Southern Vietnam: Dalat to the Mekong Delta

One thing I wish I could change about my month in Vietnam is not giving myself enough time in the South. My original plan was to explore the Mekong Delta for a few days but with a flight to catch I had only two nights in Ho Chi Minh which left me with no choice but to do a day tour of the Mekong. Other than being short on time, Southern Vietnam did not disappoint!

Duration: 5 days

Season: Dry season (March, 2018)

My Itinerary:

  • Day 0:  Overnight sleeper bus to Dalat
  • Days 1-3: Explore Dalat; overnight sleeper bus to Ho Chi Minh City
  • Day 4: Explore Ho Chi Minh City
  • Day 5: Day trip to Mekong Delta
  • Day 6: Early flight out of HCMC

Dalat

I hadn’t heard much about Dalat before arriving in Asia except that it was great for canyoning – and many itineraries I read didn’t even include it. I’m glad that I made the stop though – it ended up being one of my favorite places in Vietnam! While the city itself isn’t anything special there wasn’t a shortage of ways to enjoy the outdoors.

Things to do:
  • Pongour Waterfall: My favorite Dalat waterfall was a little further outside of the city (about a 1.5 hour scooter ride from city center) but worth the extra effort. Hundreds of tiny falls cascade together and the number of people is minimal.
    Cost: 10,000 Dong ($0.44) entry, 5,000 Dong ($0.22) scooter parking
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  • Elephant Falls: Probably the most well-known waterfall in Dalat (and most visited) is Elephant Falls. My expectations were low when visiting since I was told it was crowded with tourists and that the water is filled with garbage. While these were both true, I was glad I made the stop! The waterfall is powerful and impressive, and there is a separate path that leads you behind the waterfall where there are significantly less people. You can get up close if you’re willing to get wet! There are a lot of steps down to the falls as well as some rocks that you need to navigate but there is a handrail the entire way to help you, just be sure to wear proper footwear.
    Cost: 20,000 Dong ($0.88) entry
  • Big Blue Buddha (Happy Buddha): If you’re visiting Elephant Falls it’s worth taking the extra 5 minutes to explore the neighboring Linh An Pagoda, home to the Big Blue Buddha. This Buddha is enormous and its grin is sure to put a smile on your face. The surrounding area is nice to walk around as well. Parking is free and since I went here first I just walked around the corner to Elephant Falls. To find the happy Buddha, go around the back right of the pagoda and you can’t miss him!
    Cost: Free
  • Canyoning: Dalat is well known for its canyoning where you get to rappel down rock faces and waterfalls! I booked my tour through my hostel with Highlands Sports and it was an action packed half day tour (9am-4pm). We started at Datanla Falls where we were given a harness, gloves, helmet, and a safety lesson. Our guides then showed us how to rappel and let us practice a few times on a concrete wall to get the hang of it. It’s not too difficult and no prior experience is needed. After we all had proven ourselves capable we made our way past the waterfall and tourists to our first rappel! There were three rappels in total, with the final one dropping us into a waterfall (affectionately called the washing machine because it pulls you underwater and spins you around before spitting you out!) Our group of 10 had 3 guides who helped with rappelling and also acted as our personal photographers (you don’t want to bring anything with you since you do a bit of swimming.)

    Between rappelling you will get the chance to go down rock waterslides, cliff jump off a 7, 9, or 11 meter (36 foot!) waterfall, and also get a lunch break for some make-your-own banh mi sandwiches. I would highly recommend Highland Sports – the equipment was in excellent conditions, the guides were funny and spoke great English, the photos were excellent, and lunch was delicious!
    Cost: $50 USD

  • Datanla Waterfalls: If you go canyoning you will most likely start from Datanla Falls so you’ll get a chance to see this waterfall. Unfortunately you’ll most likely not have your camera on you (which is why I don’t have any pictures.)
  • Me Linh Coffee Garden: This coffee plantation is a common stop for tourists to taste Vietnam’s famous weasel coffee. Weasel coffee, a Vietnamese specialty coffee, is named so because weasels eat and pass the coffee beans which are then cleaned off and brewed. This gives the coffee a unique taste although I didn’t really notice much of a difference. Many people who can’t drink coffee black say they enjoy weasel coffee without any milk or sugar.
    Cost: 65,000 Dong ($2.86) per cup
  • Xuan Huong Lake: Located in the center of the city is a massive lake that is lovely to walk around or along. There are also some swan boats that you can rent to take out!
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  • Night Market: Each night the Dalat Night Market opens up offering food, souvenirs, clothing, and other goods. The market seems to be mostly filled with locals which is a nice change to many of the night markets that you’ll visit across Asia. Be careful with some of the food – I heard stories of people getting sick from it.
  • Maze Bar (100 Roofs Café): This is probably one of the coolest and most unique bars that I’ve been to. Made of of several different floors and different rooms, the bar is literally a maze. If you are planning on meeting a friend I suggest that you meet outside or on the top level where the balcony is! Drinks are pricey and you are required to buy a drink when entering.
    Cost: 55,000 Dong ($2.42) glass of Dalat red wine
  • Crazy House: Keeping up with the theme of Maze Bar is Crazy House with funky architecture that reminded me of the designs of Gaudí. Most people visit just to see the architecture but if you’re willing to splurge it’s also a hotel and you can book a fun themed room. You can easily get lost here for a couple hours exploring the different paths, rooms, and tunnels. Be sure to not miss the underwater world inside one of the buildings to the left when you enter, and also not to miss the pathways leading up to the views of the city!
    Cost: 50,000 Dong ($2.20)

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  • Linh Phuoc Pagoda: This pagoda is located a bit outside of the city center but can be easily reached by motorbike. You can also get there taking the train from the Dalat Railway Station which is known for its beautiful architecture. I missed the last train so I scootered to the pagoda, but when I arrived it was closing so I didn’t get to go inside.  Even from the outside it was beautiful! If you take the train make sure that you know when the return train will be or have a backup plan to get home (such as a taxi).
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  • Secret Garden: I found this spot on Instagram and it was difficult to find – and when I did finally arrive it was full of a bunch of tourists taking selfies! I guess I shouldn’t have really expected anything less. The area was beautiful but small, with many spots to take cool pictures. To get here head towards the Dalat Clay Sculptures Tunnel (don’t make the same mistake as me – this is not where the secret garden is so don’t pay to go in.) Continue past the parking area and then curve around to your right onto the dirt road to end behind where they are parking motorbikes. You’ll see a small sign for the secret garden and most likely some large buses with tour groups – that’s your spot!
    Cost: Free

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If I had more time…

  • Dalat City Flower Garden got mixed reviews from those who visited. While Dalat is known for its flowers, this seemed to be a slightly underwhelming experience for many.
  • Lang Biang is a hike North of the city that you can either hike up (2-3 hours) or get a ride to the top. Unfortunately I didn’t have time for either to see the views of Dalat and the surrounding area, but I would have loved to have time to hike to the top!
Useful Information:
  • Getting in and out: I took a sleeper bus from Hoi An to Dalat and it was not a short ride (about 17 hours if I remember correctly…) with a stop in Nha Trang where I was required to change buses at 7am. The price was right though at 290,000 Dong ($12.76). Other options included taking a night train or flying from Danang to Dalat, but both are more expensive.
  • Getting around: While the Dalat city center is fairly walkable, many of the main attractions are outside of the city and most easily accessible by motorbike. If you’re not comfortable driving a scooter I saw a couple people who hired easy riders – locals who you hire for a day to drive you around on their motorbike.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

The first item on my to-do list was figuring out the name of this city: is it Ho Chi Minh City or is it Saigon?! Apparently that depends on who you ask. Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City after it fell in 1975 marking the end of the Vietnam War. Much of the older generation still refers to it as Saigon, while the younger generation calls it Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

Things to do:
  • War Remnants Museum: If there’s one thing that you should do while you’re in HCMC it’s visit the War Remnants Museum. It’s heartbreaking and at times tough to look at some of the displays, but does an excellent job providing information about the Vietnam/American War and the Vietnamese perspective.
    Cost: 40,000 Dong ($1.76)
  • City Hall and Ho Chi Minh Monument: City hall stands out due to its French-style architecture and with Ho Chi Minh standing grand and tall in front of it, this is a good photo opportunity even though you can’t go inside.
  • Cooking Class with Mai Home – The Saigon Culinary Art Center: I had a free afternoon when I arrived so I decided to sign up for a cooking class. The menu was set and we were to make 3 dishes; I was going to learn to make pho, spring rolls, and Vietnamese pancakes. I was the only person in the class so I had a one-on-one experience with my chef. It was nice to get her full attention but I think it would have been more fun and interactive with others in the class. The class started with a trip to the local market where we picked up some ingredients (spices and vegetables) to cook with later and I was also treated to a coconut.

    We then headed back to the restaurant where I was shown how to make some fancy flowers out of carrots, how to prepare fresh spring rolls, how to make pho, and how to fry up some pancakes. All of the prep work was done for us so it was quick. All of the food was delicious!
    Cost: 805,000 Dong ($34.52)

  • Pasteur Street Brewery and Heart of Darkness: After not having a decent beer in months I was thrilled to find out that HCMC has a craft beer scene! I made it to two breweries and while both were good I preferred Pasteur Street Brewery for both its beer and its vibe. Expect to pay western prices.
    Cost: 275,000 Dong ($12.08) for a flight
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  • Roof Top Bar for Happy Hour: Finally being back in a big, modern city I knew that I wanted to check out the city from above. There are a number of roof top bars that are known for their swanky drinks and city views, but with those come a hefty price tag on drinks. I went to Chill Skybar during happy hour (until 8pm) when they have an incredible deal on cocktails. They have a strict dress code, but had a pair of men’s shoes for my friend to borrow since he was wearing sandals.

If I had more time…

  • The Cu Chi Tunnels can be visited as a day trip (or even a half day trip) from HCMC at a very affordable price. I heard mixed reviews on this tour when looking into it but had a friend who did it and had a great time! If you’re into history and not afraid of small spaces then this might be just what you’re looking for.
Useful Information:
  • Getting in and out: The bus from Dalat will drop you right in the city center. I took a night bus and it was 210,000 Dong ($9.25). I was flying out of HCMC and my Grab to the airport was 108,000 Dong ($4.75).
  • Getting around: Although HCMC is large and fairly spread out, it is also very walkable. I felt safe walking around at night. I would only recommend renting a motorbike here if you are comfortable driving and experienced with traffic. Grab is also available and much cheaper than taxis.

Mekong Delta

I heard so many great things about this area that I was really hoping to be able to travel there on my own and spend a couple days exploring. With time not on my side I was forced to take a day tour from HCMC. While the price was right and the day was fun, I would highly suggest traveling there on your own so you can get a better feel for the area, and if there are sites that you would rather see in HCMC I would do that instead and save the Mekong for when you make it back to Vietnam next.

The tour started early in the morning, around 8am, and was about a 2 hour bus ride to My Tho in the Mekong Delta region. During the ride our wonderful tour guide kept us entertained with jokes and information about Vietnam and the surrounding areas. We returned back to the tour office around 5:30pm.

Tour highlights:
  • Vinh Trang Pagoda: Our first stop was at a Buddhist temple where we had time to walk around the grounds at our own pace. Here there is a giant laughing Buddha and a reclining Buddha as well as some intricately decorated gates and temples.
  • Speed Boat to the Islands: The next stop was the pier to board a speed boat to bring us across the river to the islands. Unfortunately this area wasn’t too scenic but overall it was a quick ride.
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  • Coconut Candy Mill: Next up was a coconut candy mill where coconut candy is made! We were walked through the process and shown the equipment used to make the candy and then given some free samples. There were also samples of the Vietnamese snake whiskey (with fortified snakes and scorpions in the bottle – yum!) Anyone who wanted to also had the opportunity to hold a boa constrictor for a photo.
  • Canal Row Boat: Traditional Vietnamese hats were handed out to everyone and then we were loaded into boats for a ride through the coconut tree lined canals. This was a short ride (about 10 minutes).
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  • Tea tasting with Music: The day ended with us at bee farm where local honey is made. We were also given some local fruit to sample as well as some tea samples while a local Vietnamese folk band played and sang for us. At the end of the performance we were shown the beehives and had the opportunity to hold them.
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Overall I thought that the day was fun and well-organized and the guide was great. It was a very touristy tour where we were carted around to the main touristy attractions (which was expected). I was only disappointed that we didn’t get to visit any of the floating markets which the Mekong is known for.

Cost: $10 USD

Wish List:

Where else I would have went in Southern Vietnam if I had more time… 

  • Nha Trang is a coastal city between Dalat and HCMC that I’ve heard mixed reviews on, so I wasn’t heartbroken to not have time for it. It is said to have beautiful beaches, but these beaches are also a popular destination for Russian tourists who seem to flock here is huge numbers.
  • Mui Ne is another coastal city, South of Nha Trang. My main reason for visiting would have been to make a visit to the white sand dunes.
  • The Mekong Delta is known for its floating markets, swamp lands, rice patties, and small villages and I would have loved to spend a few days exploring this area and seeing their way of life.
  • Phu Quoc Island is a good addition if you’re looking for some nice less visited beaches but don’t have time to make it to another other countries during your trip – or even if you do!

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