Friday, June 25, 2010

Travel Sapa Vietnam - A verdant rooftop

Beyond the well-known and colourful markets of Sapa, Bac Ha and Can Cau, the northwest mountainous area of Vietnam is bewitched with the wild town and market of Sin Ho, the roof of Lai Chau province.

Sapa tours in VietnamEthnic Market in Northwest of Vietnam

My friend said that it would be a pity if you travelled to the northwest mountains of Vietnam without stopping off at Sin Ho market. I didn’t give his claim much credence at first, until I stepped foot into the market—known as Cho huyen Sin Ho, and open every Sunday.

Situated imposingly on the Sin Ho plateau of Lai Chau province, Sin Ho town is located on the highest peak, over 2,000 metres above sea level and surrounded by verdant mountain ranges and clouds.

Locals call it: The Roof of Lai Chau province. The small town is also well-known as the second Sapa of the northwest area. But the climate in Sin Ho is even more sour and scornful than that of Sapa. Suddenly, you can be standing in a sea of white clouds, then, just several minutes later, the rain will rumble down like a waterfall. But right after the last rain drop falls, the sun will rise brilliantly and a cool wind will blow over the small town.

It takes me four hours to drive up the zigzagging road from Phong Tho town, at the junction between National Road No. 4D from Sapa and National Road No.12 towards Muong Lay town. The mountain road has been smoothly paved over, but it’s still a slow and winding drive. Therefore, I decide to spend a night at Sin Ho town and wait for the market until the next morning.

In the late afternoon, Sin Ho town looks small, deserted and gloomy, with simple and sparse wooden houses roofed with dark grey cement tiles and only a few shops and restaurants. It’s lucky that there are several modern guesthouses and mini hotels with reasonable prices. For only VND250, 000 per twin room, I check into the Thanh Binh guesthouse. It’s not an overstatement to say that at such a cost, this is the best hotel outside of Sapa in the northwestern area. It has spacious rooms, good facilities and a friendly staff.

On Sunday morning, the sleepy town comes alive. From all paths up and down leading to the town centre, waves of tribes people walk or ride horses and motorbikes, all loaded with many kinds of farm products, toward the market. These tribes come from many distant villages up and down the mountains. They are Flower Hmong, Blue Hmong, Black Hmong, Lu, Black Dao and Red Dao, among others.

After a morning at the market, I take a trekking tour to Pha Xo Lin II village, just three kilometres from the town centre. The village is home to the Dao Khau tribe, also known as the Sewing Dao, or the Black Dao, who wear black trousers richly embroidered with signature flower, tree and star patterns seen on many Dao costumes. They also wear a front hanging black apron with a wide, plain blue band around its outside, together with a plain black turban.

The village is very beautiful and poetic, with dark wooden houses roofed with black stone tiles and fenced in with stone hedges. This season, the peach and mango orchards are ripening in a riot of red and yellow. It’s mouthwatering to walk in the village, where you can take a seat under the fruit trees to enjoy lovely lanterns swinging in the cool winds and their fresh and sweet tastes. Pha Xo Lin village is very famous for its special golden red mangoes, with their sweet taste and jackfruit-like flavour.

Besides its delicious fruits, Pha Xo Lin village is a shopping paradise of brocades and embroidery products. It’s common to see Dao women sitting at their thresholds in their front yards or under the fruit trees sewing passionately. While you’re there, don’t miss out on buying some clothes, scarves or other decorous things from the tribes people. Their products are very sophisticated and beautiful, as befitting of their name—the Sewing Dao tribe.

Source: Duc Hanh/Timeout


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

25 killer things to do this summer

Looking for something to do this summer? Places to get away to? Ways to spend a vacation? We've got you covered

Summer is here, spring is gone. In many places it's hot. Really hot. Not surprisingly, we look to the beach for some relief from the sun, or look for the sun after a long winter's hibernation behind a desk. Well, time to strike out a bit and use up some of that vacation time you've been squirreling away. Here are some suggestions that should get you salivating for a little summer fun.

1. Chill out on one of Hong Kong's beaches

While Hong Kong's beaches might not be quite up to Bali or Vietnam levels of awesomeness, they still provide a pretty damn nice way to spend an afternoon. The best overall Hong Kong beach is probably Shek O. While it can get crowded with nearly 4,000 people visiting Shek O Beach on weekends, its still big enough to absorb the crowds without making things too uncomfortable. Take bus 9 or the red minibus from Shau Kei Wan MTR.

2. Lounge on Vietnam's finest beach -- Jungle Beach

Vietnam’s finest beach is hidden about an hour north of Nha Trang on a remote stretch of the Hon Khoi Peninsula. The boundaries of air and water are indistinct in the crystal sea, where night swimming with bioluminescent algae is on the regular activities list. The most intriguing views from this unique bamboo cabana homestay are the troupes of Black-shanked Douc Langurs, one of Indochina’s rarest primates.

3. Go super luxury at one of these Thai resorts

Thailand has dozens of supremely luxurious resorts that will easily allow you to spend a month’s salary in a single night if you want to, from pool villas overlooking the Andaman Sea to tiny boutique hotels so exclusive they don't even want you to have heard of them. But hey, you've seen one run-of-the-mill luxury villa, you've seen them all. If you’re looking for some next level pampering and opulent surroundings, check out these extraordinarily fancy digs.

4. Take off on a golf getaway

Whack a ball on a course in the Himalayas, play a course at an UNESCO world heritage site in Siem Reap, Cambodia, or enjoy the five star treatment like the former French Colonialists in Vietnam. Golf is a sunshine sport, so get out there while the gettin' is good.

5. Have a romantic tropical vacation at Le Taha'a Island Resort and Spa, Tahiti

Yes there are a lot of beaches on this list, but hey, it is summer time and Le Taha's golden beaches, turquoise water and perfume of native vanilla plants in one of the prettiest resorts in French Polynesia make Le Taha a great place to go for a "hot" summer getaway. Resort activities range from diving and snorkeling to jet-skiing and whale watching.

6. Have a long luxury weekend in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang’s hip restaurants and buzzy bars are no longer a secret, but the town -- along with its surrounding caves, waterfalls, jungle and Mekong river villages -- is yet to be discovered by the masses. Languid and laid-back, its intimate scale is ideal for a long weekend. Read more about Luang Prabang.

7. Picnic in Hong Kong

Many Hong Kong country parks have rest areas that are ready-made for picnics. So if you're living in or visiting Hong Kong this summer, pick a day where it's not raining and thaw out those air-conditioner frozen limbs in the sweet, humid Hong Kong sunshine.

8. Dive in Pulau Redang, Malaysia

Heaven underwater? Sounds cheesy, but apparently this place is as close to perfection as it gets for diving. Redang Island (locally known as Pulau Redang or just "Redang") off the east coast of Malaysia, is one of those places where you'd expect a shiny-chested James Bond to come dripping out of the waters and stride down the sands for a martini.

Fine white sand, clear blue waters and colorful marine life -- it's almost a cliché of the Blue Lagoon type tropical paradise, but it's real and it's just a short ride or flight away from Singapore. Stay at Laguna Redang Island Resort -- a beautiful expanse of classic buildings, filled with wooden structures and lush greenery -- which offers various packages to visitors, of which numerous snorkeling trips are included.

9. Experience Japanese summer culture at Enoshima

Enoshima is a core sample of Japanese summer culture, a mini-mountain of rock, stone and wood rising steep and green from the Shonan surf. It is one of Eastern Japan's favorite summer destinations, visited by families, courting couples and visitors to the area looking to get away from the beach for a while.

10. Sleep on a beach in Goa, India

Or relax with the Goa hippies, or eat out at the numerous restaurants or motorbike through the countryside. Goa has your summer fix. If the heat proves too much, there's always the air conditioned confines of a five-star hotel to cool you off after a day of biking.

11. Go native -- Tibetan style -- in Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou, Tibet is home to a pristine national park chock full of Alpine lakes and waterfalls located in northwest Sichuan province. Many tours equipped with flag-bearing guides depart from Chengdu by bus (11 hours) or plane (one hour) and after the trip, return to the originating city. But you can ditch the flag and tour guides and get to experience the real Jiuzhaigou by participating in home-stay programs.

12. Visit one of Asia's next gen tourist hot spots

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

The Ho Tram Strip in Vietnam, China's Hainan Island, Phu Quoc in Vietnam, and Marinduque in the Philippines are all up and coming tourist hot spots. They're also amazing summer destinations, each for unique reasons.

13. Surf in Hainan, China

Speaking of Hainan, why not go surfing? Hainan Island, sometimes called, perhaps generously, “China’s Hawaii,” is a growing tourist destination off the country’s southern coast, just east of Vietnam. It’s famous for hosting Chinese beauty pageants, but is also home to a small but growing community of surfers -- both Chinese and foreign. Each November, Sanya, the island's capital, hosts the second annual Surfing Hainan Open.

14. Relax like a rock star at Amanpuri Resort in Phuket

Make no mistake about it, a visit to Aman Resort's Amanpuri in Phuket, Thailand is an eye-opening experience. Vacation like a rock star this summer at Amanpuri.

15. Escape on an affordable last minute getaway

Party hard in Dubai or conquer a mountain in Japan among other things. Living in Asia affords many destinations close at hand. Some affordable, some not so much.

16. Dodge military ordinance and hit the beach at Sarushima Island, Japan

Sarushima is the rock that guards the entrance to Tokyo Bay, otherwise known as Monkey Island even though there's not one primate to be found. What makes Sarushima a hot commodity to Tokyoites is that its located 1.7 km off Yokosuka, and is the only bit of land in the bay that does not have cliffs and beaches made of concrete.

17. Explore Laos all along the Mekong River

Mekong River, Vietnam Mekong River, Vietnam

The Mekong River is a one of the great rivers of the world, weaving the countries of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam into a web of interdependent ecosystems and indigenous cultures. The Mekong’s meandering journey through Laos is one of the most pristine, diverse and accessible routes along the entire river. Read how to explore the Mekong River.

18. Kick back on one of Asia's most idyllic beaches

Life's a beach, and in Asia there's a whole lot of good living to be had. We've researched and uncovered the top beach destinations to be found in the region. We've even broken them down into three categories -- secluded beaches, action beaches and local flavor -- so all you need to do is decide exactly how much coastal paradise you can handle.

19. Get minimal at Koh Kood, Thailand

Thailand’s Koh Kood is possibly one of the very few places that can live up to the myth of the unpeopled Asian beachy paradise. It’s got the necessary props -- a rainforest, quaint fishing villages, coconut plantations, snorkeling spots, and a population of less than 2,000. It’s also sufficiently out-of-the-way. Getting there requires an hour’s plane ride from Bangkok’s Trat airport, or a train and boat expedition from Bangkok. The Koh Kood experience is like taking a step back in time: minimal electricity, scarce Internet access and few cars. The accommodation on the island ranges from wildly expensive resorts to homestays.

20. Hammocks a-plenty at An Bang Beach, Vietnam

Hoi An beach, Vietnam Hoi An beach, Vietnam

Coastal old town Hoi An in Central Vietnam is best known for its bespoke tailors’ shops, excellent beaches and fresh seafood. Most tourists head to Cua Dai beach at the end of Cua Dai road, some four kilometers out of town. Although it’s a lovely spot, it can become crowded and is prone to police surveillance.

An Bang, a beach at the end of Hai Bai Trung street outside town, is a great alternative. It’s mostly a hangout for local holiday makers but recently foreigners have opened a few beach shack bars. There’s good food, hammocks a-plenty and the odd film night at these locations. The watering holes can get blown away during the violent storm season, but rest assured -- they’re usually rebuilt in a flash.

21. Enjoy the surf at Lombok Kuta, Indonesia

Lombok, the large hill-humped island to Bali’s east, boasts bountiful jungles and awe-inspiring volcanoes. The further south one ventures, the drier the land becomes. But it is the swells off the craggy coast that draw visitors to Kuta, a sleepy seaside village frequented by surfers looking to tackle some of Indonesia’s best breaks.

22. Cool off on the beach in Port Dickson, Malaysia

The attraction of Port Dickson is not so much the town itself, but the 18km of nearby beaches against a backdrop by palms and banyan trees. Kuala Lumpur isn’t missing much, but one thing it lacks is a beach to cool off at. The only sandy beaches close enough for a day trip are the ones that stretch out along the coastal road south of Port Dickson.

23. Get Naked in the Moganshan Hills

Early last century, wealthy foreigners living in Shanghai went to Moganshan to lounge away the summer in stone villas, play tennis and swim in the municipal pool. Today, Moganshan is making a comeback, thanks in part to Naked Retreats, a collection of restored farmhouses. (Don't be fooled by the name -- any nudity should probably be confined to your bungalow.) Upon arrival, guests are taken on a 'decompression walk' and encouraged to spend a few minutes in awe of the scenery. Activities include cycling, bass fishing and mountain hikes. Visitors can wander through dewy tea plantations and bamboo forests, or swim in a reservoir to the buzz of cicadas. Accommodation is basic -- the wooden floors creak and there's no air-conditioning -- but bungalows come with Western-style kitchens, flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet.

24. Explore the hilltop tribes of Vietnam by motorbike

Despite breathtaking mountain scenery and a rich diversity of hill tribe cultures, Vietnam’s Central Highlands remain one of the least 'tourorized' areas of Southeast Asia. This region of pine tree forests, waterfalls and coffee plantations is far from the coastal beach resorts where most tourists flock, and this remoteness is all part of the charm. Read about motorbiking among Vietnam's hilltop tribes.

25. Camp out in the Great Wall of China

There's nothing better to refresh the lungs and reinvigorate the spirit than a trip out of the city and into the wilderness. Hikes along the Great Wall are a relatively simple option, easily accessible from Beijing, and can be done leisurely over several days or in a power-trek over just one or two days.

Get Summer Promotion in Indochina with Activetravel Asia:

Source: CNNGo

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cycling Highway 1 In Vietnam

There’s no Southeast Asian road more iconic than Vietnam’s National Highway 1. Running the length of the narrow, coastal country, it connects the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. After decades of conflict that threatened to tear them apart, the Vietnamese now see the highway as a symbol of national unity.

Cycling Highway 1 unlocks experiences most travelers miss. You’ll discover rural hamlets far removed from the modern world, and famous guidebook sights will seem all the sweeter when earned through your own pedal power.

Cycling in VietnamCycling in Vietnam


No cycling test required—this adventure is open to people of all abilities.


For those seeking a structured, less-demanding trip, many agencies conduct vehicle-supported group rides. These typically involve a mix of cycling and van transport.

Be sure to research your tour company thoroughly, paying particular attention to itineraries and testimonials. Prices, distances, and accommodation all vary, and no traveler wants to get locked into a situation that fails to live up to expectations.

On Your Own

Of course, many set their wheels to the tarmac without signing onto a supported tour. Cycling independently gives you complete control over where you go and how fast you travel.

Most visitors fly into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Starting off in the big city can be intimidating (and a bit dangerous), so busing it a few dozen miles up the road doesn’t hurt. Alternatively, domestic flights will quickly shuttle you to the middle of the country.

Cycling the entire highway is alluring, but time constraints mean you’ll likely opt for a shorter route. The scenic southern half is more popular, passing many points of interest. Spanning roughly 700 miles, it can be done in two weeks, though stretching it to three is recommended.

It’s also possible to skip segments by hopping a bus or train. A small fee will be levied for the bike, but the cost is negligible when time is of the essence.

Basic Necessities

Services and supplies are plentiful along Highway 1. Services and supplies are plentiful along Highway 1. It’s always advisable to carry lots of water and some spare calories, but even the smallest of villages will have a vendor who can restock you.

Accommodation (tourist accommodation, that is) isn’t as frequent. In the south, there are some 70+ mile stretches between major centers, with longer ones in the north. Once you hit your stride, you shouldn’t have trouble knocking out these distances—just know your limits.

New bypasses and extensions are being added to Highway 1 all the time, which can either save you time or get you lost. Make sure to take along an updated map. Great Journeys sells some, or you can pick one up in Hanoi or Saigon.


Heat isn’t much of a problem on a bike because you create your own breeze as you move. Instead of temperature, consider the seasonal rains when choosing your dates. Summer can be quite damp, and you’ll need to keep abreast of typhoon warnings in the fall and early winter. Traveling on either end of the high season (November–March) translates to cheaper hotel rates.

Which Bike?

Despite what you may hear about cycling in the developing world, there’s no need for a mountain bike on this ride (unless that’s your preference). The pavement is smooth, and on skinny tires you’ll really fly.

Packing your own tools and spares is a good idea. Bicycles and repair shops are ubiquitous in Vietnam, but mechanics won’t necessarily be equipped to work on your setup, especially if you’re sporting an unusual frame or high-end components.


Cycling a main highway in Vietnam, where traffic rules are taken more as suggestions, might seem a perilous prospect. But remember that many locals get around by bicycle themselves, so the infrastructure is set up to accommodate two-wheeled travelers. Highway 1 provides generous shoulders, making it arguably safer than less-traveled roads that have none.

That said, traffic can be heavy. Keep in mind that the right of way is always yielded to the largest vehicle. Horns also take some getting used to—Vietnamese drivers use them liberally.

Read up!

It never hurts to prepare for any trip, and there are tons of resources out there for this one. For general advice on cycle touring, consider these 8 steps.

The information you’ll be looking for as a cyclist might be hard to find in conventional travel guides, so why not go straight to the source—firsthand accounts? The website crazyguyonabike offers dozens of journals from the road, the best giving detailed route and mileage information.

Though outdated, Lonely Planet’s Cycling Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia includes information on the southern half of Highway 1, much of which is still relevant.

A good book to take for the road is Catfish and Mandala, written by a Vietnamese-American who returned to his homeland to cycle the highway.


Biking in VietnamBiking in Vietnam

A few of the best destinations on or near Highway 1—don’t pass them by.


The 1,969 limestone crags punctuating Ha Long Bay are enchanting to say the least. Unfortunately, there may be 1,970 tour operators eagerly waiting to show them to you and take your dong. Get the lowdown from fellow travelers before booking a boat ride through this stunning locale.


The imperial city of Hué retains much of its grandeur, and its sights are easily accessible by bike. Tours of the old DMZ to the north can be arranged here, and the Hai Van Pass to the south is one of the most rewarding sections of Highway 1.

Nearby Hoi An is perhaps Vietnam’s most unique destination. Its history of international commerce lives on in many Chinese shop houses, and the narrow streets, colorful lanterns, and well-preserved architecture make for unmatched ambiance. The Cham ruins of My Son are less than 30 miles away.


Sandy beaches run along much of Vietnam’s coast, and touristy Nha Trang is home to a particularly pleasant one. It’s a nice spot to unwind for a few days, though some will find the city’s hyper-development trying. Many water activities are available here and elsewhere

For a break from the balminess of the coastal plain, steer off Highway 1 and head to Dalat. The artistic vibe of this city is as refreshing as its highland climate. You have to earn it though, as both roads into town require substantial climbs.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

From dawn to dusk, Vietnam thrums with an intoxicating energy

According to some pundits, the balance of wealth and power is going to shift to the east in the next few decades. Spend a couple of weeks in the dynamic nexus of activity which is Vietnam and most people would start thinking the same way in double quick time.

Central post office in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

We started a three week tour of the country in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the largest city in Vietnam and one which many Vietnamese still refer to as Saigon, the title it held before the country's reunification in 1975. The Saigon river it was founded on is still a major transport artery and, over breakfast from the rooftop balcony of our hotel, we watched the waterway come alive each morning with hundreds of boats bearing consumer goods, building materials and people into the city's frantic heart.

All big conurbations are busy but the constant horns of the millions of scooters combined with the restless chatter of the street stallholders give HCMC a crackling, non-stop buzz. Perhaps because all this activity takes place in a hot, fecund atmosphere of incense, drains and street food, HCMC feels more visceral than sanitised cities such as New York or London.

Cu Chi tunnel, Vietnam

While the new high rises and recently opened international luxury brand outlets might point to Vietnam's possible future, old Saigon and the past are never far away. The Vietnamese refer to the conflict fought between 1964-75 as the American War and many of HCMC's most popular attractions are linked to those events. The War Remnants Museum is a sobering and gruesomely graphic testament to the inhuman carnage of the war while, an hour or so outside the city, the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground wartime stronghold, offer very definite clues as to why the Vietcong were the eventual victors.

Any people who are prepared to live and fight in a maze of tight, booby-trapped tunnels for 20 years have a level of determination and tenacity which counts for far more than sheer firepower.

After crawling through a sweaty, airless, 20-metre section of the tunnels, which had been especially widened for westerners, I had had enough. At its peak, the sprawling subterranean complex may have sported hospitals, dormitories and even dance floors but living there is almost unimaginable.

Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

About 700 miles north of Saigon, the capital Hanoi is more elegant than its thrusting southern counterpart but it is still a long way from sedate. Once colonial France's administrative centre in Vietnam, parts of Hanoi boast boulevards and yellow painted townhouses and look as though they have been dropped in from Paris. Although Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where the Vietnamese queue for hours to see the embalmed remains of their former leader, owes more to Moscow's Red Square than the Champs Élysée.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is more fun to be had in the 36 Streets area of the old quarter. Dating back to the 13th century, this warren of streets was the focus for the city's trades and merchants and each street had its own speciality. Even today, there are entire streets dedicated to selling padlocks or towels or mysterious dried roots.

We perched on little stools at a crossroads pavement bar in the old quarter and supped 15p glasses of draught beer while snacking on dried squid heated over a charcoal brazier. Every now and then the police would come along and order all the stools to be moved off the road. Naturally, as soon as they were gone, all the stools moved back into the road with predictably chaotic consequences for the streams of mopeds passing through.

Even at 6am, Hanoi has a bit of pace to it. In the centre of the city is the Hoan Kiem Lake, home to a mythical turtle. By night, the lake is ringed with young, courting couples. Not long after daybreak, it is surrounded by folk doing Tai Chi, playing badminton or keepie-up with a shuttlecock in the city's cool morning air.

H’Mong ethnic girl in Sapa, Vietnam

Outwith the cities, the pace slows even if the day still tends to start early. From Hanoi, we took the sleeper train to Sapa, an old hill station close to the Chinese border. Sapa is an increasingly popular base for trekking in the surrounding mountains. It is also close to the tiny town of Bac Ha, which is notable for its Sunday market.

A social affair as much as a chance to trade, it attracts tribes such as the Black H'mong and Red Tsao from all over the surrounding countryside. Many of the women still wear traditional dress. We pitched up about 7am, around the same time that the locally distilled rice spirit starts being decanted from its five-gallon containers. As well as offering the chance to catch up with neighbours from across the valley, the market is like Tesco's, B&Q and a grooming parlour all rolled into one for the locals.

Everything is for sale at Bac Ha, from ploughs to ponies via python fat which looks like clusters of fat broad beans and is, apparently, good for skin burns. Locally grown tobacco sits in mounds along with pipes for customers who want to try before buying. Piglets are pulled squealing out of sacks. Water buffalo are prodded and haggled over while dogs are on offer as both pets and for the pot. In one corner, four or five barbers had hung their mirrors on a wall and customers were having al fresco haircuts. My beard was a prime target which, happily, I managed to keep intact.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

If the mountains of the north-west are an anthropological gold mine then the beaches of Vietnam are, for the most part, virgin territory for tourism. With over 1,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam has some stunning beaches, most yet to see the glint of a developer's eye. Yet its most valuable maritime asset for tourism is not a beach but the stunning Halong Bay.

A Unesco world heritage site, it consists of 3,000 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin. Covered in dense green vegetation, they soar up out of the sea in fairy-tale clusters. They are riddled with caves and also play host to a floating village of fishing families, complete with a floating bank and school. Of course, even several miles out to sea, Uncle Ho is still around in the form of a picture which beams down at the schoolchildren from above the classroom blackboard. We did an overnight trip around Halong Bay on a beautifully fitted out junk.

After a seafood dinner, we fished for squid using a lamp and watched the moon cast a glow over the islands. Gently bobbing on the waves, hundreds of miles from the honking motos of the mainland, it was our most peaceful night in Vietnam.

Such tranquillity couldn't last. I woke the next morning and looked out of the porthole onto a flotilla of row boats all manned by women eager to sell their first tourist souvenir of the day. No matter what time of day or where you are in Vietnam, it is always open for business.

Source: The Scotsman - by Jonathan Trew

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The 5 Must-See Beaches In Vietnam

By Justin Calderon from theexpeditioner

Vietnam, a country reminiscent of a war-torn epic that rang of rock-and-roll, decadence, and destruction­ was, up until recently, visited by only the adventurous traveler. Though late in its arrival as a member of part of the Southeast Asian travel belt, today this crescent-shaped land with innate tropical beauty has attracted international appeal, leading to an influx of budget tourists and luxury travelers alike from across the globe.

Cheap, tropical, mysteriously alluring — Vietnam’s climate provides the perfect beach vacation, while offering ample opportunity to peek down one of history’s infamous alleyways. Travelers will find a gamut of beaches dotting the coast including chill backpacker hangouts, luxurious resort getaways and sleepy fishing villages. From Central Da Nang to the southern capital of Saigon — north to south — lie five beaches every traveler should check out in their quest for the perfect beach in Vietnam.

1) Hoi An

Hoi An beach, Vietnam

Hoi An beach, Vietnam

Hoi An is an enclave of beautifully preserved yellow and blue buildings that makes you feel like you just stepped back in time into an 18th-century trading post. Sapphire waters lie on the other side of a 10-minute bike ride north through stagnant rice paddies, old French colonial villas, and the occasional propaganda billboard. The beachfront of the famed China Beach — the beach where soldiers were sent for R&R during the war — makes up the southern stretch. Recently named one of the most luxurious beaches in the world by Forbes, this white sand beach is home to comfy resorts and secluded swaths of sand.

Hoi An, however, has much more to offer than just a beach. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999, this coastal village was once known as the premier trading post in Southeast Asia for the Chinese and Japanese. A bike ride around town takes you back to life in a small far-flung trading settlement. However, since the influx of visitors, shoppers are more likely to come across trinkets and “made-to-measure” one-day tailors than authentic goods.

Market life is still prevalent next to the river where you will find fishermen paddling along in their boats, stirring up their catch of the day. For a sense of life before modern times, head into select buildings in the Old Quarter where you can view 200-year-old interiors that have been preserved for public viewing.

2) Quy Nhon

If you decide to include Quy Nhon in your itinerary, expect to encounter only a trickle of foreigners stopping by on their way to Nha Trang. In a country besieged by tourism, Quy Nhon can truly be described as an authentic experience. Crowds of Vietnamese gather on the beach to play volleyball at sunset and offer hearty “hellos.” A few large hotels graze the southern beachfront, but since the Vietnamese aren’t keen to sunbathing, you’ll likely find the beach to yourself.

A relatively small coastal city in Central Vietnam, Quy Nhon embodies a relaxed tempo not likely to be found in other Vietnamese cities. Grab a bike and slip along Nguyen Hue Road where a number of grins will greet you from people sitting in colorful plastic chairs. The longer you stay in Quy Nhon, the more you will appreciate the carefree lifestyle here.

3) Doc Let

This tranquil and secluded beach just north of popular Nha Trang offers a few small, hard-to-find, resorts. As Lonely Planet enticingly puts it, “the resorts on the beach are fairly isolated. If you’re staying here, be prepared to do nothing but lay around.”

When I was there I stayed at Paradise Resort, a small, 25-bungalow resort run by Mr “Chere,” a French expat who has lived in Vietnam for over 20 years. You can rent a bungalow for the night, and the price includes three meals a day. The gregarious owner is very inviting and keen on getting all his guests to have a great time, making this resort seem more like a stay at a friend’s than a hotel.

The resort is flanked by a small fishing village that proves an interesting excursion when not baking on the beach. During the midday you’ll find hawkers rocking in hammocks to escape the sun while children run a-muck between farm animals and the streets.

4) Nha Trang

Nha Trang beach, Vietnam

Nha Trang beach, Vietnam

Nha Trang has always been popular with the Vietnamese, but lately more and more backpackers and affluent travelers have been making their way here. The busy southern strip of the city is crammed with restaurants, SCUBA schools, and tour companies ready to take you out to sea and to one of the numerous islands scattered just off the coast. For those not ready to take the full plunge into the world of SCUBA, snorkeling is a great way to get intimate with the ecological kaleidoscope beneath the surface (and even copious amounts of alcohol found on the boat ride out).

Mama Hahn’s Booze Cruise runs daily tours to four islands under the sails of their two lanky dinghies: the “lazy boat” and the “party boat.” Steadfast swimmers up for socializing with other international miscreants and an accompanying jovial Vietnamese guide should bee-line it to the party boat. As long as you stay buoyant and don’t swallow too much salt water, you’ll be sure to make it back to nurse that lingering hangover by nightfall. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

5) Mui Ne

Mui Ne beach, Vietnam

Mui Ne beach, Vietnam

Mui Ne, in Southeastern Vietnam, is a notable backpacker and resort beach, especially for those interested in kite surfing. On those windy days so common in Southern Vietnam, throngs of kites can be seen making polka-dot patches in the sky. The resort side of the beach is heavily subtitled in Russian to cater to the growing amount of tourists escaping the Russian winters. A manager at one of the multitude of seafood BBQ restaurants that checker Mui Ne road astutely observed, “[The Russians] are coming here a lot. I think it’s because it’s hot and very cheap.”

Though not easy, you can still find budget accommodations on the resort side of the beach for about $10-15, which is great considering that the backpacker side of the beach has lost nearly all its beachfront to erosion. A grey, impending concrete wall is now slammed by waves during high-tide leaving any idea of beach strictly to the imagination. There are a few bars and generic sit-downs here, and the low volume of traffic makes a motorbike tour up the 6-mile street safe and the best way to scope out the rest of what the area offer.

The resort side of the beach, lying on the southern end of Mui Ne, still has its sand, and the restaurants and bars there enjoy a party atmosphere well into the night. Just remember, Vietnam is not nearly as rife as Southern Thailand when it comes to beach parties, bean bag chairs, and fire twirlers — not that you’ll miss any of those things when you’re here.

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