In a recent episode of The Bureau Podcast, we got inspired by an article freshly-published by the Philippine Department of Tourism featuring eight unique things to do in the country of over 7,000 islands.
So the hosts of the podcast – Matt, Mel and Andy – set about compiling their own list of unique places to experience in Vietnam once travel restrictions ease.
Below is the list they came up with featuring a swashbuckling pirate adventure to a desert island, glamping in the highlands, a motorbike road trip up the coast and some dark tourism that delves into Vietnam’s unsavoury past.
If you’d rather listen to the episode, find it here:
1. Dig for treasure on the Pirate Islands off Phu Quoc
About halfway between the southern port town of Ha Tien on the Cambodian border and the tropical isle of Phu Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand lies a little-known archipelago called the Pirate Islands.
One story goes that in the late 17th century, Scottish seaman-cum-pirate Captain Kidd buried his bounty on deserted islands in the Caribbean for safekeeping – as all good pirates did.
But one rumour that’s circulated ever since is that Captain Kidd buried some of that treasure off the coast of Vietnam before the swashbuckling adventurer and notorious scoundrel was hanged for murder in England in 1701.
So strong was the rumour that in the early 1980s, failed British actor Richard Knight armed with a 300-year old map apparently made by Captain Kidd, convinced a young (and obviously clueless) American by the name of “Cork” Graham to go on a treasure hunt with him from Bangkok via Pattaya by speed boat to the islands.
No mean feat in itself.
Their misadventure wound up with an expensive 14-month stay in Phu Quoc’s notorious French colonial-era prison
Knight is said to have claimed he’d actually discovered the treasure on a previous trip, but had reburied it for safekeeping until he could return with a bigger boat and treasure chest, such was the size of the booty.
Unfortunately for him, he’d somehow forgotten where he’d buried it and was caught in the act on his supposed return trip with shovel in hand.
At least the legend is alive and well for future generations who might want to try their luck.
HOW TO GET THERE: Catch a ferry from Ha Tien or Phu Quoc.
SUGGESTED BY: Matt
2. Pay your respects at the whale cemetery in Phuoc Hai
In this part of the world on the southern coast of Vietnam, fisherfolk worship whales with elaborate burial rituals and festivals.
Whales are seen as protectors of fishermen and their families when out on the high seas earning a living.
The belief system goes back to the turn of the 17th century and still has adherents to this day.
WATCH: Matt finally finds the whale cemetery of Phuoc Hai
As Vietnamese folklore tells it, there was a Nguyen emperor who fled attacking forces via the sea, but was met with a storm that threatened to sink his fleet.
At just the right moment, a whale rose from the depths and lifted the emperor and his fleet to safety.
Since then, whales have been referred to honorifically as ca ong and each year in nearby Vung Tau a ceremony is held to pay respects to what is otherwise known as ca voi or elephant fish.
If you’re up for a full day of whale worship, combine a quick visit to the whale temple in Vung Tau with a short drive up the coast to the whale cemetery in Phuoc Hai.
Afterwards, hit up Quan Thanh Van on the main drag by the beach for a plate of succulent salt and pepper squid.
HOW TO GET THERE: Ferry or taxi service from HCMC to Vung Tau. Motorbike to Phuoc Hai.
SUGGESTED BY: Matt
3. Take a road trip from Mui Ne to Nha Trang
This is a road trip with a difference.
Load your motorbike onto the Doi Moi Express at Saigon Station bound for Phan Thiet Station a four hour train ride away.
There are some interesting sections of track along the way, especially as the city limits melt away to more arid landscapes with rocky volcanic outcrops and massive boulders that look like they’ve been placed into precarious positions by hand.
It’s also Vietnam’s home of the dragonfruit – that prehistoric-looking scarlet red fruit that’s helped to ripen at night under a sea of twinkling light bulbs
Unload the bike at Phan Thiet Station and make your way to Mui Ne, the quaint seaside village and long weekend escape from Ho Chi Minh City.
You can stay the night here or point the motorbike north and hit the highway straight away
Along the way, stop off at the famous sand dunes and “fairy stream” or for a bit of adventure, catch a lift in a hot air balloon and experience the contrasting terrain at altitude.
Back on the ground, if you time it right, you might get the chance to see turtles hatching at Hon Cau marine park just 100km from Mui Ne.
But if it’s a coastal road trip that you’re after, well, you’re on the right track. There’s over 200km of road that takes you through Phan Rang, onto Cam Ranh and then to your final destination – the picturesque beachside city of Nha Trang.
If you need a motorbike, get in touch with Saigon Motorcycles.
HOW TO GET THERE: Train from HCMC to Phan Thiet. Motorbike to Nha Trang.
SUGGESTED BY: Matt
4. Glamp it up in Da Lat
Da Lat, up in the central highlands, is another popular escape from the city for jaded Saigoners.
Average high temperatures range from 21°C to 25°C throughout the year which help give it the reputation as a romantic getaway for couples.
But the town has also grown a formidable reputation for its organic produce, including coffee and dairy products – and flowers!
Depending on how much time you have for your trip, you can go by land or by air. Flying time from Ho Chi Minh City is under an hour.
Meanwhile, buses take eight hours, but there are overnight sleeper options if you can sleep among others with one eye open.
The French, led by explorers including Alexandre Yersin, the scientist who discovered the bacteria responsible for the plague and who spent some time in southern Vietnam (then known as Cochinchina), established Da Lat as a resort town.
The first hotel was built in 1907.
These days there are plenty more options owing to Da Lat’s popularity among domestic tourists and honeymooners.
Perhaps Da Lat is the perfect destination if you’re into French colonial and Art Deco architecture, coffee, flowers and glamping – accommodation somewhere between a tent and a cabin.
Bring your woolies.
HOW TO GET THERE: Bus or taxi service from HCMC. Fly.
SUGGESTED BY: Mel
5. Cave in to the beauty of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
If getting hot, sweaty and wet in the dark is your thang, then Vietnam has the best, not to mention the largest, place to experience it in the world.
No, not Bui Vien Street – Ho Chi Minh City’s infamous backpacker precinct in the Pham Ngu Lao neighbourhood where budget travellers indulge in cheap beer and discover the true meaning of a happy ending.
Nor Pasteur Street, the strip of girly bars in District 1 where amorous male expats look longingly into the eyes all night long of cute ambitious bar girls over Jamesons on the rocks.
We’re talking about the Phong Nha caves, home to the largest cave in the world, Son Doong.
The relatively young three million year old Son Doong was first discovered in 1990 by a local man foraging for food and timber, after which he forgot about it.
The cave would later become one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist drawcards
In 2008, at the insistence of expert cavers, the man rediscovered the cave and in 2009 it was surveyed for the first time.
It has been open to the public since 2013.
Son Doong is unique for its two enormous doline roofs, underground rainforests and the “Great Wall of Vietnam” – a 90m high calcite barrier.
Nearby Hang En cave, named after the thousands of swallows nesting in the ceiling, featured in the 2015 Hollywood movie Pan, while the Tu Lan cave system featured in Kong: Skull Island in 2017.
HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Dong Hoi City. Transfer by car to Phong Nha.
SUGGESTED BY: Mel
6. Experience another world in the rice basket of the Mekong Delta
With a population of around 1.3 million people, Can Tho is Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the largest in the Mekong Delta.
Situated on the banks of the Hau River – a tributary of the Mekong River – about 170km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (approx. 4 hours by car), Can Tho is known for its floating markets, especially Cai Rang floating market.
At the market, people buy and sell produce from boats on the river and it’s extremely popular among tourists who can order a hot steaming bowl of noodle soup for breakfast from vendors who paddle right up alongside them and serve it up on the spot.
This city also has an intriguing history that not many people know about, however
Apart from being a strategic location during the War, the Cao Dai religious movement has its origins here, which go back to 1919.
Cao Dai is a syncretic religion that brings together both Eastern and Western philosophies with Caodaists believing in salvation and the imminent end of the world and whose founder said he could communicate with the other world, among having many other eclectic attributes and capabilities.
In case the world does end sometime soon, get yourself to Can Tho to get a feel for how this unusual movement came about over a tasty bowl of noodle soup served up from a rickety old boat plying the river.
If that gets you going, combine it with a visit to the current-day headquarters of Cao Dai in Tay Ninh just north of Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s something to keep an eye out for.
HOW TO GET THERE: By bus or fly from HCMC.
SUGGESTED BY: Andy
7. Partake in some “dark tourism” in one of the prettiest places in Vietnam
There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how pretty the Con Dao Islands are, but the same can be said for how to describe the island chain’s dark past.
Con Son Island, the main island in the archipelago 250km south of Ho Chi Minh City, started out as a prison island developed by the French where the colonisers held and tortured Vietnam’s political prisoners, many of whom died while incarcerated – many, however, survived and ultimately went on to become the founding fathers of modern Vietnam.
The island has been described as Vietnam’s own Devil’s Island because its hellish conditions reflected those of the prisons in French Guiana around the same time and became the inspiration for the movie Papillon in 1973.
When the French were unceremoniously banished from Vietnam in 1954, the Americans were handed the keys to the prisons and they expanded the complex until the end of the War in 1975.
Con Son Island is also where Hang Duong Cemetery is located, literally between the prison complexes.
Hang Duong Cemetery is a moving memorial for independence fighters and national heroes, and is the final resting place of well known figures in Vietnam’s history, including Vo Thi Sau and Le Hong Phong.
Sadly, it includes thousands of unknown soldiers.
HOW TO GET THERE: Fly from HCMC or ferry from Vung Tau or Soc Trang.
SUGGESTED BY: Andy
Words by Matthew Cowan
Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Follow Mel on Instagram at @melaniecasul
Follow Andy on Instagram at @andrewtrandigital
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