One witnessed two decades of mid-20th century conflict; the other saw a genocide claiming the lives of up to three million. Today, Vietnam and Cambodia have largely shaken off their pasts to emerge as vibrant and enterprising nations known – as much as anything – for the warmth with which they welcome visitors
When I announced a trip to Vietnam in 1999 just about everyone looked at me with a mix of disbelief and “he’s finally flipped” – few were visiting the former war-torn land back then. How times change. Today it – and neighbour Cambodia – are positive nations, proudly moving beyond recent history whilst acknowledging the scars of the past.
Vietnam now vies with confidence as it attempts to steal the thunder of South East Asian darling Thailand, whilst Cambodia’s growth is typified by imaginative tours, both charming boutique and seriously high-end hotels, and the allure of experiencing a still-emerging land.
Tourism does, of course, have a habit of encroaching on those charms that attracted people in the first place. So how do you get the best out of two captivating countries bound-up in timeless traditions, vibrant cultures and thought-provoking history?
“It really pays to speak to experts,” advises Gemma Wilson of Selective Asia, a Daily Telegraph award-winning tour operator. “These countries might now be considered ‘mainstream’ but you’re travelling a long way so you really want to make sure you get the best out of them.”
Steve Pettitt, of Tunbridge Wells-based Pettitts Travel, agrees: “It is possible to visit both countries under your own steam but what you need is an operator that can tell you how to maximise your time, give you tips on the best places to stay, and open-up the expertise of staff who travel regularly to the region.”
PICK OF THE BEST
For culture. Pettitts Travel (www.pettitts.co.uk) has a 14-day trip focusing on Cambodia’s riches – natural and man-made – and following in the footsteps of the powerful Khmer empire and through a land blessed with great cultural antiquity and spectacular landscapes. From £3,335 including flights.
For families. Selective Asia (www.selectiveasia.com) has a 10-day Cambodia Family Adventure from £4,714 based on two adults and two children (excluding flights). While for older children the options in Vietnam include camping by lake Lak in the country’s central highlands and a vespa tour of Saigon. The 14-day Vietnam with Ease starts from £1,461 per person based on three or four people excluding flights.
For the First-Timer. The 14-day Vietnam – Land of the Ascending Dragon from www.pettitts.co.uk is ideal for first-time visitors. It includes many of the country’s ‘must see’ highlights but at a relaxed pace. From £2,980 including flights.
For honeymooners. Both countries are excellent honeymoon destinations where traditions and culture blend with high-end hotels, spectacular beaches and an abundance of spa pampering. For serious luxury, selectiveasia.com features the stunning Song Saa island, an hour’s boat ride off Cambodia’s coast, whilst for those wanting to pack it all in, Pettitts has a 20-day Best of Indochina, which also includes Laos, from £4,250 including flights. Selective Asia also offers a number of suitably romantic experiences such as a private junk on Vietnam’s Halong Bay that can be incorporated into its tailor-made itineraries with prices starting from £2,762 (excluding flights) for the 14-day Vietnam in Style.
For foodies. This part of the world has a rich culinary history and Pettitts has a 13-day journey showcasing Vietnam’s melting pot of regional influences, natural ingredients, bustling markets, street-side cafes and fine dining. From £2,585 including flights.
For the returning visitor. These countries have so much to offer it’s not uncommon for travellers to be plotting their return. Selective Asia has a 16-day Vietnam: Beyond the Ordinary from £2,527 (excluding flights) and Pettitts offers the 19-day Hidden Treasures of Cambodia from £3,950 (including flights).
• Other operators include www.audleytravel.com; www.trailfinders.com; www.transindus.co.uk; www.buffalotours.com
David Pettitt of Pettitts Travel in Tunbridge Wells offers some first-hand insider tips:
Vietnam. Something to take advantage of is that British passport holders can travel visa-free to Vietnam for up to 15 days. This saves a lot of hassle and means last minute trips can be planned. The visa-free travel period has been extended until June 2021.
• When paying by cash, double-check your bank notes because a 10,000 Dong note looks very similar to a 100,000!
Cambodia. The temples of Angkor are a must-see and complexes at Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are extraordinary. However, take the time to visit the lesser known ones.
• Few people realise Cambodia has a lovely coastline much less developed than neighbouring Thailand. The small seaside town of Kep is a delightful place to spend a few days with stunning views across to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island.
Tourists flock to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It is possible, though, to truly experience the largest religious monument in the world away from the hoards, as Selective Asia’s Danielle Uphill explains: “Really good guides understand the importance of minimising the impact of crowds. Along with their exceptional knowledge of each temple, they know how best to avoid the bus-loads of visitors, accessing the temples via lesser-known approaches, and at quieter times of day.”
• The most famous of them all, Angkor Wat covers an impressive 200 hectares with courtyards, towers, a central temple surrounded by a thick retaining wall and an imposing moat nearly 200 metres wide.
• Bayon is a three-tiered pyramid temple that sits at the exact centre of Angkor Thom. Its most distinctive feature is the multitude of huge smiling faces carved into 49 towers staring down from all angles.
• A temple left in much the same condition as when it was found, Ta Prohm is arguably the most photogenic and atmospheric of the entire Angkor site.
Escaping the crowds
Located 25 miles east of the main temples, Beng Mealea is on the scale of Angkor Wat but utterly consumed by jungle, its collapsed ruins as yet un-restored.
Another complex abandoned for centuries to the forests, the 10th century capital of Koh Ker is a two-hour drive from Siem Reap. And the Roluos group of temples date back to pre-Angkor times and are thought to be the earliest permanent ones built by the Khmer.
You can gaze down on the stalagmite-like towers and carved sandstone walls to see the magnificent temples of Angkor on a microlight flight. As the pilot expertly guides you through the sky, you’ll have jaw-dropping aerial views as you soar over the crowds below.
You are invited to walk over, under and amongst the majority of temples. At certain times of year some may be behind rope (for restoration work) but a good guide will be able to minimise any impact on your visit.
Unless stated all holidays quoted are per person based on two people travelling. They were correct at the time of writing but may be subject to change based on availability and dates of travel.
Images © Pettitts & Selective Asia