There are enough attractions in Saigon to keep most visitors happy for a week or so, but at some point during their stay most people feel the need to escape the frenetic pace of the city and the constant blare of car horns. Fortunately there are several places within a short drive of the city that promise an interesting day out, and the attractions are very diverse, so you should be able to find something that fits your mood.
They include a network of tunnels that played a key role in Vietnam’s fight for independence, a colourful temple that is the base for an unusual religion, floating markets in the Mekong Delta and beaches that look out over the South China Sea.
Cu Chi tunnels
Of all places in the country associated with Vietnam’s wars with the French and Americans, none is more visited that the Cu Chi tunnels, located about 50kms northwest of Saigon towards the Cambodian border.
Throughout the day, tour buses pull in and out of the car park at the site, disgorging groups of tourists who have come to see this truly unique phenomenon.
After a short video explaining the necessity for and importance of the tunnels for the Viet Minh against the French and later the Viet Cong against the Americans, guides lead visitors around a small area of woodland, revealing hidden tunnel entrances and booby traps. There’s also the chance to crawl along a section of the tunnels that have been widened to accommodate Western-sized bodies.
Cao Dai Holy See
Lying a bit further northwest of the city than the Cu Chi tunnels, the Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh is often included with the tunnels on a day trip from Saigon. The temple is a striking structure, looking like something out of Disneyland with dragons writhing up the columns and the Divine Eye, symbol of the religion, peering out above the windows.
The Cao Dai religion was developed during the 1920s and incorporates elements of all other global religions. To emphasize its eclectic nature, the religion recognises such diverse people as Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill as saints. Services are held every day at noon, which is the best time to arrive, as you can enter the temple and witness the crowds of followers chanting and praying from the balcony upstairs.
South of Saigon, the Mekong Delta fans out, carrying the Mekong River to the sea along nine separate arms that split the land into small parcels. This fascinating area is extremely fertile, providing a great part of the food consumed throughout the country, and is worth spending a few days exploring. However, many visitors limit themselves to a day trip, which involves a visit to a floating market, usually at Cai Be.
After a couple of hours on a tour bus heading south, visitors clamber on to a boat and are shown around the market, where vendors hang up a sample of their produce for prospective buyers to see. The scene is not as colourful as the floating markets in Thailand, but the experience of drifting through a tropical landscape, surrounded by water palms and small rowing boats, makes a memorable day out for most visitors.
Beaches near Saigon
To track down Vietnam’s best beaches, you need to head across the Mekong Delta to Phu Quoc Island, or up the coast towards Nha Trang. Nevertheless, there are several coastal towns within a few hours drive of the city, where you can stretch out and wiggle your toes in the sand and splash about in the warm waters. The most popular getaway for residents of Saigon is Vung Tau, located on a spear of land that juts into the South China Sea. The town is well developed as it seconds as a base for offshore oil operations, so the beaches are second rate.
For somewhere more like a real tropical paradise, head for Ho Coc, a bit further up the coast, where the long stretches of golden sands embedded with smooth boulders give a real away-from-it-all feeling. The place is still largely undiscovered, so as yet there are no tour companies offering day trips here, but for adventurous types it is not difficult to rent a motorbike and find your way there, or hire a car and driver to take you there.