Why Vietnam? Why Cambodia? Why not? My husband Thom and I recently returned from a three-week trip to this part of the world. One of the more exotic locations we’ve explored, this trip was on Thom’s bucket list—and after all, he did turn 65 this year so it was his turn to pick. We’d also had several others tell us about how much they loved this part of the world and why it was worthy of the time and money to visit. So, after much planning and anticipation we experienced a variety of adventure and insights that I thought some of you may enjoying hearing about.
Here are few things I will always remember.
Another World—Literally & Figuratively
One of the greatest things about travel is how it can immerse you in a world dramatically different from the “normal” 24-7 life of an American. I felt it immediately.
We landed in Hanoi, Vietnam after an 18-hour flight in the middle of heavy clouds and rain. Fortunately, we had pre-arranged help with both our Visas and a driver to our hotel, so all we had to do was find them and stick to the plan. After a rain-splattered 30-minute ride from the airport, we arrived in the Old Quarter of the city to a bizarre mixture of people, traffic, chaos, noise, and clutter. Thom’s first thought was that we had landed in a scene from the movie Blade Runner.
Our hotel was a beacon of calm in the storm and that first afternoon we stayed in and tried to catch up on sleep and acclimate ourselves. After a wonderful dinner, a decent night’s sleep and the first of a daily extravagant breakfast buffet, we met up with two young college women from “HanoiKids” for our first look at the city. Although there was still no sun, the streets were dry, and things started to get interesting.
We did adjust. We spent three nights in Hanoi during the beginning of our trip and then another two at the tail end. The second time we arrived it seemed so much different –and normal even though it was raining again. It is amazing how quickly we humans can adapt to an entirely different world.
Our first visit consisted so much of getting our bearings. Remembering where our hotel was, navigating the narrow and extremely congest streets and non-existent sidewalks, dodging people and finding places to eat in tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants with few address numbers. And motorbikes—EVERYWHERE! While the streets do have a few cars, there are thousands of motorbikes of every description swarming the streets and parked in any empty space they can find. Sidewalks are actually motorbike parking—and when there is an open space—the motorbikes use them instead of the road.
It took several days but we eventually saw the flow to it all. In spite of the constant traffic there are few horns. Everyone just flows—yes, like bees—but they flow, they don’t fight. Traffic lights (if there are any) are merely suggestions and everyone just moves forward whenever they can. When you want to cross the street, you wait for a brief lull (because it never, ever stops) and then proceed moderately across the road. Although the scooters are coming at you, they register your speed and go around you. Bizarre as it sounds—it works.
Wonders of the World
Something high on our list to do was visiting Halong Bay. We’d seen photos of it through the years and knew it was a “Wow!” Considered to be one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, it exists a mere two-hour drive from Hanoi. There we spent three days on a ship with approximately 18 other people. In Vietnamese Vinh Ha Long means “descending dragon bay” and this UNESCO Heritage site lives up to all the hype—especially when you visit on a sunny day.
Also considered a “ancient wonder of the world” and something high on my list was Angkor Wat, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the province of Siem Reap, Cambodia. This structure and its surrounding temples are considered to be the largest collection of religious monuments in the world. Originally built to honor Vishnu, a Hindu God, it eventually transitioned to Buddhism in the 14th or 15th Century. Of particular interest was Angkor Thom. With “Angkor” meaning temple”, Thom was delighted to learn that “Angkor Thom” means the “Great” Temple.
Built in the 9th to the 15th Century, these archaeological sites offer amazing sculptural detail and beauty. While we didn’t spend nearly as much time there as was possible, it remains a highlight of our trip.
People & Food
I have never before been so aware of being surrounded by thousands of people of Asian Descent. It was not intimidating or unpleasant in any way—just different. And although I’ve traveled to Mexico a great deal, Europe, and even Egypt, this experience felt different. It’s far too easy for those of us in the U.S. to forget that Asians are approximately 2/3rds of the world population. The presence of China and all Asian countries, and the enormity of their population and politics, feels so much more immediate and real when you are visiting this part of the world.
With that said, the people of both Vietnam and Cambodia are friendly and welcoming. They realize that their country benefits by tourism and are determined to be as helpful and kind as possible. Everywhere we went, from the cities to the tiny hamlets off the Mekong Delta, people were gracious, and the children were adorable.
And all the rumors about the quality, presentation and taste of the food is correct. We managed to squeeze in a food tour on our third evening in Hanoi and it was some of the most amazing Vietnamese food I’ve ever tasted. And yes, we sat on little plastic stools, with motor bikes whizzing by, eating with chop sticks, just like Anthony Bourdain on his TV episodes.
Another huge benefit of the trip was the people we met along the way who were also visiting. It likely goes without saying that when you run into people who are visiting such a location you automatically have something big in common. There were a number of people we met from the U.S., but also others from Canada, the U.K., and Australia. I think sharing unique traveling experiences with others bonds people together around a common adventure. We are hoping that some of our friendships will continue into the future.
Our trip was a combination of both self-planning and a tour group. Something Thom really wanted to do was cruise on the Mekong Delta. I found a small group cruise with Avalon Waterways. While our time in Hanoi and Halong Bay was planned by me, the majority of the trip was with what we came to call our “Avalon Family.” And while we know of others who just backpacked their way through the country, we were satisfied with our version of travel.
We began the Avalon tour in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) where we stayed three nights in an extravagant Vegas-type hotel named The Reverie Saigon. With a view of the river and busy roadways on the 32nd floor, we did several local tours before joining our ship The Avalon Siem Reap. There with 24 other passengers we sailed up the wide and murky Mekong Delta toward Cambodia.
The best and easiest part of including this mode of travel was that you didn’t have to think about where you were going to sleep, eat, or what you were going to do most days. Most of the 7-days of the cruise portion of the trip we were treated to visits to small villages along the waterfront where we witnessed life for the majority of the 70 million people who live scattered along the river. Another great thing provided was the variety of transportation options. We traveled by Sampan, a cyclo (a three wheeled bicycle), tuk-tuks (a cart behind a motor bike) an oxcart, and of course cars and buses.
Another favorite part of the trip turned out to be the small city of Siem Reap. After our cruise we stayed here for two nights in the Park Hyatt which was in an excellent area of the city for the “night market” and the infamous “pub street.” During the day we toured the temples and at night we enjoyed the food and some of the fun parts of the town.
The flights to get to Vietnam are long—no way around it. And jet lag has required a weeklong recovery. The other thing to consider is the heat. I purposely selected this time of year because in the Southern part of the country I knew it could get warm, and December is supposed to be the best time of the year. I found that to be relative. To me it was VERY hot and humid and frequently felt our clothing drenched with sweat. While our accommodations had A/C—it is not available on the tours.
The only other thing I didn’t care too much for was all the time we spent in or around cities. We were in Hanoi for 5 nights, Saigon for 3 nights, and Phnom Penn for 2-3 nights. I far prefer the smaller cities or villages. And while I personally like the pace of smaller towns, one fact in the cities you cannot escape—and that is air quality. The cities are filled with vehicle exhaust and smoke from cooking fires, and after a few days it starts irritating the sinuses. There is a big reason why so many wear face-masks. Then even along Mekong we discovered that most families still cook using open-fire which pollutes the air even more. By the end of the trip my nose was in revolt.
I’m so glad we went. We had been talking about this trip for over 10 years on and off. Thom had even wondered if it would be a place we could eventually retire and spend more time. But compared to the 1M expat that live in Mexico, it is estimated that only 100,000 live in Vietnam and they aren’t all from the U.S. I tend to think it is a combination of distance and the contrast of such a different lifestyle. After witnessing the heat of the summer in the south and the quality of the air and water, it isn’t a place we would want to spend more time—and that likely includes even another visit.
Travel enriches our souls. It exposes us to people, culture, history and food like no amount of reading ever can. It shows me that it is impossible not to recognize that all people everywhere are connected by a desire for peace, kindness, hope and love. I now have a deeper understanding of the politics and conflicts that occurred there in the past, as well as a new awareness of potential challenges facing both countries in the future. Our trip to Vietnam & Cambodia will stay firmly in our hearts, while our memories will always include our time as part of the Avalon Family.
Okay, your turn! Have you ever been to Vietnam, Cambodia or elsewhere in Southeast Asia? What were your strongest impressions? In your opinion, what is the BEST thing about travel. Please share in the comments below!