Cosmopolitan and vibrant Ho Chi Minh City is ripe in history. Every visit to this exciting city should include trips to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, which offer haunting—yet highly educating—histories of Vietnam War.
But there’s so much to see right outside Ho Chi Minh City as well. Immediately south of the metropolis is the enticing Mekong Delta, where one of Asia’s longest rivers empties into the South China Sea. The following six towns and cities are excellent day trip destinations that perfectly contrast Ho Chi Minh City’s hustle.
Ho Chi Minh City can be overwhelming with all its people, shops, restaurants and never-ending traffic. But right in the middle of the Mekong, between Mỹ Tho and Bến Tre, are three lush, car-free islands—Dragon (Con Tan Long), Tortoise (Con Quy) and Unicorn (Con Thoi Son)—that should not be missed. Hire a boatman for the short hop and see tropical fruit farms and coconut candy factories, a popular local sweet. Once back on land, Mỹ Tho’s riverside boulevard offers many no-frills, open-air restaurants that dish up fresh seafood at incredibly low prices.
A half hour south of Mỹ Tho is Bến Tre province and the town of the same name. Check out the waterfront to see local fishermen moor their traditional Southern Vietnamese boats. The eyes painted on the front bows are a good luck charm, drawn to keep storms, pirates and crocodiles away. A visit to the free Revolutionary Museum along the Mekong in Hung Vuong street, a beautiful colonial building set in quiet gardens, offers insight on the American War. Continuing down the riverfront, there’s a lively market that’s best visited in the mornings. Plus, there’s an interesting coconut candy factory in town that offers free tours.
This small city and its namesake province have a sizable Khmer population. This ethnic group built many temples similar to those found at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Vam Ray Temple in the Ham Tan Commune is the most striking, and the biggest Khmer monument in Vietnam. It has a series of bronze warrior statues set around its perimeter wall, all exquisitely carved. After temple spotting, a visit to the town’s central market is a great way to see locals in straw hats peddle their goods. Diagonally opposite the market, Tuy Hoang restaurant dishes up delicious Vietnamese classics.
Cai Be is famous for its morning floating market, where locals sell their produce in the middle of the Mekong, exchanging goods from their wooden dinghies. It’s also interesting to arrive in town later in the day when the last fishermen are hauling the leftovers back on the docks, and are happy to share a casual chat. From Cai Be, one shouldn’t miss the chance to visit the nearby village of Dong Hoa Hiep, with its ancient mansions sprouting amidst orchards filled with colorful fruits all year round. Among the buildings is Ba Duc house, one of the most well-preserved examples of French-Indochines architecture. It’s been transformed into a restaurant and upmarket guesthouse.
Rather than busy Cần Thơ, Vietnam’s fourth-largest city, proceed to the east and stop at this famous Delta settlement. The place looks a bit overdeveloped by tourism, but the riverside strip next to the Mekong, with its colonial homes and flat boulevards that make for great viewpoints, is a relaxing place for a stroll. Four kilometers south of town along the main road Pham Thai Buong, the Van Thanh Mieu Pagoda and its gardens are an interesting excursion from the city, as well as being one of Vietnam’s rare Confucian shrines.
Sleepy Sa Đéc, less than a hour west of Vĩnh Long, is the charming colonial hamlet that hosted French literate Marguerite Duras from 1928 to 1932. She enjoyed the place so much that she used it as the setting for her famous novel The Lover. The town is also home to one of the Delta’s best flower nurseries, the Flower Village, where visitors can see thousands of rare plant species. Also, right off the main town square and facing the Mekong, is a local fish market that offers another insight into Sa Đéc’s daily life. Sit in a corner with a cup of cà phê đá (iced Vietnamese dripping coffee), and observe how life unfolds, still not too differently from Duras’ times.
There’s no denying the excitement and must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. But to get an authentic glimpse into everyday life in Vietnam, these quieter, but richly interesting day trips will make for a perfectly balanced trip.