Asia is famous for its sprawling metropolises laden with flashing neon colours and hectic streets, but it’s not all about the big name cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Bangkok, which most travellers automatically think of. There are plenty of other cities scattered across Asia that can claim their own millions-strong populations, historical riches and cultural attractions worth every penny. Ranging from charming to chaotic, here’s our top pick of the underdogs to give a little attention on your next holiday to Asia.
The chaos of India’s capital, Delhi, will quickly throw your senses into overload. Colourful market stalls burst out onto the sidewalks, the smell of street vendors’ treats waft around every corner, and the sound of honking horns from the onslaught of traffic is inescapable. It’s thoroughly intoxicating. Home to an array of sights that span centuries, from the ancient to the old and the squeaky clean modern, you’ll find yourself in awe of temples and mosques, ruins and forts, as well as shopping centres and markets, museums and palaces. While the list of must-do sights is long, at the top you should definitely include the magnificent Red Fort, the once home of India’s Mughal emperors, Jama Masjid, the nation’s largest mosque, and Chandni Chowk, if you’re game to brave the chaotic crowds of one of Delhi’s oldest markets. In New Delhi, the modern part of town, don’t miss the shops at Connaught Place, or the tree-lined ceremonial boulevard of Rajpath, where you’ll find India Gate, the Presidential Palace and most of Delhi’s museums.
Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi holds elegance for such a title, as well as beauty for its position on the banks of the Red River. Both historically and politically important, Hanoi is also rich in spiritual sights and radiates a much more intimate atmosphere than its big and bustling southern brother, Ho Chi Minh City. Often touted as the ‘Paris of the Orient’, the city is home to pretty parks and lakes, as well as broad tree-lined boulevards and cosy winding alleyways. Beautiful Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture meet here, as do markets, traditional shops, museums, and the odd jazz club. Highlights of Hanoi include the 1000-year-old Temple of Literature, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the graceful architecture of the Hanoi Opera House. But also explore the historic and peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake, the maze of fascinating streets in the Old Quarter, and Hao Lo Prison, still standing from the city’s French era. Hanoi is also a fabulous base to explore nearby Vietnam gems such as the famous limestone pillars of Ha Long Bay, and scenic Sapa in the mountainous north.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is easily the largest and most energetic city in Vietnam, a heaving mix of old and new. Still commonly referred to as Saigon, its eclectic atmosphere and sprawling eight-million-strong population plays out along the banks of the Saigon River. Nicknamed the ‘Diamond of the Far East’, modern skyscrapers stand tall beside ancient houses, Chinese style temples and pagodas, with traffic zooming in between. Both American and Chinese influences can be seen across the city’s architecture and lifestyle, while modern traits reflect the surge for Ho Chi Minh City to climb the ranks to join Asia’s top powerhouse cities. A fascinating and buzzing Asian city, a trip to District One is a must, the best spot for bargain and top-end shopping, and a fabulous spot to enjoy the city’s bars and cafes. Other key holiday sights include the many museums, including the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, architectural splendours such as the Notre Dame Cathedral and City Hall, and Reunification Palace, a historical icon of the fall of Saigon. Nearby must-dos include a glide along the Saigon River and a trip to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.
Nestled in the mountainous north, Chiang Mai is a welcomed breath of fresh air when travelling in Thailand. The nation’s second-largest city behind Bangkok, which is home to more than six million people, Chiang Mai has a cosy population of just 200,000. Offering a wonderful change of pace and scenery and oozing its own unique charm and character, it’s considered the cultural heart of the nation, where tradition and modernity blend harmoniously. Originally built as a walled city surrounded by a moat, you can still glimpse sections of this ancient wall today and the moat is still in use. Between the old city and the new city, Chiang Mai is bursting with beautiful Buddhist temples, art galleries, shops, cafes and day spas, as Thailand’s spa capital. Just two of the more than 300 ancient temples to explore include Wat Phra Singh, the city’s most revered, and Wat Chiang Man, the oldest. For traditional handicrafts, explore Baan Tawai village for carvings, fabrics and souvenirs, or hit the buzzing Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Much of the charm of Chiang Mai though lies in its location – it makes a great base for outdoor adventures in the mountains. Discover hill tribes and villages, take an elephant trek through the jungle, admire beautiful waterfalls and raft down the rivers. A hike (or cable car ride) up the holy mountain Doi Suthep is another must-do – a beautiful 14th century temple and spectacular views wait at the top.