We've been asking top guidebook writers to recommend alternatives to well known tourist attractions.
Today we talk with Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor and spokesperson for Lonely Planet. He's certainly the right person to ask about travel in Southeast Asia. He has authored over two dozen guidebooks, including Myanmar (Burma), Southeast Asia, Colombia, Trans-Siberian Railway, and his own online guidebook to Vietnam at reidontravel.com.
Ha Long Bay cruises make almost every first-timer's itinerary to Vietnam, with reason. The boat trips through a valley of limestone mountains are gorgeous.
But Ha Long Bay can get crowded. If you've seen it—or are prone to getting seasick—you may want to instead go to Tam Coc, which is a quick two hours south of Hanoi, near the town Ninh Binh.
There are good reasons why Tam Coc is known as the 'Ha Long Bay of the ricefields'—and why filmmakers chose it as the glorious setting for Catherine Denueve's famous scenes in Indochine.* If you rent a motorcycle and go to backroads, you can stop at an ancient capital, or climb towering limestone cliffs to pagodas with giant views. in nearby Cuc Phuong National Park, you can see very rare gibbons not found elsewhere and hike in solitude in the jungle.
In many ways, Tam Coc offers a better experience than Ha Long Bay, especially if you're the type of person who finds the presence of fellow western travelers to be a distraction. To beat the day-trip crowds to Tam Coc, bus to nearby Ninh Binh from Hanoi and overnight there or in a simple guesthouse next to Tam Coc. If you wake at 7 a.m., you'll have the place to yourself on land or on water.
Most visitors to the Mekong enjoy guided boat tours past thrilling local scenes along chocolate-colored rivulets of the big river. Most go to Chau Doc, near the Cambodia border. But no tours make it to Tra Su Bird Sanctuary about 20 miles south (it's not even in the guidebooks). Ask a local motorbike rider to take you there for a low-canoe ride through a mossy waterways as thousands of birds come home at dusk. There's a watchtower to climb where you can see the sun dip into purple and rust past far-off mountains, then take a spooky ride back as birds gossip about the day's adventures. For the time being, you'll have it to yourself.
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THE FINE PRINT
Now don't get us wrong. These guidebook writers (and their publishers, like Lonely Planet) are not dismissing any attraction that's rightfully famous. Everyone agrees you can have fantastic experiences at well known attractions. All we're trying to do here is recognize that, under some circumstances and for certain types of travelers, lesser known attractions may have their own appeal, offering comparable experiences.
*CLARIFICATION: *The sentence about the movie Indochine was corrected a day after publishing to correct a error introduced during editing.