Vanuatu: Port Vila

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.

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New Caledonia: Noumea and Mare

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.

 

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and most developed city in the country, with a population of over 8.5 million the city is as populous as it feels.  One word that comes to mind when describing the city is ‘traffic’. Never in my life have I witnessed as many people on scooters in one place as in Ho Chi Minh. The city has a constant ceaseless flow of wave after wave of bikes. These bikes carry not just passengers but everything else a person could think of, from baskets to planks, to puppies and geese. The city is filled with winding alleys and side streets, each with their own hustle and bustle to them. At night the city lights up and the constant activity continues as beer halls and markets continue their business well into the night. Throughout the city, you will find markets and fantastic restaurants serving everything from world-class sushi and fantastic Italian food cooked in woodfire ovens to traditional pho houses. Ho Chi Minh is the one real place in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos where you will find luxury malls with state of the art cinemas, arcade, and bumper cart rinks. There are some amazing attractions well worth a visit throughout the city which will be discussed in the next few articles. Make sure to spend a few days in Ho CHi Minh to really get a feel for the city and take advantage of everything it has to offer. Food and shopping are two of the biggest activities to take part in, along with museums, galleries, waterparks, and zoos.

Da Lat

Da Lat is the central highland capital of the Lam Dong province, located in central Vietnam. The city sits at a higher altitude than the majority of other larger cities in the country,  located in the mountains as opposed to the coast. As such, the climate, foliage, and scenery are very different from that of the majority of other tourist visited cities. Da Lat offers a nice break from beaches and tropical weather and the opportunity to see another side of Vietnam. Da Lat is an agricultural hub due to its climate, with the city being surrounded by farmland and orchards. The town center is rather unusual and revolves around one large roundabout and a large rectangular one-way street encircling a building making for interesting driving. You will find more traditional Vietnamese cuisine in Da Lat than in the larger cities, along with some fantastic bakeries, offering pastries that you have never seen before in your life. Surrounding the city are numerous tourist attractions which will be discussed in their own articles. You will also find fantastic wet markets to visit, with all means of animals and fruit/veggies. Just make sure to pack a raincoat because it will definitely be raining for at least some of your time in Da Lat, hence the fertile soil.

Cat Ba Island

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.

 

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.