Back from our unforgettable liveaboard in Sipadan, we found ourselves in the harbor town of Semporna, Borneo, with no specific plans. The area is known for its paradise islands, with white sand beaches and turquoise waters, but unfortunately, most of these have been taken over by all-inclusive luxury hotels, like the spectacular Kapalai. The weather was also not looking particularly good, but we were resolved to explore at least a bit of this rather unknown area.
Wow, just wow. I had heard of Sipadan as a world-class diving destination, but our 4 days there surpassed all my expectations. The amount of underwater life we were able to see was unbelievable, and the absolute highlight of our time in Malaysia.
Ok, let’s be honest: Kuala Lumpur is not all that interesting. Despite being one of the hubs of Southeast Asia, the capital of Malaysia doesn’t have the buzz of Bangkok or Singapore, nor the charm of Yangon or Phnom Penn. It might be a good place for an expat to live in, but in terms of places to visit, I would put it near the bottom of my list, probably below Manila, tied with Saigon and only above Vientiane. Having said that, there are a few sites to keep a traveler occupied for a day or two…
Penang was he first stop in my trip around Malaysia, where I landed from a Taipei layover / quick visit. Despite the long trip, I still had the energy to get on a public bus (401) toward the central street Lebuh Chulia. The bus took ~45 min, the same a taxi would, and cost RM2.7 ($0.6) vs. the RM38 ($9) of a taxi. Once in the central area, it was easy to find a decent hostel for RM40. I took a quick walk and swallowed some delicious char kway teow (fried noodles) from a stall, before heading to bed – the next day would be a long one.
Similarly to Dubai or Singapore, Taipei is a fantastic city to visit on a short layover. I was on my way to Malaysia for a 2 week diving vacation, and had booked a cheap flight through this airport, without giving it much thought. Once we touched ground, I realized that I had nearly 6 hours until my departure to Kuala Lumpur. I immediately checked on my phone whether I needed a visa (short answer: no for most nationalities, but check the latest info), and if I could see the highlights of the city in just a few hours (short answer: yes). This was my step by step itinerary, which I would call very successful 🙂
Our Southeast Asia trip was coming to an end, after a month exploring Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. But we still had a couple of days left before we had to be back home in LA, so we decided to book our return flight via Hong Kong!
- Halong Bay cruise
- Tam Coc, aka Halong inland
- Hue’s imperial tombs
- Hoi An
- Learning about war in Saigon/HCMC and the Cu Chi Tunnels
- Mekong delta boat tour in Can Tho
NICE TO HAVE:
Our time in Vietnam was coming to an end, after travelling all the way from Hanoi overland to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping in Ninh Binh, Hue, Danang, Hoi An and Nha Trang. We had two more days left before flying home via Hong Kong, and we wanted to spend them exploring the Mekong Delta. There are numerous operators offering day trips from HCMC to My Tho, the nearest river town, but I had heard terrible things about them. Instead, we decided to take a bus to Can Tho and once there arrange a boat tour. We took a taxi to Mien Tay bus station (on the way back we would take a public bus, it’s quite easy), and bought tickets with Thanh Buoi (VDN 100,000, $4.5). There were many options available, we chose these buses because they took less than 4 hours and had free wifi. They also offered a free shuttle from the Can Tho bus station, in the outskirts, to the center, but I believe all of them did.
The Cu Chi tunnels are one of the best known “tourist attractions” in South Vietnam. And I put quotation marks because the tunnels are much more than a museum for the enjoyment of national and foreign visitors; they are raw history of Vietnam’s war times. The local people of Cu Chi started digging this 250km network of connecting underground tunnels during the French occupation in the 40s and continued in the 60s, when they were used by the North Vietnamese to fight the American/South Vietnamese army. The tunnel system comprised not only corridors, but also all sorts of rooms (sleeping, dining, hospital, storage), booby traps, air filtration systems, etc., and was estimated to have hosted 16,000 people. The history of the tunnels is fascinating, a classic example of a guerilla resisting against a military superpower. The US launched massive bombing campaigns against the tunnels and sent several infantry divisions to try to find the entrances and force the Viet Cong out, but failed repeatedly. Being a history enthusiast, I definitely wanted to see this site during our trip to Vietnam, even more so after our day getting educated about the war in Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City is commonly referred to by locals and visitors as Saigon. These names encapsulate the rich past of Vietnam’s largest city, the “capital” of the South. It’s definitely not a charming town, but it is an excellent place to learn about history and war. We had arrived on a night train from relaxing Nha Trang beach, and after a quick fruity breakfast at the famous Ben Thanh Market, we were eager to start exploring.