Sprawled across the mighty Mekong Delta, Southern Vietnam encompasses the area around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the country’s largest urban metropolis. Despite the war-torn scars that still mar much of the country, it seems that Vietnam has been galvanised by a resilient entrepreneurial spirit that has seen the South become a gleaming emblem of the country’s westernisation. Without the protection of the Truong Son mountain range, the region is dominated by a hot and humid climate that includes a monsoon season from April to September.
The rich fertility of the Mekong soil yields two more harvests per year than in the north, giving Vietnam’s “rice basket” South a palpable laid-back attitude. As visitors move from the North to South, it is evident that old-style communism is losing sway to a capitalist market economy, and there are noticeable differences in tradition.
The world of slow moving, nón lá hat-wearing women cycling along streets perfumed with burning jasmine joss sticks past misty Buddhist pagodas is long gone. The modern buzz of Ho Chi Minh City is akin to the constant busy hum of a bee hive, and a stroll through its maze of streets is characterized by the stop/start flow of traffic. The city offers visitors a spectacular sensory overload, where the construction of modern shopping malls can be found jammed between French colonial-style buildings.
To find a moment of southern tranquility, one must head out of Ho Chi Minh City to the peaceful water maze of the Mekong Delta. Life here revolves around the river, and travelers are free to explore the plethora of floating villages that characterize the landscape. Lush paddies are punctuated by colorful floating markets where local vendors sell the sugarcane and tropical fruit that is nourished by the delta plain. Trips to bird sanctuaries and quaint beach getaways also comprise some of the South’s rural highlights.
Ho Chi Minh City is the hub of modern Vietnamese culture. This teeming metropolis is ripe for exploration, whether you are intrigued by the local street performers or want to splash some cash in one of the city’s many designer boutiques. The Museum of Vietnamese History houses an interesting display of fine Vietnamese antiques, although the traditional water puppet show that takes place every hour is possibly the highlight of this trip. The Botanical Gardens outside the museum are also well worth a look before a stroll to have your photograph taken with the famous statue of Ho Chi Minh himself, which lies in front of the city’s original City Hall on Nguyen Hue Street.
A trip to Southern Vietnam would not be complete without an authentic sampling of HCMC’s unique street culture, which comes to life once the sun has set. French culture is still very much alive in the city, and can be enjoyed with a plate of butter snails in tamarind sauce. Open fires are technically illegal in the streets, so watching vendors pack away their barbecues as their police make their rounds can also be interesting to observe with a chilled can of beer.
As with other Southeast Asian destinations, one of the most enjoyable ways to immerse into the local culture is at one of their markets. Ban Thanh and Binh Tay (a.k.a. Cho Lon) are both worth checking out for their dizzying selection of everything from clothes and souvenir to handicrafts to snacks-to-go. Typical of Asian markets, haggling is expected in the chaotic but fun bustle, but remember to keep an eye out on your valuables in the crowded spaces.
Visitors in HCMC around the time of the colorful Vietnamese New Year of Tet are in for a treat; massive processions and firework displays are celebrated with vigor in HCMC.
Offering a slower pace of life, canal threads of the Mekong Delta remain largely unexplored by tourists and are an ideal destination to sample the tranquillity of rural Southern Vietnamese life. The Mekong boasts the third-largest delta in the world, and is one of Southeast Asia’s remaining pristine natural habitats. Drifting through the dense maze of watery passages has a timeless appeal, and it is possible to glimpse the occasional temple through the lush vegetation. Visitors that make their way far enough down the delta can even witness the legendary floating market of Phung Hep, where hundreds of boat traders gather to sell their wares.
As the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), HCMC offers up a host of attractions for history buffs to enjoy. Reunification Palace houses what was formerly South Vietnam’s presidential palace, and has been left untouched from the day before then-Saigon fell to the north in 1975. A short walk away, the War Remnants Museum is an interesting visit for history buffs that want to delve a little deeper into the Vietnam War.
Some 40km northwest of HCMC lies the elaborate network of Cu Chi Tunnels, which encompass an underground community comprised of 250km of tunnel. The tunnels were originally dug by local inhabitants during the French occupation of the 1940s, but they were expanded during the 1960s to provide refuge for local people from American soldiers. Two sections of the network are open for visitors for a sombre reminder of the region's past.
The fertile Mekong Delta geographically defines much of Southern Vietnam, and is worth a visit to see the locals' waterside way of life. Small group tours bring daytrippers from HCMC into the labyrinth of canals, stopping off at fruit orchards, visiting cottage industries, and offering visitors a brief bucolic reprieve from the bustle of the city. For a more interesting and in depth experience, a multi day cycling tour is probably the best way to explore the Mekong Delta. Or a 3 day river cruise from Saigon to Phnom Penh offers a glimps of life on the river that you cannot get from a bus or a one day tour.
Many travellers find the allure of Phu Quoc’s white sand beaches and warm, tropical nights too much to resist. Unlike other islands in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc retains a breathtaking unspoled charm, and there is little to do here except scuba diving and kayaking – with the odd massage and fresh seafood barbecue thrown in for good measure.
The city of Tay Ninh is an easy day trip for travelers that want to explore something beyond HCMC. Cao Dai Great Temple is Tay Ninh’s unmissable attraction, and displays an eclectic mix of religious influences in its unusual architecture – a striking, yet incongruous mix of Eastern and Western design, with influences from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity. The daily prayers are a great time to visit for tourists who want to observe the splendid rituals of this faith.
Vietnam is home to a comprehensive public transport system which covers the entire country. First-time visitors often make use of the privately run “open tour” buses that allow travelers to hop on and off at major tourist spots. Visitors with a sense of adventure may prefer to get a ride on one of the local buses, although they should beware that these are often a lot less comfortable.
Rail travel around Southern Vietnam is limited, with the country’s only train line running a scenic line along the coast. As such, travellers exploring the south will need to rely on other means of transportation. While buses do connect visitors to towns scattered across the Mekong Delta, the only way to get a true sense of this region is to travel its network of criss-crossing canals by boat. River tours to Mekong gems can easily be booked through travel agents.
If you are planning on visiting Phu Quoc, the Vietnamese island gem just off the coast of Cambodia, there are many ferry services that serve the island. However, a short plane ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc with a budget carrier may be a lot more appealing to passengers with no sea legs.
Getting around Ho Chi Minh City, and other southern towns and cities, is very similar to getting around any other busy Southeast Asian city – it is best done on two wheels! While metered taxis are available for visitors who don’t want to chance it on a motorbike or cyclo, feeling the wind in your hair as you ride often makes for a more authentic experience of street culture. Always remember to negotiate a price with the driver before starting your journey.
The majority of nationalities require a month-long tourist visa to enter Vietnam. Visas should be obtained prior to your arrival in the country, although they can be extended once you arrive.
Vietnam’s largest international airport, Tan Son Nhat, is situated a convenient eight-mile hop from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Ton Son Nhat connects straight to Australia, Europe and many other Asian countries including Bangkok and Singapore.
Both of Vietnam’s cross-border rail entry points are situated on the northern border with China, so visitors that do enter the country via train face a 35-hour journey after they board the Reunification Express in the northern capital city of Hanoi. While the prospect of a 35-hour journey may sound daunting to some, a ride along Reunification line provides a unique opportunity for visitors to absorb some of Vietnam’s stunning scenery. Saigon Train Station (Gah Sài Gòn) is located in the northwest of the city center.
The majority of visitors that enter Southern Vietnam by bus do so via the Cambodia border crossing at Moc Bai (Bavet on the Cambodia side). There are multiple bus companies that run this fast and affordable services avery day. Southern Vietnam is also served by the Xa Xia/ Prek Chank border with Cambodia, with buses running between Vietnam’s Ha Tien and Cambodian cities like Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Buses are often an economical way for travelers to cross borders between Cambodia and Vietnam, but it is still essential to gain a visa before you arrive at the Vietnamese border.
Visitors that enjoy the open water experience many prefer to enter Vietnam via one of the river crossing links that connects Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, with the Vietnamese capital of Chau Doc. Travelers can opt for the fast or slow service, with the average journey time lasting five hours.