If Vietnam has the East coast stretching from the North to the South along the country’s length, Malaysia is known as an island nation with more than 870 large and small stunning islands. It has not only crystal blue sea, white smooth sand, golden sunshine, lush forests & mighty mountains, but also a thriving under water world with large coral reefs and countless colorful marine life. There are not only coastal fishing villages but also many ancient temples, old towns reflecting Malaysia’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic culture.
Each island in this country has its own characteristics, creating excitements and leaving great impressions for visitors. Perhaps, the common feature is the hospitality, the honesty and warm welcoming of local islanders.
Langkawi is endowed with its spectacular natural landscape of mountains, sea and forests, as well as the convenience of a bustling city and duty-free shopping paradise. Penang is known as the cradle of culture and cuisine that holds colorful historic stories. Little Pangkok Laut is nestled quietly on the west coast as a lavish hideaway retreat. The East coast with Redang, Perhentian, Tioman and numerous islands are truly Malaysia’s paradises thanks to their white sand, clear turquoise sea and a vivid under-the-ocean world .
Malaysia’s paradise islands
Langkawi – The most famous but not the most beautiful
Located in the Northwest of Malaysia, bordering Thailand, Langkawi is probably the most famous island of this country. In addition to easy access thanks to its international airport and ferry, Langkawi is a spectacular combination between the alluring natural landscape and the modernity of a city. Its long coastline boasts 99 small islands and undulating mountains, lush tropical forests interspersed between busy shopping areas, historic and cultural heritage sites that have made a name for Langkawi. However, in my subjective opinion, if talking about the beach & the sea, this is not the most splendid island.
For beach lovers, they come to Langkawi to play in gentle waves, snorkel to view corals and colorful fishes, or simply just to chill out on a chair, enjoying the sea breeze as they contemplate a dazzling sunset. Running Jetski or taking a boat to stroll around the small islands are also popular activities there. Langkawi beach is not exceptional beautiful because it is not a fine white sand. Depending on the season, seaweed can overflow the sandy shores, cluttering the coast.
For nature lovers, Underwater World Aquarium, Wildlife Park and Bird Paradise or Kilim Eco Forest are must-visitied places. The transparent glass of Sky Bridge connecting two mountain peaks bring visitors feeling of both tension and delight as they take in panoramic view of Langkawi at an altitude of 660m above sea level.
To explore the life and culture of islanders, visit the Rice Museum and Oriental Village, where you can learn on how to transplant rice and watch traditional Malaysian performing arts. Eagle Square, featuring an eagle statue with a giant wingspan overlooking the immense sea, is one of the iconic relics associated with the history of Langkawi, and has also given the island the name Eagle Island .
For foodies, munching on some street foods at the night markets (Kuah or Pantai Cenang) is bliss. From authentic Malay specialties to Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines, every single dish is delicious and inexpensive, clearly reflecting the diverse culture of this country.
In addition, in recent years, the boom of duty-free shopping centers has attracted a large number of visitors to Langkawi. Not as luxurious and glorious as the ones in Kuala Lumpur, Coco Valley, Jetty Point or Langkawi Parade have great diversity at affordable prices, especially all are tax-free.
Suitable for who: Langkawi is a tourist destination suitable for all ages
- Main activities: Relax on the beach and water sports, shopping, sightseeing, visiting cultural and historical sites, enjoy street foods.
- How to get there: There are currently no direct flights from Vietnam’s major cities (Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi) to Langkawi, have to transit in KL or Penang. Total flight and transit time is at least 4 hours (for Ho Chi Minh City) and 7 hours (for Hanoi) with Malaysia airline, at airfare from $180- $250. Other airlines have longer waiting time at KL.
- Time to visit: You can go to Langkawi at any time of the year, spending at least 3 nights (excluding travel time).
Penang – The cradle of culture & cuisine
Penang is perhaps the only island in Malaysia that isn’t famous for beautiful beaches. Located on the West of Malaysia, a former British colony and influenced by Chinese culture brought by Fujian immigrants, Penang is fascinating fusion between Asian traditions and western classic architecture, holding colorful stories of an eventful history.
In George Town, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, one can see timeworn British colonial structures intermingling between the ancient houses of old Chinese families like the renowned blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the old Pinang Peranakan Mansion or the 600-year-old Khoo Kongsi clan house. Throughout the old town, the long standing walls are adorned with diverse and vivid paintings, reflecting the multiracial life of Malaysia.
The harmony of religions is clearly reflected on one road (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling), where one can encounter a holy temple, a Buddhist pagoda, a Hindu temple and a mosque. It is impressive with the number of museums in George Town, such as Upside-down museum, 3D Trick Art museum, Wonder Food museum, Glass museum, Toy museum, Islamic museum…
Known as the culinary paradise of Malaysia, Penang has many famous dishes that stretch across regions, from national dishes such as Char Koay Teow stir-fried noodles, Assam Laksa fish noodles with special sour and sour soup, wonton noodles or cendol desert, to Nyonya’s sophisticated dishes and fussy meals like Rojak… all can be found in Penang.
Suitable for who: Penang is a tourist destination suitable for all ages, especially culture lovers, religion explorers and cuisine enthusiasts.
- Popular activities: shopping, wondering in George town, visiting museums, enjoying featured Malaysian foods from all regions.
- How to get there: From Ho Chi Minh City, you can fly directly to Penang by Air Asia, flight time is 2 hours at the price from $120. From Hanoi, you have to transit in Kuala Lumpur with total travel time of 6 hours, and the ticket price is from $180.
- Time to visit: You can go to Penang at any time of the year, spending at least 3 nights (excluding travel time).
Redang – The beach paradise
Pulau Redang is the largest of the 9 islands in Redang Marine Park, located on the East Coast of Malaysia. The first impression of the island is its unique turquoise water, crystal clear to the bottom, with soft waves rippling to a long white sandy beach.
Not only does it have alluring beaches, the marine ecosystems with vast coral reefs but it boasts a robust marine life that is truly a gift of nature. Visitors need only float face down in the water with a snorkel and goggles to observe the colorful fishes swimming around their feet. If you are a more professional diver, you can scuba dive to play amongst the amazingly vivid coral reefs, meet charming clown-fishes or big school of golden fishes and swim with gentle sea turtles.
Redang is also one of the few islands with an equally rich onshore ecosystem. There are many trekking routes that allow you to stroll across the forests and the slopes, most of which are mostly easy for novice hikers, from 500m to 3km. You can spot animals ranging from indoors to giant lizards, monkeys, butterflies and colorful birds, surrounded by diverse world of plants and rare orchids.
Suitable for who: Redang is suitable for nature and sea lovers. Elderly or young children should be careful as the travel time is quite long, and many means of transportations must be used.
- Popular activities: water sports like scuba diving, snorkeling, Jetski riding, parasailing, windsurfing, kayaking, swimming or chill out at the beach. There are many dive shops with similar price, approx $60/ dive (if you have diving license). Or you can go trekking in many routes, organized by some hotels on the island.
- How to get there: Going to Redang is time consuming because there is no direct flight to the island. The nearest airport is Kuala Terengganu. From Vietnam, you have to fly through Kuala Lumpur, at least 4 hours (from HCMC, including transit time). Then take a taxi to Shahbandar jetty or Marang jetty to take the ferry to Redang Island. Ferry time is 1.5 hours.
- Time to visit: Malaysia’s east coast is most beautiful from March to October. In the remaining months, the sea is rough with heavy rain and strong monsoon, so most of the resorts and hotels are closed. You should spend at least 2 nights (excluding travel time) in Redang. If you do scuba diving, you should plan a 24-hour surface interval before boarding a plane.
Perhentian – The paradise under the sea
Located on the east coast, not too far from Redang, Perhentian Island offers breathtaking scenery deep down on the seabed (from 10-40m), with colorful coral reefs, underwater cliffs, caves and shipwrecks.
Without smooth, clean white sandy beaches like Redang, as well as simple service and infrastructure, Perhentian is still a popular destination for those who really love the sea and are passionate about scuba diving. The sea water is so clear and calm that you can easily see the school of fishes swimming near the shore.
It is also a professional training and diving hubs that has a full range of marine environment for all levels of diving. The sea water is warm, the visibility is outstanding and the current is not strong. I also received my PADI Open water certificate here after 5 days of study and practice. Instructors are experienced dive masters, most of them Malaysians. There are also a few foreigners who travel and stay on the island for a long time.
Suitable for who: Perhentian is quite wild and secluded, there are not many tourism services, so it is suitable for young people, looking to relax and dive.
- Popular activities: scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, or chill out at the beach.
- How to get there: Going to Perhentian is time consuming because there is no direct flight to the island. The nearest airport is Kuala Terengganu or Kota Bharu. From Vietnam, you have to fly through Kuala Lumpur, at least 4 hours (from HCMC, including transit time). Then take a taxi or bus (1-5-2.5 hours) to Kuala Besut, then take a boat to Perhentian (normally arranged by the hotel).
- Time to visit: similar to Redang.
Tioman – Pristine & peaceful
Tioman, located in the southeast of Malaysia, was once voted as one of the world’s most beautiful islands in Time magazine in the 70s. Today, this island’s pristine features have faded a little, but Tioman is still a memorable destination because of the tranquility of its deserted beaches, white sand and clear blue water, tropical forests, small fishing villages and a vividly colorful underwater world.
Walked through a small forest, I arrived at a coastal fishing village. The landscape here is somewhat similar to Cu Lao Cham in central Vietnam. The beaches are endowed with green leaning coconut palms and the path to the village was covered in green foliage.
I rewarded myself with a tree house overlooking the coast in a famous resort. The resort’s private beach is deserted and serene on a sunny day. In the morning, I leisurely read a book on the balcony, hanging on the tree or lying down on the sand to enjoy the fresh sea air. When the night comes, I adored watching the sunset is gently fall with a glass of wine at a floating bar on the beach.
Suitable for who: similar to Perhetian, Tioman is quite remote, not easy to access, so suitable for young people, sea and nature lovers.
- Popular activities: water sports like scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, kayaking, swimming or chill out at the beach. Moreover, you can walk through the lush forests to fishing villages and experience local life.
- How to get there: It is the most expensive and time consuming to get to Tioman. From VN, you have to fly to KL. From there, if traveling by air, there is only the Charter flight (small aircraft) of Berjaya Air, departing from Subang airport. This flight is quite expensive (~ $ 250), does not fly frequently, hence you have to buy tickets in advance and find suitable connecting flight from Vietnam. This is also the smallest aircraft that I’ve ever traveled (only 10 passengers and 2 pilots) in my life. If you can’t buy a plane ticket, you can take the bus from KL (7 hours) to the Mersing jetty, then take the ferry for another 1.5-2h to get to Tioman island.
- Time to visit: similar to Redang.
Pangkok Laut – a lavish hideaway
Pangkor Laut is a tiny private island located southwest of Pangkor Island, Malaysia. The whole area of the island belongs to Pangkor Laut Resort with a vast green space, including the amazing Emerald Bay strait, natural beaches, a Spa Village, forest trails and countless romantic spots to watch the sunrise or sunset.
As a luxurious resort, rooms or villas are built based on the natural scenery of the island, while trying to preserve the most natural features, whether on high hills, by the sea or on the sea. The residents of this jungle-filled paradise also include group of monkeys, flock of fruit bats, hornbills and rare white-bellied sea eagles.
Suitable for who: Pangkor Laut is a lavish weekend getaway.
- Popular activities: Chill out on the beach, or enjoy luxurious service of the resort like massage, spa, sunset cruise.
- How to get there: The only way to get to Pangkor Laut Island is a 4-hour drive from KL and a 20 minute express boat.
- Time to visit: visitors often go on weekends, stay at least 1 night.