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Ho Chi Minh City See And Do

Ben Thanh Market
Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam

At the intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao, and Le Lai streets

Frenetic, eclectic Ben Thanh is the polar opposite of a sterile American supermarket. This market has been around since the French occupation, albeit in different locations: It has occupied its present spot since 1899. Crab, scorpion wine, Calvin Klein knockoffs, pickled vegetables, ducks, silk, watches, frogs, flip-flops, curry powder, and rice are only a fraction of what's on offer. And prices are far less than at the more touristy shops on Dong Khoi Street. Don't be afraid to haggle—it's expected—and keep an eye out for pickpockets.

Con Dao Islands
Vietnam

Once an Asian version of Alcatraz, this infamous former French penal colony 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City is now considered the nation's most pristine island ecosystem. For more than a century, the remote, off-limits archipelago resisted development; today, 80 percent of its mountainous, 29-square-mile landmass is protected by the well-managed Con Dao National Park (84-6-483-0150; www.condaopark.com.vn). More than 1,000 plant species have been recorded on the chain's 16 islands, while the surrounding waters of the South China Sea hold the nation's richest sea life, including 270 different coral species, giant clams, green and hawksbill sea turtles, and even dugong, a endangered relative of the manatee. A single dive operator, PADI-certified Rainbow Divers, runs trips during the relatively short March–September dive season; two-tankers consider Con Dao's underwater experience the best in Vietnam (84-8-920-7753; www.divevietnam.com). Topside, the well-preserved colonial-era buildings of the old prison complex are now a historical monument; Communist leaders such as late prime minister Pham Van Dong did hard time here, while 20,000 other inmates died in this paradisiacal prison.

Vietnam Air Services Co. (VASCO), a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines, makes the 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City six days a week. The best in-town accommodation is government-owned Saigon Con Dao Hotel which is adding an 85-room block and swimming pool to its current 33 rooms (84-6-483-0336; www.saigoncondao.com). Located a half-mile west of town center, Con Dao Resort commands a fine white-sand beach (84-6-483-0939; www.condaoresort.vn). In the spring of 2009, Six Senses will raise the bar on eco-lodging when it debuts an exclusive 51-villa Evason Hideaway property on half-mile-long Dat Doc Beach, the islands' best strand (www.sixsenses.com).

Cu Chi Tunnels

It's difficult to regard the orderly rubber trees and rice paddies and realize this rural landscape 40 miles northwest of Saigon was the most heavily bombed, gassed, and defoliated target in the history of warfare. Through a labyrinth of underground passageways and rooms, Vietcong rebels were able to control this rural area, emerging from trapdoors at night to lay booby traps or ambush patrols, then retreat to well-equipped lairs 30 feet below the surface that could withstand B-52 air strikes. A section of the 150-mile tunnel network has been developed and, thankfully, enlarged (the original passages were barely 18 inches wide and 30 inches tall). Saigontourist, along with every private tour company in town, offers a half-day tunnel excursion, usually with hotel pickup and return (84-8-829-8914; www.etravelvietnam.com). You'll find displays of gruesome booby traps, a screening of a heavy-handed 1967 North Vietnamese propaganda film about a pretty Cu Chi peasant girl turned "American-killer hero," and several winding, lengthy tunnels to navigate (flashlights are provided). And for an extra $13, you can squeeze off a ten-round clip—the munitions menu includes a choice of M16 or AK-47 rifles—at the on-site firing range. Go as early as possible to avoid Ho Chi Minh City rush hour traffic and tour-bus crowds.

Emperor Jade Pagoda
73 Mai Thi Luu Street
Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam

The loveliest Chinese pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, the Jade Emperor Pagoda was built in 1909. It's decorated with a riot of carvings, depicting scenes from Taoist, Buddhist, and ethnic myths. In the dim interior, worshippers bow to Buddha statues with neon halos. Particularly impressive are the main altar and the side panel's depiction of hell. The path leading to the temple door is usually lined with hawkers selling food, incense, flowers, and even tortoises scrabbling in water-filled plastic bowls (the building is also known as the Tortoise Pagoda).

The Mekong Delta
Mekong Delta
Vietnam

Two hours' drive south of Saigon, Vietnam melts into a waterland of rivers, rice paddies, and canals. The fertile Delta region, formed by the silt-rich Mekong River, is the nation's breadbasket. Outside Vinh Long, a maze of river islands supports countless fruit orchards. Farther south, the alluvial plains have been cut into a patchwork of rice fields and shrimp farms, while scattered sanctuaries attract numerous bird species, including the rare redheaded saurus crane. The main city, Can Tho, on the south bank of the Bassac River, hums with waterborne trade. Four miles to the east is Cai Rang floating market, the Delta's largest, where scores of sampans and barges display their wares atop boat masts. Cruise along one of the waterways and you'll see locals trading from boat to boat, tending vegetable gardens, or working their abundant paddies. Delta denizens often live on houseboats or in huts on stilts that double as fish farms: Inhabitants feed the fish beneath the floors of their homes then haul them out when it's time to eat or sell them. The best way to see the Delta is to use a tour agent. Ho Chi Minh City–based upmarket operator Trails of Indochina will organize boat or cycling trips to untouristed villages; clients even have the option of donating a sampan to a needy local family (10/8 Phan Dinh Giot St.; 84-8-844-1005; www.trailsofindochina.com).

Vietnam History Museum
2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street
Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam
Tel: 84 8 829 0268

This museum reminds Western tourists that Vietnam is a country, not a war, with a history stretching back to prehistoric times. It covers the nation's past from its earliest inhabitants to the establishment of the Communist Party in 1930. The exhibits include ancient archaeological artifacts, fourteenth-century weaponry, Cham sculpture, and an extensive ceramics collection. The museum is housed in a pagoda-like neo-Vietnamese building, built by the French in 1929. It is one of the few museums in Vietnam with helpful English explanations.

War Remnants Museum
28 Vo Van Tan Street
Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam
Tel: 84 8 930 6325

Formerly the "Museum of American War Crimes," the place is now euphemistically titled the "War Remnants Museum." Though the name change was intended to avoid giving offense to Western visitors, the displays are unabashedly anti-American, giving you a chance to see the Vietnam War through the eyes of the Vietnamese. The deliberately disturbing exhibits include machinery, weapons, and gory photographs related to the French and American wars (with emphasis on the latter). You can also see a chilling deformed fetus in a bottle, supposedly damaged by Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used during the Vietnam War to destroy jungle terrain.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.