Sometimes Ho Chi Minh City feels like its own separate country with its various districts, its sprawling urban landscape, and the sheer size. You can live a lifetime in the city and still discover new places every weekend, it’s dynamic yet ancient.
Ho Chi Minh City has a dynamism that is hard to ignore. Old alleyways take you into history, like corridors that seem to defy the rules of time to give you a glimpse of what Ho Chi Minh City was like many years ago. Then there are also places that re-purpose the new, the in-between places, like clothing workshops or tea rooms that have taken residence in old apartment buildings in the heart of the city.
Saigon is even developing its own artistic tattoo scene, take a look at this article on the top 5 places to get a tattoo! There is also the very new, the more than new, setting trends and breathing exciting life into the modern landscape. In a place so big, different urban ecosystems have developed; the close-knit community of District 5, or the huge shopping malls of District 1, all with their own city denizens, it is hard to imagine that you might want to leave.
Traveling around Saigon is difficult enough; the traffic can be horrible and the distances between cool districts can be great. If you do not know how to get around, take a look at this article to make things easier on yourself. In this article, I will help you with a general map of the city so you can begin to understand the vastness I speak of, as well as places, outside and around the city, that you might want to escape to!
Understanding the City: The Districts
Most visitors will strictly stick to District 1 as it has many sights and attractions as well as awesome food and nightlife. It is relatively easy to walk everywhere although the ongoing construction of the metro has made it a tad more difficult. You will find Bui Vien street, the French Opera House, and the regal post office among many things. Although all the big hotels and sky bars are located in D1, there are also many charming streets such as the antique street and converted apartments on Nguyen Hue. The overall layout is very pleasant with wide streets and a few green spaces where you can find weekend markets!
Districts 2 and 7 are known as the expat districts. These areas feel much newer and renovated although you will notice many down-trodden homes still in District 2 because it used to be a very poor part of the city. D2 has many chique cafés, restaurants, and hangouts that are mostly Western-inspired. You might also think about popping in for some shopping, although all of Saigon has incredible shopping to offer!
My favorite district to visit is China town or District 5, but it really stretches to 6 and 10 as well. There are many beautiful pagodas and foods to taste. Spend an afternoon walking the tight alleyways, sit back in a small plastic chair with a café sua da and simply watch the people living around you.
I myself get confused as to the direction, location, and specialization of each district. There is so much to see and do in Ho Chi Minh city, sometimes you must simply close your eyes and pick. If you feel this way too, check out this article that will take you through getting around Saigon.
Go for the Floating Markets: The Mekong Delta
The Mekong makes its home atop the branching distributaries of the Mekong River. Just west of Saigon, the area of the Mekong Delta fluctuates with the rainy season. Besides being rich in animal and plant life, with over 1,000 species of animals, this area also has a rich history. Many artifacts have been uncovered attributed to the Funan Kingdom which was centered in the Mekong Delta from the first to sixth century CE, the Funan people may have established themselves even earlier. A lot of evidence pertaining to these people is inconclusive which contributes to the mystery of the Mekong!
As you may have guessed this area is mainly agriculture and aquaculture land. A lot of rice and fish distributed throughout Vietnam come from this area. You will notice that the buildings seem built on the water, and there are indeed many floating homes, alongside more busy towns that are alive with teeming life and commerce. Yet the peace out on the water is incomparable, especially if you are looking for an escape from Saigon.
There are even old war bunkers in the mangrove forests, wildlife you have never seen before tangled in the mangrove tree roots. There is so much to see alone in the Mekong Delta.
Peaceful Island Life: Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc is located in the Gulf of Thailand, just south of Cambodia. It is the largest island in Vietnam known for its fish sauce and black pepper production. You can reach this island by flight from Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, and the smaller airports of Rach Gia and Can Tho. You can also reach the island by ferry.
This island once held South Vietnam’s prisoners during the Vietnam War. It has not seen many inhabitants until recently. Now the tourism industry is breathing new life into the island and the beautiful beaches and roads through the jungle call on expats and tourists. Big luxurious resorts are quickly being built along Sao beach. As you can imagine, the seafood is also incredible as the options are limitless and fresh.
I find the most inviting thing about Phu Quoc to be the idea that you can explore the various islands. The port in An Thoi has many local boats that will take you to tiny islands like Fingernail island where the turquoise water meets a simple jungle paradise. There are so many things to do! Discover Starfish beach or trek farther into the jungle to swim in the freshwater waterfalls. The still water makes for a pleasant snorkeling experience where you can find the delicate body of the seahorse. Sunsets are even more generous here as the light seems to spread forever on the silken horizon. Here tranquility invites you to relax.
Mountain Escape: Da Lat
Da Lat is about 300 kilometers to the north of Ho Chi Minh city but the peaceful environment makes it seem like even farther a distance. The weather is cooler, the air is fresher, and the landscape is vast so it makes for the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of Saigon. Not only is the landscape a wonder but the old French architecture of the city is charming as well. Spend the afternoon simply walking and enjoying the cool weather and peaceful faces of the buildings. You might even think about enjoying Da Lat during your favorite flower season.
Check out the cool air and hilltop life of Da Lat
You can choose between a few options to get here. There is an easy flight from Ho Chi Minh city to an airport 30 kilometers outside of Da Lat called Lien Khuong. The flight takes only 50 minutes and they run pretty cheap. You can also take a long bus ride, more than 8 hours, or even rent a motorbike for the unbeatable scenery! For an exploration of what to see, do and eat in Da Lat, you can check these articles out.
Beachside Parties: Vung Tau
This city, centered on the peninsula and surrounded by beaches on three sides, is the perfect getaway from the hot pavement of Ho Chi Minh city. Vung Tau is about 100 kilometers from Saigon and it sees many visitors on the weekends. Vung Tau feels more industrial because of the oil business and the spacious streets—you might even call them boulevards. The bar scene is quite lively, so a weekend paired with sand between your toes and a night that never ends might be the perfect thing you need to let go of the big city life. If you are craving more outdoor activities, you can also hike to the lighthouse or Jesus statue.
The easiest way to get here is to hop on a bus. There are many companies that operate buses to this area so it should not be hard to find one.
An Awakened Fishing Village: Mui Ne
Mui Ne was once a tiny fishing village on the coast, around 200 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh city. In recent years development has changed the face of the city and resorts line the 10-kilometer stretch of beach. Visitors really come here for two things: kite surfing and the sand dunes. There are white and red sand dunes outside the city center, the red sand dunes are 11 kilometers away and the white sand dunes are closer to 30 kilometers away. If you visit the red sand dunes, try going in the morning to catch the sunrise when there are fewer tourists. If you visit the white sand dunes, think about renting an ATV and having fun on the sand. Keep in mind that many tourist buses stop at these dunes, so you will not be the only one enjoying the area.
If you also want to try your hand at kite surfing, this is the spot to do it. There are many schools that offer lessons, but make sure you are booking with a reputable teacher as there are many that are not. The windy season is the best time to visit Mui Ne if you are going for the kitesurfing: late October to April.
History in Paradise: Con Dao Islands
The Con Dao islands have a dark history but beautiful scenery. There are 16 islands and the largest island is named Con Son. During the French era, the islands were a jail cell for political prisoners, and during the Vietnam War, these islands held the Viet Cong in very harsh conditions. Despite its dark past that lingers still in the minds of the older generations, this island is now increasingly seen as a getaway.
Island paradise on Con Dao…with a dark history.
There are many species of wildlife and aquatic life that live in and around the islands as 80% of the island is forested. Tremendous reefs are home to other-worldly colors and creatures. Besides the beaches and outdoor activities, you should also check out the prisons and memorials. Be cognizant of the people living on the island, think about eating locally to contribute money directly to the local economy instead of into the big hotels.
It is relatively tricky to get here. Vietnam Airlines operates flights to an airport on the north end of Con Son. Flights will often seem booked or unavailable online but if you go into a booking office in Saigon, you can usually get flights for a higher price. You can also take a ferry from Vung Tau.
The unique history and remarkable scenery make these islands worth a visit. If you want to see untouched Vietnam and you don’t want to venture to the mountains of Sapa, take the small plane to Con Dao! We cover here for you of what to see, do and where to stay in Con Dao, let’s check it out!
Ho Chi Minh City is vast and energetic. It can suck you in for a few days or even months, but there are also incredible places to visit outside the city. Don’t limit yourself to the concrete jungle, try the real jungles of Con Dao or the take a boat along the rice paddies of the Mekong. Either way, you will get a taste of the dynamism of Vietnam.