Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Yogyakarta are some of Southeast Asia’s bustling urban hubs that still manage to cling on to their proud histories.
Alongside modern shopping centers and modern skyscrapers, you’ll find ancient temples and opulent palaces.
Vibrant cultural and arts scenes are also open for visitors to explore, and you won’t have to venture too far out from the city to find peace among Mother Nature’s bounty.
These cities move to their own beat, so if you’re someone who can move to their rhythm, then you’ll fit right in. Here are each city’s top 5 places for a spot of adventure:
Ho Chi Minh City
Still widely known by its former name, Saigon, the city was officially renamed in honor of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh after the Vietnam War.
The southern city is a chaotic fusion of old and new, there’s plenty of history and culture to marvel over.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Underneath the Cu Chi district of the city lies an extensive network of tunnels dug by Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War as communication and supply routes and places to hide, lay booby traps, and mount surprise attacks during combat.
Now the tunnels are open to the public, and have become a popular tourist destination. Only check it out if you’re not afraid of tight spaces!
Ben Thanh Market
The market is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, and is just the place to go if you’re looking for souvenirs and local handicrafts.
There’s also a section of the market dedicated to food vendors, so if you want a wide selection of the best food the city has to offer, this is great place to start.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
Also known as Tortoise Pagoda, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the city’s most revered shrines. Built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god (the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), the shrine is full of a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist statues inspired by ancient lore.
Outside, there’s a pond brimming with tortoises, hence its moniker as the Tortoise Pagoda.
Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica & Central Post Office
The Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and Central Post Office are located right next to each other and are both eye candy for those who love to admire historical architecture.
The buildings are Gothic in style, and while the basilica’s red-bricked exterior is simple, the Post Office’s domed ceiling and brightly-painted interior and exterior makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into a Wes Anderson movie.
Similar to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is also rich with centuries-old Vietnamese, Chinese, and French architecture.
Scooters rule the streets and is the best mode of transportation if you want to get anywhere quickly. Peel back its layers and you’ll find that there’s much more to Hanoi than you can see on the surface.
Ngoc Son Temple
Get away from the city’s frenetic pace by heading to Ngoc Son Temple, also known as the Temple of Jade Mountain.
Sitting on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Buddhist temple is arguably the most visited temple in the city, surrounded by spiritual serenity. Learn the legend surrounding the lake, which is known as the “Lake of the Returned Sword”.
When you’re strolling around Hanoi’s Old Quarter, you’ll feel as though you’ve been pulled back in time. Grab a refreshing cup of cold, sweet Vietnamese coffee at any of the cafes in the area. (We recommend Cafe Lam or Cafe Pho Co.)
You can’t escape the French influence in the architecture, but for a taste of the real Vietnam, buy a ticket to watch a traditional puppet performance at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre along Dinh Tien Hoang Street.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its central flag tower is often used as a symbol of Hanoi.
Located in Ba Dinh, the citadel is at what was once the center of ancient Hanoi. Drop by the display room to view the various artifacts that have been excavated at the site.
Hanoi Ceramic Road
Built to commemorate the Millennial Anniversary since Hanoi was founded, the Hanoi Ceramic Road is a ceramic mosaic mural on the wall of the city’s dyke system.
Running about 6.5 kilometers, it is the world’s largest ceramic mosaic, as certified by the Guinness World Book of Records. Besides featuring various periods in Vietnam’s history, the mosaic also incorporates works from local artists and children’s drawings.
Day trip to Halong Bay
Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most breathtaking destinations, is a mere 3.5 hours away by car from Hanoi, so there are many tours offering day trips to Halong Bay that will cover all the usual stops, like Ba Hang floating village and Thien Cung cave (Heaven Palace Grotto).
If you want to take it slow and easy, you can even opt to hop on a river cruise down the Red River to Halong Bay, though it would take a bit longer and would usually include an overnight stay.
Yogyakarta (fondly known as “Jogja”) is the heart of Java’s traditional arts and cultural heritage. Holding the status of Special Administrative Region, it’s the only region still headed by a monarchy in Indonesia.
While it’s not quite as popular a tourist destination as Indonesia’s island paradises of Bali and Lombok, it is certainly coming into its own. Beyond the city, there are a multitude of awe-inspiring natural sights just calling for you.
Most photos representing Yogyakarta will undoubtedly include Borobudur, one of Indonesia’s most important archaeological sites. It’s no wonder that some visitors are surprised at how modern the city actually is.
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and is Yogyakarta’s most popular tourist attraction. The best time to visit it is in the early morning, in time for sunrise. Set atop a hill, the play of light and shadows across the stupas is an unforgettable sight.
Kraton (Royal Palace)
The Kraton, the city’s ornate 18th-century royal complex, encompasses the still-inhabited Sultan’s Palace.
Here, you can learn more about the unique Javanese culture from those who still practice it. You should also catch the daily cultural performances and listen to Javanese traditional music.
Taman Sari Water Castle
Located just a 10-minute walk away from the Kraton, this rundown garden chateau was said to have been built by the Portuguese as a gift for the wives of Sultan Hamengku Buwono I.
Its elaborate architecture and charming ponds has made it into a spot that’s perfect for a photo session, making it a hit among Instagrammers.
Prambanan is closer to the city than Borobudur, and consists of 240 temples. The 9th century Hindu temple is dedicated to three Hindu deities, Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer), and stands at 47 meters high.
You can even catch the famous Ramayana Ballet there, which is all the more spectacular with the temple in the background!
Kalibiru National Park
If you’re looking to get out into nature, then take a day trip out to Kalibiru National Park, which is just a 1.5 hour drive west from the city.
Many visitors come to the park thanks to gorgeous Instagram photos taken from the viewpoint by previous visitors. The view from the small wooden platform overlooking the rolling mountains and lush green forests spread out below is stunning.