This autumn I had the privilege of visiting two absolutely incredibly countries (and a must for any foodies out there) Vietnam & Cambodia. From incredible flavours to unforgettable sights these two countries are simply bursting with culture and energy.
Two weeks is a tight trip to fit these two amazing countries in and I honestly could have spent months there, but here’s how we went about it:
Day 1 – 2- Arrive in Saigon and travel to Phnomh Penh via bus the next morning (this was incredibly easy using Giant Ibis a popular bus service providing links between Vietnam and Cambodia) Visit the night market
Day 2- Visit the Killing Fields and the Royal Palace. Take a sleeper bus at 11pm to Siem Reap
Day 3- Arrive 5.30am in Siem Reap, take tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat for 8am and explore the temples. Sample the delights of ‘bar street’ in the evening
Day 4- Cooking class in Siem Reap, explore the market then fly to Hanoi for some of the best Vietnamese coffee
Day 5- Travel to Cat Ba island (don’t be deceived by Lonely Planet, this takes 5.5-6 hours, not 3.5!) and explore the National Park
Day 6 – Boat trip into Halong bay, kayaking and swimming
Day 7 – Walk up to Cannon Fort then travel to Hanoi and re-visit the best coffee shop ever Coffee Cong
Day 8- Walk around the old quarter in Hanoi, fly to Dong Hoi (world’s tiniest airport) and head to Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park
Day 9 – Day exploring the caves and local surroundings
Day 10- Travel to Hoi An, eat at Bale Well and explore the town
Day 11- Shop in Hoi An, more coffee, bike ride up to the beach and then an evening out by the river
Day 12- Travel to Danang and fly to Saigon
Day 13- Visit the tunnels and relax in the city
Day 14- Visit the War remnants museum, more coffee, fly home
The trip began with a bowl of Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, in Saigon and the food really carried on as it meant to from there. The night market in Phnomh Penh is a great way to sample some authentic Cambodian food and eat with the locals. Our particular favourite here was the lemongrass drink.
We took part in a cooking class in Siem Reap and learnt how to make Amok curry amongst other Cambodian culinary delights, and is already a curry I’ve made at home since the end of my trip. The fresh spring rolls in rice paper make a great starter (especially with peanut dipping sauce) and the food in Vietnam from seafood to noodles to rice bowls was just as delicious. We tried a Banh Mi (Vietnamese-type sandwich) in Hanoi also, which is a must for the street food experience.
Most importantly, however, is the coffee. It is amazing. You will not get better coffee elsewhere. Make the most of it and can’t recommend enough Coffee Cong in Hanoi, specifically the coconut coffee.
The important bits
Visiting the Killing Fields is an absolute must if you are heading to Phnomh Penh. It’s a difficult place to visit, of course, but if you are going to visit the country it is worth understanding this very recent and traumatic past. Upon arrival, the fields seem uncomfortably pleasant. The sun was shining and birds were in the trees, but as you start to work your way around the area the chilling past starts to sink in. The audio guide is vital to the visit, from memoirs to the haunting, propaganda music used by the Khmer Rouge at the site, this is a harrowing experience. The important thing to remember, is, that the locals are keen for tourists to visit the memorial and to understand exactly what happened to their nation.
An absolutely incredibly site, Angkor Wat is not to be missed. A UNESCO world heritage site and the largest religious monument in the world, this Hindu- turned Buddhist homage site is simply breathtaking. It’s possible to buy a one day or multiple day pass depending on how long you want to spend exploring the temples. It’s worth going early, many visitors opt for the sunrise option (however, this can be incredibly crowded) so starting at around 7am to avoid the late morning crowds is well advised. Elephant riding is available at one of the temples and it’s also possible to take part in half-marathons there. Pick up a tuk tuk in town and agree a price (roughly $15-18) for the driver to take you round the temples and wait for you at each stop.
Cat Ba Island is highly recommended, it adds an adventurous strand to the trip and an opportunity to really feel like you’ve escaped from it all. Whilst we were kayaking it rained (yes, worse than in England!) but it was pretty refreshing and we were lucky enough to see the rare and endangered white-headed langur monkeys, along with a slightly more nerve-wracking poisonous sea snake and a few bats.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang was a real highlight of our trip. We stayed in the Lakeside guesthouse which was an absolutely gorgeous place with morning views across the lake. Trips to the caves are well worth the money and there’s plenty to see. For the more adventurous types, you can also explore the area swimming through the caves and kayaking, but this must be done with a guide.
Hoi An is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever been to, and it really is so well preserved. It’s got something for everyone and with a beach nearby and bicycles available for hire for $1 for the day, there’s the chance to go exploring before returning to the area for shopping, dinner and dancing by the river.
The war tunnels by Saigon should be on the itinerary, but be aware that this is incredibly touristy. You feel very much as if you’re being pushed through on a conveyer belt and the sound of gun fire in the background at the shooting range is a little unnerving to say the least. If it’s history you’re after try the War Remnants Museum in the centre of Saigon instead.
For those of you looking for a bit of partying alongside the culture, the popular pub street in Siem Reap provides exactly that. The famous Angkor What? bar is frequented by backpackers (the bar was actually offering Ebola shots when I visited….) and opposite the also widely chosen Temple Bar which stays open into the early hours of the morning.
Cat Ba Island isn’t exactly destination clubbing, but there’s plenty of bars on the island which offer Happy Hours/Evenings along with very cheap Shisha. The best thing about the lack of choice, is that you’re more than likely going to bump into people you’ve already met on your trip and the bar we opted for had a free pool table and YouTube for a DJ which we took advantage of!
In Hoi An the main bar that stays open late is the Infinity Bar, most of the other bars and restaurants will shut fairly early. With a large open area, pool tables, a dance floor and even a beer pong table this is a backpacker haven.
Saigon was the only place we were ‘ripped off’ in the bar. Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker area, where you can get cheap beer and Pho. Wandering around you’ll be approached with many deals and we opted for the Go2 bar. Here, they actually charged service at the bar for opening beer and despite flyers advertising 2-4-1 on cocktails, this was limited to 2 cocktails only and they failed to point this out at the bar. Disappointing for our last night as we hadn’t experienced this elsewhere but it is a tourist/backpacker destination so to be expected. Other than that, the bar was fun with good music and plenty of travellers.
A truly amazing trip, I can’t recommend these two places to visit enough. Whether it’s food, culture, history or adventure you’re seeking Cambodia & Vietnam have so much to offer. Happy travelling!