Places with photo galleries in Asia
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.
Tashkent is a sprawling city with no particular centre. The boulevards are wide and the urban space is an odd mix of green parks, imposing aged government buildings, and apartment blocks, mostly of the Soviet architecture type. But since this is Tashkent, it's often done with a twist of eccentricity. Take for example Navoi Park: a huge park with an artificial lake, where there also are a sandy beach, a fairground, some statues, and just weird buildings. But Tashkent also has a more traditional side where vibrant bazaars and beautiful mosques stand next to dense neighbourhoods of mudbrick houses. Tashkent might not be pretty nor exciting, but it's easygoing.
At first, the soft-spoken Uzbek people can seem a bit reserved, but then one breaks the ice by asking where you are from (most likely in Russian) and the others join in, eager to know whether you like Uzbekistan. They are always polite and easygoing, never in your face. Even the militsia (police) will leave you alone these days. Though a bit shy, a smile will be returned by a smile, often golden since gold-capped teeth are in fashion. As people of the Silk Road, the Uzbek are welcoming and friendly. It's very likely you'll be invited for tea, shots of vodka (they are also easygoing Muslims), or just some of the juicy seasonal fruit. There are of course a few entrepreneur taxi drivers and shop owners who think it's their duty to heavily overcharge foreigners. No matter whether you tell them that you know the right price or are walking off, they don't lower their price. Just give them a smile like an Uzbek... and then pick another taxi or shop.
Approaching Ba Be National Park feels like a journey into a lost world. When reaching the rim of the karst limestones that enclose Ba Be lake, you will be met by a landscape that is the source for Asian scroll paintings. A dark lake with mist hanging heavy over the flat surface with green foliage clinging to the steep cliff sides and an intense silence (if you turn off the engine). The lime stone mountain range surrounding the lake is full of caves, where Puong Cave is the longest (300 m). Don't limit your roaming to the lake only for there are fine small walks too. Though Ba Be is a national park there are villages along the shore who can offer home stays and boat rentals.
Bending into China, Ha Giang is the northermost point you can get in Vietnam. It's rich in ethnic minorities who live on the mountain slopes, but what makes this place stand out from its more popular neighbours is the landscape. As you travel across the province, the mountain scenery changes from soft hills with muddy soil, over steep slopes covered in rice terraces to rough stone forests, where the colourful tribe people have to farm between the tall pointy rock pillars. Vietnam is beautiful and this is one of the most jaw-dropping places in Vietnam.
Maybe you are familiar with Halong Bay and its limestone islands that rise dramatically from the jade green sea. Most visitors only experience this from the deck of a boat, but the true magic begins when you explore these islands with a kayak. Some of islands are hollow and have secret lagoons inside, which are only accessible from narrow tunnels and caves that are filled water at high tide. Through the entrance tunnel, the lagoons will open up with jungle vegetation clinging to the steep walls and a silence hard to imagine (especially in Vietnam). With a good guide and a tide table, it's possible to explore this hidden side of Halong Bay, which is even more magnificent from the inside.
The mountains of northern Vietnam are populated with minorities. Every smallish township has their own market once a week and attracts different kinds of colourful tribe people that comes in for shopping, browsing, finding a wife, or just stocking up on this week's rice wine. Some of the best markets "near" Lao Cai Town is Bac Ha (Sunday) which is one of the biggest and most touristy, not saying that many come, Can Cau (Saturday) beautiful set on the mountain side, Coc Ly (Tuesday) small but interesting, Muong Hum (Sunday) located in a lush valley, and Muong Khuong (Sunday) a great trading fair with a real outpost felling, since it's very close to China. Keep in mind that it takes many hours from Lao Cai town on winding mountain roads to get to these far out markets, but it's sure worth it.
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.
At first sight Kon Tum town could be any place in Vietnam. Narrow Vietnamese houses build in cement, motorbikes and schoolkids in uniforms, but then you pass an impressive wooden Cathelic church. As you keep going and reach the edge of town, the neighborughood morph into a traditional tribe village and if you keep going you will finally reach green fields that extend all the way to risen mountains in the horizon. The Central Highlands are home to several of Vietnam's 54-or-so ethnic tribes and rigth on Kon Tum's doorstep live two of them, Bahnar and Jarai. The Bahnar are the closes ones, living in the villages connected to Kon Tum town, while Jarai live further out. Both have impressive community houses, so-called rong, while the Jarai also intrigue with their unusual burial tombs. We are not the first who have noticed this, but Kon Tum people (both Kinh Vietnamese, Bahnar and Jarai) are among the friendliest in Vietnam and very chatty.
It is an unbelievable sight to see Hanoi wake up. In the early morning when the sun haven't yet rose and the streets are empty for traffic, the people of Hanoi take in the public space for their morning exercise. Elderly ladies still in their pyjamas invade city squares for tai chi lessons, while bare chested men carry their home-made dumbbells down to the side of the road for some serious fitness training. Mid-age women in 80s outfits pump away in old school aerobic formation to loud Vietnamese dance music, while others again just play a game of badminton on the sidewalk in between joggers and power walkers, all in their pyjamases. The public morning exercise in Hanoi has to be experienced - and you can even join in if you want.