Beach Towns or Colonial Cities?

Red lanterns and flags on the streets of Melaka, Malaysia

Three countries, twelve cities, and ten weeks of travel later, I am starting to discover what kind of places I like to linger in.

Before setting out on this extended trip around much of South East Asia, I would have considered myself a beach bum with a preference for hippie seaside towns, where you eat your lunch of grilled fish at the beach, and then watch the sunset on a cozy wicker chair with a bottle of beer in hand.

Beer in hand while enjoying dinner on the beaches of Sihanoukville, Cambodia

It appears I was wrong about myself, or perhaps in light of new options, my preferences have changed.

I visited two seaside towns in the past few weeks, yet both left me longing for something more.

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia

I went to Sihanoukville having heard rave reviews from others who had gone before me, but I must have arrived too late because what I found instead was a beach littered with garbage, broken glass bottles floating in the ocean, construction materials left abandoned on the sandy shores, and some particularly aggressive child vendors who threw fits and turned verbally abusive when Sam and I didn’t show any interest in buying bracelets. That was enough to put me off spending time at the beach…in a beach town.

NHA TRANG, Vietnam

While there was nothing off-putting about my stay in Nha Trang, I felt like it was missing a little something. The beach was nice, not like Cuba’s beaches which come in fifty shades of turquoise, but enjoyable enough for a quick dip in the South China Sea.

So why wasn’t I prancing around the beach with a giant grin plastered on my face?

Could it be that, gasp, maybe I’m not such a beach bum after all?

Nha Trang, Vietnam

What kind of places am I drawn to?

There are two cities that stand out in my mind from the past ten weeks of travel, and they both share a lot of similarities:

MELAKA, Malaysia

Paper lanterns in the streets of Melaka, Malaysia

Melaka was the first stop of my trip and it immediately won me over with its red Chinese lanterns, century old temples, decaying colonial facades, winding streets and narrow alleyways, burning incense, dizzying night markets, and delicious Malay delicacies sold in street stands.

Walking around Chinatown in Melaka, Malaysia

Wherever I went in Melaka, there was always a stimulating colour, smell, taste, or sound. I spent more than a week in the heart of Chinatown, and it’s not a place that I tired of.

Red paper lanterns in Melaka

HOI AN, Vietnam

Another city that has recently won me over is Hoi An. Within minutes of wandering the old town, I knew this would be a place that I’d be sad to leave.

Hoi An has so many charms that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin!

Colourful silk lanterns in the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Do I tell you about the bright colonial buildings that come in shades of mango, papaya and royal blue? The white balconies that have been weathered and stained with moss? The traditional music that floats from the open windows down onto the streets below? The locals who ride their bikes around town donning conical hats? The cafes where you can enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee while you lazily stare out at the Thu Bon River? The colourful lanterns? The tailors? The food markets?

A woman in a conical hat walks down a street in Hoi An

This is one of those cities where there’s always something to hold my gaze or capture my interest. Not to mention the fact that the old town of Hoi An looks like something straight out of a fairy tale! I wouldn’t be half surprised to see a dragon waking from its slumber.

Lush vegetation on the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

I’m not ready to relinquish my beach bum status quite yet, but these little colonial port cities are sure starting to grow on me!

Beaches, cities, sleepy towns?
What kind of places do you enjoy visiting?

41 Comments

  • Stephen says:

    I robably could have written the same exact post! You beat me to it! I’ve also been wanting to linger in the mountain towns recently–it seems accommodation and food is cheaper up in the hills and there are less tourists. A generalization I know–but the beach towns just seem over-priced because everybody wants to be there.
    Stephen recently posted..Photos from the Road: Vigan PhilippinesMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Maybe I just haven’t found the right beach yet (I’m still waiting for the wow factor) but lately I’ve really been enjoying the smaller towns with a calmer pace. It’s easy for a beach town to lose its charm when it starts catering solely to backpackers…

  • Zhu says:

    Amazing places you are visiting!

    I’m a beach bum but I also love big cities and I need the right balance of both hen traveling. I must admit I was getting sick of the beach in Australia, for instance. I was craving big cities and a bit of culture… other than surf culture 😆

    But Asia can be super chaotic and resting on the sand is nice too…
    Zhu recently posted..Skyline of Ottawa – By the RiverMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Sick of the beaches in Australia?! Surprisingly enough, I’ve heard that from some Australians too. ‘Too much of a good thing’ rings true. 😉

  • Vicky says:

    We loved Hoi An too (and have yet to go to Melaka). I know what you mean about Nha Trang and we just spent a few days on Otres Beach — which beach did you stay on in Sihanoukville? We thought Otres was a pretty nice beach – probably one of our favorites in SE Asia but a few days there was enough for us. We met a few people who had been there for months – not sure that would be for us!

    • Audrey says:

      I’ve heard good things about Otres lately. I was staying along Serendipity, but I probably should have made the switch over to another beach.

  • Jessica says:

    In some ways, I feel like because the beaches in SE Asia are so popular with tourists, they seem to be the places that loose their local culture to the greatest degree. I still love me a beautiful beach, but in terms of interesting food, quirky architecture, and genuine people, I tended to find I had more luck in sleepy towns than in beachside areas.
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    • Audrey says:

      That’s true. In a place like Sihanoukville the bars play the latest club tracks and the restaurants serve mostly Western food, so there isn’t much local culture there.

  • Laurence says:

    I’d always thought I was more of a beach person, but after our time in Thailand, it became apparent that we much preferred exploring the towns and cities than the beach areas 🙂 Beaches are largely the same the world over – towns are where you can find the soul of the country.
    Laurence recently posted..Khao Sok National Park – Leeches, lakes and jungleMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Also, when you’ve been to some really amazing beaches (for me it would be Cuba, though I’m sure you have lots to say about they Seychelles), it’s kind of difficult to appreciate the lesser beaches.

  • Maria says:

    Beach towns are great and I spent a couple of months in Sihanouk Ville but I’m with you Audrey… Melaka looks like a great place to see and be.
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    • Audrey says:

      How did you like Sihanoukville? Melaka was great – everything about it was charming, and it had some of the best street food I’ve had on this trip!

  • Angela says:

    I love a combination of both. I really love big cities like Bangkok and I also really love small ‘undiscovered’ beachtowns. Hoi An is one of the best places I’ve been to so far. We’re currently in KL and will be going to Melaka in a couple of weeks. Any tips?
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    • Audrey says:

      For Melaka I’d recommend staying in Chinatown, that’s the most historic part of town and it’s a great place to wander on foot. Also, lots of great street eats – find a little hole in the wall type joint with a lot of customers, or even street vendors that cook up a storm at the night market. I really enjoyed eating ‘cendol’, it’s a refreshing dessert made with ice, coconut cream, and a few other mystery ingredients. 😉

  • Alana - Paper Planes says:

    I’ve never been a beach bum, but still enjoy going to the beaches….except Sihanoukville and Nha Trang. They’re definitely two of my least favorite places when I was backpacking around Vietnam and Cambodia… You;ll find others you like better!
    Alana – Paper Planes recently posted..>> Moment of: Plumeria Blossoms >>My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Ok, good! I’m glad to know I’m not the only who was disappointed by those two beaches. I’m hoping Thailand will redeem my experiences with beaches in SE Asia. 😉

  • Tamsin says:

    I had exactly the same revolution after visiting both Sihanoukville and Nha Trang! I MUCH preferred their colonial alternatives. However, I did also really struggle to pull myself away from lazying around on the Perhentian Islands… I think helps heaps if a beach is located in a place with more character.
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    • Audrey says:

      I didn’t manage to make it to the Perhentian Islands though it was at the top of my list! Unfortunately it was right around the rainy season when I was in Malaysia, so I opted for solid ground. I bet you had a great time out on the islands. 😉

  • Cheryl says:

    I love the beach, but I am a city slicker at heart. 🙂

    And I think your travel style and preferences change over time. Nice to continue reading your adventures. 🙂
    Cheryl recently posted..Instagramming … Toronto’s East Lakeshore.My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Cities are fun. 🙂 I like the thousands of options that you can have in a mega-city like Seoul, NYC or London.

  • christopher says:

    I think I’d be the colonial town type. Exploring the streets and getting to know more about the culture, taking pictures, etc. Beaches always seem to be the same to me–although sitting in a beach cafe drinking wine is always good. Great post as always.
    christopher recently posted..Expat Author Interview with Claire KingMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      I think beaches can be good in small doses, especially if you haven’t been to one for a while, but it can also get a bit repetitive if you stay too long.

  • Sam says:

    Yes yes yes. Colonial towns all the way! I am looking forward to seeing what the beach towns of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have to offer, though.
    Sam recently posted..The Elephant in the Room: Being British in ArgentinaMy Profile

  • Julio Moreno says:

    Maybe you are a beach person, just not a “drunk foreigner paradise” beach person. I haven’t been to Nha Trang, but have been to Shinnoukville (I have heard they are similar vibes from people who have been to both).
    I felt similar about Shinnoukville as you did, until I rented a scooter and went far from the tourist sections (one hint is when everything was payable in Riel, not dollars). That section of the beach was pretty cool.
    Balance is everything though.
    I have recently heard such great things about Hoi An, maybe I should give it a try!
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  • Sherry says:

    I grew up around some of the most beautiful beaches in the worlds, so I can always go to those. And I lived most of my life in the big city. So, I’m going to have to say I like going to sleepy towns. It’s different from what I’m normally used to. Besides I like to slow down my life and get lost but not care.
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    • Audrey says:

      That’s nice that you’ve had a balance of beaches and city. They are such opposites, but I imagine you learn to appreciate the other more when you’re away. 🙂

  • Sihanoukville is actually not that nice (apart from Sokha beach, which is a private beach from a luxury hotel), but have you tried the islands off Sihanoukville, such as Bamboo Island or Koh Rong? They have beautiful deserted beaches with white sand and clear water.
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  • angelatravels says:

    Great article. It made me really think of the places I tend to venture to. With that being said, I enjoy National Parks, mountains, hiking, backpacking, and camping. Preferably without large crowds of people. I am not too much of a beach person after one day of sun-bathing.

  • BlogDaz says:

    Since I moved to Thailand I would say it’s beach towns for me now, I live in a beach town and I take vacations in beach towns, but I’m not a beach lover, my children love beaches so that is the overriding factor these days. At heart I’m a country bumpkin.
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  • Mark NP says:

    I’m definitely a “townie.” When we went to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, strolling the Spanish colonial streets of Campeche and Merida was all I needed to enjoy myself; my fiancee Sarah pushed for the beaches along the Mayan Riviera — and they were amazing, too!
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  • Abby says:

    Great pics!!! No need to lose your inner beach bum — there is time for all of these places. 😉
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  • Ceri says:

    I am definitely a city girl. As much as I enjoy visiting small towns, it can only be a visit (probably because I grew up in a small coastal town) so big cities have their way of drawing me in majorly these days.
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  • Amber says:

    There are definitely beaches that I love, but I am a little bit of a goldilocks when it comes to beaches. I am disappointed to hear about S’Ville – I keep hearing bad things about its current state. I have never been to Nha Trang because it sounds like a Vietnamese Miami. But, there are other beach areas in Vietnam, particularly near Dong Ha in the center of the country, and Phu Quoc which are pretty pristine and beautiful.
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  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica says:

    Melaka looks like a place I’d really enjoy.
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  • Haley says:

    Hi Audrey!!
    I’m in the midst of planning a last minute trip to SE Asia, and your blog is giving me great ideas as to what to expect and what kind of trip I want to take. Your descriptions of the cities really help paint a vivid picture, and I feel like I am already there. I will definitely be taking a lot of your advice in planning where to visit. Thank you!

  • Valerie says:

    Hi Audrey, I’m THRILLED to find your website. I’m planning my first backpacking trip EVER and going solo. I’m going for almost 3 months and leaving Oct 1 for SouthEast Asia. I want to hit Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. You mention you have hit somewhere around 15 cities; do you have your itinerary of these cities you went to, how you got there, and where you stayed? Unfortunately, I’ll be working right up until I leave and don’t have a lot of free time to research the cities I should hit.

  • Hugh says:

    If you ever get the beach bum bug back again you have to go to Kho Rong in Cambodia, not far from Shianoukville. Absolutely hands down the laziest place to stay, we had a 17km white sand beach to ourselves, a hammock, and a bungalow in a tree house, just round the corner form a picture-perfect lagoon – but get there before the hotels do – one company is planning a golf course soon.

    • Audrey says:

      I have been hearing such good things about Koh Rong! I few of my friends have been there recently and they can’t stop raving about the beaches. I wish I had made time to go there while I was in Sihanoukville. It sounds like paradise. 🙂

  • Great post! Melaka and Hoi An in particular look like great places to visit. Thanks for sharing!

  • Leny Keo says:

    It is really beautiful with this color of photos. Happy to know that you visit Cambodia.

  • I’ve never been a beach bum, but still enjoy going to the beaches….except Sihanoukville and Pattaya

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