Vanuatu has had one of the most turbulent histories of any island nation in the region due to repeat recolonization. As a result, the country has an unusual mix of cultures and buildings present and sadly has a lower population than when the first contact was made with Europeans. In my opinion, Vanuatu has a fantastic atmosphere to it, a very happy and welcoming atmosphere, more so than New Caledonia. A key highlight of visiting Port Vila is the central marketplace, which acts as a hub for the entire town. In this market, you will find every fruit, vegetable, and meat available in the country. Additionally, you will find a traditional food area serving all local dishes, as well as goods market which sells every manner of tourist nicknacks and garments. I also suggest making the walk to the top of the central hill in town as it offers a beautiful view of the island in all directions. The city also has a fantastic kava shop, stocking every variation of kava available. If you are not familiar with kava, it is a traditional substance consumed throughout the Pacific. It is a sedative that causes relaxation and numbness and is normally used in large social settings. Port Vila overall is a nice place to spend a relaxing day and take in Vanuatu’s culture and cuisine.
New Caledonia is a Pacific Island nation located just east of Brisbane Australia. The nation is a former French colony and has a rich mix of French and traditional tribal culture. Noumea is the largest and most developed city in the country, as well as being the nations capital city. In Noumea, you will find some fantastic markets and some great French and traditional cuisine. If you have some time, make sure to visit St Josephs Cathedral in the center of the city, aside from being a beautiful and historic building, it offers a great view of the city. Mare, by contrast, is mostly undeveloped and still has a traditional tribal feel to it. Most residents either still live in traditional thatched huts or small more modern shacks. The island is home to beautiful beaches and palm/pine forests. Here you will find traditional foods and beverages, along with fresh coconuts and French beer. Mare is a fantastic way to spend a day on the beach, eating traditional food and drinking cheap French beer, soaking in the Pacific Island sun and making the most of the clear blue waters surrounding the island.
Ben Tre is located in what is known as the Mekong Delta, a lush sprawling agricultural area interwoven by rivers and tributaries. Located throughout this region you will find small villages surrounded by farms and workshops of all natures. For instance, on the day tour I took, we visited several coconut, honey, and fruit farms, along with a coconut candy workshop. Shrimp farming is also extremely popular in the region. As far as entertainment goes, cockfighting is extremely popular here, as it is in many rural areas in SE Asia and you will find that a large number of people keep roosters on their property in small cages. If you manage to visit this area try to take a small paddled boat ride through the regions palm-lined canals as it is a very enjoyable experience. Additionally, if you haven’t had a chance to see them up until now you will be able to see plenty of water buffalo on the farm properties here. Ben Tre definitely makes for a nice way to get out of Ho Chi Minh hustle and bustle for a day.
The Củ Chi tunnels are located outside of Ho Chi Minh City in a large forested/jungle area. This is a historical site dating back to the Vietnam War, housing the tunnel system used by the Viet Cong against American forces. The tunnel system is immense, including tunnel networks stretching several kilometers long and stories deep. Included in this tunnel network are bunkers, underground bomb-making facilities, water supply system tapping into underground rivers, etc. The entire area was once boobytrapped using numerous styles of traps. At the modern-day facility, these traps have been replicated for visitors to view and are operated to show their effect. The tunnels have been reinforced and expanded so as to allow visitors to travel through them and really experience how vast these networks were. Also located on the premises is a very impressive shooting range with a vast array of guns to fire. I personally chose to use a jeep mounted M30 machine gun, which I was able to fire down a range at targets. The main weapon to be found in plenty is the AK47 in numerous models. The tunnels are a must visit if you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City.
Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens are a cheap and really enjoyable way to spend the day in Ho Chi Minh. The zoo is a little dated as far as the enclosures go and still has a bit of an old colonial feel to it. As far as the animals go, you can see quite a wide variety of species from multiple continents. The actual zoo itself is built inside of the city’s botanical garden and that means a lot of beautiful trees and gardens throughout the zoo. Amongst the best collections at the zoo are the big cats, African Savannah animals, monkeys, and an extensive goat collection. Additionally Dam Sen Water Park is a great way to spend a day in Ho Chi Minh. The entry fee to the park is only a few dollars and there are enough slides, pools, and rivers to really enjoy yourself. The best thing about this water park is that it doesn’t follow the safety regulations of any other water park I’ve been to and that means that you can pick up some real speed and even get some air on the slides in the park. Between Saigon Zoo and Dam Sen Water Park, you can fill an entire day and spend very little money.
Ho Chi Minh’s War Remnants Museum is one of the most impressive collections of military history that I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. The museum is not just impressive, but highly moving, if you are faint of heart, I would advise caution in visiting due to some of the content of the museum being highly graphic in nature. I have made sure not to upload any photographs displaying content that I regard as being overly graphic. The museum houses some of the key war machines used in the Vietnam War, these are kept in fantastic condition. They also house a highly impressive collection of Vietnam War weaponry, including weapons ranging from pistols, right through to bazookas, chain guns, and mortars. A key part of the museum that some may have a problem with, is the section of the museum dedicated to Agent Orange and its ongoing effects on the people of Vietnam. This section includes numerous photographs of deformity and diseases caused by the dumping of the chemical throughout the country. They also house several deformed babies that are kept preserved in glass cases. The other key section that may upset some visitors is the room dedicated to war crimes/atrocities, this room features some highly graphic photographs that I have chosen not to include in this article. As well as these sections, the museum also houses an extensive propaganda section with documents from both sides of the war, as well as a torture section demonstrating what POWs went through when captured.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and most developed city in the country, with a population of over 8.5 million the city is as populous as it feels. One word that comes to mind when describing the city is ‘traffic’. Never in my life have I witnessed as many people on scooters in one place as in Ho Chi Minh. The city has a constant ceaseless flow of wave after wave of bikes. These bikes carry not just passengers but everything else a person could think of, from baskets to planks, to puppies and geese. The city is filled with winding alleys and side streets, each with their own hustle and bustle to them. At night the city lights up and the constant activity continues as beer halls and markets continue their business well into the night. Throughout the city, you will find markets and fantastic restaurants serving everything from world-class sushi and fantastic Italian food cooked in woodfire ovens to traditional pho houses. Ho Chi Minh is the one real place in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos where you will find luxury malls with state of the art cinemas, arcade, and bumper cart rinks. There are some amazing attractions well worth a visit throughout the city which will be discussed in the next few articles. Make sure to spend a few days in Ho CHi Minh to really get a feel for the city and take advantage of everything it has to offer. Food and shopping are two of the biggest activities to take part in, along with museums, galleries, waterparks, and zoos.