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- As the geographic footprint of Ho Chi Minh City continues to expand, finding a respite from urban life has become a somewhat complicated undertaking. Thankfully, there are still some refreshing escapes - to wild forests, inviting beaches and fascinating historical and cultural sights - just a short journey from town. One of the region's top attractions is the Cat Tien National Park, a 70,000-hectare Unesco-rated biosphere boasting a startling variety of flora and fauna. Visitors can go bird-watching, take to hiking trails, overnight in a crocodile swamp and look for signs of Vietnam's rarest wildlife. The Con Dao Islands, a 40-minute flight from the city, offer an equally attractive getaway, albeit of a tropical island flavour. A former prison colony under the French and US regimes, Con Dao today boasts largely undiscovered beaches, empty coastal roads and a healthy ecosystem complete with coral reefs and colonies of green sea turtles - one of Vietnam's best places to see them in the wild. Other fine beaches stretch just east of the gruff oilman's town of Vung Tau. Although lacking the popularity of Mui Ne and Nha Trang further up the coast, there are some sparkling gems here - particularly Long Hai and Ho Tram - for those seeking a quiet beach holiday far from the madding crowd. More popular than HCMC's nearby beaches and forests, however, are the dark, stifling tunnels of Cu Chi, where VC guerrillas once lived, fought and - in many cases - died. Nearby, the fantastical Cao Dai Temple provides a surreal point to learn about Vietnam's uniquely home-grown religion. Both of these sights are extremely popular tour-bus day trips from HCMC.
Two notable national parks are found in this southern slice of Vietnam. Cat Tien National Park, a few hours from HCMC, makes a lovely detour between HCMC and Dalat for those interested in bird-watching and hiking. Even more remote is Con Dao National Park, located on a string of islands accessible by thrice-weekly flights from HCMC. This national park includes forests, coral reefs and uninhabited islands, home to nesting sea turtles. Both parks give visitors the opportunity to explore Vietnam's all-too-rare wild side.
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