My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #1 – northern Vietnam (Part I)

I’ve had a lot of fun counting down my favorite Asian places. Once again, these are only places that I have actually visited. Many of you have offered up some other incredible destinations perhaps worthy of another list. I hope to get to them all some day. But on top of my list, and it will come as no great shock to anyone that knows me, can only be one place – the place I hold dear in my heart for many, many reasons – northern Vietnam.

I shall attempt in two blog posts to break down why northern Vietnam is my favorite. I realized that I couldn’t do it in one. There’s just too much information. So here goes.

THE PEOPLE

This is where it begins for me. The Vietnamese people are precious and I have been blessed to know so many wonderful people. We lived in three different locations in northern Vietnam for a total of almost 10 years and in each place we had special friends and neighbors who always made us feel welcome. Let me outline a few of the types of friends and situations I am talking about.

Neighbors – A couple across the street from our house in Thai Nguyen had a small drink shop. I could pop over at any time just to chat. I remember one time in particular that I hate translated an English article about Vietnam into Vietnamese and I wanted someone to check my grammar. I walked right over and uncle and aunt drink neighbors were ever so happy to read my work, compliment me on my Vietnamese, and help me fix my mistakes.

Students – I taught hundreds of incredible students in my years in Vietnam. They made me feel too special, really, always complimenting me about something or other. Always wanting to do things together and, especially, always wanting to speak English. I do miss those incredible students who made my years so wonderful. I remember the times I would invite them to try pizza for the first time ever. Or we would invite them to experience a typical American Christmas. I had two students who took me by motorbike about 20 KM out of the city to find these scraggly old pine trees. They climbed to the top of one and cut me off the top, then they flagged down a bus and tied it to the roof, bringing it home to our house so we could have a real evergreen in our house. Truly special.

Strangers – Strangers were some of my favorite people of all time in Vietnam. Friendly doesn’t even begin to describe it. Once I got used to the ritual of tea, and I understood the language, there was no amount of time that I couldn’t waste. Countless times I would be invited by strangers, or sellers, or whomever, to just sit down and drink strong green tea with them. Not the whoosey kind of green tea you get in the west. This is the real stuff. Thick dark yellow that will burn a hole in your taste buds. Bitter as anything, and I miss it. I miss the random kindness of strangers.

Friends – I miss playing basketball with my friends there. I was so tall I felt like an NBA star. I miss the shoe shine boy in Hanoi who used to come around a couple times weekly and taught him how to play catch with a baseball and glove. I miss the talks and invites I would get to other peoples’ houses.

I love northern Vietnam for the people, and it that was all it had going for it it still would be enough. But I’m just scratching the surface here. I also love it for its places (the raw beauty is unparalleled – Sapa, Hoa Binh, Halong Bay, Cao Bang, Bich Dong, Hoa Lu, Huong Pagoda, Hanoi, Dien Bien Phu), its food (I miss bun cha!), and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I’ll touch on all of these in Part II.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took of the beautiful Vietnamese people.

A friend’s father saying some prayers.
altar prayer A bird catcher.bird catcher A friend on her wedding day.friend ngoc on wedding dayA friend who later became our landlord.
huong friend Friendly kids in the countryside happily pose for the strange foreigner.kids countryside Working hard in the rice fields of Thai Nguyen. Tam Dao mountains in the distance.rice field workers thai nguyenSome of my students.
students

 

In Review:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, West Malaysia

4. Beijing, China

3. Siem Reap, Cambodia

2. Penang, Malaysia

1. northern Vietnam

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #2 – Penang, Malaysia

Where to begin?

I moved to Penang or Pulau Pinang (Penang Island) in 2006 having never visited before that time. In 2006, it is safe to say that it would not have been #2 on such a list as this, but Penang slowing grows on you, creeping step by step into your chest like a crawling ivy that wants to choke you and not let go. I don’t think I realized how much I really love Penang until I started putting together this list and there was no where else to put it except #2. Before I talk about the “why”, let me express a few o my misgivings about Penang which took a while to overcome.

First off, when I arrived I compared everything here to Vietnam, where I had previously lived for ten years. Penang and Vietnam are nothing alike. Eventually I stopped comparing and just started to understand Penang for what it is rather than what it isn’t.

We were coming to a tropical island and were hoping to have beautifully clear blue water in which to enjoy. Unfortunately, Penang’s rapid development has trashed the once beautiful beaches, making the water full of jellyfish, murky, and unsuitable for swimming. What a shame, I thought.

Lastly, we lived in a nice community with a modest bungalow, but we found it hard to get to know neighbors. Everyone seemed more distant and unfriendly, again, when compared to my experiences in Vietnam.

But I’ve come to realize that none of these misgivings can come close to knocking this island down any pegs of my top 10 list, because Penang is AWESOME!

So let’s settle in and talk about the “why”.

IT’S AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL – EVEN WITH UNSWIMABLE WATER.

I work, literally, right next to the beach. I hear the waves in my classroom, and on those days that the sun is sitting high and hot in the sky, the water turns a variety of aqua blue which is simply magnificent. The winding road along the island’s northern shore is gorgeous as it snakes around winding hills and breathtaking ocean views. Plus, there are MANY ways to enjoy the water in Penang, even if swimming isn’t one of them.

  • Take a boat ride from the state park in Telok Bahang to Turtle Beach to see the turtle hatchery.
  • Sit at one of Batu Ferringhi’s many beautiful resorts with a cold drink and watch the sunset over the Andaman Sea.
  • Hit one of the many water sports centers and go parasailing, take a ride in a banana boat, or rent a jet ski.

GEORGETOWN is a WORLD HERITAGE SITE

Georgetown, the main city on Penang Island, has a treasure trove of interesting and amazing places to explore both in and around the city. The old section of the city are strewn about with places of heritage. Some of the highlights include the Peranankan Mansion, a traditional home of a wealthy Straits Chinese family, Khoo Khongsi the amazing clan house of a rich Chinese family. The Georgetown streets are quaint, crowded, full of life, art, character and fun.

Branching outside of Penang, one must visit, what is claimed to be, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia – Kek Lok Si. The sprawling complex is impressive and serves as a great overlook of the city.

Speaking of overlooks, every visit to Penang must include a ride on the funicular railway up Penang Hill. The view is spectacular, looking down on Georgetown and the waterway that separates it from Butterworth, the city on the mainland.

THE DIVERSITY

One of the endearing charms of Penang is the wonderful diversity that exists side by side. Within walking distance of my house, I could visit a Mahayana Buddhist temple, an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Christian church. That’s par for the course in Penang.

Penang is Malaysia’s only state that has a population that is majority Chinese (mainly Hokkien), but Penang has a large minority of both Indian and Malay.

The mix is charming and interesting … which leads to the best reason of all to visit Penang …

THE FOOD

Just a few months ago, CNN travel called Penang as having the best street food in Asia. Even more recently, Lonely Planet named Penang as the top culinary spot in the world for 2014.

Well, they are just acknowledging what others have known for a long time. Penang has AMAZING food. Every day I eat here I lament the fact that someday I will have to leave.

Did you know that there is a certain restaurant in Georgetown that sends flyers to Hong Kong every time they purchase one of several types of HUGE fishes which become available. Then many people from Hong Kong will fly in specifically to eat the special dishes that they make.

The food here is special, for many reasons, many because of its scope, fushion nature, and simply awesome flavors.

Here are some of my favorite:

Nasi Kandar – a type of Muslim Indian shop which sells a variety of ready made curries and rotis (breads). I always eat way too much.

Food stalls РMalaysians LOVE there local outdoor food stalls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (plus late night snack)  They are always open, always cheap, always delicious. Here are few of the wonderful varieties:

  • Thai Padprik Chicken/Tom Yam/many other stir fries
  • Char Keoy Teoh – Penang’s FAMOUS noodle dish with seafood
  • Chicken Rice
  • Curry Mee (curry noodles)
  • Beef rendang
  • Charcoal Grilled Satay
  • Economy Rice shops – a plethora of ready made dishes, vegetables, curries, fried fish
  • Nasi Lemak – the Malaysian staple – coconut rice with a boiled egg, spicy sambal, anchovies, and peanuts
  • This list could go ON AND ON …

Indian Food

I used to like Indian food in America until I came to Penang. From banana leaf southern vegetarian to northern tandoori and masala curries, Indian food is EVERYWHERE in Penang and it is fabulous. You must drink the Teh Ais to go with it, a sweet milk infused iced tea – wonderful!

Nonya Food

Perhaps, the top of the list on many people’s top Penang food is a fusion food called Nonya. It derives from the Straits Chinese, the group of Chinese who immigrated and assimilated into Malaysian life in many ways. Nonya food is a result of taking Chinese cooking methods and traditions and applying them to the spices and diverse traditions of the Malay peninsula. The result is a cuisine that is bold on unique flavors. There are so many wonder dishes – Curry Kapitain, Pork Rendang, Popiah (spring roll), eggplant and shrimp, spicy shrimp sambal, a variety of fish curries, tofu with peanut sauce, and the list goes on.

Penang food has to be experienced. I’m lucky to be able to experience it on a daily basis.

All in all, these many characteristics has made Penang my home. As a writer, it has also been my muse. I’ve spent MANY hours sipping cold drinks by the ocean, plugging away at my computer, writing one of my plays or novels. The cool breeze off the gentle teal ocean has provided me with so much inspiration that I wish I could write all day long every day.

In the meantime, I will enjoy my tropical island paradise. I hope you’ll come visit sometime to discover why Penang is so high on my list of favorite Asian places. Here are a few photos:

Parasailing in the evening sky.

2013-12-19 18.55.35

A view from Penang Hill
2013-12-16 16.51.13

The ocean right outside my classroom.2013-05-16 10.06.55

 

Penang at dusk.2013-06-02 19.32.23

 

It was unreal! Some of the very best I've ever had anywhere.

Roti Canai – Indian break for dipping in curry sauce. AMAZING!

2013-06-20 15.18.51

 

Street art in Georgetown.2013-06-19 11.45.22

Khoo Kangsi – Clan House2013-06-19 11.14.36

 

A recap of my top 10:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, West Malaysia

4. Beijing, China

3. Siem Reap, Cambodia

2. Penang, Malaysia

1. ???

 

 

 

 

 

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #5 – Sabah, East Malaysia

Sabah is Malaysia’s most eastern state on the northeastern tip of the large island of Borneo. The charming city of Kota Kinabalu is the capital, and Mount Kinabalu is one of Malaysia’s top hiking destinations, rising more than 13,000 feet into the clouds.

I’ve only been to Sabah once, but it has left a lasting impression. First the water.

The water in Sabah is crystal clear, even in the city limits. There are fun little islands just off the coast which are great for snorkeling, swimming, and hiking. The capital, KK, is full of fun shopping and great food. The Filipino market is a wonderful place for freshly grilled seafood, prepared before your eyes.

One of the favorite things my family did in Sabah was to rent a car and go exploring. We followed the coast northeast into the far reaches of the island, stopping at the beautiful long-houses of the indigenous people groups. Then we ended up at The Tip of Borneo, which is precisely what it is: the northern most tip of the entire island which juts out into the sea.

The Tip of Borneo is a completely undeveloped area which is fronted by, probably, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, stretching in both directions with not another soul in sight. I can only hope that there are not any development plans for this breath-taking location. Further up the beach a little park comes a head, surrounded by rugged rocks which play dangerously with each other in the white caps of the surf. This small park had a tiny cafe as it’s only amenities. ¬†Standing literally on the islands tip about the surf and looking out over the vast ocean was completely thrilling.

Other attractions of Sabah which we did not get a chance to sea include the orangutans in their original habitat and Sipadan, with its world famous dive site and its incredible water village.

Sabah is a place I would like to get an opportunity to explore some more. It easily started the countdown of my top 5 favorite places in Asia.

Here’s a recap:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, East Malaysia

4. ???

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #10 – Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca is located on the Malay Peninsula, an hour and a half south of Kuala Lumpur and five hours from Johor Bahru and Singapore on the peninsula’s tip.

The history of Malacca is what drew me to it; its charm is what keeps me going back.

The history stuff first. Malacca was taken over by the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th century, being a perfect outpost for their trade forays into the spice islands. They established a small settlement, including St. Paul’s church whose structure is one of the oldest European buildings in the region. The Dutch removed the Portuguese in the 17th century and the English returned the favor in the 19th century. The European colonialists provide a rich layer of history to Malacca with fascinating architecture and beautiful old colonial houses and shops.

Jonker Street and the surrounding streets provides a rich shopping experience for antiques, art, and varied knickknacks and rare finds. Malacca boasts some of the best Nonya (Straits Chinese) food in Malaysia.

In the past few years, the Malacca River has gone through a renaissance of sorts, lined with beautiful walks, refurbished ancient structures, and modern and sleek hotels and restaurants.

It’s a cultural and historical feast – as well as a gastronomical one. For all of these purposes, Malacca ranks as one of my top 10 places in Asia.

Here are a few photos from my last visit to Malacca:

Colonial era homes of the Straits Chinese
Colonial era homes of the Straits Chinese

2013-03-24 19.18.51

Dutch Square - Stadthuys Ethnographic Museum on the right. Christ Church in the background.
Dutch Square – Stadthuys Ethnographic Museum on the right. Christ Church in the background.
Jonker Street. Wonderful night street market with Chinese delicacies, art, antiques, and lots more.
Jonker Street. Wonderful night street market with Chinese delicacies, art, antiques, and lots more.
Statue of St. Francis Xavier outside St. Paul's church.
Statue of St. Francis Xavier outside St. Paul’s church.
Malacca River. Enjoy a night cruise.
Malacca River. Enjoy a night cruise.

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: Not Making the Cut

I was doing an author’s interview recently and the interviewer asked what is my favorite place in Asia. That made me really stop and think. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to some pretty cool places throughout east and southeast Asia. So I decided to do my blog’s first 10 ten series. I’ve compiled my 10 most favorite places I’ve been to in Asia.

Now, of course, a list like this is very subjective. So I do have a couple of rules.

1) This list includes only places that I have visited. Yes, there are a lot of great places not on the list which I simply haven’t been able to get to. So don’t be offended if your favorite place isn’t even mentioned. I probably haven’t been there.

2) Some of the places are more regional, and others more specific. I didn’t want to just say “My Top 10 Favorite Cities” because some of my favorite places aren’t necessarily in a city.

3) Some of these places I haven’t been to in years so my thoughts are based on my experiences whether recent or long ago.

So with those ground rules, I’ll be posting my picks over the next few weeks. I’d appreciate your comments.

Today, I’m starting with seven places which just didn’t make the cut. It’s not like I didn’t like these places; it’s just that only 10 places fit in a top 10. Here are a few leftovers in no particular order:

Bangkok, Thailand – Bangkok is a sprawling, bustling city, that always feels extremely hot. The temples and palaces are beautiful and the food is great. But it wasn’t enough to crack my top 10.

Vientiane, Laos – I remember driving through the capital for the first time and asking myself, ‘where’s the capital’? It’s an extremely laid back place. Very friendly people, but not a whole lot to do.

Bali, Indonesia – Some will wonder how this one didn’t crack my top 10. The beaches are beautiful, yes. However, I was turned off by the crowds. Everything was so busy and chaotic. It wasn’t the relaxing beach destination that we were looking for. It is pretty, though.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The capital of Cambodia is an interesting place to visit. A must are the relics which reveal the horror of the Killing Fields. The Cambodian people are fun and gracious.

Tokyo, Japan – It was big, confusing, and really expensive.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – KL is an interesting city with some fun stuff to do. I always like stopping by the administrative capital of Putra Jaya to the south. But really, if you are going to Malaysia, there are more interesting places.

central Vietnam – This one was hard to cut from my list because there are some really nice places to visit there. Hoi An, the ancient city, is quaint and pleasant. Danang has the wonderful China Beach, Hue, the former Imperial City, has some wonderful old palaces to visit. Come to think of it, how did this one not make the list?

These ten ahead of it must be something special.

Up next: #10