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.
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.
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.
Mũi Né and Phan Thiet are adjacent coastal towns located north of Ho Chi Minh city. Despite being relatively small, the towns have a surprising amount to offer. Aside from the obvious white sand beaches, lined with palms, there are both natural wonders, as well as historical landmarks and some more unusual activities to be found. One of the key attractions in the area are the large areas of sand dunes in varying shades of white, yellow and red located just outside of the towns. These are so vast that they almost seem like a desert, stretching into the distance in most directions. On the dunes, you can find vehicles to rent and drive across the sand dunes as well as boards to rent to be able to go sandboarding. Po Sah Inu Tower is an impressive historical site dating back over 1000 years and still in relatively good condition. Also located in the vicinity of the complex are numerous bunkers and war monuments used during the Vietnam War. Another key attraction is Fairy Stream, a shallow stream that can be walked down on foot, with stalls located in the actual stream itself. A large section of the way down is bordered by stunning rock formations which stand in stark contrast to the red sand behind and above it. Located a small distance down the stream is a small and very strange attraction, an ostrich riding corral. Which is honestly one of the most random things I’ve seen and couldn’t resist going for a ride. The entire way down the coast you will find beautiful rainbow colored boats n the hundreds and small traditional Vietnamese woven basket tugboats. I would definitely suggest a visit to either or both of these small towns as there is plenty to see and do and you can get away with spending very little money doing so.
Da Nang is the third largest city in Vietnam and is located in the center of the country on the coast. While Da Nang is not the most touristy city in Vietnam it is an extremely pleasant city. I ended up spending a few days there just because of how nice the city was. Having said that there is plenty to do in the city, such as Marbel Mountain, Chùa Linh Ứng (a large temple complex with an enormous Buddhist statue), the Sun Wheel and beautiful beachfronts. The city is also filled with Communist monuments, propaganda billboards, stunning arty bridges and fantastic restaurants and bakeries. The city has a very livable feeling to it and if I were to live somewhere in Vietnam it would probably be Da Nang. In Da Nang you will also see Vietnamese daily life go on all around you, seeing sights such as scooters transporting massively oversized loads of planks, garden supplies fans and almost anything that you can think of. The city’s attractions will be covered in the following articles.
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 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.