Gaotian, Guangxi

Photo: Yangshuo Mountain Retreat
Photo: Yangshuo Mountain Retreat

Over the years, you’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some of the most awe-inspiring places in the world. You’ve seen breathtaking landscapes, learned about long-standing cultures, and become part of time-honored traditions. Of all of these places, Hạ Long Bay remains at the top of your list. Vietnam’s limestone karsts and emerald-green water are the focus of many of your photographs, travel stories, and even dreams. We’ve finally found a place that might rival it.

Yangshuo is also home to dramatic karst peaks. There are slow-moving rivers, bamboo forests, rice terraces, and underground springs here, too. The county is part of Guangxi, an autonomous region of China that borders northeastern Vietnam. Artists and poets have probably been traveling to the fairytale-like area since the Sui dynasty arrived around 590 A.D. True tourists, in the form of foreign backpackers, finally discovered Yangshuo in the 1980s. They’ve been quietly returning ever since.

Yangshuo isn’t that far from Hạ Long Bay. At least when you’re looking at a map. There’s no easy way to get here, though. Trains from Hong Kong to Guangzhou to Yangshuo will eat up most of a day. But as soon as you see the green-tinged Li River, handmade bamboo rafts, and water buffalo ploughing the rice fields—all surrounded by green karsts—you know the long trip was worth it.

Photo: Yangshuo Mountain Retreat
Photo: Yangshuo Mountain Retreat

You’ll return to the city of Yangshuo to walk down ancient West Street, watch a performance at Impression Sanjie Liu (one of the largest natural theaters in the world), and join a river cruise to see caves, arches, and little villages. But first, you want to find your hotel.

The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat isn’t in touristy Yangshuo. It’s in a tiny, more remote village called Gaotian, which sits along the Yulong River, a tributary of the Li. Grassy banks, rice fields, and a bike trail are in front of the hotel’s timber buildings. Thumb Peak, Tongmen Mountain, and Moon Hill surround it. While the river is never far from sight.

The hotel is the perfect blend of, well, everything. Your superior room features handmade cabinets, locally made bamboo furniture, and hand-woven slippers. It also has a modern bathroom. You don’t have a telephone or a television, but there’s Wi-Fi and a river view from your balcony.

The riverside restaurant offers both local specialities (like beer fish, noodle soup, and pumpkin braised with ginger) and pizza from a real pizza oven. Freshly squeezed juice (made with local mandarin oranges) and chilled wine are served at the Yulong River Bar, on a high bank above the river, and in the cozy Bamboo Bar, where a log fire roars when it’s chilly. Traditional tea ceremonies are performed—by pouring tea over the back of a fake frog—in the tea shop. Plus short, but definitely steep, nearby hikes will provide you with panoramic views of the magical karsts. Hạ Long Bay might have just met its match.

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