ONE of the most common complaints about Saigon is that its sheer size makes it hard to escape from. Yet, while it is true that the urban sprawl of the city not to mention the poor condition of its arterial roads and the appalling driving standards on them present a significant barrier to spontaneous emancipation, there are ways and means of leaving the metropolis behind.
One of the easiest and most pleasant methods of fleeing the city is to take a hydrofoil from the city’s central pier to Vung Tau. Formerly known as Cap St Jacques, the resort is located near the mouth of the Saigon River and is a mere hour and a half away via the waterway. Contrast that to the six hours it takes to get to Mui Ne – commonly regarded as the favoured coastal getaway for stressed out Saigonese – and Vung Tau’s slightly tatty charms begin to take on a more alluring hue.
The resort itself is nothing overly special – the beaches and the water isn’t the cleanest and the presence of plentiful foreign workers from the offshore energy industry – lends the place a slightly seedy vibe. Nevertheless, the town is attractive enough while the deserted beaches further north are one of Vietnam’s few remaining coastal secrets.
From Vung Tau you can just about see the end destination of another good road trip across the vast mouth of the Saigon River. Unlike Vung Tau, Can Gio isn’t blessed with sandy beaches, nor much in the way of a tourist infrastructure, but the ride down there from the city makes for a fascinating daytrip. From the city centre head south through District 7 and Nha Be before crossing onto Can Gio Island via the ferry at Binh Khanh. From here, the scenery is dominated by the surrounding mangroves, which provided ample hiding space for Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam War. There are few conventional tourist sights here – an atrocious monkey sanctuary/prison apart – but the ride out makes for pleasant driving in the dry season.
A trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, of course, is well known to be one of the prime tourist draws in this part of Vietnam. Most visitors take the trip out by bus with one of the many tour groups that leave every morning from the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker ghetto. A more convivial way to experience the trip, however, is via the river with Saigon River Express. The scenic trip takes about 1hour each way and is by far the most pleasant method of getting to the tunnels.