Cambodia & Vietnam – the Director’s Cut

Imaginative Traveller Director Charlie Hopkinson recently took our Best of Cambodia & Vietnam tour, opting for the reverse itinerary travelling from Hanoi to Bangkok.  Here are his views on this 18 day trip through South East Asia.

 

First impressions on arrival

Arriving into Hanoi was very easy – the visa only took a day to obtain back in the UK (£25) and there were ATMs at the airport for instant cash (the joining hotel also had an ATM).  I elected to take the cheaper (but equally safe) taxi option from outside the airport rather than the more expensive ones on offer inside the terminal building. And I would definitely recommend spending some extra time before the tour if possible allowing you to take a trip from Hanoi out to the Sapa hill tribe region.

What was your group like?

The tour was a combination tour of two separate shorter trips – we had a group of 12 people through to Ho Chi Minh City and then seven through Cambodia and on to Bangkok.  They all thought it very good value for money.

What did you think of your tour leader/s?

Being in Vietnam was an excellent guide – highly informative, giving us a great flavour and insight into Vietnam, but also allowing us to do our own thing and valuing our own wishes and independence.
Channa in Cambodia had a superb hands on approach. She was awesome, extremely informative and became a good friend to us all – our Cambodian mum!

What was your accommodation like?

Better than expected and all good quality hotels.  Some up to 4 or high end 3 star with pools, others were smaller guest house style, but all very clean and very comfortable. 

What were the types of transport used?

Local bus, hired private bus and train. The bus journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was a very relaxed affair, nicely air conditioned and complete with non stop karaoke. Our Cambodian Bus Host, resplendent in his very official liveried uniform, took pride in ensuring that we all got across the frontier, as easily and efficiently as was possible. The ride was as smooth as silk, but a word of advice, sit at the back and don’t look at the driving technique – you won’t understand it. All you need to know is that it works and that there is no real right of way. It is the art of avoidance rather than a highway code that you adhere to.
The private buses were all comfortable with plenty of space and air conditioned. The train…..well, this is an experience that all travellers need to do once; but probably only once…..With six to a cabin, the unlucky two get the two top bunks, which is not an experience for the claustrophobic and I was one of the unlucky two in our cabin.  But who really minds one uncomfortable night’s sleep when you can play cards with your fellow travellers, drink rice wine with the train guards and sing Happy New Year, along with Abba to welcome in Tet (the Vietnamese New Year). A word of caution though, just because the train resembles a travelling carnival and just because you feel you might just need that final beer to welcome in the New Year, what goes in must come out.  When you are ten foot in the air on the top bunk, getting up on an hourly basis for the first part of the night to visit the swamplands of the carriage rest room, was not a highlight for me. Think of the Reunification Express as an experience and not a mode of transport!

 

What was the food like?

Unbelievably good. This is what the travelling is all about. It was particularly colourful in Cambodia where Channa, our guide, worked tirelessly to instil local flavours into the tour by regularly buying a plethora of foods and fruits. Cambodia is awash with fruit and you must try as much as possible. We visited many of the local markets over the seven days of our stay and these offer the more imaginative traveller a great feel for Cambodia. I especially loved the lotus flower fruits we bought on the ferry across the Mekong. It was here that I first saw the Cambodians’ love of eating creepy crawlies. This is a bizarre culinary tradition which really appeals to me. One of the things I love about travelling at this level is trying out as much local food as possible and you don’t get much more grass roots than locusts and tarantulas.  Channa really made the most of the food element for our group and we seemed to feast on local delicacies wherever we went. One day we might be eating a four course Cambodian lunch in a local school, the next frying fish on a boat, another day would dawn with a cup of strong coffee laced with sweet condensed milk and the view of the sun rising over Angkor Wat and another finish with a full scale feast on the banks on the Mekong in a restaurant run by and for the street kids of Phnom Penh.

What grade would you give the tour?

It wasn’t challenging at all but you are on the go most of the time.  The climate was hot but comfortable but no-one found the trip too strenuous.

 

What were the highlights?  

The Mekong Delta trip, (exploring by boat and the home-cooked meal); the cooking course in Hoi An which I highly recommend – hilarious and informative simultaneously; the bicycle trip through the paddy fields near Hoi An; the day spent travelling by boat down the small waterways to Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, visiting remote stilt and floating villages.  Plus all of the grass roots experiences, many of which revolved around eating – brilliant! 

Give us a run down of the itinerary

Hanoi – We arrived in Hanoi to be met with the frenzied build up for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, a wonderful festive season and our group were so lucky to be travelling the length of Vietnam throughout the festivities.

 

Scooters, scooters and more scooters descend in waves upon the unwary traveller who feels marooned in the middle of a sea of bikes. “Don’t ever step back” were the wise words of our Imaginative Traveller tour leader on Day 1 of our adventure. Wise words indeed; move gently ahead or stop and the mass of mobility will flow around you. The most I am yet to see on a scooter is Dad driving, the 2 year old in a high seat by the handlebars and Mum bottle-feeding the baby. Every second scooter carries a Tet “Happy New Year” tree, either a pink flowered peach tree or a glorious kumquat tree, verdant green with deep orange fruit. “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” or “Happy New Year” is on everyone’s tongue. We spent two days in Hanoi learning to dodge the scooters in the narrow alleys of the crumbling old town and also enjoyed a great night out on a liveaboard boat in Halong Bay.

Hue and Hoi An – The next stop was the magnificent regal city of Hue, with its imperial city, palaces and stunning pagodas; tranquillity itself and a marked contrast to Hanoi. But the best was yet to come, the charming backstreets and boutiques of ancient Hoi An. We had two full days here, but two full weeks could not do this place justice. The highlight for me was a half day cycle trip through the villages and paddy fields that cluster around the river. Others headed to the beautiful sandy beaches and spent the day playing in the waves, drinking fresh coconut and chilling.

Saigon – After flying from Hoi An to Saigon we hit the metropolis with mixed feelings; the spectre of the big city grated with the aura of relaxation that had enveloped our group after Hue and Hoi An. But the glitz and glamour soon seduced us and when in Rome etc..! Step out into the streets and you cannot believe that you are in a communist country. Dior fights with Chanel for prime shop frontage. Saigon is a seriously glamourous city these days, Vietnam’s economic miracle, with its wide tree-lined boulevards, modern high-rises and colonial masterpieces. As I sat on the balcony of the Rex Hotel, sipping my Miss Saigon Special, where 40 or so years ago, the world’s correspondents clustered around the tables to catch the 5 o’clock bulletin from the US military news agency, I looked back at my experiences of the last 10 days and wondered, was it all worth it? Communism or capitalism or does it really matter? 
Vietnam seems a country totally at ease with itself; proud of its past and hopeful for its future and to my uninformed eyes and ears, it looked like the kind of country anyone would want as a friend, communism or not.

Cambodia – Our time in Cambodia was a mix of the big names and also a couple of typical sleepy little towns where no one hassled visitors and at every fruit stall someone wanted us to try a grape, a kumquat, or a slice of papaya.  My personal favourite was the little town of Battambang. Someone in our group wondered why Battambang was on the itinerary and Channa replied that it was a charming little town that few tourists visit and so was a good reflection of Cambodian life.  This was the joy of the itinerary.

 

Whilst the spectacular World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat was truly incredible and often the main reason people visit the country, I strongly feel that the visitor must not shirk their responsibility to the people of Cambodia. You must visit the Killing Fields, see the skulls, be shocked by the brutality, read the histories, listen to the statistic, understand the reasons why and spend a traumatic afternoon at the horrific S-21 Prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  You must do this, because you are visiting Cambodia and you therefore owe it to the people. There are few places on Earth where you will as a visitor see such trauma and such brutality as in Cambodia.  It is a history of my generation and I well remember the reports from an emaciated Jim Biddulph, BBC foreign correspondent in Cambodia in 1975 when these events were unfolding.  The most lasting memories of my visit to Cambodia is sitting with Bou Meng and Chum Mey, both elderly gentlemen who are two of the very few survivors of S-21 torture, in the grounds of their former prison; buying their respective books and looking into the eyes of these brave, brave men. It is not something you will ever forget; their polite acceptance of what had happened was terrifying. On returning home, I purposely watched the film ‘The Killing Fields’ again. It is unnerving in its reflection of the historic background and chilling realities of this horrendous period, the atmosphere of which can still be felt in the bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh today.

Cambodia today, is a legacy of that era and the next 20 years post Pol Pot. It is inextricably linked to its rich neighbour Vietnam and one wonders just how much influence Vietnam has on this small, impoverished nation. It seems unclear where the country will be in 20 years time. But with over 2 million visitors a year to Angkor Wat alone it is hard to believe that this country will ever be forgotten by the world again.

Do you feel your holiday benefited local people and did you feel that you really immersed yourself in the local culture?

Absolutely.  We used homestays, enjoyed school visits and local motorbike tours, took meals in peoples’ homes etc.  This is grass roots tour that is massively based around local people.

How much cash would you recommend taking?

USD20 per day (US$ is the best currency to take and ATMs are everywhere). An average meal was $4-7, beer between $1-2. Optional extras were extremely reasonable and ranged from a cookery course in Hoi An at $19 to a cyclo trip around Phnom Penh at £3.

What advice would you give to other potential travellers?

Come and do the trip, it is very easy and rewarding. Crossing the Thai border was probably the most arduous things got but even that only took four hours.  Both countries are charming, with resilient and charismatic people and you could not choose a better place for a great grass roots travel experience But when you visit, ensure you get away from the sites and get that experience. Oh, and don’t be too shocked by the driving – by and large they know what they are doing, even if it might look chaos to you!

Sum your trip up briefly.

A fast-paced grass roots adventure, with a comfortable lifestyle, great food and a wonderful insightful itinerary. Ideal for those who want to experience as much as possible in a short space of time and who want to be able to compare and contrast Vietnam and Cambodia.  I absolutely loved it.

 

 

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