SE Asia | Advice on Vietnam, Laos, & Cambodia

Vietnam was fantastic.  I didn’t hear a single good thing about Vietnam before I got there; seriously, every single person I talked to had bad things to say. So, I had very low expectations going in, and when our bus driver missed our stop in Hue and let us out on the side of the road 9 miles outside the city on a busy highway, I was ready to believe all the bad hype. But a couple of minutes after we started hiking back toward the city, a man and his child on a motorbike pulled over and asked us if we wanted a ride to town. Since he only had one bike with space for one, he flagged down the next person to pass, a total stranger, and asked him to take one of us to town with him, to which the stranger cheerily complied, as if the thought of saying no had never occurred to him. Once we got to town, we desperately tried to compensate both of them, at least for gas, but they refused to take anything and wished us all the best in Vietnam. That experience turned out to be pretty indicative of the country as a whole.

Vietnam was probably the second cheapest place in Asia, behind India, with some of the best accommodation in any country. The food is great, especially if you like Pho, and the surroundings are incredibly lush. There is quite a history as well, and many great museums to learn about it.I entered Vietnam at Lao Bao from Donsavahn in Laos, which is very close to the dead middle of the country, before going straight east to Hue and working my way south from there to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Along the way, I hit Hoi An, Na Trang and Da Lat. Da Lat is one of my favorite cities in Asia – a little mountain town that provides a much needed break from the heat of most of SE Asia.  I couldn’t recommend it more. If you go, take the cable car and cross the street to the Buddhist temple, which is amazingly peaceful, with all these huge chimes and little monks tending to the dragon-shaped bushes. It’s also a great city to rent a motorbike in, as there are lots of winding hills and some great things to see just outside of town. One day, I stumbled upon a huge cemetery on the top of a hill where all the graves were painted in bright colors.

Saigon was crazy. Motorbikes were everywhere, including the sidewalks. The war history museum is a must. Great places to take side trips: Cu-Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta, and possibly the most garish temple in the world, the Cao Dai temple near Tay Ninh. Go and attend a service, it’s surreal.Hoi An is very popular with tourists. A once sleepy little fishing village, it has gone a bit kitschy. It’s very French influenced with a nice beach a couple miles away. It’s a very cool, mellow atmosphere compared to most of Vietnam, with the cheapest beer I experienced, equivalent to about 30 cents. So, if you like crappy beer, it’s the place to be.

I actually liked Hue even better, which seemed to be a city that a lot of travelers were blasting through. I stayed there for five or six days and found plenty to do. The city is split by a big river, one side being the more residential and the other being more touristy and shoppy. There are a ton of great walks to take outside the city, which may lead to random games of soccer with twenty kids who don’t speak a word of English between them or invitations to come inside someone’s house to play old video games. The giant-walled Imperial Palace is a must see, even just to walk around it. Really, I liked every city I went to in Vietnam. I didn’t go north, but from what I’ve heard, there isn’t a whole lot of note, other than Hanoi.

As for transportation, the train is strangely expensive in comparison to everything else in the country. The buses, however, are cheap, perfectly comfortable, and very efficient. Motorbikes are reasonable to rent and the most exciting option if you want to take day trips outside of the cities (like going to the My Son ruins outside of Hoi An). There are always shops to rent bikes from, but many people around town will rent you their personal bikes for a much cheaper price, you just have to ask around. In my experience, it was always cheaper to rent a bike and pay for fuel to get anywhere than to pay for a tour. Plus, it’s much more fun.The language is crazy hard, even when someone who speaks English is trying to teach you. Really hard to pronounce. Most of the time, when I tried to say something in Vietnamese to a local, they looked at me blankly. 

I entered Laos through northern Thailand at the Chiang Khong/Houay Xia crossing, and the next day, I took the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, which takes two days but is a hell of a lot of fun. The boat is really slow, but the scenery is otherworldly, and most of the people on the boat were having a great time. I met seven people who I traveled with through Laos on the boat, and some that I met up with later in Vietnam. There’s also a fast speedboat, but it’s a lot more expensive and I’ve heard stories of horrific crashes, so I would stay away. There is also a bus you can take, but everyone I talked to said it was slow and unreliable, and nearly everyone entering Laos at this crossing takes the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is a phenomenal city centered around a huge temple built atop a huge mountain. There is a constant presence of dust and opium smoke in the air and cheap vegetarian buffets and fruit smoothies are everywhere. If you go, rent a bike to ride around town – it’s cheap and the city is really flat, so it won’t be too difficult.

Vang Vieng is known as the capitol of drug tourism culture in SE Asia, and the main attraction is to drink these mushroom shakes then go tubing down the river, stopping at various bars as you float down. The city is set to one side of a river; on the other, there are jagged, dense cliffs with waterfalls and some hiking trails. If you walk a little ways out of town, there are a bunch of caves and some great village life you can interact with. All of the bars in town have the same theme, and it’s actually very strange and unlike any city I’ve been to. There are these couch/table amalgamations where you sit, legs crossed, and eat your food (baguette sandwiches are all the rage) and drink your drinks while all of the TVs play either The Simpsons or Friends on repeat, all day and all night. So, if you like The Simpsons or Friends, you’re in heaven. Vientiane was also cool. It feels very colonized, with French buildings and shops. There is a huge arch that resembles the Arch de Triumph. Also, there are some cool restaurants on the pier, and I heard that in the rainy season, most of them are floating on the river, but when we were there, it was dry. Busses are pretty much the only way to get around Laos, as there is no train system. I did ride in the back of a dude’s truck from Vang Vieng to Vientiane for next to nothing. The language is close to Thai, so if you go there first, it’s easier to figure out Laotian.

Cambodia was the least exciting of the three countries, due mainly to the fact that there are surprisingly few things to do. Obviously, most people go to see the Angkor ruins, which are well worth your time, and a hell of a lot bigger than I thought they would be. You can buy multiple-day passes, but I rented a bike and spent one good, long day riding around the ruins. By the time I was done, I didn’t feel the need to spend another day there, and that was on a bicycle. If you’re in a car, tuk-tuk, or any type of motorized transport, I think that one day would be enough. I would really recommend renting a bike, waking before dawn, riding the half hour it takes to get to the park from Siem Reap, and arriving at Angkor Wat in time for the sunrise. It’s a smooth ride all around the temples and makes it easier to park at the different sites.

Siem Reap is a cool city in itself, and more than just an outpost for Angkor. There’s a busy market district and some nice restaurants, but the best way to eat is at one of the food stalls lining the night market, where any dish you want is one dollar. There are some cool temples and great accommodation. Phnom Penh is an interesting place, home of the old government before the Khmer Rouge cleared nearly the entire city in the 70’s. Now, it is once more where the government and the King reside, and you can feel the city rebuilding as you walk around. Half of the city is old and crumbling, while the other half is brand new. Many buildings have been erected as memorials to things and people destroyed during the genocide. There was also this threat of danger that was hard to understand, mostly in the form of shady looks from strangers across the street at night and slight hints from locals not to go to certain neighborhoods.  Corruption is rampant in Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, with all kinds of money coming into the country after the Khmer Rouge to help rebuild the country, only some of it going to the right places. Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, is former Khmer Rouge, so there is an interesting vibe to the city. It is big, bustling, and alive with the struggle of progress, along with all of the good and bad. Those were the only two cities that I visited in Cambodia, as we had limited time and the transportation was a bit shady. On the west coast at Sihanoukville, there’s a beach, but I heard that it was nothing special and a bit out of the way. The big lake in the middle of the country, Tonle Sap, supposedly has some cool little villages lining the water, but I never checked it out. Also, there are some jungle treks you can take if you want to see flying monkeys. Naturally, border crossings limit where it makes sense to go, so check up on that beforehand. Cambodia uses the dollar as their main currency, normally giving change in the Riel, which is the old currency that is devaluing by the day, and can be hard to get rid of. The language sounds like Thai, looks like Hindi, and was wholly confusing. Mosquito repellent may be the single most crucial item to have with you.

– B.

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