Marble Mountain and Chùa Linh Ứng

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.

 

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Hue

Hue is located in Central Vietnam and historically was the capital of the nation until the mid 1900s. Being the historical capital, the city is home to the Imperial City. This is supposedly one of the greatest historical attractions in Vietnam and one that I did not get to enter sadly due to construction/restoration projects. I did, however, manage to enter the outer Citadel surrounding the Imperial City. This area saw heavy fighting during the Vietnam War and as such, located throughout the Citadel is military equipment. The city also hosts some beautiful bridges which can be viewed at night covered in neon lights. Aside from the Imperial Citadel, my main reason to visit Hue was Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave. This cave is 31km long and stretches for what seems like an eternity underground. I highly suggest visiting this incredible natural attraction, as it only takes a few hours in total to get to the cave and explore it. There is a cutoff point part way into the cave where average tourists such as myself on this occasion stop due to not having the necessary equipment to go further. The cave system is absolutely stunning, filled with shades and colors, shapes and silhouettes. Another site worth visiting on the way to Paradise Cave is The Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang. This site houses the remaining frame of a church that survived a bombing run,  with a new body built onto it. There are also some unusual shrines, statues and buildings on site unlike any I have seen before. Ultimately I feel like I missed out on a lot of what Hue had to offer due to timing and being on a schedule that I had to keep to. I do highly suggest visiting it and making your way to the Imperial Citadel even though I couldn’t.

 

Hanoi

Hanoi is possibly my favourite city in SE Asia and as such will need more than one article written about it. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the city’s history, it is now the capital city of Vietnam, where the country’s Communist government is based. During the Vietnam War, the city was the hub of the Communist North Vietnamese forces known as the DRV Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Initially, their leader was Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader who freed the nation from French colonial rule. It was, of course, the North that won the Vietnam War, unifying the nation under Communist rule. Today the city still stands as the nation’s capital despite being smaller and less wealthy than the southern capital Ho Chi Minh City. I personally much prefer Hanoi to its larger and wealthier counterpart as the city has a wealth of culture, character, and atmosphere that I have not experienced anywhere else. The city itself is a buzzing hive of ceaseless activity of all types. You will see people in expensive cars driving alongside men on bicycles and rickshaws, businessmen in suits passing women carrying baskets of ducks and chickens over their shoulders. The city is a mix of French, Chinese and Vietnamese culture, cuisine and architecture. Ensure that you stay in the Old Quarter or you will miss out on half of the experiences that the city has to offer. The hustle and bustle of the day continue into the night with a world famous beer house culture existing in the city accompanied by enormous night markets. The city is filled with museums, galleries, theaters and other cultural attractions, as well as bars, parks, clubs, restaurants and other activities. There really is something for everyone. The ceaseless noise from honking traffic and the people crowding the streets makes you feel a vibrancy, unlike many other places I have visited. The city also had the best coffee houses I have ever visited, with Vietnamese coffee being my favorite in the world. Make sure that if you visit the city you try  Trung Nguyen Coffee, in my opinion, it blows Starbucks or any of its copycats out of the water. Make sure to visit a Loteria in order to experience one of the strangest fast food menus I have ever tried. Also try to have dinner or lunch at the City View Cafe, sitting atop the largest building in the Old City, it gives you a fantastic view of your surroundings. There is also a beautiful temple in the center of the lake in the Old District worth paying a visit to. Most of all just spend a few days exploring the city and try everything you are able to and you will not be disappointed.  A final warning is that the city has some of the most aggressive hawkers I have ever encountered, so make sure to be firm with them if you are not interested or they will literally take money out of your wallet and hand you their goods. Hanoi was the only place in SE Asia that I almost got into an altercation with a hawker who pulled my shoes off my feet and began sewing them despite my protest and me trying to take them back from him, while his friend tried taking money out of my wallet as payment. This only happened once but was an unpleasant experience and had I not gotten aggressive with them, they would have simply taken my money from me against my will.

 

 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a famous temple town in the northern mountainous area of Laos. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its historical and cultural importance. You will not find anywhere else quite like this city. The city is known not just for its temples, but also its large population of monks who can be seen streaming through the streets in the early morning to collect food from the town’s people. I highly suggest spending a few days relaxing in Luang Prabang, exploring the town, the surrounding areas, relaxing on the river, soaking in the culture and getting more of a vibe of what Laos historically has been. The small city is also famous for its night market, which takes place down the main street of town, in front of the highly iconic temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you get a chance, I highly recommend trying the local rice wine or scorpion/snake/lizard infused whiskey. The city has a fantastic communal pool, with a built in bar, so on those hot days that is where you are going to want to relax and unwind. Make sure to climb the hill in the center of town for some stunning views, while there is a small cost to climb it, it is definitely worth paying. Also be sure to visit the towns ethnographic museum to be able to learn about local unique cultural and ethnic groups living in Northern Laos. Make sure to also wake up early enough to be able to buy and give food to the local monks as it is a crucial part of the whole experience and almost feels like something that you need to do.

 

Vientiane

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and is definitely the largest in the country by far, but still does not feel like a capital city. The city and surrounding area has between 500,000 and 750,00 residents depending on which survey ou trust. The pace of the city is so slow for a metropolitan area, especially after visiting other such areas in neighbouring countries. The city has an interesting blend of Laotian and French culture, which an be found in its food, architecture, and way of life. Throughout the city, you will find Buddhist temples, located between French colonial buildings. The cuisine in the city is a very definite mix of French fine dining and bakeries and traditional Laotian cuisine serving restaurants and food carts. Located in the center of the city, at its heart is Pha That Luang, a grand historical monument, central to the identity of Laos itself. This is a large golden Buddhist tower, which sadly I couldn’t get close to during my visit for unknown security reasons. The city has some fantastic museums, mixing pre-European Laotian history with French colonial history, as well as Vietnam War and Indochinese War history. If you have a few days in the city make sure to enjoy the cuisine, visit the night markets and soak up the unique atmosphere found only in Vientiane. I still don’t believe that I’ve been anywhere with quite the same culture.

 

Pakse

Pakse is a small city in the south of Laos and makes a great stopping point if traveling from the 4000 Islands to Vientiane. While there isn’t much to do in the city, it makes a relaxing rest stop and gives you a glimpse into everyday life in Laos. In the city, you will find some fantastic temples and a very large market complex that stocks everything from watches, phones, and clothes to snacks and hot food. Outside of the city, you will find peaceful country roads and small towns to visit for some fresh produce. Also located near the city is a hike up to a large golden Buddha statue, which overlooks the city and the surrounding area. There are also plenty of great restaurants located throughout the city where you can get cheap but delicious traditional Laotian food. If you are making the trip North or South, then I advise spending a day in Pakse, just to unwind and split up your travel time.

 

Kratié

Kratie is a small town in the northeast of the Cambodian countryside, situated right on the banks of Mekong, the town is primarily farming and fishing based. The outskirts of town are home to numerous villages which give you a glimpse of daily village life in Cambodia. In the town center, is a large marketplace and several restaurants looking onto the river. There are also numerous temples throughout and surrounding the town worth visiting. The town is a great place to see local wildlife, some of which is extremely rare, such as the soft-shelled turtle and the irrawaddy dolphin, both of which are critically endangered. If you’re looking to get out of the city and see how a great number of average Cambodians live, Kratie is a great way to experience this. The locals are also extremely friendly, with my tour guide inviting me to his house for lunch to meet his beautiful family after the tour ended.