If you’re a first-time visitor to the far east, it’s likely that you’re in for a bit of shock as you land slap bang in the middle of a far away land where initially, things couldn’t feel any further from home. Serious cultural differences aside, for me it was all about getting used to the comparatively stifling heat, rice as a staple, bouncing along a dirt road with no seatbelt on as I hung on for dear life off the back of a truck on a daily basis, and the fact that I literally wanted to try everything I stumbled across, whether it was a local delicacy or art class. If I could pack your bags and send you on a one way ticket to Asia right now, this is where you’d be off to.
At the age of 18, I ventured outside of Europe and across continents for the very first time to find myself touching down in the gem of Hanoi, Vietnam. I remember within five minutes of leaving the airport I became caught in a humongous, dusty traffic jam as an elderly woman casually ushered her cow across the busy highway. Lifelong memory number one. This was followed by vivid memories of being in a French café in Hanoi unable to focus on anything I was doing due to the continuous flow of motorbikes beyond my friend’s shoulder, carrying everything from sofas to bamboo canes and entire families in what can only be described as a balancing act good enough to make the Russian Circus’ trapeze artists swoon. Lifelong memory number two, which also leads to tip number one – learn how to cross the road in Vietnam, seriously. A shock to the system initially, I soon adapted and grew to love what I still hail as my favourite country to this day, and the lifelong memories just kept coming. One of the greatest things about Vietnam is its tenacious resistance to westernisation. Of course, you’ll stumble across the odd Starbucks and a shopping mall or seven in the likes of Saigon, but get out of the city and you’re in for a stripped back, extraordinary introduction to Asia.
Image source Flickr
With heavy French colonial influence, the food takes a different edge to the rest of the continent, with everything from foie gras terrine served alongside spring rolls, to freshly baked baguettes with Vietnamese spiced beef gracing menus up and down the country. Hiring a scooter in Vietnam is almost a rite of passage to the tourist, making getting around incredibly simple and extremely liberating as you are able to reach those far-flung places, set away from the droves of sightseers. For first-timers, the Vietnamese road network makes for one of the more palatable introductions to driving in Asia, as the majority of vehicles on the road are scooters, with cars few and far between.
Image source: Flickr
Needless to say, with national parks, spectacular bays and world heritage sites all in abundance, Vietnam is worthy of the praise it receives, offering something for everyone whether you’re a beach-hopper or a luxury seeker. As far as first-time visits to Asia go, Vietnam is the one if you’re looking to self-guide and you’re not afraid to immerse yourself in environments where English isn’t necessarily on the tip of the locals’ tongues.
Whilst for me, Vietnam was my quick-fire introduction to Asia, it was my mum who at the ripe old age of 50 I sent hurtling on a plane at 500mph towards the Land of the Gods, otherwise known as Bali. It’s a place I’ve returned to time and time again, and I envy those who are seeing and experiencing the Bali magic for the first time. Whenever a friend asks me for a travel recommendation in Asia, Bali is always my go to.
The people of Bali are a new pedigree of friendly, warmly welcoming tourists onto the island like old friends lost between the gaps in geography over the years. This extends to the hospitality on offer, where whether big or small, the best hotels in Bali – you know, the gold-plated ones where breakfast with elephants and dinner under the stars comes as standard – make you feel like you’re the only guest to have ever stepped foot across the threshold.
Image source: Flickr
A spiritual and harmonious place, it won’t be long before you’ve settled into the laid back, beach lifestyle you were clearly always made for. And another home truth – Bali is one of the most remarkably beautiful places you’ll ever visit. Temples and vibrant religious offerings line the streets, striking green rice paddies cascade on the horizon and the pristine coastline winds seemingly forever, revealing black sand beaches, frolicking dolphins and surfers’ paradises along the way. Recommended if you’re looking for a calming introduction to the east, accompanied by a relaxed island vibe where being pampered is standard and nothing’s too much bother.
Image courtesy of The Legian Bali
Those who seek refuge from the flurry of modern day life travel to Bali, and those who don’t, travel to Bali anyway – it’s just that good.
Ian Garstang is a travel writer and marketing specialist working in the luxury travel market. Ian is the editor at Luxury-Travels.net and has worked with such brands as GHM Hotels, Four Seasons and Aman. Ian was name Hotel Club’s ‘Bali Expert’ and nominated in the top 20 luxury travel bloggers on USA Today. Ian has written for various websites including A Luxury Travel Blog, Luxury Asia News and Travelo Café. Follow his Luxe Asia Travel News on Twitter.