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Can Gio Island

Best by motorbike -- and the ride there is really what this little adventure is about -- Can Gio is far more popular with escaping Saigoners than tourists. Rent a motorbike for a day $5 to $10 from any of the shops along Pham Ngu Lau in Saigon's backpacker district. Can Gio is a beach and mangrove area just west of the Vung Tau Peninsula and only about 1 1/2 hours south of Saigon. The bumpy ride there crosses a number of small bridges and requires a few short ferry hops. The beach is not spectacular, nor set up for fun and frolic, but instead it's a place where Vietnamese families come to picnic -- and that's the main allure. Taking a holiday alongside locals, you'll likely be dragged into a group for a good barbecue and cup after cup of rice whiskey (careful if you've driven yourself here). Heading south of Saigon, you'll first reach the Nha Be area, a wide, wet plain, followed by two ferry crossings. Next, it's on to the island's mangrove forest area and beach -- beach being almost a euphemism for these low mudflats and hard sandy shores, but good for a long walk and to clear Saigon's pollution (and the honking traffic) out of your lungs and mind. You can get a bite at one of the local seafood shacks and enjoy a long, lazy repast before heading back to the big city.

Cao Dai Holy See Temple

The Cao Dai religion is less than 100 years old and is a broad, inclusive faith that sprang from Buddhist origins to embrace Jesus, Mohammed, and other nontraditional, latter-day saints such as Louis Pasteur, Martin Luther King, and Victor Hugo. Practitioners of Cao Daism are pacifists, pray four times daily, and follow a vegetarian diet for 10 days out of every month. Cao Daism is practiced by only a small percentage of Vietnamese people, mostly in the south, but you'll see temples scattered far and wide -- easily recognizable by the "all-seeing eye," which, oddly enough, looks something like the eye on the U.S. dollar. Often included with trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the temple at Tay Ninh is the spiritual center -- the Cao Dai Vatican, if you will -- and the country's largest. Visitors are welcome at any of the four daily ceremonies, but all are asked to wear trousers covering the knee, remove their shoes before entering, and act politely, quietly observing the ceremony from the balcony area. The temple interior is colorful, with bright murals and carved pillars. Cao Dai supplicants wear either white suits of clothing or colorful robes, each color denoting what root of Cao Daism they practice: Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or Taoist.

On the way from Saigon to the Cao Dai Temple you'll pass through the town of Trang Bang, site of the famous photo of 9-year-old Kim Phuc who was burned by napalm and whose story is told in the popular book The Girl in the Photo.

The road also passes Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, which is just 11km (6 3/4 miles) northeast of Tay Ninh (100km/62 miles from Saigon). The story goes that a young girl was forced to marry a wealthy mandarin but, rather than do so, fell to her death from the peak. The mountain is dotted with small temples. Most tours just drive by, as your guide recounts a bit of the history. Ba Den also marks the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trial as the supply line descended from the north to reinforce the North Vietnamese guerillas, including the people of Cu Chi . Despite relentless fighting throughout the war, U.S. forces were never able to clear North Vietnamese from the area.

A Side Trip To Cat Tien National Park (Vuon Quoc Gia Cat Tien)

145km (90 miles) N of Ho Chi Minh City; 195km (121 miles) S of Dalat

Covering a massive area of more than 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) shared by three provinces -- Lam Dong, Binh Phuoc, and Dong Nai -- the Cat Tien National Park was first established in 1978 and enlarged (nearly doubled) in 1992. It's one of the top bird- and game-spotting preserves in the region, important not only as one of the last standing evergreen and semi-evergreen old-growth forests in the south of Vietnam, but as a habitat for some of the region's most endangered species, particularly the Javanese rhinoceros. Once ranging widely throughout Southeast Asia, the rhinos were thought completely extinct until a few were spotted in 1999 by tripwire cameras in the park. The sad fact is that these are the last few of a nearly extinct breed, but part of the park's importance is to create the right conditions of wide grasslands and damp, swampy wallows so that the rhinos will see resurgence in numbers. Other rare animals -- including tigers, sun bears, and Asian wild dogs -- are known to range freely, and the park has been quite successful in growing a population of the threatened Siamese crocodile. You're unlikely to see anything too rare, but even the shortest walk in the dense forest or along the park access road means sightings of squirrels and monkeys and small game like civets and miniature forest deer.

But the park's birds bring most visitors here. You could meet anyone from eccentric amateur birders to professors of ornithology. The park's canteen, in fact, looks something like a panel in one of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons, with peculiar scientists comparing eyeglass prescriptions and zoom lenses, and swapping their experiences in spying all that is ruby-crested, struts, and shows plumage. The birds are interesting, and the park publishes a comprehensive guide listing the many rare species here. I had the good fortune to see a massive yellow hornbill, as well as various large egrets, heron, and rare water fowl.

The park is sponsored by the folks at the World Wildlife Foundation and, under their tutelage, Vietnamese rangers have reduced the number of people living in the park to a dwindling 9,000 (subsistence farmers are given good incentives to move, and support thereafter), and steps are being taken to eliminate dangerous detritus, the kind that is not just an eyesore, but can harm animals, like fishing nets and rope traps. The park now supports over 100 varieties of mammals, 350 species of bird, over 100 types of fish, 79 reptile species, 41 amphibians, 457 butterflies, and thousands of insects. The tally of protected animals is as follows: 18 mammals (including the endangered Indo rhino), 20 birds, 12 reptiles, 1 amphibian, and an orange-necked partridge -- which is endangered -- in the proverbial pear tree. The nice part is, unlike other parks in Vietnam, the animal population density is high and you're sure to spot some critters. You might not see the big rare guys, but certainly you'll spot a few civets, monkeys, and funky birds. You're also sure to see some great specimens of massive, ancient ficus trees on many of the park's hiking trails. The grasslands and wetlands that give life to the park's animals and plants drain into the Dong Nai River, which runs near the park entry.

The park area was also home to ancient Oc Eo settlements from Vietnam's early history, and you can find some information about them, and the ancient Phu Nam dynasty, at the visitor center.

The best news is that Cat Tien National Park is very organized. Just wash up on the shores of the information counter, and you can organize tours, borrow bicycles, rent jeeps, and hire guides at very reasonable rates. Start with the night viewing by jeep for 200,000 VND per person, with descending rates per person for larger groups.

Be sure to visit Bai Sau, otherwise known as Crocodile Lake, largest of the park's wetland areas and the best opportunity for seeing larger game. (I saw a small herd of Sambar deer, civets, and, yes, crocodile eyes glowing on the lake at night.) The lake is 10km (6 1/4 miles) from the park office, and the lakeside ranger station is a stunning 5km (3-mile) forest walk. You must hire a guide for the trip. You can overnight at the lake for the best chance to see wildlife at night, but the experience is very basic; imagine an aging Boy Scouts' camp minus any frills.

For further information, contact the park office at Tan Phu District, Dong Nai Province (tel. 061/366-9228; fax 061/366-9159; cattien_nationalpark@yahoo.com).

Getting There -- Hiring a car for the one-way trip from either Dalat or Ho Chi Minh is the best option. Expect to pay $60 to get you to the park gate, but it'll save you some hassle.

The park is located 24km (15 miles) north of Hwy. 20 between Dalat and Ho Chi Minh (the turnoff to the park is 125km/78 miles from Saigon and 175km/109 miles from Dalat). You can arrange a ride to kilometer 125 from Ho Chi Minh or Dalat, but you'll have to keep an eye out for the turnoff and remind the driver before you get there. Budget tourist cafe buses also follow these routes daily and are good about dropping you off in the right spot.

The motorbike taxi drivers at the turnoff are some of the hungriest bunch of crocodiles I've ever met, and the sad news is that once you hop off the bus, they have you over a barrel. The bargaining starts at 400,000 VND. These guys are delusional, and persistent, and you're the only game in town. Dig deep for a bit of patience. Sit and have a coffee. Have a laugh. And laugh hard at the price. Locals pay about 40,000 VND. Anything near that is reasonable. Be ready to make like you're going to walk to the park yourself (they'll follow). I got tired of it and paid 70,000 VND and thought I was done with it, but know that from the moment you enter the park, everyone will ask you how much you paid to get there. It is like a badge that defines you, so try to get a good deal (or lie).

Park entrance is 50,000 VND. Walk 100m (328 ft.) down the road to the free ferry, and then to the park information and check-in center, where the very helpful folks will help you sort things out.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Accommodations near the park entrance are quite good. A clean, tile room with air-conditioning is just 180,000 VND. Cheapest are the little wood-and-thatch huts for 90,000 VND. The entrance area is a cozy little campus, and there is a fun fraternal vibe among the many visitors here, most of whom are avid birders and eager to connect with fellow members of that rare species. Dining at the canteen is reasonable and quite good; they also have a selection of local wines that really gets the conversation flowing. Expect to meet people here and be able to arrange shared tours to the woods together.

One other option is to spend the night out at Bai Sau, Crocodile Lake. Accommodations here are spartan, but they do have running water and toilet facilities. Rooms have no fan and just a hanging mossie net, but the less-than-basic, rustic comforts ensure a good chance to spot rare animals at lakeside in the early morning or at night.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.