Seven iconic cities to visit on an Asia cruise

Advice

Asia’s cities have a tendency to make their Western counterparts feel like rather quaint county towns. Vast, sprawling and densely populated, they are 24-hour non-stop hotspots that veritably pulsate with life.

Visit on a cruise and you can dip into these multi-sensory metropolises at will, before leaving the bright lights of Beijing, the scent of Singapore’s wet markets, and the ching-ching-ching of Tokyo’s pachinko parlours behind for the calmer environs of your ship.

Singapore

A pint-size, multicultural island that also happens to be the world’s second busiest port – surely Singapore is the ideal cruise destination. This tropical city-state is rapidly shaking off its reputation for sterility with futuristic architecture including the soaring Marina Bay Sands, lotus flower-shaped ArtScience Museum and the striking Gardens by the Bay, where a forest of 50m-high mechanical supertrees act simultaneously as vertical plant-pots and solar generators.

Marina Bay Sands

Explore Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands

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Singapore’s much-mentioned melting pot of cultures is evident to the eye – just walk from Little India to Chinatown – and to the tastebuds. The city’s food scene is rightly lauded – even two of its street food stalls have Michelin stars.

Tokyo

Neon-lit skyscrapers rub shoulders with peaceful Shinto shrines in Japan’s bewildering, bewitching capital. A visit here is unavoidably experiential, whether you seek out tea ceremonies, karaoke bars and sumo stables, or simply enjoy the wonderful weirdness of the everyday, from browsing 7-Eleven shelves stocked with unusual snacks like sour plums and squid jerky to waiting for the lights with 3,000 others at the Shibuya Crossing, often touted as the world’s busiest intersection. Disembark hungry – with exquisite sushi, aromatic ramen and sticky-sweet mochi balls at every turn, you’ll need all the stomach space you can free up.

Aerial view Tokyo

From skyscrapers to Shinto Shrines, there’s much to see in Tokyo

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Hong Kong

High-rise Hong Kong’s harbour always looks good – whether you’re on a ferry in the bay or on a historic tram-ride to the top of Victoria Peak. If you can stay late or overnight, the Symphony of Lights show splashes the skyscrapers with colour every evening at 8pm. Hong Kong’s malls and markets burst with fashion and fakes, souvenirs and street food to suit every budget and preference, so even the most reticent shopper is unlikely to make it back on board empty handed. You’ll feel culturally enriched too, with highlights including the Big Buddha on Lantau Island and the crimson-hued, incense-scented Man Mo Temple.

Bangkok

More noted for its bustle than its beauty, Bangkok is a city that rewards the bold, whether you’re haggling in its markets or paddling across Lumpini Park’s lake in a swan-shaped pedalo, spotting turtles and monitor lizards. Find the traditional side of Thailand at the gilded Grand Palace, and at Wat Po temple, where after making a lap of the 46m-long reclining golden Buddha you can loosen up with a Thai massage.

A boat trip on the Chao Phraya River will give you ringside seats to Bangkok’s contrasts, with luxury hotels and gleaming high-rise developments giving way to wooden shacks.

Lumpini Park

Take a break from the pavement crowds on Lumpini Park’s Lake

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Shanghai

In a region where gleaming towers are commonplace, Shanghai’s architectural heritage provides an interesting counterpoint to its current skyrocketing business success. Pudong’s high-rise razzmatazz faces off across the river with the well-preserved colonial buildings of The Bund – a reminder of the city’s opulent history as ‘The Paris of the East’. The French Concession is packed with Art Deco gems and traditional ‘longtang’ alleyway dwellings, some repurposed to house galleries, cafes and shops.

Looking for ancient China? Discover the 400-year-old, Ming dynasty Yu Gardens, all lotus ponds, pavilions, bridges, rockeries and the landscaped areas so signature to classical Chinese garden design.

Ho Chi Minh City

Still known to many – including most of its inhabitants – by its former name, Saigon is far more than merely its wartime legacy. While the War Remnants Museum and, outside the city, the Viet Cong’s Cu Chi Tunnels are both fascinating, half the charm of Vietnam’s most populous city is found on its somewhat chaotic streets.

Pagoda Cholon District, Ho Chi Minh City

Soak up Vietnam’s charm in Ho Chi Minh City

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Challenge your fellow passengers to a round or two of ‘weirdest thing you can spot carried on the back of a moped’ from a pavement café, then sign up for a cooking class or attend a traditional water puppet show to absorb some higher culture.

Beijing

The Chinese capital isn’t shy; it veritably shouts of the nation’s might, both past and present. Sights exist on a scale to suit a superpower, from the 180-acre Forbidden City, the Ming and Qing dynasty imperial palace complex at the city’s heart, to the gravity-defying CCTV skyscraper and the 798 arts district, which is bigger than the Vatican City.

Stores from luxury brands stretch for entire blocks, and even the city’s premier vendors of knock-off labels are housed in the gargantuan multi-storey Silk Market. You’ll need days to do Beijing any kind of justice, particularly if you want to head out of town and tick off another Chinese icon – the Great Wall.

The best cruises to book

Explore Indochina in a short-but-sweet week on Quantum of the Seas’ seven night Spice of Southeast Asia cruise, departing Singapore on January 9, 2020 and visiting Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, from £923 (royalcaribbean.co.uk).

Cruising between Singapore and Tokyo with overnights in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Norwegian Spirit’s 16-day Ultimate Asia cruise ticks off a brace of cities on one voyage, departing April 15, 2020, from £1,849 (ncl.com).

Take a month and see it all on Seven Seas Explorer. A 28-night Best of Asia cruise departing March 9, 2021 visits Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo among other ports, and starts from £14,329 (rssc.com).

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