Floating markets – chic beaches – mangrove forests

Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) is Vietnam’s largest city, where you could easily spend two wonderful days slurping down amazing noodle soups and walking on 100-year-old tiles laid down during French colonial times.

But Ho Chi Minh City is also the gateway to southern Vietnam, with its vast Mekong Delta, quaint floating markets – chic beaches – mangrove forests, historic wartime sites, and pristine nature reserves. Here’s a list of the best five-day trips from Ho Chi Minh City. 

Besides long Ecotourism in Vietnam normally people will take free time and this could be nice to explore your private time to learn more about culture and people.

Floating markets - chic beaches - mangrove forests
A boat drifts through a Mekong coconut plantation © Cuongvnd / Getty Images

Get a taste of the Vietnamese countryside at Ben Tre and My Tho

Why go: If you don’t have time to overnight deep in the Mekong Delta, these two sister cities just two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City provide a glimpse into rural countryside living.

What to see: Ben Tre, the so-called Coconut Capital of Vietnam, is just opposite the river from the more developed city of My Tho. Both make for a quaint getaway where you can take in fruit orchards, cottage industries and surprisingly rural villages just off the main highway.

The four inhabited river islands between Ben Tre and My Tho are home to bee farms, coconut candy factories, and scenic orchards where you can sample tropical fruit while being serenaded by Vietnamese folk singers. The Vietnamese government has established eco-resorts in the area, complete with horse-pulled carts that take visitors from attraction to attraction. 

What to eat and drink: Ben Tre makes everything coconut, from coconut wood souvenirs to chewy coconut candy. Watch as the workers stretch and mold the sweet little squares and take some home as a sweet memento. Also try the hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho, a noodle soup specialty of My Tho, with chewy rice noodles topped with shrimp, pork, pork offal and heaps of fresh vegetables.

How to get there: If you’re confident on a motorbike, head 2 hours due south of Ho Chi Minh City. With your own motorbike, you’re free to veer off onto the many small paths leading to village markets and authentic countryside scenes completely devoid of tourists. Otherwise, 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 Saigon for as little as US$11, including lunch. 

Shop the old-fashioned way at Cai Be’s floating markets

Why go: Vietnam’s floating markets are fast disappearing due to better road infrastructure and cheaper transport options. While smaller than the more well-known floating market just outside of Can Tho, the Cai Be floating market is the closest one to Ho Chi Minh City, taking just about 2 hours to reach. 

What to see: The floating market is a throwback to when most trade and transport was conducted on the waterways – a safer, cheaper, faster option than road travel since almost every home by the water had its own canoe. The Cai Be floating market is comprised of 2 dozen or so barges, each with distinctive painted eyes (said to bring the boats safely home) and long poles with produce hung high up to announce what’s for sale. 

Expect a kaleidoscope of colors and a flurry of activity, especially early in the morning, when smaller boats buy fruits, vegetables, rice and other products of the Delta for re-sale at land-based markets while still smaller boats service the larger ones with breakfast noodles and drinks. You can hire tourist boats from Cai Be for a trip around the floating market while smaller canoes ferry passengers on scenic cruises through narrow waterways lined on both sides by water palms. 

Where to eat and drink: 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.

How to get there: The Hai Duyen shuttle departs from Saigon’s District 5 for US$5. It’s a 2.5-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 Saigon’s backpacker area (Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao Streets) or for those with a little more cash to flash, a private day cruise offers the ultimate in comfort.

Lie out in style at Vung Tau’s beaches and hotels

Why go: Known as Cap Saint-Jacques when it was a beach playground frequented by French colonists, modern-day Vung Tau is the closest ocean beach to Saigon. 

What to see: While its long list of attractions includes a Giant Jesus (larger than the one in Rio), 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.

While most are fronted by seafood restaurants with beach chairs for customers (double-check your bill as some have been known to overcharge), lay out in style at the Beach Club at the Imperial Hotel. Modeled after Roman baths with an infinity pool and loads of sun loungers, the complex can be accessed with a day pass that will set you back only US$12.

If you’re looking for quieter beaches, Ho Tram is an up-and-coming destination about 40 km (25 miles) east of Vung Tau where there are a handful of resorts ranging from glitzy mega hotels with world-class golf courses and casinos to the very rustic River Ray Estates. At the latter, you can practically have the whole stretch of beach to yourself on a weekday or relax poolside for just a US$3 entrance fee. 

Where to eat and drink: The covered Hoa Bien night seafood market is located just behind the Imperial Hotel; choose your own live seafood and have it cooked to order.

How to get there: Both the US$11 fast boat and US$5 mini-van take about 2 hours. The mini-van will drop you off at a centrally-located Vung Tau hotel. Once you’re in the city, taxis are plentiful to explore the sights. Toan Thang minivans ply the route between Ho Chi Minh City and Ho Tram.

Explore the wartime tunnels of Cu Chi

Why go: Built over a period of 25 years by Northern Vietnamese forces, the 250 km (155 miles) of underground tunnels at Cu Chi are an engineering marvel and a wartime site of historical importance.

What to see: If you’ve ever wondered how Vietnamese farmers were able to defeat one of the most powerful military powers in history, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is in order. Visitors can descend steep steps down into dark, narrow passages leading to underground bunkers, living quarters and even a hospital which allowed the Northern Vietnamese to mount surprise attacks, then seemingly vanish into thin air. 

How to get 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 near Saigon’s backpacker quarter to the Cu Chi Bus Station, and then #63 to Ben Dinh or #79 to Ben Duoc for just over US$1.

The trip will take about 3 hours. Or book a half-day tour to visit just the tunnels or add on the Cao Dai Holy See, a colorful temple dedicated to Vietnam’s homegrown religion of Caodaism – once described by Graham Greene as the “Walt Disney Fantasia of the East”.

Paddle through mangrove forests in Can Gio

Why go: Exchange the urban jungle for a much greener one in the Unesco-listed Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve

What to see: Functioning as the “green lungs” of the region, this vast area of wetlands, salt marshes, and mangroves just 2.5 hours south of Ho Chi Minh City is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna including king cobras, saltwater crocodiles and fishing cats, along with 130 or so bird species. Cruise the bat lagoon in a rowboat or climb up a 25m-high observation tower to look for birds over the treetops. 

How to get there: From the September 23 Park, take the public bus #75 and hop off at the Vam Sat Eco-park. The trip takes just over two hours and costs about US$1. There’s also the option to take a luxury speedboat trip right from the Saigon riverside. The boat ride there is almost as interesting as the destination, as you pass stilt houses, barges laden down with produce, and rustic scenes of life on the river, with a stop to visit a small town wet market.

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