Indochina’s top must-see destinations
The past decade saw a tourism boom in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. High on everyone’s lists were destinations like Cambodia’s Angkor temples, Laos’s Plain of Jars, and Vietnam’s Hoi An and Hue cities. Those sights are fantastic. By all means see them. But much of Indochina’s best still remains off the radar, while many old favorites have begun reinventing themselves since they were first thrust under the spotlight. Below are ten such places that should be on everyone’s must-see list for 2010.
Oozing French colonial charm, this scenic town nestled on the east bank of Kampot River is Cambodia’s most under-rated destination. If the crumbling French architecture, shady boulevards and riverfront dining aren't cause for love at first sight, visits to Kep beach resort, the ancient Funan Empire-era temple ruins or a hike in Bokor National Park will ensure you're permanently endeared to this Cambodian beauty spot.
Hotel Recommendation: Rikitikitavi, www.rikitikitavi-kampot.com, Kampot River Road, Kampot. Tel: +0855 (0) 12 235 102. Starting at around US$25, Rikitikitavi is a popular, smartly decorated hotel, restaurant and bar right on the riverfront.
Kon Tum, Vietnam
Guidebooks send tourists to Vietnam’s far northern hill station of Sapa for hill-tribe encounters, long overlooking the architectural extremes of Kon Tum’s ethnic Bahnar suburbs. The provincial capital is surrounded by minority villages; their log homes with white-washed mud walls are raised on poles that encircle towering communal lodges called nha rong.
Hotel Recommendation Duc Binh Hotel, 122 Phan Dinh Phung, Kon Tum. Tel: +84 (0) 60 386 2019. Starting at around US$9, in the absence of any upscale accommodations in town, this sensible budget option downtown provides all the basic comforts.
Phou Khao Khouay National Park, Laos
Phou Khao Khouay, or ‘Buffalo Horn Mountain' Nature Reserve is Laos’s most accessible protected area, just 40km (25 miles) from Vietniane. Rounding out the attractions are wild elephant herds, Hmong village homestays and cascading waterfalls. The sandstone mountain range hides a further treasure-trove of biological diversity, including white-cheeked gibbons, clouded leopards and green pea-fowl.
Hotel Recommendation: Ban Pako Eco-Lodge, www.banpako.com, Ban Nabong, Pak Ngum District, Vientiane Province. Tel: +856 (0)21 45 1841. Starting at around US$29, this true eco-lodge leads treks in the park and a variety of relaxing activities.
Chau Doc, Vietnam
The Mekong Delta town of Chau Doc sits like an island above endless rice-paddies, rivers, canals and flood-plains. Its atmospheric synthesis of Khmer, Muslim Cham, Vietnamese and French cultures is key to its charm. Take a ferry across the Bassac River to visit Cham villages; their wooden stilt houses decorated with little rooftop spires, crescent moons, and stars, or head to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Sam Mountain for vast sunset views.
Hotel Recommendation: Victoria Chau Doc, www.victoriahotels.asia, 32 Le Loi Street, Chau Doc. Tel: +84 (0) 76 865 010. Starting at around US$120, Victoria is Indochina’s premier hotel and resort chain. Their Chau Doc location is typical: luxurious and perfectly situated on the Bassac riverfront.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Though the pain of genocide will take generations to heal, with the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Phnom Penh is turning a new corner and taking leaps toward the future. No longer just a transportation hub between Bangkok, Siam Reap, and Ho Chi Minh City, Cambodia’s booming capital is now a entrepreneur’s playground and a fashionable destination for boutique hotels, international cuisine and trendy shops selling some of the region’s best silk.
Hotel Recommendation: Raffles Hotel Le Royale, www.raffles.com, 92 Rukhak Vithei, Phnom Penh. Tel: +855 (0) 23 981 888. Starting at US$179. For a sense of history, atmosphere and romance, no hotel is better than Raffles.
Mui Ne Beach, Vietnam
It took a solar eclipse and 15 years to turn an isolated coconut grove into Vietnam’s top beach resort (Mui Ne was the preferred spot to observe the October 1995 eclipse). Though renowned for its kite-boarding, Saharan dunes and year-round sunbathing, the area’s cultural richness is yet unexploited by the tourism industry. Summer brings several fishermen’s whale-worship festivals, while the fall brings the Hindu Cham New Year and a Sorcerer’s festival.
Hotel Recommendation: Sailing Club Resort & Day Spa, www.sailingclubvietnam.com, 24 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Mui Ne. Tel: +84 (0) 62 384 7440. Starting at $85, elegantly landscaped tropical gardens afford maximum privacy. The poolside bar and elegant Sandals Restaurant offer broad sunrise views of the beach.
For more information visit www.muinebeach.net.
Often overlooked for neighboring Hoi An, Vietnam’s third-largest city has quietly blossomed into an off-the-radar resort destination with intriguing attractions like the Museum of Cham Sculpture, Ba Na Hill Station and Monkey Mountain. Danang’s China Beach, namesake of the old ABC television series, now hosts the new Montgomerie Links golf course and the luxurious Furama Resort.
Hotel Recommendation: Furama Resort Danang, www.furamavietnam.com, 68 Ho Xuan Huong, Danang. Tel: +84 (0) 511 384 7888. Starting at around US$168, Furama is synonymous with 5-star beach-side opulence.
Golf Recommendation: Montgomerie Links, www.montgomerielinks.com, Thon 1, Dien Duong, Dien Ban, Quang Nam Province. Tel: +84 (0) 510 394 1942.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Yes, Luang Prabanag has magnificent Buddhist temple architecture and the morning monk procession has erupted into one of Asia’s biggest, and at times circus-like, photo-opportunities. This cultural epicenter’s exalted perch on the banks of Mekong and Khan rivers, surrounded by mountains, doesn’t hurt the ambiance either. What is relatively new however are all the upscale spas, boutique hotels, great restaurants and the ever-expanding handicraft night market. This UNESCO World Heritage City is ground zero for the new Indochina Chic.
Hotel Recommendation: The Chang Heritage Hotel, www.the-chang.com, 93 Unit 03, Phoneheuang Village, Luang Prabang. Tel: + 856 (0) 71 253 553. Starting around US$60, this cozy colonial inn is a sister hotel to the nearby Chang Heritage Hotel. Perfectly located in the old town near Wat Xieng Thong and overlooking the Khan River.
Quy Nhon, Vietnam
Warm, dry weather for most of the year, with deep blue skies and clear waters, makes the beach town of Quy Nhon a prime holiday destination. It’s also one of the country’s most archaeologically significant cities, with half a dozen ancient Cham temples and the Cha Ban Citadel ruins all within a few hours’ drive.
Hotel Recommendation: Saigon-Quy Nhon Hotel, www.saigonquynhonhotel.com.vn, 24 Nguyen Hue, Quy Nhon. Tel: +84 (0) 56 382 8235. Starting at US$58, this government hotel is the nicest in town, just across the street from the municipal beach.
Jungle Beach, Vietnam
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.
Hotel Recommendation: Jungle Beach, www.junglebeachvietnam.com, Ocean Road, Ninh Phuoc Village, Khanh Hoa Province. Tel : +84 (0) 58 362 2384. Package rates include three meals and limitless lemonade.