My first confession for you is that I went to SE Asia and did NOT go to Halong Bay or Angkor Wat. For that reason, you won't find them on this list.
Crazy, right?! I mean, these places are established as two of the biggest wonders of the WORLD, let alone the region of Southeast Asia!
But listen: it was my first trip to this part of the world, and I couldn't see EVERYTHING. I had to decide. Covering all of SE Asia in only three weeks takes some serious consideration and planning. You have to decide what's important to you: mountains, city, or beach? Culture, seclusion, or tourist hotspots? If you don't have six months to travel, then you aren't going to be able to see everything. You just have to decide. Focus on three major areas at the most.
On our trip to SE Asia, we did want to move in a north-to-south pattern. We wanted to experience a little of each of Vietnam and Thailand, with Singapore and Malaysia added in.
So in the end, we didn't have time to hit the northern region of Thailand (Chang Mai, etc.) or the southern region of Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh, etc.).
And with the trip I had planned and all the traveling I was already doing, stopping in Cambodia to see Angor Wat just wasn't going to be possible. One day I will go back and see the south of Vietnam and Cambodia, including Angkor Wat!
Also, Halong Bay WAS on my itinerary, right after Hanoi and before Da Nang, but after reading all of the questionable reviews of companies that provide tours from Hanoi, I decided to spend my valuable travel days seeing some lesser-known Vietnam geographical wonders, such as Ninh Binh.
Just remember, there's so much more to these countries than just hitting the big-name tourist spots and then dashing on to the next one. Also it takes a lot more time than you may have anticipated to tour each country. This is partly because travel between places takes at least half a day to an overnight ordeal. So plan your SE Asia trip with enough time to not only see, but appreciate a region, and to account for enough travel time between each place.
So now that's out of the way...
Here's 10 of the amazing places we went in SE Asia. Hong Kong was the starting point for our trip from the US simply because the tickets were cheapest flying here, but made the list as a target destination because there is just so much to see and do there! Also, the mid-way point of the trip was reserved for central Vietnam because we were meeting friends there, but again, made the list because of its fun and unique sights in this region!
1. Hong Kong
Whenever I start telling someone about my SEA trip, I always start with a recommendation of stopping in Hong Kong. It's a city for everyone because of its diverse layout and landscape.
Hip, trendy neighborhoods? Check.
Upscale shopping and dining? Check.
Cheap street markets? Check.
Chinese culture, temples, and food? Check.
Scenic cable car ride and mountainous hiking? Check.
Beaches and secluded island getaways? Check.
Disneyland for the kids? Check.
Jaw-dropping photo ops? CHECK!
Hong Kong has something for everyone and I will continue to recommend it to everyone who asks me about exploring Asia.
The main island of Hong Kong and its counterpart, the Kowloon side, feel very similar to New York City. On one hand, like NYC, it's older, crowded, a little dirty, and just exploding with skyscrapers, market, neon signs, and dazzling nightlife.
However, it's also very different from New York City because many of the islands that make up greater Hong Kong are covered in uninhabited forests. This wilderness makes you feel like you're thousands of miles in the middle of nowhere, not in a city with 7.5 million people nearby. And it's all connected by a 20 minute railcar ride!
Hong Kong is also a great starting place for Westerners to immerse themselves into the culture of China, without actually having to visit China itself, since Hong Kong is an autonomous territory. This just means you don't need a visa to visit HK in the same way you would need one mainland China! Score!
So here are some highlights from our days in Hong Kong.
Our starting place for Vietnam was Hanoi. And what a starting place it was! What Hanoi lacks in picturesque beauty it makes up for in charm and enjoyment. It was just downright fun! Exploring the old quarter at night was one of our highlights of our entire trip. We only allocated 2 nights in Hanoi, and only wish we had made for more time there.
Hanoi is the capital of small, plastic outdoor seating! You must experience the street dining in Hanoi. I recommend the Pho Bo and Bac Ha to start!
The next place on our SEA itinerary was Sapa, the rustic jewel of Vietnam's northwest. It's a project to get there from Hanoi--6 hours by van or car, or 10 hours overnight by train. But we had always heard the views around Sapa was worth the trek. I was excited about the prospect of spending a night with a local, native family and doing some hiking in the terraced rice paddies built into the hillsides.
Well, maybe it had something to do with the weather, but our Sapa experience wasn't all I had hoped it to be. It rained the entire two days we were there. Hiking was out of the question. It was cold, damp, muddy and foggy during our time in Sapa. Spending two whole days getting there and back, to only see four meters in front of you because of the fog, was really disappointing. It wasn't until our van ride out of town, I kid you not, that the fog finally cleared. The driver was nice enough to pull over to we could get pictures of the view we had been missing for several days!
We did meet get to venture into a local hilltribe village during our time there. We ate dinner with a woman and her family from the Black H'mong. However, we ended up not staying at their place since their accommodations were a little too rustic for us! It was, however, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I would still go back. It was incredible experiencing a different culture and seeing a completely different corner of the world for us!
4. Ninh Binh
About an hour and half south of Hanoi is the region of Ninh Binh. Also known as the Halong Bay of the land, Ninh Binh is home to some familiar-looking karst topography, but instead of being surrounded by water, as is Halong Bay, it is surrounded by mostly land and a few rivers.
We opted for Ninh Binh as an alternative to Halong Bay for several reasons. Reason #1: unfavorable reviews of the area. We were scheduled to be in Halong Bay the following day, and I still hadn't made travel plans or booked a tour guide. I just couldn't find a tour with superb reviews. Most reviews were mediocre at best and lamented about the garbage in the water and the amount of tourists packed into the bay. And let's be honest, a tour there was pretty pricey for Vietnam. Was i really keen on spending the money for a tour I wasn't going to like? Reason #2: I wasn't excited about spending another 5 hours in a van/bus heading to Halong City after spending the equivalent traveling from Sapa. Ninh Binh seemed like a great alternative, and much less travel time from Hanoi.
I was really pleased with our decision. We booked a tour that included exploring Hoa Lu, a 10th century ancient city of Vietnam, a boat ride through Ninh Binh, and a bike ride through rice fields. Check out the pictures below and consider Ninh Binh as an alternative or even an add-on in your Vietnamese tour.
Hoi-An is easily Vietnam's most picturesque town. It's such a tourist draw, though, that the streets are absolutely flooded with people as the sun is setting in the evening. Especially on a weekend, and especially during the full moon, be prepared to push your way through thousands of other tourists. Luckily, Hoi-An still maintains its charm, even with its hoards of people roaming the town, posing in front of the lanterns for sale or browsing the nightly street market. Opt to go during the week and definitely shop its quiet streets during the day. It had some of the best handmade goods at the cheapest prices we've seen all over Asia. Tourist trap or not, its still one of the most dazzling and charismatic places I've ever been!
Emily & Jet: Our travel is modest, but packed with adventure. Cheap, but not hostel-cheap. Romantic, but exciting and memorable. We take little, but grand, adventures together to grow in love and life experience.