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Things to Do in Southern Vietnam

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Cu Chi Tunnels
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433 Tours and Activities

The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of underground passageways that run to more than 120 miles (200 kilometers) in total length in this area alone. Work by the Viet Cong commenced in 1948 as a means of shelter from the French air attacks during the Indochina conflict.

The network provided vital access and strategic control over the large rural area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City; over the following two decades the tunnels became a complex underground city including hospitals, defenses and living quarters. This meant despite all the bombings in the area many of the local people could still continue to live underground. In its prime and at its most impressive the Cu Chi Tunnels stretched from the southern Vietnamese capital all the way to the Cambodian border to the west, and in places was dug to 3 stories deep.

Much of the original tunnel system was destroyed in bombing raids during the 1970s but existing parts have been restored and opened.

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Mui Ne
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Mui Ne is a beautiful stretch of beach that started as a far-flung escape for backpacker types in the 1990s, but has now evolved into a string of upscale and boutique beach resorts. The area is geographically blessed with sand dunes that stave off the monsoon rains of nearby Phan Thiet and for much of the year—especially October through April—strong onshore winds make it a Mecca for wind and kite surfers. The beach resort section of Mui Ne runs along a 10-mile stretch of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, with resort on the beach side of the street, shops and restaurants on the other. The actual town of Mui Ne occupies a headland at the eastern end of the beach. Besides watersports, one of Mui Ne’s top attractions are the red and white sand dunes that you can see independently on foot, or as part of a jeep tour. The Fairy Stream runs through the dunes, creating red rock formations that can be explored by wading upstream along the shallow creek.

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Mekong River
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The 2,700-mile-long Mighty Mekong is the 12th-longest river in the world and the main artery of Southeast Asia. Its flowing waters are the beating pulse for a region that includes the fertile delta in Ho Chi Minh City, the scenic hills of Laos, the thick forests in Thailand and Cambodia and even the Yunnan province of China and the Tibetan Plateau.

The Mekong River serves as a hub for life in Southeast Asia, and it’s home to some of the region’s most unique biodiversity. Farmers grow exotic fruits along the lush shores; fishermen cast handmade nets in search of the day’s catch; and bustling communities come to life each morning along the banks of this massive river. A trip along the Mekong River provides travelers with a quiet break from the electricity of city streets, while still granting easy—and scenic—access to some of Southeast Asia’s most-popular cities, including Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

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War Remnants Museum (Bao Tang Chung Tich Chien Tranh)
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Opened in 1975, just a few months after the liberation, the War Remnants Museum is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Laid out in 8 themed rooms are different aspects of the war from imprisonment, to chemical warfare and military might.

In the grounds there are military equipment, weaponry and aircraft on display including fighter planes, helicopters and tanks. Some of the exhibits are shockingly gruesome, explicit photos and prisoner cages detail a war-torn history. This is the story of the Vietnam War told from the other side which mixes the atrocities of war with the reality of military hardware.

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Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon)
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The Gothic twin bell towers of this classic cathedral stretch high into the skyline, marking this as a destination for those looking to escape the buzz of Ho Chi Minh and find some quiet contemplation. Saigon Notre-Dame’s striking red façade and towering stone archways were constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its unique architecture is not the only draw to this iconic city landmark. In 2005, visitors reported seeing tears flow from the eyes of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on religious pilgrimage.

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Saigon Central Post Office
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Few major cities count the post office among their top tourist attractions, but the classic interior of Saigon Central Post Office continues to be a favorite destination among travelers visiting Ho Chi Minh City for the first time.

Completed in 1891, the design of this architectural landmark mimics an old world European railway station with mile-high ceilings, a larger-than-life portrait of Ho Chi Minh and a centrally located clock face. These rich details are what manage to draw even the travelers who arrive with plans to purchase stamps or mail postcards, to pause and soak up the brilliant interior, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.

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Saigon River (Song Sai Gon)
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As a main water supply, the Saigon River is critically important to the residents of Ho Chi Minh City. Spend a few days in Ho Chi Minh, and you’ll discover it’s a young, modern city on the move. In contrast, cruising along the Saigon River gives you a glimpse of a more rural Vietnam, where life moves at a slower pace, much like it did decades ago.

The best way to experience the river is by plying its waters in a traditional Vietnamese junk boat. Many such tours offer a meal -- usually lunch or dinner -- along the way. While it’s possible to see the river for the river’s sake, you can also use the river to get to the popular Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong to infiltrate the area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City during the Vietnam War.

While the portion of the river seen by most tourists is in southern Vietnam, it actually starts in southeastern Cambodia and flows south over a 140-mile (225-kilometer) distance.

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Reunification Palace (Independence Palace)
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The Reunification Palace is an important site of political and cultural significance, built by the French in 1868 to mark the newly established colony of Indochina.

In 1945, it briefly became the headquarters for the Japanese after their defeat of the French. In 1962, two Vietnamese rebel pilots bombed the palace - the president survived but the palace did not. He commissioned a new one to be built. It was renamed Independence Palace and the design became a Modernist icon. In 1975 the palace was the symbolic site of the triumphant liberation of Saigon. Vietnam was then reunified; since then the building has been known as Reunification Palace. Today it is a working government building as well as having areas open to the public. Tour the private quarters, the president's former office and the War Command Room. You get a real sense of what happened here and its importance in Vietnamese history.

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More Things to Do in Southern Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Cruise Ports

Ho Chi Minh City Cruise Ports

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Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a sophisticated city of more than seven million people, making it the largest city in Vietnam.

Larger cruise ships will dock at Phu My, a port on the South China Sea, about 2.5 hours from Ho Chi Minh City. Smaller and mid-size ships that are able to navigate the Saigon River dock much closer to the city. Many ships will provide shuttles from either port into the centre of the city.

Kick off your day with a visit to Reunification Hall, once the presidential palace of South Vietnam. Take a tour of this somewhat eerie building that has been left mostly untouched since the 1960s. From there, move on to the War Remnants Museum, whose moving and sometimes disturbing exhibits share the story of the Vietnam War from a distinctly Communist perspective.

Next, head to the Ben Thanh Market, a bustling market that dates back to 1914. Scan the stalls for paintings, porcelain and jewelry before grabbing a late lunch.

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Ben Thanh Market (Cho Ben Thanh)

Ben Thanh Market (Cho Ben Thanh)

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Let the spirit of Ho Chi Minh City lift you up and carry you through this network of colorful bustling activity. Cho Ben Thanh, or Ben Thanh Market, comes alive every evening with a thrum of tireless energy that never ceases to enthrall.

This is the most celebrated and regularly visited of the markets. It is also the most central, located in one of the liveliest parts of the city where the streets and alleyways surrounding the market place fill with food stalls.

At Ben Thanh Market you can expect to find almost everything that the locals might need in their day to day lives: from fresh meats and vegetables to clothes, domestic items, pots, woven baskets and bamboo ladders. This is a feast for the senses.Take in the sounds: the excited chatter of shoppers and the pitch of vendors’ voices rising into the steaming night.

Breathe in the sweet spiced air - chili, tamarind, ginger - and witness the bright array of colors from exotic fruits to beautiful silks.

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Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon)

Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon)

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East meets west at this stunning example of French Colonial architecture in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The gleaming white municipal theater, which is home the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, was built in 1897. Its well-lit façade casts a brilliant glow on nearby city streets. Visitors can file into the 1,800 seat theater to catch regular dress rehearsals, or buy a ticket for one of the weekly cultural shows the theater is known for. On weekends, free public performances take place on the opera house steps and the nearby park offers travelers a perfect spot to stop and enjoy the music.

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Sao Beach

Sao Beach

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Cholon (Saigon Chinatown)

Cholon (Saigon Chinatown)

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Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown district, dominates the west bank of the city, boasting the attractions of Quan Am Pagoda, Thien Hau Temple, Binh Tay Market and numerous teahouses. Visit this long-established Chinese community (the largest of its kind in Vietnam) and soak up the fascinating culture, architecture and sights.

Quan Am Pagoda - a Chinese-style Buddhist temple - features beautiful courtyards, gardens, a pond and a Jade Emperor. At Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the sea, check the stunning carved porcelain ceiling designs. Cholon Mosque and Cha Tam - the catholic cathedral - as well as the thriving Binh Tay market also add to the rich texture of this historic community.

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Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

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The Mekong Delta covers an area of approximately 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) to the west of Ho Chi Minh City.The Mekong Delta is where the mighty Mekong river completes its 2,700 mile (4,300 km) journey from the Tibetan plateau and empties its riches into the South China Sea.This is an area of lush, tropical and fertile lands. It is often referred to as the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam due its huge production of rice crop. Vegetables, exotic fruits (coconuts, mangoes, rambutan) and fishing also feature prominently here. Life in the delta revolves around the river, and as such this is the only real way to view and understand it. See its many waterways, communities and cottage industries that are so vital to the way of living here including the thriving local floating markets.

The area is rich in lush green vegetation and the pace of life is relaxing, the setting natural and serene. This makes for a great break away from the hustle of the city.

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Thien Hau Temple (Chua Ba Thien Hau)

Thien Hau Temple (Chua Ba Thien Hau)

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The Cholon neighborhood, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, is dotted with traditional Chinese-style pagodas and temples, including one of the neighborhood’s most popular places of worship, the Thien Hau Temple. Built by Cantonese immigrants in the early 19th century, this temple honors the goddess of the sea, Thien Hau (more commonly named Mazu).

Located on a busy street, it would be easy to walk right past Thien Hau, but it’s well worth stopping in to see the architecture and interior. On the outside, the temple roof is adorned with delicately worked porcelain figures depicting scenes from Chinese legend. You’ll find even more of these porcelain dioramas on the interior walls of the temple as well. Before you even step through the exterior gate of the temple, the smells of burning incense should already be apparent. Dozens of huge conical coiled incense hang from the ceiling over the main worship area, permeating the space with a smoky haze and an intense odour.

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Cao Dai Temple (Toa Thanh Tay Ninh)

Cao Dai Temple (Toa Thanh Tay Ninh)

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There are many Cao Dai temples around southern Vietnam but none that compare to this. This stunning example is the most impressive in all senses. Built over a 20-year period and completed in 1956, it is the original...and the best.

Like the Cao Dai religion itself, the building's architecture marries eastern and western influences. The temple is part-cathedral, part-pagoda, part-mosque, and part-fairytale. Unusual pastel colors are embellished with gold and polished glass, and outside the building is guarded by ornate brightly-colored dragons that are as much fantasy as fearsome. The interior is equally if not more striking than outside. Swirling Rococo design is complemented by various statues of gods - Jesus Christ, Brahman, Buddha - standing side by side; a vision of peaceful harmony in a once war-torn area.

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Saigon Skydeck

Saigon Skydeck

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated to the Taoist god, Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang (or the God of Heavens), the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a working temple that’s widely considered to be one of the finest and most atmospheric in Ho Chi Minh City.

Beneath a roof adorned with elaborate depictions of dragons, birds, and animals, this fascinating pagoda is filled with exquisite gilt woodcarvings and reinforced papier maché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.

The statue of the Jade Emperor, shrouded in robes and flanked by his guardians, resides in the dramatically named Chamber of 10 Hells. Out the door and to the left of this main chamber is a semi-­enclosed room presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, sitting alongside his red horse, while the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, an important part of any Taoist temple, has an altar on the top floor.

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Binh Tay Market (Cho Binh Tay)

Binh Tay Market (Cho Binh Tay)

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At the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, the central Binh Tay Market is a popular spot among visitors and tour groups thanks to the backdrop of picturesque French-Chinese architecture. The modern market was built in 1928 after the original burned down. A Chinese businessman Quach Dam funded the reconstruction, and you can find a memorial to him at the center of the market. The ornate statue of Quach Dam that was the market’s original centerpiece now resides at the Fine Art Museum. Binh Tay is Ho Chi Minh City’s largest market, comprising four city blocks. During a visit here, you can peruse a mind-boggling array of wares, everything from pottery and flowers to cheap souvenirs, noodle stalls and vendors selling bulk rice and wholesale produce.

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Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve

Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve

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Southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, where the Mekong Delta meets the South China Sea, Can Gio Mangrove Reserve is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Said to be the “green lungs” of the city, the area is an important natural wetland that attracts numerous bird species like migratory spot-billed pelicans and painted storks, and acts a nursery for many types of fish and marine life like crabs and shrimp. Boat trips to the reserve include wildlife spotting adventures in Giant Bat Lagoon, a paddling excursion to Rung Sac Guerilla Base, and a stop at Vam Sat Eco Park, where you can visit a crocodile reserve, spot monkeys playing in the trees, and take a hike through the mangroves to spot birds and other wildlife.

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Tao Dan Park

Tao Dan Park

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Located just south of The Independence Palace, Tao Dan Park is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s largest and most serene parks known for the more than 1,000 large and mature trees that populate the space. The park is home to unique plant sculptures of various animals like dragons and tigers and replicas of Nha Trang's Cham Tower and Hung King Temple. The street Truong Dinh bisects the park, and on the northeast side of the street, you can find a modern sculpture garden.

Many locals visit the park early in the morning to walk or practice tai chi, and the nearby Tao Dan Cafe is known as the “bird café” for the groups of birdkeepers who congregate here to show off their cages of songbirds. At the northern corner of the park, you can see the historic building of the former Cercle Sportif, a colonial-era French sporting club that is now the Worker’s Club, with a swimming pool and tennis courts.

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