Here at Rough Guides we’ve always known that Vietnam is magical. The gleaming skyscrapers of the country’s booming cities have a singular kind of beauty that shouldn’t be overlooked, but it’s the natural landscape that is truly breathtaking. Picture rice terraces carved into steep hillsides, market days that are a riot of colour, limestone peaks jutting out from azure waters and white-sand beaches stretching for miles. Here are the most beautiful places in Vietnam – as voted for by our readers.
1. Cat Ba
Although the low-slung harbour town doesn’t have all that much – except location – to recommend it, the rest of the island is rocky and wild and begging to be explored. Half of Cat Ba is verdant national park and it’s a paradise for travellers who come here to hike, climb and kayak (the waters and coral reefs are protected too). For jaw-dropping views across Ha Long Bay, head up to Cannon Fort.
Nestled in Vietnam’s central highlands, Da Lat is a quintessential hill station centred on pretty Lake Xuan Huong, whose shore is lined with pine trees. Dotted with French Colonial-era villas and blessed with a cool and temperate climate, this is the Vietnamese honeymoon destination – an air of kitsch only adds to the genteel atmosphere.
A surprise entry in this poll, the modern riverside city of Da Nang is increasingly making it onto every traveller’s must-see list. It’s particularly attractive after dark when the neon light spills across the Han River; on weekend nights the quirky Dragon Bridge is illuminated and, astonishingly, it breathes fire. East of the city, a seemingly never-ending stretch of sandy beach extends 30km to Hoi An.
Way down in southern Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc is a classic deserted island getaway. It’s still relatively undeveloped, and travellers rave about the west coast with its picture-perfect white-sand beaches and spectacular ocean sunsets. It’s also well worth exploring the red dirt roads of the lush interior, which is dotted with pepper plantations and dominated by a national park.
A good safari operator is key to a good safari. Research well and check the company’s ethical credentials: do they use local staff and guides? How do they help communities? Are they involved with conservation initiatives?
With a bewildering array of safari options and complex logistics, it can be a false economy to book independently: specialist operators have invaluable insider knowledge and often better rates. Websites like safaribookings.com are a good place to start, and offer helpful customer reviews of hundreds of operators and the tours they offer.
Stay safe on the road
On game drives, remember wildlife is still wild, even if the lions or elephants you spot seem unperturbed by 4x4s surrounding them. Stick to responsible safari etiquette: stay in your vehicle, don’t stress the animals, don’t stand up or move suddenly, don’t let your driver get too close or go off-road hoping for a better tip, and definitely don’t litter.
Get closer to nature on an exhilarating walking safari: you’ll be accompanied by an armed ranger but the gun is only ever intended as a last resort. Make sure it doesn’t need to be used by always obeying your guide’s instructions, walking quietly in single file, and never ever run – by doing so, you act like prey, and predators will act accordingly.
Most safari destinations, with the exception of parts of Namibia and South Africa, are malarial – use prophylaxes and insect repellent, and if you’re on a budget trip, you may need your own mosquito net. Avoid wearing blue and black since these colours attract tsetse flies – they have a nasty nip similar to a horse fly and can cause sleeping sickness.
Support communities and conservation
Traditionally, local communities come a poor second to conservation, with tribes often evicted from ancestral homelands to make way for national parks and reserves. Botswana’s San or Bushmen, Uganda’s Batwa ‘Pygmies’ and Kenya’s Maasai have all been ‘conservation refugees.’
While issues around disappearing cultural heritage and marginalisation of tribes remain, in general communities are now recognised as being crucial to successful conservation. Tourism gives wildlife a longer-term value by providing sustainable jobs and social benefits like better education and healthcare. When wild animals are then worth more alive than dead to local people, they are therefore worth protecting.
South Africa’s ever-changing landscapes, pristine coastlines, quirky small towns and abundance of wide open spaces have cemented the country’s reputation as one of the world’s best road trip destinations.
For the intrepid traveller, it’s easy to get off the beaten path in the semi-desert of the Karoo or across the rugged hills of the Wild Coast. By the same token, the generally good infrastructure makes a road trip in South Africa much more accessible than in many of its neighbours.
Here are five of the best road trip routes to experience the incredible beauty and diversity of South Africa.
1. The Garden Route, Western Cape
The Garden Route is certainly South Africa’s best-known road trip route, and not without good cause. It comprises an unfailingly picturesque 200km stretch of the N2 highway between Mossel Bay in the Western Cape and the Storms River Mouth on the Western fringes of the Eastern Cape.
The Garden Route is so-known for its verdant and varied vegetation and it gives easy access to a number of sublime beaches, dense mountain forests, picturesque lagoons and lakes, with a plethora of outdoor activities on offer.
The enchanting Knysna Forest is a popular spot for camping, hiking and mountain biking and home to a notoriously elusive population of forest elephants. The coastal town of the same name is renowned for its annual Oyster Festival and stylish boutique shops.
For the more adventurous, stop off to surf some barrels at Plettenberg Bay or leap off the Bloukrans Bridge in Tsitsikamma, the world’s highest bridge bungee.
Best for: beaches and outdoor activities
How long: 4 days
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2. The Waterberg Meander, Limpopo
Although it’s just a few hours’ drive from the pulsating urban hub of Johannesburg, the Waterberg Region doesn’t make it onto most South African travel itineraries, and that’s a large part of its appeal.
Tucked away in Limpopo Province and known to locals as Africa’s Eden, this region comprises soaring mountain peaks, antediluvian sandstone rock formations, golden savannah plains, dense riparian forests and plunging river valleys.
The Waterberg Meander is a 350km self-drive route that takes road trippers right through the heart of the Waterberg Biosphere and incorporates many of its highlights, including the exclusive Welgevonden Game Reserve and the stunning Marakele National Park.
Along the route, there are also a number of community projects, cultural and historical sites, and some of the finest examples of the stellar Waterberg vistas.
From a distance, Jazirat Al Hamra looks like the remnants of a war-ravaged town. The homes of those who once lived here are falling apart at the seams, ceilings are caving in under the weight of time and abandonment, and even the trees have been left to rot.
There’s no sign of life, except for the odd gecko and the birds that have made nests in any crevice they can find, and there’s a deathly silence about the place that’s enough to give even the hardiest of visitors a chill.
Abandoned buildings aren’t an uncommon sight in the UAE; investment for construction disappears as quickly as it comes, so derelict, half-finished hotels and apartment blocks are strewn all over the country. But this ghost town is a little different – this one has a history.
Jazirat Al Hamra was once a thriving fishing village on an island off the shores of Ras Al Khaimah, where in the 1830s most of the 200-strong population were involved in pearl fishing.
By the early twentieth century the value of pearls had plummeted after pearl farming was commercialised in Japan, and when Gulf oil was discovered in the 1950s and 60s, residents simply left their homes behind to seek better paying jobs in the UAE’s bigger cities.
Today it’s no longer an island – the land has been filled in and built upon – and Jazirat Al Hamra lies bare and broken, save for a few patches of grass and the occasional old shoe.
You can see open-front shops with empty shelves, courtyards where trees had once provided dappled shade for passers by, and a mosque with well-trodden carpets and an almost miraculously towering minaret.
Only a few of us can take a vacation that includes a private jet and a 15-course chef’s tasting menu at a top restaurant. For the rest of us, we have to make the most of our budget when we travel. But that’s no reason to skimp. Here are 8 ideas for cheap vacations in the US – and how to make your dollar go a long way in each one.
Museum madness: Washington, DC
Price-wise you can’t do any better than free, and in Washington, DC, some of the best museums don’t cost a dime. Along the National Mall you’ll find ten Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol Building. Free admission to these museums means you can save your money for the Newseum or International Spy Museum. Stretch your dollar by staying at The Embassy Row Hotel, where off-season rates can be a steal.
An art escape: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Creative types make note: Santa Fe is it. Artists draw inspiration from the nearby mountains and 1.6-million acre National Forest, filling the town’s 250 galleries with works. Don’t neglect the culinary creativity of Santa Fe either; hit the Santa Fe Margarita Trail (with 31 stops) and sample some of the earthy, chile-laden cuisine of Northern New Mexico at Tia Sophia’s and El Parasol, where you can feast for under $10. And if you want to save on your room, try a Route 66 classic like the El Rey Inn.
Island isolation: Put-in-Bay, Ohio
An island getaway in Ohio? Indeed. Put-in-Bay sits in Lake Erie just a few miles from the Canadian border and it may just be Ohio’s best-kept secret. Midwesterners are notorious for frugality, and they love Put-in-Bay for its views, the killer fishing, and all the hiking, biking, kayaking and swimming. Accessible only by boat – bring your own or take the Miller Ferry – it’s the kind of place where you can book a B&B for as little as $100 a night in summer.
Back to nature: the Appalachian Mountains, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains are a wild and beautiful part of the state. As well as holding 230 miles of the Appalachian Trail, they’re also home to several state parks and forests – including Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the trail’s mid-way point. Outdoor activities abound here, and one of the best places to make the most of them is Buck Valley Ranch. Surrounded by 2,000 acres of state game land laced with hiking and biking trails, the property is also close to the C&O Canal Trail and Potomac River if you want a long ride or a day on the water.
Big-city cool: San Francisco
To see San Francisco on a budget, visit in the fall or late spring and you’ll find that both the weather is good and the hotels are cheaper. This city was made to be explored on foot, and there are numerous fascinating neighborhoods to discover, from hectic Chinatown to quirky Haight Ashbury– check out our two-day itinerary for starters. And don’t forget the best free activity in San Francisco: people watching.
For many travellers, Portugal is synonymous with images of golden sun-baked beaches. And with a generous 1700 kilometres of coastline, there’s enough sand for everyone. Famed for its wonderful, resort-groomed beaches the south-facing Algarve coast may be the country’s main tourist magnet, but it’s also dotted with secluded, cliff-backed coves.
And there’s plenty more beyond the Algarve. Stretching along the west coast are expansive swathes of sand that are rarely busy even in the height of summer, as well as a number of major surf destinations where you can tackle the full force of the Atlantic.
1. Praia de Tavira, Ilha de Tavira (The Algarve)
Linked to the mainland by ferry, the superb Praia de Tavira, is located on the Ilha de Tavira, a sandbar island that stretches southwest from Tavira almost as far as Fuseta.
Strung along this are miles of soft, dune-baked sand, without a hotel in sight. The main part of the beach is dotted with umbrellas and pedalos for rent, and scattered with a handful of bar-restaurants.
In high summer this part of the beach can get very busy, but you only have to wander fifteen minutes or so to escape the crowds. Come here out of season and you’ll probably have the place to yourself.
2. Praia da Marinha and Benagil (The Algarve)
The stretch of coast between Armação de Pêra and Centianes is strung with a series of delightful cove beaches that have mostly escaped large-scale development. Of them two stand out: Praia da Marinha and Benagil. A classic cliff-backed warren of coves, the only trace of development on Praia da Marinha is the seasonal beach restaurant.
Follow the clifftop path on from here as it winds round to the next bay at Benagil, a pint-sized village with its fine beach sitting beneath high cliffs. Fishing boats can take you out to an amazing sea cave, as large as a cathedral, with a hole in its roof.
3. Nazaré (Estremadura)
Now a busy seaside resort – with all the hustle and trimmings that you’d expect with that title – the former fishing village of Nazaré has a great town beach. The main stretch is an expanse of clean sand, packed with multicoloured sunshades in summer, while further beaches spread north beyond the headland.
The water might look inviting on calm, hot days, but it’s worth bearing in mind that swimming off these exposed Atlantic beaches can be dangerous. Nazaré has a worldwide reputation among surfers seeking serious waves – this is where the world’s largest-ever wave was surfed.
With eternal summer, thousands of kilometres of beaches and affordable prices, Southeast Asia is the perfect destination if you’re planning a trip around nightlife.
Truth be told, the region’s party reputation has been greatly tarnished by the excesses of Ko Pha Ngan’s full moon parties and drug- and alcohol-fuelled incidents at Vang Vieng’s tubing bars, Laos’ backpacker central. Yet the real picture is far from this portrayal of a gap-year-fool’s playground.
Southeast Asian nights hide many more vibrant and authentic experiences. Here are a few of the best.
1. Dive into Kuala Lumpur‘s music scene, Malaysia
Apart for the well-known Bukit Bintang, Bangsar and TREC entertainment districts, the Malaysian capital hides a polyhedric music scene. Around the Golden Triangle, you can start from ZOUK‘s trance and R&B-filled rooms to No Black Tie’s classy jazz ambience.
In the outskirts, Petaling Jaya’s Merdekarya hosts one-man-band blues wails, while Ampang’s Rumah Api and rehearsal space Live Fact are underground venues for alternative, metal and punk bands.
2. Sample Ho Chi Minh City‘s bars, Vietnam
When the sun goes down, the bustling energy of southern Vietnam’s megalopolis transfers to its many clubs and bars. Atmospheric rooftop lounges like Chill Sky Bar stay open until late, and besides drinking, there’s a small but exciting music scene to check out.
Acoustic Bar in District 3 has pop-rock cover bands, while Carmen in District 1 offers an odd selection of Spanish flamenco played by skilled Vietnamese musicians.
For a casual good time, the plastic tables along Bui Vien – also known as ‘Beer Street’ – in backpacker central Pham Ngu Lao are a must.
3. Take a bite of the Big Mango in Bangkok, Thailand
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Bangkok never sleeps: the whole Sukhumvit strip, from Asoke to Thong Lor and Ekkamai, boasts every imaginable type of club, including an Arab quarter filled with restaurants and shisha bars.
The Khaosan Road area, Bangkok’s backpacker haunt, is where young Thais go to dance and drink, while the RCA (Royal City Avenue) area, Bangkok’s biggest nightlife district, is where well-heeled Thais and celebrities uncork expensive whisky bottles.
Alternative Bangkok haunts include hostel-cum-bar the Overstay, who throw electro-dance parties and underground rock gigs, while Fatty’s and Immortal Bar host local and visiting punk and metal bands.
From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world’s most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you’re looking to wander lost ruins or explore lavish palaces, you’ll find inspiration here.
1. The Alhambra, Spain
Towering out of an elm-wooded hillside above Granada, a snowy Sierra Nevada behind, there are few more iconic images of Spain than the ochre-tinted enclave of the Alhambra. Over five thousand visitors wander through the restored complex every day. No amount of words, however, can approximate the sensual charge of seeing the Palacios Nazaríes, the best preserved palace of the Nasrid dynasty, for the first time.
One of the wonders of the ancient world, the Roman archeological site of Baalbek – a place that, in the words of Robert Byron, “dwarfs New York into a home of ants” – holds awe-inspiring temples, porticoes, courtyards and palatial stone stairways. The Greeks and Romans called it Heliopolis, “The City of the Sun”, a name it shares with another great Classical city in Egypt – but this phenomenal site has no equals.
Dubai is a desert turned Disney. What was once a sleepy fishing village is now a futuristic cybercity, with sparkling skyscrapers, shopping malls, water parks, golf courses and hotels so flashy that Elton John would be proud to call them home. The iconic Burj Al Arab is a striking 28-storey symbol of new-world bling. One of the tallest hotels in the world, the gleaming building is built on an artificial island, 280m from the mainland, and is shaped like a huge billowing sail.
Rising like a giant fist above the valleys of Oaxaca, magical, mystical Monte Albán is above all a statement of power. The Zapotecs built their city far from the valleys and without any natural water supply to emphasize their dominance of their people, and nature itself. What remains today is just the very centre of the site – the religious and political heart – and until you reach the top it’s impossible to appreciate the sheer audacity of this place.
Travelling is all about opening your eyes to new places, people and ways of life. But unfortunately, sometimes we’re so eager for an exciting experience that we can’t see the effects of our choices, and it’s all too easy to stop thinking about them once you’re back home.
While tourists are increasingly aware of the need to consider the environment when they travel, and to be aware of animal rights violations, fewer are informed about their impact on indigenous people. Here, we explain a little about what tribal tourism is, and why you need to take great care if you’re considering it.
What exactly is tribal tourism?
Tribal tourism is visiting a place in order to see or meet the indigenous people who live there. “Ethno-tourism” and “ethnic tourism” are sometimes used to describe the same thing. As the name implies, this isn’t the same thing as an expedition for anthropological research, but a trip for recreational purposes.
Why are people interested in this kind of tourism?
For some people, it’s an educational opportunity – travel is a way of learning more about the world and yourself, and meeting new people can be a part of that. Others feel that, in our globalised age, they’ll have a more memorable, authentic experience of a place if they see its indigenous cultures.
And for others still, it’s simply a voyeuristic exercise: they want to see people whose appearance and way of life looks very different to their own.
What positive effects can it have?
Tribal tourism can have a lot of positive effects. Done sensitively, it can help people learn about and appreciate different ways of life. For indigenous communities, it can facilitate cultural exchange and celebration. And for those that are struggling to maintain their livelihoods and traditions, it’s also a way of educating others about their situation, earning some money and playing an active part in the maintenance of their culture.
And what about the negative aspects?
Tribal tourism can cause immense damage – and sadly, more often than not, this is the case. There are profound economic, environmental and cultural effects of this kind of tourism, with each usually worsening the other.
These issues are complex, and you should make sure you know what’s going on before participating in any sort of tribal tourism. The Mursi tribe in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valleyare one example. Following forced resettlements and depletion of the resources on which they depend, they have been forced to use tourism to help make ends meet.
The series is all about sharing untold travel stories. The kind of stuff you’d tell your friends when you return from a trip, but wouldn’t dream of publishing in a guidebook. It is hosted by Rough Guides travel editor, Greg Dickinson.
In this first episode, Just Like Riding a Bicycle, we talk to two people who have cycled huge lengths of the planet, fifty years apart. Legendary travel writer Dervla Murphy shares stories from her 1963 solo cycle from Ireland to India, disclosing how she accidentally become an arms trader in Afghanistan. And twenty-something adventurer Charlie Walkertells of the scrapes and psychological shifts that he experienced during a four-year cycle around the world.
In future episodes of The Rough Guide to Everywhere we’ll be hearing from our team of intrepid travel writers, with dispatches from across the globe – whether it be a buffalo round-up in South Dakota or a camel market in Rajasthan.
To make sure you don’t miss an episode, you can subscribe now on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you fancy an immediate podcast hit after tuning in to The Rough Guide to Everywhere, check out this list of our favourite podcasts to listen to while travelling.