May 24, 2012

Top Five Destinations in Cambodia

Cambodia is a country with an identity that is not easily overlooked. Whether getting to know a generation of people subjected to a genocidal regime, experiencing the ins and outs of a developing and pious civilization, or backpacking its plethora of stunning landmarks and terrain whilst residing in provincial bungalows by night, Cambodia is not an experience you will soon forget. For the adventurous traveler fixated on exploring the nooks and reality of Southeast Asia, one need look no further. Here are our suggestions for the top five destinations in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap

One of the bigger tourist destinations in Cambodia, Siem Reap is an opportunity to experience one the country’s focal points while enjoying ‘modernish’ amenities. For tourists, this town is primarily used as an in-between point from Angkor Wat and some of the other country’s hotspots. However, a lazy-day boat ride along the Tonle Sap, or a day exploring the markets and splurging with exotic meals may be just the ticket between routes from Cambodia’s more provincial and isolated sites.

May 22, 2012

How to spend a weekend in Hanoi

There are so many things to see in Hanoi the real question is not ‘How to spend a weekend in Hanoi” but how much can be possibly be fitted into one weekend?

A good place to begin is the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex. This attraction was developed around a old French palace. The first unique feature is having to enter the museum passing through a system resembling post-9/11 airport security. Guards ensure visitors do not stray from the accepted area during tours that can require several hours if all areas are visited. The first area, devoted to Ho Chi Minh photos and biographical information has explanatory data in English, French and Vietnamese.

May 17, 2012

Travel to Vietnam – Top 10 Things to do

1.Take a tour around the legendary Halong Bay
Paddle around Halong Bay in Quang Ninh which is similar to the islands found along the , this is one of Vietnam’s most beautiful areas, Halong Bay has fascinating limestone formations, coves for night-time excursions, sheer cliffs, grottoes, arches and scores of small islets. There are plenty of activities such as Kayaking that are well worth taking time out for as this is one way to really appreciate the beauty of the area as well as a good way to see the fauna and flora without disturbing the nature around one.

2. Get your shirts and suits tailor-made at Hoian
Visit Hoian. From the 16th to 18th centuries, Hoian was a thriving international commercial port for Chinese, Dutch, French, Japanese, Portuguese and Arab traders. These people came to trade primarily for the high-grade silk, which is still produced in the area, and ceramics. The area is now one of four world heritage listed sites in Vietnam and there are lots of interesting things to see and do in the area.

So you think you can ride in Vietnam?

When I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam, motorcycles immediately stole my attention. Motorcycles in Vietnam are everywhere and they are used to do just about everything. Streets in Vietnam are like rivers, but instead of water, motorcycles flow in continuous streams of traffic.

You think you could ride like this?

Though I wasn’t able to ride any motorbikes while visiting Vietnam, nearly all my most interesting memories of the country (like single motorbikes transporting as many boxes as a normal pick-up truck) have to do with motorbikes!

I thought to myself how cool it would be to travel through Vietnam on a motorcycle. For me it would be the flexibility of being able to stop at will, or being able to go to a completely off-the-beat destination in the country. I remember riding in a bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay. During the ride I peeked out the window and saw countless little local Vietnamese restaurants that appeared to be serving amazing unique food – and if I had been on my own motorcycle I could have stopped and enjoyed it.

I was amazed by the motorcycle traffic in Hanoi!

After reading the guide to motorbiking in Vietnam, I realized that touring Vietnam on a motorcycle isn’t quite as easy as just jumping on a bike and heading out – there are a few things to think about and organize in order to ensure your journey is a success.

Choosing a Motorcycle: Great tips on finding a motorcycle that best suits your interests and how to go about fully checking it over (condition of the bike) before committing to purchase it.

Riding Tips and Suggestions: Not only does the guide provide useful tips on how to ride like the Vietnamese (using your horn, focusing forward, accelerating on traffic gaps), it’s also packed with valuable tips on what gear to take and what to wear.

Licensing, Permits, Registration, Insurance (both yourself and bike): No, this stuff is not the most interesting, but it really is the most important information you need to think about when organizing a motorcycle trip in Vietnam
Where to Go: When you’re past the logistics of riding a motorcycle, it’s time to figure out a rough itinerary of where you want to go. Sure you can drive around aimlessly, but since you’ll probably be on a tourist visa, you’ll want to have some sort of rough plan. The guide suggests a few amazing rides and routes that you may want to add to your travel itinerary.

Resources Section: From useful Vietnamese language phrases to a motorcycle specific packing checklist, the resources section is really useful. The guide really made me think through a lot of things I would have never thought of (and that are really important).
For instance, I never would have known to keep my motorcycle gas tank always 1/2 full or more to avoid clogging the gas filter.

May 16, 2012

“A memorable first visit to Viet Nam”

As their name suggests, ATA is at their best doing active travel; take advantage of it to get away from the crowds and experience Vietnam in a more direct and authentic way.

We arranged a private, two week, multi-tour package in Vietnam with ActiveTravel Asia (ATA) in October 2011. ATA staff, especially Sunny, worked with us to put together a customized itinerary that met our needs and interests. The result was a remarkable and challenging vacation of dramatic landscapes, intense cultural exposure, physical activity, great food, and beautiful people. Our trip had three major components: a 5D/4N sea kayaking tour of Ha Long Bay (including Cat Ba Island), a 3D/2N trek with homestays in the Sa Pa area, and a 2D/1N bicycling tour with homestay in the Mekong Delta

May 11, 2012

My Ha Long Bay Visit

 May 7, 2012  

Before I moved to Vietnam, one of the things that most impressed me about the country were pictures I had seen of Ha Long Bay. The beautiful pictures showed romantic views of limestone islands sitting in gorgeous blue water, and I knew this would be a place that I would have to visit!

Much to my surprise, when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I realized that this magical place was pretty far away. Unfortunately, after a year of working in, and traveling around, this impressive country I had yet to accomplish my goal of visiting the bay. Recently, while on a business trip to Hanoi, I took a few extra days and finally got to Ha Long Bay.
I booked a tour with a local Hanoi travel agent recommended by a friend. I knew that I didn’t want to go for a cheap, low budget tour on my first visit to the bay so I decided to go for one of the nicer, but still affordable, options. When I had everything booked I could barely sleep because I was so excited.

A bus picked me up in Hanoi in the morning and we made the long drive to the boats. I was surprised how long the drive took as I originally thought that Ha Long Bay was closer to the city. Still, the ride was comfortable and we made it to the water with few complaints. Plus, while we drove along, we got the chance to introduce ourselves to the other travelers who would be joining us on our adventure.

We boarded a small boat at the somewhat chaotic and crowded marina and rode out to the larger boat we would be spending the night on. The boat was beautiful with a rustic, wooden exterior that fit perfectly with the timeless location that surrounded us. Although the boat looked like a more traditional vessel, inside it was equipped with all the modern amenities that you would expect in a modern hotel room. The beds were comfortable and the rooms were surprisingly large for being on a boat.

Slowly, the boat moved into the area of the towering islands. Although I had seen many pictures I was unprepared for how truly impressive the rock formations are in real life! They were truly amazing to look at and compared to nothing else I had ever seen.

Eventually, the boat came to a stop where the rocks formed a kind of natural harbor. Here we exited and got the opportunity to check out a large cave toward the top of one of the large islands. The inside of the cave was massive, bigger than any other cave I had been to and I was surprised that it was in as good of shape as it was, considering the amount of tourists that pass through it daily. While I thought the cave was nice, the best part was the view it afforded from its high location. The boats resting on the calm water next to the islands were truly a sight to see, it reminded me of something you would see in a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie!

After exploring the cave, we had a couple of hours to kayak around in the clear, blue water. I had really been looking forward to the kayaking and it didn’t disappoint. Although the outside temperature was cooler than in HCM city  I was surprised by how warm the water was as I paddled along.

Once we were finished it was time for dinner on the boat. We ate some delicious seafood as the sun sat around us and the rocks were bathed in an orange light. Once night fell I retired to my room where I peacefully went to sleep. I rested peacefully as the water was gentle and there was barely a sound outside.

In the morning we watched the sun rise over the landscape, had a simple breakfast and cruised out of the bay. Overnight, clouds had crept into the area and we got the chance to see a more mystical, foggy side of the bay. This was charming in its own way and I felt like an early explorer discovering a new land.
Finally we made it back to the mainland, boarded a bus and returned to the city. I didn’t want to leave such a magical place but I knew this would be the first of many trips as I don’t think I could ever spend enough time in this picturesque land that is truly a natural wonder.

Angela Schonberg
Source: Tuoi tre news

May 10, 2012

Destination: Vientiane, Laos

SITUATED on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, sleepy Vientiane is one of the world’s smallest capital cities. To say Vientiane is relaxed is something of an understatement. This is a city that rises late, sleeps early and is lethargic in between.

 Monks in Vientiane, Laos.

However, this is the charm of the Laos capital. Known for its shady streets and crumbling French architecture, people still cook with charcoal and you’ll rarely see a multi-storey building breaking the horizon.

Vientiane has long been a popular stop-off on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail. It also has its fair share of expats who have succumbed to its charms, as well as many expats from neighboring Thailand who travel there to renew their Thai visas. Another large contingent of westerners you’ll see in Vientiane will be NGO or embassy workers.

A Day in the Life
Morning –Early morning Vientiane is, on the face of it, just what you’d expect – sleepy. It’s a great time to wander the streets before the heat of the day sets in and sit back and enjoy a quiet, relaxing coffee. However, if you want to see the other side of Vientiane in the morning visit one of the large, open air, wet markets in town, which are a hive of activity.

Afternoon – Many of Vientiane’s best sights and attractions are all within walking distance of the tourist quarter. The area is dotted with beautiful temples, while the palace and the national museum are also worth a look.

Evening – Watch the sun go down while sitting on the banks of the Mekong with a bottle of the surprisingly good local brew – Beer Lao. Many lazy hours can be happily whiled away ‘Mekong watching’, but it’s worth making that extra effort to sample some of the many excellent eateries around town.

Best of the Rest
Patuxai, or ‘Victory Gate’, is Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe, and the highest point in the city. The monument honors the people who died during the fight for independence from France. Patuxai was built in the ‘60s using funds donated by the US to build an airport. Laos used the cash to build the monument instead.
Arguably the pick of the temples in Vientiane is Tat Luang. This is regarded as the most important temple in the country and is the national symbol of Laos. It’s located about a mile north of the city centre.

Hidden Gem - Take in the beautiful countryside surrounding Vientiane with a trip to Buddha Park. This unique spectacle is full of stone statues and offers some great views across the river of neighboring Thailand.

Accommodation - Rooms for the night can be scarce by the early evening so it’s best to get there early or make a reservation. Prices for budget accommodation, like much of the region, are modest. Fifteen or 20 dollars will get you a passable mid-range room, for 40 can get you something a little more luxurious. Most hotels and guesthouses will accept US dollars and Thai baht, as well as the Laos kip.

Vientiane at Night
Dining - Lao food can be a goal well worth pursuing and not as easily obtained as one might think. The food sold in the English language restaurants is often an imitation, dumbed down for the western pallet even in those restaurants professing to specialize in Lao food. For the real thing, go to street vendors and sawdust-on-the-floor type establishments. It’s much cheaper too. If Western food is more your thing, Vientiane has become much more cosmopolitan in recent years and you will have plenty of international food options.

Nightlife – Vientiane is sleepy by day and sleepy by night. By law most bars shut down very early – 11.30pm. There are places to go out and have a drink, maybe even listen to music, but compared to the likes of Thailand, it’s fairly dead at night.

A young Lao girl takes a ride in a vegetable cart in one of Vientiane's many morning markets

Retail Therapy - The most famous market in Vientiane, Dalat Sao, or Morning Market in English, is slowly succumbing to the wrecking ball and the plate glass, air conditioned shopping mall, so it’s well worth a look before it’s gone. Downstairs are row after row of small shops selling traditional Lao silk weaving and some very good handicrafts. Upstairs are the gold stores and cheap clothing. Morning is a misnomer in this case as the market doesn’t even really open up until after 8am and shuts down at 4pm.

Across the street to the south (next door to the central post office) is the Ethnic Handicrafts Cooperative. Mostly Hmong owned and orientated towards the visiting overseas Hmong, it has the largest selection of hill-tribe handicrafts of all ethnicities for sale in Laos. Don’t expect colorful displays or friendly English speaking sales people. It is not tourist-oriented, but that only adds to the fun.

Getting there & away – There are regular flights into Vientiane from many of the major cities in the region and the rise of the budget airline has made these a whole lot cheaper. If you are traveling by land, there are regular services to and from cities in China, Vietnam and northern Thailand.

Getting around - To get around most people use tuktuks. They tend to overcharge and bargaining isn’t as important as knowing the going rate in the first. Probably the best option is to rent a motorcycle ,though beware; the rules of the road are not enforced with any real gusto. In truth, the town is so small many people simply walk to wherever they are going.

May 08, 2012

Top Five Places in Vietnam That Are Not Hanoi or Saigon

Sure, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) are spectacular, but there’s much more to Vietnam than just those two destinations. Vietnam is filled to the brim with exotic sandy beaches, untapped cultural landmarks and all the rural culture you can handle, from the absolutely stunning beaches and growing nightlife of Nha Trang, to the historical old town of beautiful Hoi An. For those with the adventurer’s sense of traveling, there are more than enough reasons to extend your stay in Vietnam. Here are our top 5 places to go in Vietnam that are not in Hanoi or Saigon.

1. Hue

Hue - Vietnam

One of the best regarded cultural landmarks in the country, Hue is packed with wonderful temples, palaces and pagodas, a true delight for those who want to soak in the country’s rich history. Head over to the Imperial Citadel for Hue’s prime attraction and explore its moats’ gates, shops and pavilions. Then follow up the Citadel with the Tombs of the Emperors, also located along the banks of the Perfume River. Cost aside, the walls of the tombs of Thieu Tri, Gia Long and Minh Mang, surrounded by warrior statues and opulent mosaics are a tribute to Vietnam’s great past leaders.

2. Nha Trang
Nha TrangVietnam

If white sandy beaches and island hopping are the name of the game for you, then look no further. Nha Trang is an increasingly popular destination for those looking to catch a little rest and relaxation while taking in the exotic backdrop of gorgeous Vietnamese coast. Take yourself on a full day boat tour for just $6 that includes lunch, music, snorkeling and trips to the local aquarium, before whisking you away to an island beach. The town has also become more and more developed over the years, with a respectable nightlife, including an interesting night market, an ice bar and delicious sea fare all around.

3. Hoi An
Hoi An, Vietnam

It is no wonder why the 16th and 17th-century former port city of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — it is one of the most picturesque places on the planet. Filled with breathtaking Chinese-style shop houses, each building is as unique as the next. The small but winding city is packed full of great places to do all of your shopping, including garment shops that will hand design pants, shirt, coats, shoes and dresses for pennies on western retail prices. And for the icing on the cake, a 30 minute bicycle ride gets you to a pristine beach with the bestseafood fare around.

4. Sapa
But Vietnam is more than just beaches and cities, take the mountainous and rugged beauty of Sapa. Known for its ethnic heritage and tremendous views, Sapa is a trekker’s paradise. First things first when you go, get to the mountainous view point of Heaven’s Gate – you will never see anything like it ever again. If you go via tour group, it takes about half a day to get there, but the journey is lovely. Afterward, take a tour of the village of Cat Cat, very close by Sapa itself. Here you will get a great sense of the local Vietnamese that inhabit the area, as well as natural sites including art shops and a waterfall – a lovely little hike.


5. Dalat
Located in the South Central Highlands of Vietnam, Dalat is quite different from any of the other hotspots in Vietnam, as it essentially Vietnam, but built by a Frenchman, a virtual cross between both worlds. The city itself is charming, with a small lake at its core and great peaks in the background. The best way to go here is to take buy a packaged day tour, but if not, make sure you take the cable car to Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery, see the palace of the last emperor, Bao Dai, and take a ride out to the inspiring countryside

Dalat, Vietnam