My Big Trip to Southeast Asia had all the diversity of any Indochina loop tour: temples of Angkor Wat, bike rides around the scenery of Laos, and Halong Bay and beach side bliss in Vietnam.
A little over three weeks was just enough time and too short to really experience all this area of Southeast Asia has to offer. In this article I keep it high level – summarizing what I would tell my friends if they wanted this itinerary and tips to make the most of their trip.
My experiences focused on seeing this beautiful area of the world, but not duplicating a previous trip to the North and South of Thailand with cooking classes and hilltribe treks. I wanted to hit the big sights on the Indochina loop a quick pace with stops for relaxation and cultural absorption.
I used Bangkok as my home base (home of cousin J), which was great because getting to and from Siem Reap is an overland day trip, Air Asia flies in and out of this Asian hub all the time from many destinations, and it’s home to all Asian backpacker resources.
Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam Itinerary:
- Angkor Wat – Five days to Siem Reap, Cambodia (5 days: 1 day travel, 2 days touring temples, and 1 day to return back to Bangkok, which was a whole experience in itself.)
- Laos: 9 days to visit Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang .
- Vietnam: 10 days to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Nha Trang, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Good Times (experiences I’ll never forget):
Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Yes it has the circus atmosphere, yes it had a million people with huge lens cameras vying for the best photo, but there’s a reason for that – it’s friggin’ awesome to see the light peer over the temples and turn the grey stone pink. Then, I went to the back of this temple and walked to the front – avoiding all crowds and wandering through antiquity on my own.
Mudbath in Nha Trang: Just a quick motorcycle ride outside of this beautiful beach town and I had a full day of soaking in mineral mud, sitting poolside, and receiving the best massage of my life. There’s set price packages on the wall and very helpful staff to walk you through each.
Tubing in Vang Vieng: After partying hard at the bucket bars (read: bottles of liquor poured in a bucket), Cousin J and I the one shop with a stack of tubes, got on a rickshaw, and floated bar to bar, bucket to bucket down the Nam Song river. Zip line insanity was optional.
Bike Ride in Luang Prabang: Luang Prabang is so lovely and it’s even lovelier on a bike. In the morning I pedaled through the city, along the Mekong, past French-colonial houses, and into the countryside.
Boat Tour of Halong Bay. Admittedly, I chose a tour that focused more on drinking games and the long happy hour instead of the scenery. This worked out OK because they weather was terrible, despite promises of sunshine (Which are so ludicrous to believe anywhere). Our group kayaked on the bay past fishing villages, caves and the towering rock formations. I even took the plunge off the roof of the boat – three stories above the water – into the green sea.
Tips and Tricks:
- You can get to and from Angkor Wat/Siem Reap from Bangkok on your own without a scammy bus ride, it just takes a little street smarts (of which I usually lack) and patience.
- Bring lots of US$$. This is the tourist currency of the town.
- If your temple tour guide is good, then tip him well. Dude is working hard for the $12-15 bucks a day and a few more $USD could send his kids to school.
- It’s nice and slow in Laos and that’s a good thing, so be patient and kind to the very nice people of Laos.
- Look and book your hotel in Luang Prabang ahead of time, I first did a hotel by a tout at the train station. It was fine, but they kicked me out after one night because they needed the room for a reservation!
- In Vientiane, skip the herbal saunas and Big Buddha park, the former was a dangerous sweaty oven and the latter an a$$-pounding rickshaw ride too far out of town for bizzaro statues.
- Scams are everywhere. In my opinion people who work in Vietnam tourism take tourist scams to a whole new level. I’d traveled to India, Egypt and Morocco, but Vietnam could be it’s whole own article/documentary movie. Recommendation: Agree on all prices before taxis (meters can be rigged), don’t accept any invitations for lunch or coffee, and compare prices. Walk away if you feel uncomfortable!
- Go to the train station to book tickets. I found it’s much cheaper than through the hotel and the lines look long, but do move (wear your patience pants!).
- Get a vietnam visa ahead of time! I used myvietnamvisa.com and it worked out very well. Allow at least a week for processing.
Because of my limited time, I flew more than overland buses and trains. I booked all of flights on the airline web sites instead of going through hotel.
- Bangkok to Udon Thani (Close to Laos border) on Air Asia.
- Luang Prabang to Hanoi on Laos Arlines. This flight was expensive, but completely worth it on a faster itinerary and to avoid a crammed 24 hour busride through mountains.
- Hanoi to NhaTrang on Vietnam Airlines. I heard from other back packers that they paid just a little less for a 20-hour train ride on the same route.
- Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh by train. I booked the second-class ticket at the train station instead of through the hotel. It was a dirty train, but got the job done for an 8 hour ride.
- Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok on Air Asia – $69.
- Utopia bar in Luang Prabang for gorgeous view of the Mekong
- Street food in Nha Trang – huge sandwiches and delicious noodle dishes.
- A big f-ing burger in Siem Reap (made with Australian beef). For $6, a splurge, but it was just what I craved at that point in the trip and was tasty goodness with that $4 mojito.
- Pineapple with a little chili powder. Really – it’s tasty!
- Pho in Vietnam, but not from the chain restaurant named Pho, from a street food vendor
- $1500: I took it cheap with hotels and food and spent the bucks on transport and tours. For everywhere outside of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city, I found rooms for $10 to $15 a night.
- Finding a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap for Angkor Temple This travelfish post is pretty much right on.
My own travel blog stories (please forgive the puns in the headlines):
- Pictures of the Angkor Temples
- Tuk Tuks, Buddhas and Herbal Saunas in Vientiane
- Tubing Fun in Vang Vieng
- Lovely Luang Prabang
- Nha Trang: Four Islands, Three New Friends, Two Shots of Wine, and One Hangover
- Halong Bay: Halong does it take to get this party started? or “I’m on a boat”
- The Saigon Grift