Chaotic is the word that springs to mind when you think about Saigon (now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, but still called Saigon by everyone who lives there). Four million motorbikes fly around the dusty roads (some carrying entire families or piled sky-high with boxes), there’s no such thing as a Green Cross Code, and there’s a constant cacophony of horns, brakes and people shouting to one another. The narrow streets are filled with people, with beggars and with food carts and it’s a city that never seems to rest. Yet for all the bedlam, it’s mesmerising and you either love it or hate it. South of Saigon lies the Mekong Delta – a spread of backwater canals that run from the Mekong River out to the sea. It’s a fascinating region with stilt houses, floating markets and lush green paddy and fruit fields. East of all this (and 50km off the coast by Rach Gia) lies Phu Quoc island, which has beautiful white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, small fishing villages and a jungle-covered interior. Relatively undeveloped it’s a great place to come and snorkel, dive or just kick back. Of a similar ilk, but almost completely undeveloped is Con Dao, an archipelago of idyllic islands 177km off the southeast coast of Vietnam, and a 40-minute hop from Saigon by plane.
Turtle Lake (Hồ Con Rùa) is a small central park where Saigonese people go to eat delicious street-food and escape from the heat. It's set inside a traffic roundabout, and fringed by open-air cafes with winding pathways suspended above the lake. We love bap xao (fried corn, dried shrimp and spring onion), grilled bananas and bun rieu (vermicelli noodles in a crab and tomato soup, pictured).
Saigon Free Walking Tours is a non-profit organisation run by students. They get to practice their English on tourists; you get a free walking tour of the city, and a real local insight. (We'd encourage you to tip your guide). They also offer scooter tours for a small fee, including a brilliant Oriental Saigon (temples, markets and the museum of traditional medicine).
Whilst most Mekong Tours go via My Tho, search for one that visits Ben Tre instead; a small wet market town with very few tourists. Its sleepy riverfront is plied with sampans (flat-bottomed Chinese wooden boats); hire one and head into the canals in early morning or evening, when you'll see fireflies and authentic local life along the riverbanks.
After the chaos of Saigon and the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc island offers white-sand beaches, rugged jungle and calm blue seas. Avoid the touristy Long Beach and hire a motorbike to drive to the northern tip of the island. Here, Thom Beach is sleepy, quiet and undeveloped, with shallow, warm waters. Ganh Dau (pictured) is similarly peaceful, with just a couple of restaurants serving delicious canh chua ca (sour fish soup).
Con Dao is another option for escapism; an archipelago of 80 islands off the southeast coast of Vietnam. Con Son, the largest and the only one where you can stay, seems like a Robinson Crusoe island when you first see it looming out of the water. There’s a single road, a small market, a pagoda, a port brimming with colourful fishing boats and not much else. The interior of the island is covered in thick jungle; the exterior is fringed by stunning white-sand beaches.