Asia is defined by far more than just the economic powerhouses and ultra modern metropolises of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh City. The following destinations are favorites among national travelers, but they remain mostly unknown to foreign visitors. Go before word gets out.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam
About 60 miles south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is revered by locals as Halong Bay on Land, its dramatic limestone scenery the backdrop to the region's emerald rice paddies and craggy grottoes. Touch on historical elements of Vietnam as you tour the Bai Dinh Pagoda, the nation's largest Buddhist complex housing a massive bronze Buddha statue. Then revel in the natural beauty of Ninh Binh by embarking on a two-hour tour of the Trang An Grottoes by rowboat, meandering along the lazy Sao Khe River through stalactite and stalagmite filled caves that appeared in the film Kong: Skull Island. Conclude your visit to this region by racing against mountain goats up 500 steps to the top of Mua Cave, where a simple shrine sits dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, overlooking a landscape of limestone cliffs punctuated by lush rice fields.
Mai Chau, Vietnam
Often eclipsed by Sapa's terraced rice paddies and labyrinth of rugged trekking trails, the rice fields of Mai Chau are set in a verdant valley 84 miles from Hanoi, hemmed in by the jagged peaks of surrounding karst mountains for an idyllic setting. A handful of traditional stilt homes have been converted into primitive homestays that offer guests farm fresh meals and unrivaled hospitality. The main township of Mai Chau rises early, hosting a bustling market where locals barter for fresh fruits and buffalo meat. The main draw of Mai Chau remains its laid-back vibe and lush rice paddies that can easily be explored on bicycle.
As the former imperial capital of almost a dozen dynasties and the final stop on the Silk Road, Xi'an is a significant historical destination that brims with relics from China's long standing past. Spellbound by the city's architectural remnants, historians visit the Drum and Bell Towers that anchor the city, roam the vast grounds of decorative palaces that were once homes to emperors and spend an afternoon cycling the Ming Era City Walls that are still intact. Food lovers and avid shoppers head to culturally rich Muslim Quarter for refreshing bowls of cold skin noodles and hearty pork belly buns, and hours of bargaining for kitschy souvenirs. But all visitors to Xi'an tour the excavation sites of the Terracotta Warriors, and a side trip to Mount Huashan, one of China's five sacred mountains, is highly encouraged.
A playground for the elite back in the 1960s, the once favored seaside resort destination of Kep has since been overshadowed by Sihanoukville's pulsing party vibes. But this sleepy beach town on Cambodia's south coast is making a comeback, and is frequented on the weekends by locals and day-trippers from Phnom Penh who come for afternoons of relaxing in hammocks and on the beach. Despite the sandy shorelines, the star of Kep is its crab market, where an assorted selection of seafood is so fresh, you can witness the fishermen hauling it in from the sea. Venture into Kep National Park for a five-mile circuit through the dense forests of flitting butterflies, picturesque pagodas and Sunset Rock viewpoint.
Affectionately known as Lakeside, relaxed Pokhara is an idyllic collage of calm waters and lofty peaks of over 26,000 feet belonging to the Annapurna and Manaslu ranges. The centerpiece lake of Phewa Tal is a favorite destination for those seeking respite from Nepal’s frenzied capital of Kathmandu, spending their days perusing the town's vintage bookshops and devouring reads on the edge of the calm waters. Pokhara is the nation's adventure capital, where its white water rapids are ideal for rafting, its towering cliffs invite paragliders to soar over Phewa Tal, and its proximity to the snow-dusted mountain ranges are a gateway to a rich network of trekking trails that lead to pure solitude.