Many expats who live in HCMC find themselves trapped in the city’s “bubble.”, often seeking a weekend getaway. That is, they do not know where to go outside HCMC and so they rarely leave to experience the majesty and peace of rural South Vietnam. This is especially true with newer expats. To kick start your mini-vacations out of HCMC, here is a short list of places that are great to go over the weekend. All the places mentioned below are within a few hours of the city but all of them will give HCMC residents a much-needed breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally.
1. Cần Thơ – Distance from HCMC: 170 km (3-3.5 hours drive)
Can Tho is still a city of 1 million people, but it is nowhere near as densely populated as HCMC. Partly because of that, the streets are clean and uncrowded. There is not as much trash lining the gutters, and the air is fresh. Can Tho is famous for its universities, and the young population adds to the vibrant, lush feeling of the city. To top that all off, Can Tho is in the middle of the Mekong Delta region, which features the most scenic flora and fauna found in southern Vietnam.
The most famous tourist attraction in Can Tho is the Cai Rang floating market, a congregation of local produce vendors that sell their wares off their boats in the early hours of the morning. The market is indeed a must-see for a first-time visitor to Can Tho, but some find that the real magic of the city lies in its quaint, authentically Vietnamese boulevards and alleyways. Many agree that it is more pleasurable to wander around Can Tho without an itinerary than it is to do so in any other city in Vietnam.
When you do visit, be sure to give the fruit a try. Because of the fertile soil in the region, the locally grown foods are amazing.
2. Vũng Tàu – Distance: 95 km (2 hours drive)
Vung Tau is a beach town popular with Vietnamese tourists. The weather is gorgeous almost all year round, and the salty sea breeze that hangs over the town is a refreshing change of pace from the exhaust fumes of HCMC. Clean, easy-to-navigate roads make it easy to get between the pristine parks and cheery boardwalks that make up the seaside district of the town.
Because there are so many domestic vacationers there, there is lots to do and even more to see. Probably the most iconic tourist attraction Is Christ Hill. Visitors have to walk up 1000 steps that have been built into the side of a mountain to reach the pavilion at the top, and in the middle of the pavilion stands a giant statue of Jesus. Those who have made it to the top can go inside the statue and walk up 90 steps to get a breathtaking view of the entire city.
The town is also famous for its food — both its seafood and its bánh khọt. I would personally recommend the stingray hot pot available at several top-notch locations around town.
3. Cần Giờ – Distance: 48 km (1 hour 55 minute drive)
Can Gio isn’t really a trip out of HCMC, as it is technically one of the suburban districts of the city. It is 100% different from the more rural areas of HCMC, though. The air is virtually free from pollution, and you are likely to drive along one of the bucolic highways of the district without encountering another vahicle, or even a building except for small farmhouses, for minutes on end.
One of the most popular things to do in the district is to visit the monkey sanctuary. Without paying a dime, you can walk around the courtyard and see throngs of monkey families doing their monkey business. Just a word of warning, do not bring anything that could be snatched away from you if you go there, because the monkeys have a bit of a kleptomaniacal streak. Visitors can also feed alligators hunks of meat from a fishing pole for just a few extra dollars, or they can walk through the quaint local villages for a considerably less violent experience.
Another popular activity in Can Gio is heading out to the beach and kicking back at one of the fresh seafood restaurants on the sand. Enjoying a fresh coconut juice and a plate of steamed crab meat while watching the sun set over the ocean is an experience to remember.
If you want to wrap yourself in peace and quiet while getting your fill of rural beauty, Can Gio is the nearest place to the center of HCMC where you can do it.
4. Cát Tiên – Distance: 160 km (3 hours 40 minutes drive)
If you’re in the mood for an honest-to-god nature adventure, Cat Tien is somewhere you’ll want to seriously consider. The wild beauty of the forest (“jungle” may be a more appropriate term) is largely undeveloped. It has paths and boats that can carry you through the surreal mazes of streams that run through the park, but any off-road travel will put you at one with mother nature. This is the kind of place with giant bugs, leeches in the water, and incredible wildlife that will make you feel like Bear Grylls. As you can probably tell from this description, the park is not exactly a luxury vacation spot. But it will deliver the full rustic beauty of the Great Outdoors.
Cat Tien contains several campsites. Or, for those who don’t want to rough it that much, luxury tents with air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and other amenities are available.
5. Bảo Lộc – Distance: 200 km (4 hours driving)
Most people who have spent any significant amount of time in Vietnam are familiar with Dalat, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam because of its beautiful lakes, its temperate weather, and its quaintly European design. Bao Loc is compared to Dalat in nearly every article written about the city, because its climate and landscaping give off almost exactly the same vibe. Bao Loc Is a beautiful little mountain town with incredible nature surrounding it. Trekkers and extreme sports enthusiasts will want to check this one out. It’s not as big as Dalat, but that can be a good thing for people who want to explore the city on foot.