From a tourism perspective, south Vietnam is best known for the megacity of Ho Chi Minh City, which has become one of the most popular destinations in South-East Asia.
While this metropolis has an exhaustive list of attractions, enough to satisfy any traveller, there is much more to south Vietnam.
For tourists not well acquainted with Asia’s mega metropolises, Ho Chi Minh City is a jolt.
Even for those who have travelled widely in Asia, this gargantuan city can be an intimidating place. A sprawling metropolitan area home to almost 14 million people it is coated, at most hours of the day, in a thick layer of human and vehicular traffic.
For some this may be overwhelming. But for most tourists it is an exotic and invigorating environment which reminds them just how far they are from the quiet streets of Perth.
Ho Chi Minh City has grand colonial architecture, several brilliant war-themed attractions and a vibrant Chinatown, as well as amazing cuisine, markets and nightlife.
Southern Vietnam also has several other decent-sized cities, each of which is different to the next. The highlands city of Dalat, at an altitude of 1500m, is wonderfully green and was established by the French as a holiday town to escape the heat of Ho Chi Minh City.
The seaside city of Vung Tau, with its fine beaches and seaside resorts, is similarly made for respite from the hot weather. Can Tho, meanwhile, is a large yet languid riverside city which feels half-asleep – and that’s a good thing.
Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world where you can gorge on the local food without having to worry about stacking on holiday kilos.
That’s because its cuisine is famously fresh and healthy. OK, so there are some fattening Vietnamese dishes like cha gio (deep-fried spring rolls) and the local coffee is filled with super-sweet condensed milk.
But the majority of the most popular dishes are low on the calorie count.
Instead of getting cha gio, just get goi cuon, the fresh version of spring rolls made from rice paper, vermicelli noodles, lettuce, mint, chives and either pork or shrimp. Similarly healthy is the national dish pho, a meaty broth filled with rice noodles, which are healthier than egg noodles or spaghetti.
Either of these dishes can be found just as easily on the street, being served from a portable stall, as at a high-end Vietnamese restaurant.
My favourite Vietnamese street food is banh mi, a crusty baguette filled with salad as well as pate or freshly grilled pork. These crunchy, addictive treats cost as little as 75c each.
My tip is to load them up with a fried egg for an extra 50c.
Ho Chi Minh City has two of my favourite markets in all of Asia.
The Russian Market is heaven for tourists looking to stock up on brand-name sports clothing, jackets and backpacks.
While some of the products here are fake, many of them are real, having come from the local factories which produce stock for the world’s biggest sports brands. Score yourself some high-quality workout gear or waterproof jackets for a third of the price you pay in Australia.
On the other side of town, in the teeming Chinatown district of Cholon, Binh Tay market is not somewhere I go to shop.
Instead, I visit time and again for the rollicking atmosphere and the fantastic people watching. Anything and everything is sold here.
Can Tho city, meanwhile, has the most authentic floating market of any major Vietnamese metropolis, as well as a great night market which caters well to tourists, with a wide array of souvenirs and clothes.
Up in Dalat, the city’s central market offers fashion, silk products and food.
Can Tho, Dalat and Vung Tau each have appealing nightlife.
In these quiet cities, basic bia hoi bars are located on many street corners and attract an eclectic mix of locals. They are great places to pull up a stool and watch life unfold over ultra-cheap glasses of fresh- brewed draught beer.
For a rowdier nightlife scene, Ho Chi Minh City is unparalleled in southern Vietnam.
Its downtown area has hundreds of licensed venues, ranging from rowdy pubs to intimate music spaces, chic wine bars and cavernous nightclubs.
Families and couples can head to one of the city’s many luxurious rooftop bars to enjoy panoramic views of the ever-expanding skyline.
A mix of all of these styles of nightlife is on offer at Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker hotspot Pham Ngu Lao.
(Top image: The amazing view of Ho Chi Minh City from the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar. Picture: Ronan O'Connell)
You may also like
Travel Story: Discover Vietnam’s alluring sights — both old and new
There’s so much to enjoy in Hanoi and a trio of coastal cities.
Travel Story: Vietnam’s hidden gems reveal wonderful rich heritage
Vietnam’s popularity as a travel destination has been increasing in the past decade to the point that many Australians will be familiar with its key tourist sites.
Our World: Hais and Laos of hilltribe lifestyle
RONAN O'CONNELL imbibes the Khmu people's culture