By: Sarah Funk
Sponsored by Marco Polo Guidebooks
Vietnam is buzzing with energy. With thousands of motorbikes rumbling down the street at once, and market vendors shouting their prices at all hours of the day, this is one country that is full of life, despite it’s tumultuous history.
Throughout its 4,000 years, Vietnam has been victim of foreign rule and war like no other country on earth. However, the people have always stayed true to their roots as fisherman, rice farmers, or modern entrepreneurs with a deep love of Buddhist culture and family ideals.
The idea of exploring Vietnam has always enticed my inner adventurer. It was obvious that this country was one I needed to visit, but with its massive size I didn’t know where to start.
I picked up a copy of Marco Polo’s Vietnam book. With its beautiful glossy photos, self guided tours, tips, history, and excellent stories about the country, it was a no brainer about which guidebook to purchase. After reading the book, I decided that Southern Vietnam was the place I wanted to visit most.
While exploring the south of the country with my book in hand; I discovered four places that everyone needs to visit in this region. They are great because they’re all unique in their own way, and less than a 5-hour bus rides from central Ho Chi Minh City – making the journey convenient and inexpensive, since no flights are involved.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – A Bustling Vietnamese metropolis
To begin your journey across Southern Vietnam, I recommend flying into Ho Chi Minh City. It’s central with a rich network of transportation across the lower part of the country.
Ho Chi Minh City is the nucleus of the South. It was here, where I lived for four weeks of bliss, visiting almost every site recommended in the Marco Polo Guidebook, doing a self-walking tour that they created, and falling in love with Vietnamese cuisine.
This city is the definition of organized chaos. Thousands of scooters speed in all directions on the road and sidewalks. There seem to be no traffic rules at all, and it can be scary crossing the street. Despite it’s perceived danger, the city itself is very safe. Plus, the attractions are worth the visit alone.
I recommend going to a traditional show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, which is a unique type of entertainment found nowhere else on earth, in which puppets perform in a water stage to a live orchestra. Also, a visit to the War Remnants Museum is essential to understanding the countries history.
There is so much to see in this city. Here are a few “can’t miss” things to do:
· Attend the critically acclaimed A O Show at the Opera House
· Bargain for a tasty lunch at the Ben Thanh Market
· Walk along the luxurious Le Loi Street
· Learn about Vietnamese medicine men at the FITO Museum
· Relax in the lush greenery of Binh Quoi Village
· Do a self guided temple and pagoda tour with Marco Polo’s Vietnam guidebook (page 404 in book)
The Mekong Delta – Authentic Vietnam
If you want to see what true Southeast Asia looks like, a visit to the Mekong Delta is necessary. It was in this area that I felt I was in a postcard for Vietnam. The area is the ultimate example of a tropical climate with its endless green landscapes, rice paddy fields, and thousands of colorful fruit vendors on every street. Local women and men wear circular cone hats called nón lá, that I had only previously saw in National Geographic photos. It is a site that can’t be erased from memory. Truly breathtaking!
Marco Polo recommended a boat trip along the small canals and swampland of Ca Mau. It was everything one could want from a Southern Vietnam adventure. We paddled along the lush forests, in a carved canoe wearing the traditional nón lá hats.
This area is known to get flooded every two to five years. Since I visited during rainy season, I was incredibly impressed with the local’s resilience to pouring rain. There could be flooding up to their calves and they would still ride motorbikes!
If you love nature, you’ll love this area. I also recommend:
· Taking a boat through the floating market at Cai Rang
· Biking along the lush jungle paths on Phoenix Island
· Visiting the Big Buddha at Vĩnh Tràng Temple
Cu Chi – A Reminder of Vietnam's Strength
During the Vietnam War, the locals created an elaborate underground tunnel system in this area to protect themselves against the Americans. Visiting this area is eye opening because the tunnels are incredibly small today, yet they are 40% larger than they were during the war so that tourists can fit in them. If you are claustrophobic or carrying too much weight, I recommend steering clear of a trip into the tunnels.
While exploring this area, I read in my Marco Polo Vietnam guidebook that the tunnels were up to three levels deep and went as far into the earth as 33 feet. Using this system, the Vietcong soldiers and their families lived for year’s underground. The tunnels were transformed from a protection system to an underground city as the war progressed.
How to get there: Book a half-day tour through any local tourism agency. If you want to arrive by boat it will cost about $50, and by bus it is about $13. This includes entrance fees. To find a local tourism agency go to the Ben Thanh Market area and there are tons of inexpensive travel agencies. Note: You can bargain on price.
Mui Ne (Phan Thiet): A Fisherman’s Village and Travelers Paradise
After exploring Vietnam’s delta, city, and history, it was time to experience their paradise. I found a sandy wonderland in the fisherman village of Mui Ne.
This area is still relatively unknown by tourists, however, thanks to Marco Polo I was able to add this hidden gem to my journey across Southern Vietnam. The area is known for their red sand dunes that resemble the Sahara dessert, a site found nowhere else in the country. For me the sand dunes were fun, but the local seafood is truly the star of this area.
It was in Mui Ne that I had the best fish I’ve ever had in my life. No exaggeration on this. I went to a local fisherman’s restaurant called Tuan Thao 180 and was instructed to select a live fish from a tank and then the women scooped it out of the water with a basket, cleaned it and put it directly on the grill. The flavors were better than anything I’ve had at a Michelin Star restaurant. It was so good that I went back and ordered the same thing for lunch the next day!
This area is perfect for beach or seafood lovers. In addition to the recommendations above, check out the following:
· Take a walk through the colorful Fairy Stream
· Relax on white sand beaches and swim in the warm ocean water
· Stay at a beautiful hotel for about $25 a night (I loved Dynasty Resort)
· Gaze at a vast ocean filled with hundreds of vibrantly colored fisherman boats
· Ride an ATV along the white sand dunes
Southern Vietnam is sprinkled with authentic cultural experiences, unique landscapes, and buzzing city life. If you’re planning on visiting, I recommend picking up a Marco Polo Vietnam Guidebook to direct your journey. I love the book because it is more than an average guidebook. It has reviews the country’s in-depth history and stories, has beautiful imagery, and tons of tips and recommendations.
Don’t miss these four areas when exploring the country. Each is a puzzle piece that creates an overall image of Southern Vietnam.
This article is sponsored by Marco Polo guidebooks. However, the opinions are my own. To pick up a guidebook, visit www.marco-polo.com.