Vanuatu has had one of the most turbulent histories of any island nation in the region due to repeat recolonization. As a result, the country has an unusual mix of cultures and buildings present and sadly has a lower population than when the first contact was made with Europeans. In my opinion, Vanuatu has a fantastic atmosphere to it, a very happy and welcoming atmosphere, more so than New Caledonia. A key highlight of visiting Port Vila is the central marketplace, which acts as a hub for the entire town. In this market, you will find every fruit, vegetable, and meat available in the country. Additionally, you will find a traditional food area serving all local dishes, as well as goods market which sells every manner of tourist nicknacks and garments. I also suggest making the walk to the top of the central hill in town as it offers a beautiful view of the island in all directions. The city also has a fantastic kava shop, stocking every variation of kava available. If you are not familiar with kava, it is a traditional substance consumed throughout the Pacific. It is a sedative that causes relaxation and numbness and is normally used in large social settings. Port Vila overall is a nice place to spend a relaxing day and take in Vanuatu’s culture and cuisine.
New Caledonia is a Pacific Island nation located just east of Brisbane Australia. The nation is a former French colony and has a rich mix of French and traditional tribal culture. Noumea is the largest and most developed city in the country, as well as being the nations capital city. In Noumea, you will find some fantastic markets and some great French and traditional cuisine. If you have some time, make sure to visit St Josephs Cathedral in the center of the city, aside from being a beautiful and historic building, it offers a great view of the city. Mare, by contrast, is mostly undeveloped and still has a traditional tribal feel to it. Most residents either still live in traditional thatched huts or small more modern shacks. The island is home to beautiful beaches and palm/pine forests. Here you will find traditional foods and beverages, along with fresh coconuts and French beer. Mare is a fantastic way to spend a day on the beach, eating traditional food and drinking cheap French beer, soaking in the Pacific Island sun and making the most of the clear blue waters surrounding the island.
Mũi Né and Phan Thiet are adjacent coastal towns located north of Ho Chi Minh city. Despite being relatively small, the towns have a surprising amount to offer. Aside from the obvious white sand beaches, lined with palms, there are both natural wonders, as well as historical landmarks and some more unusual activities to be found. One of the key attractions in the area are the large areas of sand dunes in varying shades of white, yellow and red located just outside of the towns. These are so vast that they almost seem like a desert, stretching into the distance in most directions. On the dunes, you can find vehicles to rent and drive across the sand dunes as well as boards to rent to be able to go sandboarding. Po Sah Inu Tower is an impressive historical site dating back over 1000 years and still in relatively good condition. Also located in the vicinity of the complex are numerous bunkers and war monuments used during the Vietnam War. Another key attraction is Fairy Stream, a shallow stream that can be walked down on foot, with stalls located in the actual stream itself. A large section of the way down is bordered by stunning rock formations which stand in stark contrast to the red sand behind and above it. Located a small distance down the stream is a small and very strange attraction, an ostrich riding corral. Which is honestly one of the most random things I’ve seen and couldn’t resist going for a ride. The entire way down the coast you will find beautiful rainbow colored boats n the hundreds and small traditional Vietnamese woven basket tugboats. I would definitely suggest a visit to either or both of these small towns as there is plenty to see and do and you can get away with spending very little money doing so.
Marble Mountain is located just outside of the city center and is well worth the visit. The site (as the name suggests) is a collection of five large marble and limestone hills, housing caves, and temples. You will find beautiful architecture, statues and art work throughout the complex. You will also find fantastic views overlooking the surrounding area, including the other limestone and marble hills. Chùa Linh Ứng is a large temple complex located out of the city on the peninsula. The complex houses numerous beautiful statues, stunning architecture and one enormous Buddhist statue overlooking the bay. You will need a few hours to cover Marble Mountain and around an hour to see Chùa Linh Ứng, both are highly worth the visit.
Da Nang is the third largest city in Vietnam and is located in the center of the country on the coast. While Da Nang is not the most touristy city in Vietnam it is an extremely pleasant city. I ended up spending a few days there just because of how nice the city was. Having said that there is plenty to do in the city, such as Marbel Mountain, Chùa Linh Ứng (a large temple complex with an enormous Buddhist statue), the Sun Wheel and beautiful beachfronts. The city is also filled with Communist monuments, propaganda billboards, stunning arty bridges and fantastic restaurants and bakeries. The city has a very livable feeling to it and if I were to live somewhere in Vietnam it would probably be Da Nang. In Da Nang you will also see Vietnamese daily life go on all around you, seeing sights such as scooters transporting massively oversized loads of planks, garden supplies fans and almost anything that you can think of. The city’s attractions will be covered in the following articles.
Cat Ba Island is, in my opinion, the highlight of Ha Long Bay. The island has one smallish port town with numerous hotels, hostels, bars, markets, and restaurants. I suggest spending at least two days on the island in order to really see what it has hidden. Staying in town is a fantastic base, where you can rest and relax, but also rent a motorbike or scooter to explore the inland areas of the island. The main town area houses some fantastic markets where a traveler can pick up a large amount of pearl based jewelry for a very small cost. You can also find numerous floating restaurants throughout the harbor serving fantastic food. Inland on the island, the first real item of note is a small hidden stairway just off of the main road, leading to a cave. Inside the cave, you will find a secret medical facility built beneath the earth during the Vietnam War. When I happened to visit, the cave was completely empty, so I was the only person there making it an extremely creepy experience. The atmosphere inside of the facility is haunting, especially knowing that numerous people died within its walls from their sustained wounds. The complete silence and dim lighting add even further to the already creepy atmosphere. I definitely suggest checking it out even if you find it a little unsettling. The next and probably main attraction on the island for me is Cat Ba National Park which you can find in the center of the island. Whether or not I took the correct route is unclear, but for me to get there I had to park my bike and walk through an abandoned village, whose only inhabitants were wild dogs and deer. This setting was also somewhat creepy, but after visiting the hospital cave, not so much. The hike to Ngu Lam Peak, an excellent observation point located in the park should not take more than an hour or so each way. The view from the peak was fantastic and looked over the landscape in every direction, showing nothing but jungle covered peaks for the most part. My only piece of advice would be to cover your body head to toe in insect repellant and to make sure that you are taking malaria tablets because mosquitos will eat you alive on this hike, more so than any other hike I have ever been on. Apart from the inland attractions, make sure to explore the town’s markets and bars for a very enjoyable experience. Also, make sure to try horse show crab and mantis shrimp if you have a chance, both are delicious. Cat Ba makes for a fantastic few days if you have the time.
Ha Long Bay is a natural wonder of the world, a Unesco protected region and a world famous tourist destination and as such needs no introduction for most people. For those who are not familiar with this location, the bay is located in NE Vietnam near Hanoi and draws in tourists from all over the world. What makes this location so unique is the seemingly endless mountains, spires and rock formations of limestone that emerge straight from the ocean and are covered in thick lush plant matter. This unique formation coupled with bright blue, almost teal water and Vietnamese junks and floating villages and pearl farms are what makes this location so unique and enticing. I would suggest booking one to three-night cruises in the bay if you are budget conscious, if not stay as long as you possibly can and take in all that the bay has to offer. For my visit, I booked a three-night cruise but decided to stay an extra night on Cat Ba Island, so just left my cruise group and took the morning boat back to the mainland aboard another boat operating a day behind ours. Some of the attractions to look forward to apart from Cat Ba are ocean kayaking, cave exploring, visiting pearl farms and floating villages, as well as karaoke and cooking lessons onboard the boats. Even if it’s just for a night, I highly suggest experiencing what Ha Long Bay has to offer and checking one of the natural wonders of the world off of your list.