For Indochina’s every must-see attraction there’s a little-known alternative… This guide will take you away from the crowds and into the authentic heart of the region
Luang Prabang, Laos
Languid and lovely, a visit to Luang Prabang is like connecting with the Asia of old. A living, breathing World Heritage site, this historic town is home to 32 stupa-studded wats (temples).
As dawn breaks, a line of saffron stretches as far as the eye can see, monks shuffling along the streets in search of alms – an iconic image of Luang Prabang.
Si Phan Don, Laos
Laos has always been known as the most laid-back country in Indochina. An observant French colonialist captured it perfectly: ‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Khmers tend the rice and the Lao listen to it grow.’ The ‘4,000 Islands’, Si Phan Don, of the Mekong River in southern Laos, is where Laos becomes positively horizontal. Adopt the pace of island life for a few days, visiting the Khmer mountain temple of Wat Phu, the decaying French grandeur of Champasak, and on a boat trip in search of the rare river dolphins.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Almost a living museum, Hoi An oozes history from the beams and cracks of its ancient houses, preserved much as they must have looked in the 19th century. Originally a coastal trading port known as Faifo, traders travelled from afar to leave their mark on the town, with Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and French influences evident in the elegant structures. Emphatically the most enchanting place on the Vietnamese coast, this is no secret – be prepared to share the experience.
Sihanoukville may have the beaches, but Kampot has the charm. This riverside town is the epitome of dilapidated colonial style and has a dramatic setting under the shadow of Bokor Hill. Explore the legacy of the French amid the old shophouses, cruise the river at sunset or journey down the coast to Kep, one of the oldest beach resorts in Indochina and slowly awakening from its long slumber. It’s more basic than Luang Prabang or Hoi An, but that’s all part of the attraction.
The grand old dame of Indochina, Hanoi is a compelling city where old Asia and new Asia collide. Steeped in history, pulsating with life, bubbling with commerce, buzzing with motorbikes and rich in exotic scents, the Old Quarter is the Asia you imagine from afar.
A city of sweeping boulevards and shady lakes, the ‘Paris of the Orient’ lives up to the hype. Gastronomic dining and some stylish accommodation make it a popular destination, although the winters can be grey and miserable.
Sleeping Buddha in Temple in Vientiane, Laos (Dreamstime)
The Laotian capital is one of the most unhurried in the world, in keeping with the national motto of Lao PDR (‘please don’t rush’). Tourists on the grand Indochina circuit often skip the capital, but this is the place to get beneath the skin of the country. Sights are low-key, including the golden stupa of That Luang and the surreal statuary of Buddha Park. Sink a chilled Beerlao at sunset on the banks of the Mekong River and you will wonder how you ever considered skipping this city.
Heaven on earth, Angkor is the abode of the ancient Hindu gods – Mt Meru – cast in stone, each temple with its own personality, reflecting the egos of the God Kings of old. The complex has the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the Pyramids, all rolled into one. But it also has the hordes, with millions of tourists descending each year – plan your visit carefully to avoid them.
Preah Vihear, Cambodia
The Khmer empire stretched from Burma to Vietnam, leaving a legacy of hundreds of majestic temples. Make a pilgrimage to Prasat Preah Vihear, king of the mountain temples, clinging impossibly to a cliff-face on the Dangrek Mountains. Or visit Preah Khan, the largest single temple constructed during the time of Angkor; the roads are rough, but the sculptures smooth. Note: In November 2013 the ICJ confirmed the ownership of Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia. However, there is still a threat of tension and a military presence remains in the area. Check the latest news on the situation before planning a visit.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The Cambodian capital is a chaotic yet charming city that has thrown off the shadows of the past to embrace a brighter future. Boasting one of the most unblemished riverfronts in the region, Phnom Penh is in the midst of a boom, with swish restaurants, lakeside bars and hip hotels ready to welcome the adventurous. Experience emotional extremes at the inspiring National Museum and the depressing Tuol Sleng Prison Museum.
For the flavour of old Phnom Penh before it claimed its place on the international merry-go-round of development workers and international investors, make a detour to Battambang. Old French shophouses line the Sangker River and a new breed of boutique hotels and homely restaurants ensure it caters for every whim.
Battambang has become known as a centre for performance arts and circus performances by Phare Ponleu Selpak, an initiative to help disadvantaged youngsters, are a must-see. Beyond Battambang lie ancient Khmer temples and the chance to ride the ‘bamboo train’, Cambodia’s very own local express, a sort of platform on wheels.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay is nature at its most expressive: a dramatic collection of rock sculptures hewn across the centuries, rising from the South China Sea like stone sentinels. Undoubtedly the leading attraction in north Vietnam, spending a night onboard a junk is an idyllic way to experience the magic. There are more than 3,000 islands scattered throughout the bay; exploring hidden caves and grottoes by kayak is a natural high.
Choose the boat operator carefully, as standards differ dramatically.
Tourist junks and floating village in Halong Bay (Shutterstock)
Bai Tu Long Bay, VietnamSitting silently alongside Halong Bay is the largely undiscovered yet extraordinarily beautiful Bai Tu Long. Receiving just 1% of the 8,000 tourists that flock to its better-known neighbour, Bai Tu Long is reminiscent of Halong Bay before the influx of travellers and government developments.
Surrounded by cliffs stretching 100m into the sky, this is a place of enchanting natural beauty and you will not struggle to keep yourself occupied. Explore the stunning bio-diversity of Bai Tu Long Bay National Park or cycle through through fantastic karst scenery on Tra Ban Island. Take to the water to get an insight into local culture at the floating fishing village of Vung Vieng, and jump into a kayak to explore the secluded coves and lagoons of Cong Do Island.
Perched amid the towering mountains and plunging valleys of the north, Sapa is the rooftop of Vietnam, set at 1,600m under the shadow of Fansipan (3,143m), the country’s tallest mountain. The trekking capital of Vietnam, this is the place to plan an encounter with the friendly Hmong and Dzao people who reside in traditional villages beyond.
Some villages have been overrun, so plan longer treks or rides to leave the crowds behind. Tour the north by jeep or motorbike to reveal stunning scenery and curious locals.
Bac Ha, Vietnam
Hoang A Tuong Royal Architecture imperial, Bac Ha, Vietnam (Dreamstime)
Despite being swamped by crowds during the Sunday market, Bac Ha soon collapses into a quiet slumber as soon as the last tourist bus leaves and you are free to roam this beautiful hilltop town in peace.
Located 700 metres above sea level in the Lao Cai Province, Bac Ha is nestled amongst glorious countryside making it the perfect location for trekkers. You share the main streets with chickens and pigs scavenging for leftover food. Meanwhile village life remains unaltered by outside influences allowing you to experience authentic hill-tribe culture.
At half the altitude of Sapa, Bac Ha not only boasts warmer weather but is also a shorter distance from local markets making your day trip commute that much simpler.
If you don't mind sacrificing a few home comforts, this is an ideal destination that takes you off the beaten track.
Mui Ne, Vietnam
Arguably the best all-round beach in Indochina, Mui Ne seductively unfurls itself along the coast near Phan Thiet. It is also the ‘Sahara’ of Vietnam, with the most dramatic sand dunes in the region looming large. Activities abound – the seasonal winds draw kite-surfers from all over the world to ride the waves. Luxurious resorts, boutique retreats and budget guesthouses ensure that it remains the beach to be seen at, despite some stiff competition.
Mui Ne beach, Vietnam (Shutterstock)
Quy Nhon, Vietnam
With few overseas visitors opting to stop by in this beautiful and prosperous seaside town, Quy Nhon is the perfect location for you to soak up Vietnamese culture without being pestered by an influx of travellers.
Stroll along the golden sand of Municipal Beach and spy on locals practising t'ai chi, or explore the bustling markets of Nguyen Nga Centre where you may just catch a special student musical performance. And no trip to Quy Nhon is complete without sampling the delicious seafood, freshly landed at this fishing port.
Surrounded by stunning, untouched green mountains, and flanked by gorgeous beaches, this is a must if you want to escape the tourist hubs.
Main Image: Beach in Quy Nhon (Shutterstock)
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