Saigon & Sand Dunes: Part 2 Of Our Top Things To Do In Vietnam
By Jodie Le Marrec
In part one of our Vietnam special, we focussed on the rice paddies, hill tribes and world heritage bays of the North.
Now to the tropical South for imperial cities, palm-fringed beaches and the mighty Mekong. Here are a few more incredible things to do in Vietnam:
Get your culture fix in Hue
Hue is a mesmerising and poetic city. The Perfume River that flows gently through the city only adds to the charm, seamlessly joining every loose end of the tourist trail.
Take a whole day to explore the Imperial Enclosure in order to appreciate the size of this UNESCO World Heritage site. You can break your day up with a picnic in the grounds.
On your second day, pay a visit to the four tombs that are dotted along the banks of the Perfume River. The Royal Tombs of Hue are framed with frangipani and are reflected in the peaceful water – it’s very quaint. I would recommend making your own way to each tomb rather than joining an organised trip to avoid being frogmarched along. You really will want to spend time at each individual tomb, enjoying the sunshine and stillness of these architectural wonders set amongst the magnificent lakes and forests.
For another day of culture head to Hue’s three main pagodas; Thien Mu Pagoda, Dieu De National Pagoda and Bao Quoc Pagoda. These are recognised as some of Vietnam’s most iconic structures.
They are exquisite. Their grand, triple-gated entrances and the back-drop of the peaceful Perfume River will leave you in love with Hue.
Head to the mountains
Da Lat is a one stop town and you need only spend 2 nights here. It is generally used as a base from which to explore the hill country. The climate is considerably cooler than the rest of Vietnam so make sure you pack a pair of jeans and a warm jacket.
When in Da Lat, you simply have to visit the Mad Monk’s House – a magical place on a par with Disney Land. Take your time and explore the hidden stairways, narrow paths and nooks and crannies of this little fairy-tale house. If you have some cash to splash you can even rent a room and spend the evening. The Mad Monk’s House is an easy walk from the centre of town, so don’t be fooled into taking a motor-bike ride with a local.
Da Lat has some fantastic cafes, many of which are quite quirky. If you are feeling the cold, then you can even get your hands on a fabulous apple and cinnamon crumble. It will do a great job of warming you up and is perfect for the homesick traveller.
In the afternoon, take a stroll down to the lake and rent out a pedalo for a bit of fun. Then head back into town for dinner. Whilst Italian might not be the most traditional of cuisines to enjoy in Vietnam, the V Cafe is not to be missed. It has great style and charm and reminded me of the old established restaurants that line the streets of San Francisco. Make sure you order enough wine to see you through to the live acoustic music.
Off the beaten track in Pham Rang
Pham Rang isn't the prettiest of towns but it has an appealing urban quality. This, mixed with the traditional town markets and the local ladies selling BBQ corn on the cob, will leave you feeling nostalgic for this lovely little place. It was here that we had some of our most memorable experiences.
We read about Pham Rang in a magazine when we were in Dalat. We thought it sounded interesting so hopped on a bus, leaving the luscious green hills and cool climate of Da Lat behind and entering the hot and dusty town of Pham Rang.
We had heard about a village called Bau Truc, a mere 10km from the centre of Pham Rang. It is reportedly the oldest pottery village in South East Asia and we were keen to check it out. With no buses to the village, we had to arrange for a taxi to take us. This proved fairly difficult as nobody spoke any English. However, after some ridiculous hand gestures and a few attempts at broken Vietnamese, they soon cottoned on and we were on our way.
We travelled down a narrow street, dodging the pigs and the chickens. As we drove we noticed some smoke bellowing from a pile of rice husk, under which sat some uncooked pottery. In Vietnam they do not have kilns so they use this traditional method instead. There was a woman overseeing the process and we asked her if we could take some photos. She agreed and then kindly invited us into her house to meet her family.
She demonstrated how she made her pots by hand which was truly a memorable experience. As we wandered around the village, we realised many of the families were creating their own statues and pots using this traditional method.
We ended up strolling into somebody’s yard by accident. They invited us to drink tea with their family. We communicated via sign language and watched the men make pottery carvings of animals.
After grabbing a bowl of com (rice) and enjoying a good night’s sleep, we headed off to explore the Cham Temples near the train station. The temples are dotted about the summit of a hill, from the top of which you get a spectacular view over Pham Rang.
On another day we took a bus to Vinh Hy Bay, one of the largest National Parks in Vietnam. Our original plan was to take a glass-bottomed boat out and see the coral reef, but the conditions were not right so we had to take a pass. Instead a local group of teenagers invited us to spend the day with them on a Vietnamese family's floating home. We spent hours plunging into the cool ocean and exploring the local beach.
Pham Rang is an undiscovered treasure. You won't beat the unexplored sights and you’ll leave feeling like you had a real taste of Vietnam.
Seaside and sand dunes
Mui Ne is a booming seaside town with windsurfers stippled along the horizon. Perhaps try windsurfing for the first time or relax on the beach to top up your tan. This town has plenty to offer, particularly when it comes to cuisine. You will find restaurants offering everything from Mexican to Italian. If you are brave enough you can even try traditional Vietnamese BBQ’d crocodile.
You could spend days lounging on the beach or swimming in the sea, but there are also some natural sights that will take your breath away. Many tour operators will offer you a package allowing you to see everything in one day in an open top jeep as part of a group. Alternatively, if you’d rather not be constricted by time then you can rent a moped and cruise along the highway at your own pace.
Many people recommend walking along the Fairy Stream to a ‘magical’ waterfall, but I would skip this as, at the time of my visit anyway, there was no waterfall – just a few drops falling from a rock. I think I have seen more water cascading out of a water fountain in my local park!
If you do decide to give the Fairy Walks a miss, then I would recommend setting off instead to see the real highlight of Mui Ne – the sand dunes. Stop off at the Old Fishing Village on the way – it has an outstanding view of the ocean. From here you can watch the local fishermen in their coracles (traditional boats).
To appreciate the full beauty of the dunes, aim to visit at sunrise or sunset. There are both red and white dunes. If you are planning your visit around sunset, then head to the white dunes first. They are further away and still look spectacular even without the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. For a minute you honestly forget what country you are in – you could be in Africa!
Snap back to reality, charge down the sandy slopes of the dunes and make your way to the red dunes for sunset. Take a blanket and a cold beer with you and settle down for one of the best sunsets you will see on your travels. Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera!
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam at its most chaotic. The city’s tiny alleyways are dotted with boutique clothes shops and lined with food vendors selling everything from pho to baguettes. At every turn you will see something entirely new, be it mobile florists or fully grown cows being transported by moped.
HCMC will win you over with its heart-breaking history, happy people and quirky style. It will leave you longing to go back.
Your first stop has to be the War Remnants Museum, which gives you a real sense of the horrors of the Vietnam War - or the American War as the Vietnamese refer to it. A visit to this museum truly drives home the atrocities inflicted upon the nation.
Original tanks and military aircraft are displayed outside the museum, as are some of the torture artefacts, including the notoriously inhumane ‘tiger cages’, that were used to hold the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists; VC) prisoners.
The ground floor of the museum is dedicated to the anti-war posters and photographs that, at the time of the conflict, were being published around the world. This is in stark contrast to the abhorrent scenes you will see on the first floor. The walls are lined with photos from the war itself and puts into perspective how horrific the bombings were.
The museum gives you a rare opportunity to see the effects of the experimental weapons used by the American army through photographs and first-hand accounts. One particularly uncomfortable room showcases the foetuses of Vietnamese women exposed to Agent Orange.
The top-floor is dedicated to war photographers from around the world who died during the conflict – the photos in this section are incredible and extremely moving.
My next recommendation would be to take a trip to the Fine Arts Museum set in a beautiful 1920’s Baroque building. It houses everything from lacquer wood effect paintings to art work denoting traditional scenes and war scenes. Many guide books recommend going to the Reunification Palace, but if you feel like something different with fewer tourists then I would highly recommend this artistic haven!
At some point during your time in HCMC you may want to take a rest from the mopeds, the hustle and the bustle. One highlight for me was having a full body massage at one of the top spas in Vietnam for half the price you would find in the UK! I was travelling with my boyfriend so we opted for a couple’s massage with aromatherapy oils and hot stones to finish. It left us feeling like we were floating on a cloud.
‘My Spa’ was our choice but there are several superb options. The ‘My Spa’ menu was oozing with tempting choices, from the ‘jetlag makeover’ to the more traditional Vietnamese massage. I would certainly recommend this place over some of the other ‘spas’ offered in the Bui Vien district.
Something that we particularly enjoyed doing in HCMC was taking an evening walk. Start from the Bui Vien district and make your way to the Notre Dame Cathedral - a miniature version of the world famous building in Paris. From here you head directly to HCMC square which has a statue of Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) in the centre. It’s not really a square as such, more a rectangle and it is littered with posh hotels and designer shops.
Whilst walking through the city I would recommend going to Mekong Quilts, a not-for-profit organisation that employs under-privileged women from all over Vietnam. Their work is outstanding!
After browsing the shops, make your way back to the park for the early evening. Here you will see groups of teenagers, old men and tourists alike joining in Vietnam’s version of Haki Saki. Grab an ice-cream, take a seat on the grass and watch their amazing skills. If you fancy a go the Vietnamese are always willing to let you join in or if you feel like practicing in private then you can buy a Jianzi from one of the many vendors! Be warned – it is pretty hard to master and we have had many friends laughing at us whilst we practice on Brighton beach!
The Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta should be on everybody’s to do list, whether you sail down it en-route to Cambodia or simply take a few days out from HCMC. You will be taken back to Vietnam’s roots with little fishing boats chugging along.
My boyfriend and I made our way down to Ben Tre after a long stint in HCMC and the tranquillity was just what we were after. We stayed at the Oasis Hotel owned by an eccentric Kiwi guy and his wife Lieu who makes the best breakfast in town! We decided to take a tour with the Oasis Hotel, which I would recommend doing even if you are not staying at the hotel. The knowledgeable Ms. Hong is a superb guide!
Go in the early morning as you will miss the tourists packed onto boats from the city, plus you are able to see all the local fishermen mending their nets and preparing for the long day ahead. The tour starts by visiting the local brick factory. Whilst it may sound a little dull it is actually really interesting to see how red bricks are traditionally produced.
Once you have visited the brick factory you jump back on the boat to the coconut factory and then take a gentle cycle to a restaurant in the depths of the jungle for a terrific lunch of elephant ear fish (the local specialty), spring rolls, bun noodles and vegetables. Once your lunch has settled you can make your way back down the canals with a fresh coconut to keep you refreshed in the mid-day sun.
The following day I would recommend renting a bike and cycling through the local village. You will see traditional Vietnamese houses and incense sticks laid out to dry. Beware the narrow paths! If you come across somebody coming the other way on a moped, watch you don’t bump into them as you may end up in the stream. Once you have taken a cycle, I would recommend taking the boat over to the nearby island and packing a picnic to explore the local area.
To top off your day I would take a long walk across the riverside at sunset, stopping off for a Saigon Beer along the way.
So there you have it – our top things to do in Vietnam! Have you any to add? We want to hear from you. Please leave your comments below.
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