South Vietnam – More Attractions

Sun & palm trees - the norm in southern Vietnam
Sun & palm trees – the norm in southern Vietnam

Apart from the places mentioned in these pages, there are plenty of other, lesser-known attractions scattered along the south central coast and throughout the central highlands. Some, such as the Con Dao Islands, are a bit remote to be worth making a special trip for, while others, such as the Po Klong Garai Cham Towers, can be visited on the way to other, bigger attractions.

Attractions on the South Coast

Con Dao Island: During the time of French occupation of Vietnam, this island, located about 185kms south of Vung Tau, was known as Poulo Condore and was used as a prison from which few ever emerged alive. These days it gets lots of Vietnamese visitors paying homage to those who lost their lives here, while a few foreigners come to enjoy its uncrowded beaches and crystal-clear waters.

Po Klong Garai: The area around Phan Rang on the south central coast contains the highest concentration of Cham communities in the country, and a few kilometres west of town stand the Po Klong Garai towers. These date back around 600 years and are the finest examples of Cham Towers in the whole of Vietnam.

The exquisite brickwork of the temple and dancing Shiva above the entrance make a memorable sight. Open-tour buses heading up the coast often make a brief stop here.

Ho Coc: With over 3,000kms of coastline, it stands to reason that there must be some attractive beaches in Vietnam that are not yet overrun by tourists. Ho Coc is one such place – just a few resorts set back behind a lovely, five-kilometre long beach. It’s only a couple of hours’ drive from Ho Chi Minh City, so can get crowded at weekends, but on a weekday you might have it to yourself.

My Lai: It’s perhaps pushing it to describe the scene of one of the worst atrocities of the modern era as an attraction, but many make the trek to this lonely spot near Quang Ngai to remember a fateful day. It was 16 March 1968 when American troops went on the rampage and murdered around 500 people, just about everyone in the village. Now known as Son My, the village now has a memorial park to the events of that day along with horrific images taken by military photographers.

Attractions in the Central Highlands

Lak Lake: As Highway 27 winds into the central highlands north of Da Lat, it passes Lak Lake – a tranquil spot that has become a popular stopover for visitors. It promises the chance to sleep in a longhouse belonging to the local ethnic minority, the Mnong, as well as a ride on the lake in a dug-out canoe and an elephant trek to a nearby village. It’s mostly tour groups that spend time here but independent travellers arriving when no group is here will find a relaxing spot with lovely views.

Kon Tum: One reason that the central highlands are less-visited than other regions of Vietnam is that local authorities do not permit exploration of the local villages without the assistance of a guide. Fortunately this is not the case in the vicinity of Kon Tum, where you can travel independently to visit the towering communal halls of the Bahnar people, known as rong, and the quirky cemeteries of the Jarai with their unusual carved figures. The town itself also has interesting sights such as the Wooden Church and a Catholic seminary that includes a minorities’ museum.

Cat Tien National Park: Located around 150kms north of Ho Chi Minh City, Cat Tien is one of Vietnam’s most accessible and most interesting national parks. Covering about 720 square-kilometres of jungle, bush and lakeland, the park is home to roughly 350 species of birds, even more butterflies and many mammals too.

The mammals include elephants and the rare Javan rhinoceros, but don’t bank on spotting the latter as even sightings by guides are infrequent. There are plenty of trails to follow but you’ll need to be accompanied by a guide. Cheap but basic bungalow accommodation is available.

Buon Ma Thuot: As Vietnam’s coffee capital, Buon Ma Thuot should be on the itinerary of every caffeine addict that visits the country. However, it’s not the easiest place to get to, being in the central highlands, situated near the border with Cambodia and about 100kms inland from Nha Trang. There are no unmissable sights in town, though the E De village of Ako Dong on the northern fringe of town is well worth a look. What Buon Ma Thuot does have in quantity is cafés, and everywhere the irresistible aroma of freshly-ground coffee.