to the fishermen.
Visit a family-run coconut candy producer to learn the simple process used to mill the coconuts before heating them into a paste, pouring out the mix for cooling and then cutting them into small squares which are hand-wrapped and packaged. They are really delicious and a lovely gift to take home.
Alternately, visit a family-run rice noodle factory, which offers a fascinating look at the process and ease with which the liquid base is poured into circles, dried in the sun and then cut to noodles.
2. Immerse yourself in the Cu Chi tunnels
A guided visit will offer an excellent perspective on what is referred to in Vietnam as the American War, which saw North Vietnam supported by China and other communist allies, against South Vietnam supported by the United States and anti-communist countries. America’s occupation lasted from 1961 to 1975 and waged a devastating war against the Viet Cong and their allies in the Saigon region.
The Cu Chi tunnels are one of the greatest works constructed by the Vietnamese people as a place to live and hide from being attacked and served as the Viet Cong’s base of operations during this time. They form part of an impressive 120km network of underground tunnels, now preserved as a war memorial. The tunnels served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters and were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces.
As you will see as you venture 3m deep into one of them on your visit, it was not an easy way to live with air, food and water scarce and the tunnels infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and snakes. You’ll have some time to watch a movie about the war, before walking around the historical battle site.
3. Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho
Visiting a floating market in the Mekong Delta is a must for travellers to Saigon and the best place to do this is at Can Tho’s Cai Rang Floating Market. Located about 6km from Can Tho, you’ll want to get there as early as possible, joining the sellers and buyers alongside their boats and watching as they trade their goods. This kind of market is common in the Mekong Delta, where waterways are interconnected to people’s daily life. Traders exchange goods with farmers from the region, who in turn sell to local dealers and from there on to the neighbouring towns.
Each boat is marked with a pole from which the wholesaler hangs the goods he buys or sells, which is an effective way for the smaller boats to know where they need to go. There is more to be enjoyed than just selling of goods, with floating restaurants, coffee traders and insight into the lives of the people who live on the water. You’ll also pass painted boats anchored along the shore, merchant vessels carrying loads down the river and the stilt houses that hang over the water.
4. Walking tours of the City
As is true of all great cities, walking offers a more intimate experience and this is certainly true with vibrant Ho Chi Minh City. Opt for a Free Walking Tour that will guide you through the city centre’s highlights such as the Ben Thanh Market, The Notre Dame Cathedral and Old Post Office, as well as the War Remnants Museum. Alternately with a map you can self-guide your way on foot, you’re unlikely to get lost, and if you do and need help getting home, there are always taxis you can hop into.
The Ben Thanh Market is a must visit for any meal with all kinds of noodles such as pho, hu tieu and bun. Also try banh xeo, the delicious Vietnamese crunchy pancakes, the sweet sticky rice (Xoi Dua) in various fruity flavors, coconut water served straight out of the shell and the distinctly sweet Vietnamese coffee. Stock up on dragon fruit, watermelon and mangosteens too.
Beyond the food, there is excellent shopping around Ben Thanh and you’d do well to remember that all prices are negotiable. Be sure to make your way to the Backpackers District after dark, a must see to experience more of the pulsing heart of Saigon. Side street cafes and bars, food carts, scooters and street facing tables.
5. Cycle the Can Gio Eco-Forest UNESCO site
As much as Saigon will draw you in for further discovery, take a bicycle tour in the Can Gio Eco-Forest for a change of scenery. Transferring out of the city by road, you’ll bike to the National Forest Park, Monkey Island, and visit the Can Gio Museum along the way. Enjoy some time in the park, cycling the extensively restored mangrove forest while on the look out for saltwater crocodiles, wild cats, otters, pythons, deer and some of the 1000 resident wild monkeys.
From there, canoe the Mangrove Forest Ecosystem and visit the Rung Sac Guerilla Base. The Tang Bong tower is a good place to pause and take in the views of the park. Vietnam offers mostly flat roads and paths through villages and rice paddies, which means that a day trip like this is manageable for even the novice cyclist. There are always stops along the way for coffee and meals.
Should you prefer your independence rather than booking with a tour company, consider hiring a scooter for the duration of your stay. You’ll need nerves of steel as you join the mass of bikes that dominate the streets, but I can think of few other ways to feel like a true Saigon local.