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War Remnants Museum
The disturbing War Remnants Museum highlights the horrors of modern combat, and especially portrays the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War. Previously called the Museum of American War Crimes, the name was altered so as not to cause offence to American visitors, but its displays do tell the story from an anti-American perspective. The museum houses a collection of weapons, machinery, artefacts and horrific photographs illustrating the devastating affects of napalm, Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction. One room is dedicated to biological warfare, including the effects of the defoliant sprays that were dumped over the country. Another room looks at worldwide demonstrations for peace and international opposition to the war. In the courtyard there are tanks, helicopters, planes and bombs on display.
Cholon is the thriving warren of streets comprising the Chinese district of Saigon, first settled by the Chinese Hoa merchants at the end of the 18th century, and now home to the biggest ethnic minority community in the country. The difference in environment is immediately noticeable. The cluster of Chinese-signed streets is a fascinating labyrinth of temples, restaurants, exotic stores, medicine shops and markets. The best place to experience the bustle of trade is at the crowded Binh Tay Market where the corridors are filled with stalls offering a variety of exotic produce, from live tethered ducks to nuts and seeds, as well as other household items. There are several temples of interest in Cholon, including the colourful Emperor of Jade Temple, the Quan Am Pagoda with its ornate exterior, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Temple, its roof exquisitely ornamented with dragons and sea monsters, and the Thien Hau Pagoda dedicated to the goddess of the sea.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels system is an underground network of tunnels dug in the 1940s by the Vietnamese as a place to hide during the fight against the French. The network was later expanded and used in the American War. The system consists of more than 150 miles (250km) of tunnels and unlit offshoots, secret trap doors connecting narrow routes to hidden shelters, local rivers and tunnels to the Cambodian border. It was a sprawling city of improvised hospitals, living quarters, kitchens and fresh water wells, with some tunnels barely large enough to wriggle through. The plan was to launch surprise assaults on the enemy, and then disappear; so successful a hiding place were the tunnels that first the French and then the Americans struggled against these sudden attacks in which the assailants seemed to vanish into fresh air. Today many of the tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors the dirty and claustrophobic experience of crawling through a portion of the underground network, past secret trapdoors and booby traps laid against invasion. Unfortunately their popularity with visitors has turned the area into a vicious tourist trap, with hard-sell vendors a constant hassle among the touring throngs.
The delta is a vast network of waterways formed by the Mekong River, and the surrounding fertile patchwork of endless green rice paddies, orchards and swamplands is where most of the country's rice is grown. Not only does the Mekong River irrigate what is known as 'the rice bowl of Vietnam', but it also serves as a vital form of transport. A unique way of life has evolved among the villagers that have lived on or beside the river for centuries. The best way to experience the delta is by boat, joining the rowing boats and fishermen, rickety houseboats, ferries and traditional sampans on the brown water. On the banks are small villages, vegetable gardens, fish farms and stilted houses. Trading is carried out between boats at floating markets, where whole sections of the river are covered by bobbing merchants who publicize their wares hung from the top of a long bamboo pole. There are several towns in the region from where visitors can arrange boat trips if not already on an organised tour. Try to avoid the rainy season as the tides may be too high for canal travel. Local food dishes are a speciality and besides seafood there are opportunities for the adventurous to sample such delights as snake, eels and bats.
Pham Ngu Lau
This area of Saigon, located in District One, stretching along the streets of De Tham, Pham Ngu Lau and Bui Vien is host to most of the budget travellers in South Vietnam. Often compared to the more famous Khao San road of Bangkok, this district, similarly, is an amalgamation of bars, guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops and small travel agencies. Known also to be an expat playground, these bars stay open later than most in the city. The prominent Go2 Bar is the most popular among tourists but dozens dot the area. Day trips to the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi tunnels are easily organised in any of the travel agencies as well as transport to most of Vietnam. Although prices vary the trips usually are the same despite the agency.
Ben Thanh Market
Today the market caters to the tourist dollars and is packed tight with stalls selling clothing, pottery, souvenirs, jewels and food. It is rumoured that depending on bargaining ability buyers will be given their purchase in various coloured bags as a sign to other vendors. The market was moved to its current building in 1912 but has existed in the area for hundreds of years. The permanent stalls are passed down in family for generations. Some of Vietnam's specialties can be bought cheaply here such as cobra and scorpion whiskey and silks. The market is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. but an outdoor night market and food stalls surround the area until much later.
Mui Ne is Vietnam's most western style resort beach. The city itself is typical Vietnamese fishing community sporting a fleet of beautiful fishing boats but little to see or do in town. The beach beside it, however, spreads in glitzy contrast. Expensive western resorts and hotels line the beachside while cheaper guesthouses can be found across the road or closer to town. A variety of water activities are available including surfing, kite surfing, jet-skis, and sailing. Beach and roadside bars hop with cheap drinks and electro music late into the night. Jibe's is a popular hangout among the young and tireless. Close to town are red coloured sand dunes but the farther away and much larger white sand dunes are worth the extra half-hour trip. For a small tip children will rent tourists sand sleds and demonstrate how to surf the dunes. One of Vietnam's top golf courses also is just outside the city. Mui Ne is a scenic 5 hour motorbike trip from Vung Tau or five hour highway bus ride from Saigon.
Dam Sen water park
The best way to cool off in the hot dusty city is the Dam Sen Water Park. It is part of a much larger theme park but the highlights all circle the water fun. Part of the adventure is wondering if anything is up to Vietnamese safety standards, or if there are safety standards to be up to. Either way the great selection of water slides hurtle passengers, full speed, up railings and down steep drops. For relaxation a large wave pool and a circling stream are great to float away the heat. A tourist designated section of the compound is a nice place to relax if the crowds are too much. Never visit on a public holiday unless standing shoulder to shoulder in waste deep water sounds fun.