Ben Tre (Mekong Delta)

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.

 

Advertisements

Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens/Dam Sen Water Park

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.

 

Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island is, in my opinion, the highlight of Ha Long Bay. The island has one smallish port town with numerous hotels, hostels, bars, markets, and restaurants. I suggest spending at least two days on the island in order to really see what it has hidden. Staying in town is a fantastic base, where you can rest and relax, but also rent a motorbike or scooter to explore the inland areas of the island. The main town area houses some fantastic markets where a traveler can pick up a large amount of pearl based jewelry for a very small cost. You can also find numerous floating restaurants throughout the harbor serving fantastic food.  Inland on the island, the first real item of note is a small hidden stairway just off of the main road, leading to a cave. Inside the cave, you will find a secret medical facility built beneath the earth during the Vietnam War. When I happened to visit, the cave was completely empty, so I was the only person there making it an extremely creepy experience. The atmosphere inside of the facility is haunting, especially knowing that numerous people died within its walls from their sustained wounds. The complete silence and dim lighting add even further to the already creepy atmosphere. I definitely suggest checking it out even if you find it a little unsettling. The next and probably main attraction on the island for me is Cat Ba National Park which you can find in the center of the island. Whether or not I took the correct route is unclear, but for me to get there I had to park my bike and walk through an abandoned village, whose only inhabitants were wild dogs and deer. This setting was also somewhat creepy, but after visiting the hospital cave, not so much. The hike to Ngu Lam Peak, an excellent observation point located in the park should not take more than an hour or so each way. The view from the peak was fantastic and looked over the landscape in every direction, showing nothing but jungle covered peaks for the most part. My only piece of advice would be to cover your body head to toe in insect repellant and to make sure that you are taking malaria tablets because mosquitos will eat you alive on this hike, more so than any other hike I have ever been on. Apart from the inland attractions, make sure to explore the town’s markets and bars for a very enjoyable experience. Also, make sure to try horse show crab and mantis shrimp if you have a chance, both are delicious. Cat Ba makes for a fantastic few days if you have the time.

 

The Plain Of Jars

The Plain of Jars is an archaeological wonderland. Throughout the region are hundreds of enormous stone jars thought to be used for burials. The jars are believed to have been created during the iron age, around 2000-2500 years ago. Their origins and purpose are still unknown as there are no markings or other remains to give us any clues. There are 90 jar sites in total, each containing between 1 and 400 jars. The best place to visit the jar sites from is Phonsavan, the regional hub. Many of the jar sites are damaged from US bombing runs during the Vietnam War. Sadly many of the sites are still regarded as dangerous, due to unexploded bombs scattered throughout the region, so take care when exploring them. You will most likely require a guide to transport you between sites and to tell you which areas are safe and which are not.   These jars are an incredible piece of history and are part of a major archaeological mystery and should definitely be seen by everyone.

 

Phonsavan

Phonsavan is the last major eastern town/city in Laos before reaching the Vietnamese border. The city is a rural hub, mostly consisting of farmers and those who sell to farmers. The city is also the closest location to the Plain of Jars which will be covered in my next article. I felt that Phonsavan deserved its own separate article. You can find stunning scenery, traditional culture and cuisine and amazing history in the part of Laos. Spread throughout the region are countless craters from US bombing rounds, as well as countless unexploded bombs and grenades. The locals have made an industry of converting this war era scrap metal into useful items and sellable wares through smelting. You should definitely try to visit one such workshop if you can and watch the locals meltdown bombs to create everything from keychains to silverware, to jewelry, all of which is available for purchase. The scenery alone should attract you, with rolling hills covered in and surrounded by rice fields and water buffalo. Make sure to spend at least a day here, especially if you are passing through on your way to North Western Vietnam. Prices here are also extremely low as it is not a tourism based town. The Plain of Jars is, in my opinion, an ancient wonder of the world and is not to be missed.

 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a famous temple town in the northern mountainous area of Laos. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its historical and cultural importance. You will not find anywhere else quite like this city. The city is known not just for its temples, but also its large population of monks who can be seen streaming through the streets in the early morning to collect food from the town’s people. I highly suggest spending a few days relaxing in Luang Prabang, exploring the town, the surrounding areas, relaxing on the river, soaking in the culture and getting more of a vibe of what Laos historically has been. The small city is also famous for its night market, which takes place down the main street of town, in front of the highly iconic temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you get a chance, I highly recommend trying the local rice wine or scorpion/snake/lizard infused whiskey. The city has a fantastic communal pool, with a built in bar, so on those hot days that is where you are going to want to relax and unwind. Make sure to climb the hill in the center of town for some stunning views, while there is a small cost to climb it, it is definitely worth paying. Also be sure to visit the towns ethnographic museum to be able to learn about local unique cultural and ethnic groups living in Northern Laos. Make sure to also wake up early enough to be able to buy and give food to the local monks as it is a crucial part of the whole experience and almost feels like something that you need to do.

 

Pakse

Pakse is a small city in the south of Laos and makes a great stopping point if traveling from the 4000 Islands to Vientiane. While there isn’t much to do in the city, it makes a relaxing rest stop and gives you a glimpse into everyday life in Laos. In the city, you will find some fantastic temples and a very large market complex that stocks everything from watches, phones, and clothes to snacks and hot food. Outside of the city, you will find peaceful country roads and small towns to visit for some fresh produce. Also located near the city is a hike up to a large golden Buddha statue, which overlooks the city and the surrounding area. There are also plenty of great restaurants located throughout the city where you can get cheap but delicious traditional Laotian food. If you are making the trip North or South, then I advise spending a day in Pakse, just to unwind and split up your travel time.