Visit Vietnam War tunnels and ancient Hong Kong villages, enjoy Chinese opera and explore Tokyo by bike.

The diversity of an East Asian cruise means that almost every day is a new stop, often in a new country, with a chance to learn about a new unique culture and ancient traditions. From the Great Wall in China to the World War II battles of Iwo Jima, a cruise-led history lesson can span thousands of years.

Asia’s high season for cruises begins in December and lasts until March, with deals generally available in October, November and April. Not long ago only upscale lines and expedition ships ventured to Asia, but over the last decade the largest cruise lines have been steadily sending bigger ships here, including Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. The smaller vessels dock in the heart of major cities, and go to the most remote areas, while the largest ships offer smoother sailing through what can be rough seas between far-away destinations like Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore.

For cruisers looking to learn more about Asian history, there are several sites worth visiting on extended shore excursions, in addition to the obvious ones like the Great Wall and Angkor Wat. Over the last few years, cruise ships have been spending more time in the most popular ports like Beijing and Bangkok, giving passengers the opportunity to take overland tours or long day trips, as well as experience the nightlife.

Doing excursions on your own in places like China or Vietnam can be very cheap, especially compared to the ship prices. However, when time is tight and language is a concern, it makes sense to use the cruise tour or another company that guarantees that you will get back to the ship in time. If time is not an issue, here are five port excursions, slightly off the beaten path, that you can do on your own.

Ho Chi Minh City’s war tunnels
Known to a generation of Americans as “Saigon”, this city is a treasure trove for Vietnam War buffs. There are plenty of sites related to the war within the city limits, but one of the most interesting is about an hour outside town. The Cu Chi Tunnels were built by the Viet Cong during the war to hide from the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The Viet Cong used these hundreds of kilometres of underground passageways to hide their soldiers and transfer food and weapons. The outdoor museum is reached by driving past green fields and water buffalo. You will find the remains of an American tank, several kinds of booby traps that awaited US troops patrolling the area, a video about making the tunnels, and the highlight -- a chance to scurry through sections of the tunnels that seem impossibly small, but were actually widened to accommodate tourists.

Many local operators offer an excursion to the tunnels for much less than your ship, but make sure they are certified and will get you back to Ho Chi Minh City in time for departure. Viator, an online booking engine for tours, offers a five-hour excursion with transportation and an English-speaking guide from only $25 per person. 

Beijing opera
Several cruises begin or end in Beijing, and many others overnight there, giving passengers the opportunity to sample the city’s nightlife. An intriguing nocturnal activity for history buffs is Chinese opera, a tradition that dates back, in its modern form, to the 1700s. Performances offer a historical view of China’s past, with many shows based on ancient epics. The bold costumes, dramatic masks and makeup, and acrobatics that often happen while wielding swords, make for a unique and entertaining night out.

Two theatres offer daily opera with subtitles in English, both in collaboration with the Beijing Opera Company: the 800-seat Chang'an Grand Theater and the teahouse-style Liyuan Theater . The tourist-oriented Liyuan Theater is housed in the Qianmen Hotel, and lets audience members watch the performers apply make-up before the show starts, and sip tea during the performance.

Beijing’s cruise port is actually in Tianjin, so cruisers either spend the night in a Beijing hotel or get there by train or private car. The bullet train takes 30 minutes. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, but few drivers speak English so make sure you have your destination written down in Chinese. 

Thailand’s bridge on the River Kwai
For World War II buffs, the Asia-Pacific region offers many important historical sites. Often overlooked in this regard is Thailand, but the country is home to the notorious Death Railway, made famous by the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Between 1942 and 1943 thousands of POWs and local forced labourers lost their lives building a bridge to Burma for the Emperor of Japan. Tourists looking for an interesting slice of World War II history can walk over the rebuilt bridge, and visit the nearby War Museum, which depicts the story of the route’s construction and Thailand’s role in the war.

Getting to the bridge is a daytrip to Kanchanaburi, about two to three hours by train each way from Thon Buri train station. The port is about half an hour from the train station. Since cruise ships often spend long days or overnight in Bangkok, passengers usually have time for the trip.

Small and medium size cruise ships like Azamara, Oceania, Seabourn and Silversea, dock right in the heart of Bangkok at Klong Toey; large cruise ships must dock an hour and a half south of Bangkok in Laem Chabang Port. 

Hong Kong’s ancient villages
The city is known for its tall buildings, winding streets and bustling harbour, but history buffs who want to experience a piece of pre-skyscraper Hong Kong will enjoy the New Territories, the lush, hilly land that rolls from Kowloon to the border of mainland China. Fanling is an area known for its ancestral halls, Taoist temples and walled villages that date back to the 11th Century. Twelve years ago the government established the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, a 2.5km trail near Fanling that takes walkers to some of the most significant historical sites, including five walled villages all within a few miles of each other.

To get there, cruisers docked in Hong Kong can take MTR train’s East Rail line 50 minutes from Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui station to Fanling station. From there, minibus ride 54K takes 15 minutes to get to Lung Yeuk Tau. 

Tokyo sights by bike
Tokyo is a huge city with many historical sites, so cruisers faced with limited time often opt for the bus tour overview. An alternative is to explore the city by bicycle so you can enjoy historic sites while being outdoors and getting a workout.

Tokyo Great Cycling Tour offers two excursions that focus on local and national history: one that focuses on the contrast between old and new Tokyo, the other on the city’s temples and shrines. Tokyo Bicyle Tours is run by English-speaking expats who offer an introduction to the history of Tokyo sites on four and five hour rides.

For ships docking in Harumi, Tokyo’s local port, the tour companies are accessible via taxi or Tokyo’s very efficient Metro subway system. For ships that dock in Yokohama, the bullet train takes 30 minutes to get to Tokyo.