Vietnam’s north with the capital Hanoi is a draw for many tourists. The south is less crowded but offers some highlights: the bustling Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and the alleged island paradise of Phu Quoc.
At first it simply seemed impossible to take a single step in Saigon. Scooters were zooming past from every direction, flooding the streets and sidewalks – here the traffic never stops. In order to cross the street you have to ignore your natural instincts and just walk.
Saigon’s eventful past
Despite difficult traffic conditions Saigon – or Ho Chi Minh City, its official name since 1975 – is best discovered on foot. Many of the main sights are found in District 1; there’s the Ben Thanh Market, the party and backpacker street Bui Vien and the yellow post office built by the French colonialists.
Visiting the War Remnants Museum is a sobering experience; many of the photos show the horrendous nature of war
In District 1 you will also find the huge War Remnants Museum that contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War, many showing the atrocities in graphic detail: Visitors are confronted with photos depicting mass murders and mutilated bodies, while outside there’s a collection of American wartime equipment.
Getting a glimpse into the War is interesting, but also depressing. A delicious hot bowl of Pho soup will lift the mood: Vietnam’s national dish is made of beef bone broth, noodles, thinly sliced beef, fresh herbs and is available on every street corner. The perfect accompaniment for the hot soup is a cold Saigon Special, the local beer.
One day fighting for the Vietcong
"We don’t hold grudges against the Americans anymore", said Phat, our tour guide, as we sat in a minivan driving out of the city. My travel companion and I had booked a tour to explore a small but influential location of the Vietnam War: The Cu Chi tunnels. The Vietcong used the network of tunnels to strategically fight their enemies.
The Cu Chi tunnels are by no means an insider’s tip. There’s one tourist group after another, those who want to go into the tunnels have to wait in line.
The tour became an experience of joining the Vietcong for one day: We crawled through the tunnels, watched old propaganda videos and even fired a Kalashnikov rifle at a shooting range. Although both my companion and I do not support guns it was quite fun (and loud!). Before we made our way back to Saigon we ended the day tour with a round of snake wine shots.
Entering the Mekong Delta
To avoid the tourist groups that stop at the floating markets in My Tho (most tours from Saigon stop here) we chose to take the bus a little further down, to the town of Ben Tre. It was the first time we saw juicy green rice fields, plantations and the green-brown channels of the Mekong River.
Approximately 2.5 hours later we arrived at the Oasis Hotel, a small and cozy abode with a few simple rooms, a little pool and fellow backpackers reading their wrinkled guide books in hammocks. We received a warm welcome, some recommendations for the area and arranged a Mekong boat trip for the next morning.
During our evening stroll we noticed something that seemed nearly unreal after four days in Saigon: silence. The only noticeable sounds were only the gentle lapping of the water in the moonlight and the far away the barking of a dog. When we walked past some restaurants people stared at us, some of them waved and smiled. We looked around and realized - yes, it was true: we were the only tourists around.
Boat tour with Hao
Hao, a smiling man in black trousers and white shirt helped us to get into the boat for our day tour. We sat on two plastic chairs, equipped with a fruit platter and iced coffee from the hotel nestled between us. Hao informed us about the economic and cultural meaning of the Delta river system. Sadly though we didn’t understand everything he was saying – Hao had a strong accent like many Vietnamese. Nevertheless we were awed by the beauty around us. The glimmer of the sun on the water, small and big boats passing us, women washing their clothes in the river and fishermen casting their nets – there was a lot to see.
Together with Hao we visited a coconut plantation and a bamboo mat weaving shop, before stopping at a small restaurant for our lunch break. We enjoyed an authentic menu consisting of fresh summer rolls (Vietnamese spring rolls), fish, chicken and omelets.
Can Tho and the floating markets
The next stop on our journey through the Delta was Vietnam’s fourth biggest city: Can Tho. With a fresh banh mi – a baguette sandwich with shredded pork, cilantro, vegetables and pate – and an iced Vietnamese coffee in hand we took a walk around the youthful town and to Ninh Kieu Pier. It didn‘t take long until a lady walked up to sell us a boat tour to the floating market in Cai Rang. We paid a deposit and were handed a little piece of paper.
It was around five in the morning and still dark when we got into our boat to Cai Rang market, which is approximately six kilometers from the city. Little by little the shade of the morning sky started to get brighter; the raucous noises of bats that had just woken up filled the air. The market was about to open. Some of the boats seemed to almost at sinking point under the mass of pineapple or watermelon they were carrying.
Phu Quoc – still a paradise?
Another bus trip and a bumpy ferry ride later we arrived at what has long been deemed a ‘paradise’: the island of Phu Quoc. A few days of pure relaxation – that’s how we wanted to wind up our trip. The resort looked as amazing as the photos promised: a beautiful pool and garden area, a private beach with a bar and restaurant, and a luxurious spa. Phu Quoc has changed a lot in the last couple of years: in 2012 the island’s first airport was opened, in 2015 a huge entertainment and water park was set up in the north, with a giant safari park following in 2016. New resorts are still being built everywhere, turning the island into a big construction site.
The times of untouched white sand beaches and tranquil peace seem to be over for Phu Quoc. There’s obviously a lot of money being invested to attract ever more tourists. Nonetheless we managed a few relaxing days by the beach and the pool, we ate fantastic seafood and even went on a safari tour.