Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Vietnam a must see destination

In recent years, Vietnam has established itself as a popular holiday destination in the Far East. Mark explores the sights and sounds.

Vietnam is a destination that combines incredible scenery and a varied history with vibrant cities, great food and exceptionally friendly people. This is a country of contrasts, and none more apparent than that of its two main cities, the elegant and charming capital Hanoi and the vibrant southern powerhouse Saigon. Both are well worth a few days to explore, and Vietnam's geography makes it easy to start your journey in one and finish in the other.

Hanoi's French influence is apparent in its elegant buildings and tree-lined avenues – the Old Quarter is a fascinating place to wander through. The pretty Hoan Kiem Lake is a good place from which to get your bearings, with the photogenic Rising Sun Bridge crossing the water. Close by, Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is most popular with Vietnamese visitors, who come to see Uncle Ho's final resting place, while his nearby former home gives you an insight into the life of the country's most famous leader of recent times.

Emperor palace complex in Hue, Vietnam

Saigon – or Ho Chi Minh City – is very different to Hanoi, where the climate is steamier and the pace of life is far more frenetic. Modern Saigon congregates at the designer boutiques close to the Opera House, while the more traditional side heads to Ben Thanh market for groceries, clothes and plenty more. The Reunification Palace is one of Saigon's most striking buildings and is now a museum, preserved pretty much as it was when the Americans left in 1975, while buildings such as the post office and Notre Dame Cathedral show the city's French influence. The fascinating War Remnants Museum is quite possibly the most moving museum you're likely to visit, one that really brings home the effects of war. Make sure you have time to take a trip out of the city to see the Cu Chi tunnels, a mind-boggling series of over 250km of tunnels that criss-crossed the region at the height of the Vietnam War.

Central Vietnam is home to some of the country's most beautiful scenery and interesting towns, with the gems of Hue and Hoi An being linked by the beautiful Hai Van Pass. The former capital of Hue is home to numerous tombs of emperors, several beautiful pagodas and the remains of the Citadel. Hoi An is perhaps the most interesting of the two, with its restored wooden buildings and long history of seafarers giving it a charm that's hard to resist. A half-day walking tour of the World Heritage-listed Old Town will take in the key sites, including the famed Japanese Covered Bridge and the Fujian Chinese Assembly Hall.

With over 1,000 miles of stunning coastline, Vietnam is also home to some beautiful beaches, from the diving paradise and nightlife of Nha Trang and the restaurants and bars of Mui Ne, to more peaceful spots such as Ninh Van Bay or the relaxed Quy Nhon, famed for its seafood. Both Hoi An and Hue have beaches close by, making them great options for a holiday that combines sightseeing with beach time.

Vietnam is a charming and fascinating country, one that's steeped in history and packed with interest, and a trip there will leave you planning your return before you've even left.

Escape Worldwide - Home of Long Haul Holidays

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

India....such a magical place

As Escape Worldwide celebrates its 11th birthday, the team take a look back at some of their favourite destinations. Karen Stewart recalls a trip to northern India, when the story of the Taj Mahal brought a tear to her eye.

There are some places in the world that you feel you know even if you haven't been, and the Taj Mahal is one of them – it's such an iconic building that everyone knows what it looks like, but when you actually visit you're really blown away by just how beautiful this place actually is.
I was part-way through a trip to see the highlights of northern India when I visited the Taj Mahal – it was my first trip to India and a real eye-opener to this fantastically diverse country. I began with a few days in Delhi, which acts as the main gateway to northern India and is a good place to get started, before moving on to Jaipur, which I have to say was my favourite part – there's something about the atmosphere there that I can't quite describe, but just makes it really worth visiting.

Touring India can be quite a tiring experience as there's so much to take in – it's such a hectic place and just walking down the road can be an experience. The roads can be very busy, so getting around can be slow at times – don't try to do too much. But then, just when you're getting a bit tired, you arrive at somewhere as stunningly beautiful as the Taj Mahal, and you quickly remember how wonderful this place is.
It's fair to say that the Taj Mahal is among the most visited sites in India, so you're unlikely to get much in the way of peace and quiet here – forget having a 'Princess Di' moment to yourself. From a distance the Taj Mahal takes your breath away, but it's only when you get up close to it that you can really appreciate the detail involved. The bas-reliefs on the walls, the calligraphy on the gates and the gemstones that are inlaid into the interior walls all come together to produce the most beautiful building imaginable. Seeing the beauty and hearing the love story behind it brought a tear to my eye.

Taj Mahal in Agra, India

The entrance to the Taj Mahal itself is through the landscaped gardens, with a reflecting pool running through the centre giving another perfect photo opportunity – be sure to bring plenty of film, memory cards and batteries with you as you're bound to take more photos than you thought was possible.

I'd recommend taking a guidebook too as there's so much to take in here – the history of the building, the story behind it, the meaning of the architecture and the construction of it – that you simply won't be able to remember all the detail. If you can find a quiet corner, re-read some of the stories, just to ensure you've really appreciated why this place is quite so special.

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