UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia
There is, perhaps, no better place to relive the fabled Silk Road than the old town of Bukhara. Although lacking in individual showpieces (like the Registan in Samarkand), Bukhara has maintained an authentic feel. Its interwinding streets and alleyways meander past ancient mosques and medressas. But it is the fact that the market is so alive that makes Bukhara special. While many of the items on sale are tourist oriented, the visitor can still see local merchants labouring away on hand-made crafts with skills passed down through generations. While the main thoroughfares might get a little busy, it is easy to escape down a back street and have the place to yourself.
The third jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan's ancient Silk Road cities is the town of Khiva. And while some might think "you've seen one, you've seen them all", this is not the case with Khiva. The walled up old Khiva, Ichon Qala, has been heavily restored - almost to the point of Disneyfication. This level of restoration might not appeal to all, but it's a glimpse into the former glory of the city. The old town within the city walls is a wonderful maze of mosques, medressas, art shops, hotels and cafes along with residential houses, adding daily life to the otherwise open-air museum. It's a place to explore at random and just visit as many "historical sights" as you please. Great views over Khiva, both the new and the old part, can be enjoyed by climbing either one of the minarets and/or the northern part of the mud wall, accessed at the northern gate.
There are few places on Earth that are so absolutely spectacular, yet somehow seemingly unknown. The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is one of those places. A UNESCO world heritage site, the central square surrounded by magnificently ornate medressas (dating back as much as 500 years) is a true sight to behold. A pillar of Islamic learning throughout the centuries, Samarkand is a thing of legend in the Muslim world. Towering doors and vaulting ceilings lead the visitors eyes to heaven, while the masterfully tiled walls and floors help to keep your feet on the ground. Samarkand is a truly spiritual place.
Samarkand is the most famous of Uzbekistan's 3 must-see Silk Road cities (the others being Bukhara and Khiva). When you first enter the city, the first impression will be of a very modern place with lots of Soviet era apartment blocks, and not at all that ancient Silk Road city with protective walls, towering minarets, and azur domes that you might expect. But when you finally arrive at the Registan and see the blue tiled mosques and medressas, you quickly forget the dull surroundings. The historical centre around Registan and Timur's mausoleum, Gur-e-Amir (picture), is really done up, too much in many opnions, but it's not impossible to find your way into the old town, where people still live in mud brick houses.
Timur (1336-1405) was for Uzbekistan what Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was for Mongolia. Timur was born in Shakhrisabz and grew up to be a blood-thirsty ruler who conquered great parts of Arabia, Persia, Caucasus and northern India, not to mention Central Asia. Like Genghis Khan, his campaigns resulted in the death of more than a million people. Under Timur rule, Shakhrisabz was said to be more splendid than even Samarkand. Today Shakhrisabz is just a small town with a few historical reminders of a bygone era, but is nonetheless an interesting destination. Besides obvious sights, like the intended tomb for Timur which he built himself (Timur's real mausoleum is in Samarkand), the town has a great small-town feel with a buzzing main street carrying the fitting name Ipak Yoli, Uzbek for Silk Road. The drive from Samarkand is equally lovely and goes over the Takhtakaracha Pass (1788 m) with views of snow-covered mountains in the distance. The ride only takes two hours, making Shakhrisabz a possible day trip from Samarkand.
Hanoi is more than a thousand years old and was original called Thang Long (well, actually it goes further back). It was founded in 1010 and was the Imperial City for several dynasties during which it had the honor to be sacked by the Mongols, not just one time but three times. In 1397 the capital was moved, but Thang Long was kept as a region capital, a position it hold for another 490 years before it become capital for French Indochina. In the meantime the name had been changed to Hanoi (in 1831). Then came the Indochina Wars and not until 1975 was Hanoi again capital for a unified Vietnam.
During all that time the Citadel of Thang Long served as some sort of fortress or military headquarter. Up until recently the citadel was off limit, but then UNESCO added it to its list in 2010 and today the citadel has open its gates to the public. The complex contains a range of different buildings, including the imposing South Gate and a newer structure, a reinforced concrete meeting room used by General Giap during the Vietnam War. There is also a North Gate on Phan Dinh Phung St, but you have to walk around the military compound that is still in use today. Come during the weekend and you have a chance to witness Vietnamese wedding photo sessions.
In Halong Bay vertical limestone rocks shot out of the deep green South Chinese Sea and create a maze of giant rock pillars and secret lagoons. There are small beaches, floating villages, show caves with colored lights and cave tunnels that is possible to visit in low tide by row boat. Halong Bay is truly an amazing sight, so it is no wonder that this UNESCO site is one of the most iconic tourist destinations in Vietnam. Unfortunately this also means more tour boats that it is possible to count, trash floating around in the water (though this is not necessary the tour boats fault) and the usual Vietnamese tourist mayhem. Though most visitors take in this extraordinary scenery in classic style on a luxury junk, it is possible to escape the crowds by exploring the hollow islands in kayak (read more under "Halong Bay Cave Kayaking").
The first thing you will notice when arriving to charming little Hoi An is the insane numbers of tailors. It seems that every second shop can saw up a suit or a dress for you. But Hoi An's reputation as a trading town goes way back. During the 16th and 17th century, Portuguese traders based themselves here, and later came Chinese and Japanese merchants, putting Hoi An on the world map. Time changed, kingdoms disappeared and the river silted up, but Hoi An has kept its charm. Today there are, beside the tailors, boutique hotels, bakeries and fine dining, and the Cua Dai beach four kilometers away is fast turning into a destination of itself with warm sand, swaying palms and flashy resorts. Though the tourist flow is strong, Hoi An always manage spell the visitor and you only have to show up early in the morning down at the river market to get a taste of the original atmosphere.
Under Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) Hue was the imperial capital and home to the emperor's citadel. Even today the town has a more aristocratic feeling than other Vietnamese cities with its wide tree lined boulevards, ao dai dressed college girls, and imperial leftovers. Most of the forbidden city was destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968 but have been under restoration the last many years. After too much imperial this and imperial that, walk down to the local market and get sucked back in time. Here goods are still transported in cyclos and the old ladies have colonial hats and black teeth. Though most travellers feel obligated to pay Hue a visit, it will rarely be a highlight of their Vietnam journey.
My Son is a humble collection of Hindu temple ruins from the ancient Champa kingdom (4th-14th century AD). The Champa kingdom was enemy with the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia. Those two took turns to invade each other and in 1177 the Cham managed to reach the Khmer capital of Angkor and sack the Khmer king. So even though the two kingdoms were in constant clinch, they were influenced by the same things, so you will find many similarity between the temples in My Son and the temples at Angkor Wat. Keep in mind that My Son pre-dates Angkor by several centuries and they are build without the use of any mortar. During the Vietnam War, My Son was in a free strike zone meaning that American B-52 bombers almost could just bomb anywhere, destroying many of the temples.