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Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for:
Many thanks to Trevin for his insightful and great updates.
Indochina, or French Indochina, was a federation
of French colonies and protectorates. It consisted of Cochin China,
Tonkin, Annam (all of which now form Vietnam), Laos
and the Khmer Republic (now Cambodia). France started assuming sovereignty
after the Franco-Chinese War (1884–1885). The federation lasted
until 1954. The capital was Hanoi. There was a series of puppet
Today it is backpacker central. Expect large crowds of white-faced 20somethings, selfie-sticks and inflated senses of travel self-esteem at every notable turn.
is easy to access from Thailand and normally combined as part
of a trip to Thailand's beaches and islands (using Bangkok as a either an entry or exit point to
Once - and during the period Vietnam/Laos was opening to travelers and Cambodia was become safe to visit - the stomping group for experienced travellers and trailbazers, it is now easy to travel. Regular flights from Bangkok can carry you to parts that would before take days to reach and there is a well established traveler route. Nevertheless it is far poorer than most of Thailand and especially in Laos it is easy to find yourself in another world than the backpacker hubs several towns/villages have become.
What follows are only basic snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!).
All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out), to see why click here.
It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home, head for www.travelindependent.info
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: In a nut-shell, there are perhaps three reasons why Cambodia is the new top destination in Southeast Asia. One it sounds pretty adventurous and still is to a degree, second it's close to Thailand and [three] finally it contains one of the greatest wonders in the world - Angkor. The beaches such those around Kompong Som (aka. Sihanoukville) are below par against the high regional standard, better in Thailand and less crowded in South Vietnam (although some of the surrounding areas are very beautiful). Getting around can be a major a pain (in the arse - literary in most cases) and there is not too much to do of real interest that the rest of Asia (outside SE Asia) can't offer. However, few places in the world rival Angkor and it alone is reason enough to head to Cambodia.
Visa strategy: You can now get a tourist visa on-arrival in Cambodia at all airports and most main land border points with Thailand, so you don't need to obtain one in advance. If you still want to get one in advance, the easiest way is to apply online for an 'e-visa' or arranged in Bangkok, where the cheapest agencies which will do the leg work for you.
In an effort to boost tourism, the e-visa was established and you can apply for a single entry tourist e-visa on line, by filling out a form and paying by credit card. You'll need a JPEG or GIF photo and won't be able to use an e-visa on every crossing point. More details here.
Highlights: The temples of Angkor and learning something about the country's murderous past. The jury is out on hanging-out in Phnom Penh's traveller/expat bars and restaurants. It is hard not to like Koh Rong (a tropical jungle island of dreams, now firmly supplanting Sihanoukville as the go to beach destination), but it is hard to see how the whole archipelago won't go the way of Thailand's main resorts.
Lowlights: Road travel, package type tourists and massive development at Angkor. The hassle, especially in Phnom Penh, is awful and tuk tuk drivers wait outside your hostel to offer you hookers and meth at all hours. The jury is out on Sihanoukville (Cambodia's original beach destination). A bizarre little place. Just a line of beach bars all offering pretty much the same thing. The cleanliness of the water is questionable and it is not that idyllic, As with all Cambodia's tourist hot spots, the is quite a bit of hassle.
There are now six full international border crossings between Cambodia and Thailand; all are open 07:00-20:00 and Visa on Arrival is available at every single one, official tourist visa price is US$30 (you have to pay in USD notes to get this price) but in practice you're likely to have to pay more in Baht notably at Poipet and Koh Kong where officials like to inflate the price. At the airports of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, the cost is US$30 plus 2 photos. See Laos for Cambodia to Laos border crossing details. There is also a small 'health check' charge.
Dangers: Nowadays, you're not really likely to get blown up sticking to the tourist trail, but do take care the country still has thousands of undiscovered landmines. The north and east can be lawless if you spend the days getting there. Watch out for sun-burn riding on the roof of the boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Bag snatching continues to be a problem in Phnom Penh.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Normally very hot, avoid May-July. Christmas is the best and most crowded time to visit weather wise.
Typical tourist trail: From Bangkok to Siem Reap which is the gateway town for Angkor, then by boat to the capital Phnom Penh (PP) and increasingly often onto a coastal resort or Koh Rong. Then onto Saigon/HCMC (or the reverse). The northeast region has the same landscape and tribes as the central highlands of Vietnam and the Vietnamese side has better facilities.
Costs: Cambodia is cheap. Nonetheless, it is
getting more expensive in places and there is some foreigner pricing (for
example, the boat from Phnom Penh to
Reap), coupled with the entrance pass to Angkor (around $37 one
day, $62 three [consecutive]
days, $72 for longer (still worth every penny) - but this is bound to
rise) costs do mount up.
With the great in flux of tourists, more and more western treats are found for sale. However a can of diet coke in the jungle won't be any cheaper than in a pricey corner store in your home country despite the fact Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. On the whole certainly cheaper than Thailand, perhaps more expensive than Nepal/Laos. Hotels are good value. Consider US$25-35 per day, excluding entry fees to Angkor.
Like most of the world's poorest countries Cambodia works in USD and everything that costs more than 4000 riel is priced in dollars (and probably imported)
Money: You can now find a few international ATMs in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, but it is advisable to take cash - USD or THB. Travellers cheques can be cashed with normal ease when in either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. If heading away from larger cities, stick with cash. USDs are widely accepted and everything that costs more than 4000 riel is priced in dollars.
Locals: Smiling, friendly locals, who have learnt to say 'one dollar' very quickly. This 'give me your American money' attitude can jade experiences - similar to when tourists first came en masse to Vietnam. After all Cambodia is a notably poor country with 50% of the population living on less than a dollar twenty a day.
Other travellers: Lots of package type tourists and Japanese at Angkor. Quite a lot of want-to-be hardcore backpackers with a supercilious attitude towards others who really seem to think they are doing something cool and different. Please, this is South East Asia!
Tourist factor: 8/10, at Angkor expect big crowds
Getting around: Take boats wherever possible, roads on the whole are some of the worst in the region, but on main highways now quite passable. Ferries are normally safe, but overloading can be a problem. Boat traffic is generally frequent enough that at least one boat a day departs for most destinations. However, the three main routes to Phnom Penh (from Siem Reap, Sisophon, and Sihanoukville) are all sealed and in good condition and over the past few years there has been many improvements on other roads, (Phnom Penh to Battambang - 3.5 hours / Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - 5-6 hours). Most other roads are unpaved dirt, most in abysmal condition. The only passenger train travels very slowly from Phnom Penh to Battambang every other day.
Getting there: If you have the spare cash it's recommended to fly in and out of the country (unless you're a sucker for punishment, but note the international departure tax is quite pricey). From Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, there are now daily or almost daily flights direct to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. For those who can't/won't afford the luxury of a plane, many tourist geared mini-buses operate from the Khao San Road. Although much, much better than in previous years the road from Thailand is still in a bad state. For full details of road transport from Bangkok to Cambodia, you are directed to the excellent detail and images on the Tales of Asia site. Either way, getting to see Angkor is now very easy. The downside is of course tourist numbers have gone through the roof compared to the 90's and 00's.
book: Lonely Planet widely used, good Angkor section, available
for around US$10 in Siem Reap, but not really needed. Other good
just Angkor guides available on site; an outstanding guidebook for
Angkor is "Ancient Angkor - by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques"
very informative with suggested itineraries, tips for the best
places for sunrise and sunset, and easy to follow to navigate the
ruins on your own . The local kids all sell copies of the guide
books - well worth the investment!
For a full list of regional guides and other reading please click here.
Accommodation: Great mid-range hotels at good prices, easy in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Hot water: Never a problem in major towns
Average cost: $15-30, great mid range rooms in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Like elsewhere in the region, off the beaten track and outside big cities, basic accommodation can be found very cheap.
Communications: Internet easy in major towns
Books: Some expensive book shops in Phnom Penh. Many books to read regarding Cambodia's infamous past and the spilling over of the Vietnam war into Cambodia
TV/WiFi: Cable TV and plentiful Wi-Fi in main city hotels and bars
Food: Limited choice and for what you get, by Asian standards, can be expensive with a strong dependency on imports.
Vegetarians: No problem
Hassle and annoyance factor: 4/10, touts in Siem Reap and a few beggars. Frustrating 'one dollar' attitude in Siem Reap around temples. Recent reports of motorcycle bag snatching in Phnom Penh.
Women alone: Not a problem in our experience however as the country has become more toursity, e-mailed comments suggest otherwise. With reports of frequent harassment and feelings of being very uncomfortable, along with notes of Cambodia being considered one of the most dangerous places for a single women to travel. This of course will depend on destinations within the country and individual experiences, but recent reports come from experienced travellers and are worth noting.
Local poisons for the body: Great (but not overly cheap) draught beer and pool in Phnom Penh. Grass no longer that widely available, but still about. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap you can find Happy Herb pizzerias where you might get an extra topping, but the police crack down occasionally.
Rating: With Angkor 9/10, without 5/10.
For those that don't know, Angkor is a collection of temples in North West Cambodia close to Siem Reap. The most iconic, biggest and frequently pictured (shown above and on the national flag) is Angkor Wat. Contained in the Angkor Archaeological Park stretching over some 400 sq. km, most dense forested area, Angkor contains the spectacular remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire dating from the 9th to the 15th century. See Google Map image.
The most popular and largest temples are Angkor Wat at Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple with its many faces looking like something straight out of Tomb Raider. Equally popular are temples where huge trees have grown on and in the stonework enveloping it in roots. The main temples are quite well restored, but many temples are in a bad shape of repair and much damage/vandalism has done over the years. In all temples the level of detail in the stone work is exceptional. To a certain extent the appeal is the sheer scale of the area and the 'discovering a lost temple in the jungle' feel you'll get at many smaller sites which have almost become one with the jungle and are away from the tourist trail which focuses on the larger grander temples. The larger/popular temples will see huge visitor numbers, more so at peak times of the day/year.
The temples can broadly be categorised into four groups: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the grandest temple of all and the ancient capital next to it. The Little Circuit, taking in major sites to the east of Angkor Thom. The Big Circuit, taking in major sites north and further out east. The Roluos group, 15 km east from Siem Reap along National Highway 6. The Outlying temples, located over 20 km for Angkor Wat. You'll need at least 2-3 days to get a good feeling for it all - there's plenty of information on these temples and routes in any guidebook and local archaeological guides can be hired easily for around US$20-30.
To get the best out of Angkor you'll really need to find some space away from the big crowds and tour groups. This can be done by getting up early (it opens at five) and avoiding the famous temples and peak times as well as heading to outlying areas. Transport is an issue due to the complex's size and Angkor is pretty hot and humid year round - you could get around Angkor Wat and other nearby temples on a bicycle, but really you'll need more than pedal power and the heat makes it hard work. Tuk-Tuks, motorbikes or cars with drivers are the most popular options from US$10-30 a day (cheaper for motorbikes). The very best option is your own transport and the freedom this gives you can't be beat. In Siem Reap renting motorbikes to foreigners (without a driver) is banned and is difficult (not impossible) to get around. Best bet is hire elsewhere and bring it along. Tour buses should be avoided as they visit few sites, are crowded and give no freedom.
There is literary tonnes of information regarding visiting Angkor on the internet and in loads of details. So this section has been left a little light. Wikitravel is a good place to start.
Back when roads were shocking and Cambodians remembered former guerilla activity and coups, visitors to Angkor were few and far between. Today access is easy with direct flights and a booming Asian travel. More than two million foreign visitors come to Angkor each year and these number will only increase with more Chinese traveling. If you want to beat the crowds it is tough, but off-season away from European or Chinese holidays is best. The site opens from 0500 to 1800 and the first and last hours are quietest plus lunch time.
A temple called Banteay Chhmar is ~100km to the north of the main Angkor complex and is the most remote of the 74 accessible sites. By car it takes more than three hours, but some think it is worth it. In Laos Wat Phou (in the south near Pakse) sees very few visitors and our top recommendation is even further away: Hampi, in Central India (West of Goa) rivals Angkor in magnificence, but gets only 47,000 foreign visitors a year. Ref
It is worth noting that authorities won't sell you a pass (see price details in costs section) if they deem you are wearing revealing clothes. So no short, shorts or showing off too much flesh. It is easy to forget it, but this is a religious site.
Intro: Alongside Myanmar, Asia's hippest destination, from Beijing to Islamabad, the name Laos is being whispered among backpackers as some fantastic, esoteric, void of tourists destination. Sorry, it's not. As nice as it is, many parts are becoming an extended run from Thailand. If you want to see Laos you need to spend the time and effort getting to the hill tribe areas in the north (this is best done to or from China). The idea is that since tourists have only been allowed into Laos since 1989, you will be something of a novelty and have the opportunity to see the, if not the last bit of, 'real' Southeast Asia. Well the really interesting days have pasted ten to twenty years back, which is where many of the stories come from. Laos is a nice destination and the north is unique, but on the whole, especially the Luang Prabang - Vientiane run, you may see more tourists than in Thailand, after all it is just next door. If you do spend the time and effort travelling further a-field you will be a novelty, but you would have earned it, as overland, (non-river) transport is hard work where unpaved roads run out.
Visa strategy: Get your visa for 15 or 30 days in Bangkok or on arrival at the Friendship bridge and most border crossings or all Lao International airports. A Laos visa in Vietnam is much more expensive than in Bangkok where it is easy to obtain. In Bangkok it's possible to get a one month visa in one working day. The cost, if you go yourself to the embassy at 8am and collect it in the afternoon should be around THB1400 (for most western nationalities, cheaper for Asians & Israelis, more expensive for Canadians, Americans, Japanese or Germans).
Typical tourist trail: Chang Mai (north Thailand)
into Laos at Huay Xai crossing, boat to Luang Prabang with an overnight
stop. Bus to Vangviang then Vientiane (or in reverse). Then sometimes
back to Thailand or the bumpy ride onto Vietnam. Luang Prabang is
now very popular with the older type and package travellers. Backpacker types seems to stick to the
new town of Luang Prabang (old city is a
bit expensive, on budget travel South East standards) and to Vang Vieng
(which is a major traveller hang-out).
The improvement of the road network in Laos has changed the route of the typical tourist trail in recent years with a more north-south trail forming. Nong Khiaw, Luang Nam Tha, and the motorbike loops from Tha Khek and Pakse are entering the backpacker scene and have decent guesthouses and restaurants. Don Det is becoming a major hangout, (however Don Khon is actually nicer with more attractions).
The overland border between Laos and Cambodia - long closed is now open. For years this border attracted a lot of attention from elite type backpackers. Original info was to go to Don Det island, (south from Don Khong) then to the Friendship cafe (or something else like that). At the boat landing you can organise a boat to the road then a truck down to the Laos border. At the border you must pay to get stamped out of Laos. Some guest houses in Kratie may try to sell you the ticket for US$50. The border crossing is in the middle of forest and there is pretty much nothing else there than a few customs officials and a bad road in Laos side. You may not find any transportation at the border and what you do find is likely overpriced. At the Cambodian border, pay again. This crossing is now much easier and frequently used - but there is still no visa on arrival.
Highlights: Luang Prabang, Northern hill tribe areas, Muang Sing, a river boat trip and Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the south. The newly opened crossing Northern crossing from Laos to Vietnam (Than Hoa, via Sam Neua) is spectacular, but transport is quite difficult and you'll need some spare time. Friendly border staff, who still find westerners a novelty. The far north and Wat Phou in the south near Pakse, (a world heritage site Khmer era ruin with hardly any visitors),
Lowlights: Vientiane and Muang Vangviang (aka. Vangviang - nice, but now nothing but an over-developed backpacker town - karst mountains and caves in China more impressive)
Dangers: There is of course much unexploded ordinance in rural areas. Carry an ID document or passport at all times. You will be heavily fined if you don't present ID on request.
Costs: Cheap, even with eating like a king US$20-35 a day is fine. However, boat trips and air fares are normally subject to foreigner pricing and drain your funds a little. The cheapest part of Laos is everything south of Savannakhet, including the gorgeous 1000 island region on the Mekong. The popular (and plausible) explanation for this is that since Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, the north has been flooded with tourists. The Vientiane/Vang Vieng/Luang Prabang route is more expensive than the rest of the country, although the entire country is still a great deal.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: You will not be able to travel happily by road to the north and south of the country in the wet season, but high rivers make river travel possible at and after this time of year.
Money: ATMs are now available in most Laotian cities,
including but not limited to Luang Nam Tha and Huay Xai. Savannakhet
and Pakse have been reported with ATM machines.
BCEL is the most common and reliable bank. Many machines
don't accept international cards and problems are common.
Those that work, work well and will normally also dispense
The Laotian Kip (currency) comes in small notes and takes some carrying if you change a lot at once. Of late the Lao government encourages pricing and paying in Kip (rather than hard currencies like the USD or Thai Baht (THB)) - all places now obey to this rule, even they will still change THB, EUR or USD over the counter if needed. To this intent, there have been new issues of larger Kip bank notes. This allows much easier transactions in Kip, but you will still see larger items priced in THB or USD.
Water: Fast boats (aka. speed boats - tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds with you wedged into a small space) give you the thrill of your life. On reflection, they are not that safe, but are amazing on say the Nam Ou river if there is enough water. Note these are becoming less common as the government looks to phase then out due to environmental concerns. Slow boats are more relaxed, but a little too noisy to really relax. Most travellers will go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai Xai downstream with one or a combination of these boats.
Land: A boat is preferable to land transportation. The road quality is actually now not too bad, but options are pretty basic when compared to Thailand with the staples being buses and minivans, the latter might be preferred. There are plenty of 'VIP bus' tickets sold which are far from VIP. The good news is that some roads have improved massively. For example Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha (LNT) is totally paved or sealed, reducing the travel time from 10 hours before to 4 hours, making LNT an easy (and worthwhile) destination to reach. Even with some okay buses and roads, and great improvements in the last few years, getting off the beaten track and getting around by road can still be hard work with 80% of roads unpaved. River transport is such a blessing in many cases where alternatives might only be the back of a truck. Like in Cambodia, travelling in Laos is harder work if far off the beaten track.
Air: There are two airlines in Laos, the state carrier Lao Airlines and Lao Skyways (domestic only). Most end up using Lao Airlines and the airline operates dual pricing for foreigners and fares can be expensive compared to Asian budget airlines. Nonetheless it has a good network is by far the fastest, easiest and most comfortable way of reaching many parts of the country. Lao Skyways have a much more limited network4.
Guide book: Rough Guide. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please click here.
Locals: Some foreigner pricing, but generally friendly
Other travellers: As with Cambodia, some want-to-be hard core travellers, generally the normal 'Banana Pancake' crowd. Fewer older and package tourists than in Thailand.
Tourist factor: 8/10 to 4/10, depending on how much punishment your arse/butt takes getting somewhere
Accommodation: Some nice places, often basic, but very cheap
Hot water: Limited, only in bigger towns
Average cost: US$10-15, more expensive in Vientiane
Communications: Internet in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Vangviang and anywhere where tourists lerk
Media: Limited, but developing all the time (by the time you read this, the way things are going there will be a 10 screen cinema complex in Vangviang).
Food: Brilliant food in Lunag Prabang, god bless the French for bringing their bread and little triangles of cream cheese. Food limited to rice outside major backpacker centres. Overall Lao food is great and many Lao say that the Thais stole their cuisine, but because most Lao don't have disposable income you need to be invited into someone's home to try some local food (or find one of the great Lao restaurants in Bangkok).
Vegetarians: Generally fine
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Fine, beware of Buddhist and local customs
Local poisons for the body: Opium and grass readily available in most of the country. Great beer, but do us all a favour and resist buying the t-shirt!
Intro: "Me love you long time" - who wouldn't
want to go to Vietnam having heard so much about it and seeing it so
many times in movies and/or growing up with the country as typifying
a world beyond our access or understanding? Nonetheless what the average
traveller will find is quite removed from the expectation.
Vietnam is full of backpacker crowds and package tours, running up and down a tourist trail (which actually draws most visitors away from other harder to get to highlights). Distances are large and, apart from the far North, attractions aren't that great, but you can easily relax and have a good time - if you don't mind being part of a production line - because travel is damn easy, with cheap pre-arrange tours for everything. Expect attempts to rip you off, a little effort/time needed getting off the tourist trail and loads of tourists rather than tracer fire, opera blasting from helicopters and the smell of napalm in the morning.
Nevertheless, Vietnam is probably the cheapest cheapest country in the typical mainland SE Asia loop and with far less hassle than in Cambodia these days. Vietnamese are open and welcoming towards foreigners. The visa is as easy. The food is great and there are a few great spots away from the typical north-south crowds.
Visa strategy: Getting a Vietnam visa previously incurred a modicum of hassle.
Today it is getting easier and easier. Firstly you no longer
have to specify entry and exit points as older guidebooks state and
the process is more a less simple with several countries now visa
exempt (Japan and South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and
Finland - 30 days, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy - 15
days). Many other nationalities are able to get a visa on arrival or visa
via the e-visa system that covers
40 countries and avoids waiting at airport for issue.
The process gets more complex if you are arriving via a lesser used land border or airport, or require more than 30days. Visa extensions are often available with less than 1 week on your ongoing visa, and after 3 extensions, you must get a new visa.
The e-visa site is https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/ - just ignore all the companies trying to sell you visa services on line - there is no need for most to use these any more.
Lowlights: Hassle, crowds, foreigner pricing, poverty, the tour factor (see below), distances and the fixed tourist trail. Some war sights like the DMZ can be very boring if you have only a limited interest.
Typical tourist trail: One way or the other: Ho Chi Minh City - formerly Saigon (tunnels and delta), Na Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and sometimes the far north. The countryside outside of Ninh Binh is also getting more and more tourism. A full tour (getting from top to bottom including the delta and far north) takes at least a month.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hill areas (Sa Pa and high northern areas) get cold in winter, coastal areas can be very wet and the delta can experience flooding
Costs: Pretty good value for money, if you stick to the tourist oriented transport and avoid foreigner priced transport. Consider US$25-40 per day. Vietnam to easily be the cheapest country in the typical mainland SE Asia loop.
Money: ATMs are plentiful in Hanoi and HCMC, with ATMs upon arrival at both international airports and usually found every 3-5 blocks within the central parts of the cities. Most other tourist destinations have at least one ATM, but for destinations off-the-beaten path (rural areas away from major cities), it is recommended to bring sufficient cash with you. (More info on vietnamtravelguide.com).
What to take: Some patience to deal with the Vietnamese touts.
Road: The best sense is in buying hop-on-hop-off bus tickets at bargain prices (like US$50-70) for Saigon to Hanoi. As much as you may hate the idea or a quasi-tour bus, it's the way to go as you will stick with a set route anyway and public transport is such a pain - of course go with a good, established company. Roads from Hon Ai up are bad and in the north are terrible. Distances are large, you will probably need to travel overnight (buses get cold). Do not under-estimate the time you will need to spend travelling if sticking to land. When tackling the far north, the hiring of private transport is the best option, whether a 4WD and driver arranged in Hanoi shared in a group or, for the more adventurous, a motorbike.
Trains: Certainly more expensive than buses, but now foreigner pricing free, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1723-kilometer trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi in one go is more than 30 hours. Purchase tickets early (a few days in advance if possible and watch holiday seasons) as there is high demand notably for the better AC Soft or hard sleeper. Tour companies and travel agents tend to buy all tickets up early. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station or travel agents (but some scams) - a train is rarely sold out for real. There are also shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai for Sapa on which you can take a motorbike.
Air: The fastest way to travel the length of this long country. From Hanoi to HCMC will take about 2 hours by plane. The major domestic airline in Vietnam is Vietnam Airlines. However are many flights connecting the two largest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, to major towns such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Phu Quoc. Prices are not too bad if you need to save time and some can be booked on-line. A recent list of domestic carriers: Vietnam Airlines, VietJet and Air Mekong (with short inter-city flights).
Air Mekong has stopped service and Vietjet Air has grown into a major service provider for air travel in Vietnam, making up nearly 40% of total domestic market.
Water: There are hydrofoil services in some places - from Ha Long to Mong Cai on the border with China, from Hai Phong to Cat Ba and from Ho Chi Minh City to various destinations in the Mekong, for example. A recent innovation is a well-appointed 26-cabin cruise boat that plies up and down the Bassac River between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.
A good resource is the original (and now slightly out-dated) Peter M. Geiser Vietnam travel FAQ or TravelFish.
The Vietnamese are pretty darn organised when it comes to making money from tourists and there is a bewildering variety of tours available for everything you could ever want to do. These on the whole are good through to brilliant value. You just have to get use to tour group mentality as it is normally cheaper - and a hell of a lot easier - than doing the same thing yourself. Shop around, after a day trying to choose a trip (to Halong Bay for example) you'll probably fail to see the difference between tours and go with the cheapest. That would get you three excellent days, two nights, a nice hotel and the knowledge you'd be on the same boat as many travellers paying more. Delta tours are fairly boring with a lot of driving and the same can be said of DMZ tours. Party boat trips in Na Trang are fun if you have the stamina and go with the right crowd. For the far north it is better to spend the extra to hire a car and driver or motorbike rather than take a tour. A good tip (this goes for buses too) is to go to the agency you booked at rather than letting the bus pick you up at your hotel. That way you won't get picked up last and have to cram yourself in right at the back [or the bus] - excellent advice when roads are bumpy.
The nature of the hop-on-hop-off bus tickets in Vietnam actually make it easier to get off the beaten track with most travelers only visit places on the tour bus route. The central highlands have cool tribal cultures and great coffee. Many American war history sites and are nearly void of backpackers. Phong Nha Ke Bang national park is amazing and beautiful: nothing is quite like descending into the earth in Paradise cave. Other popular tours include the Mekong Delta and Ha Giang (far north).
Disappointing in places. Easy Rider trips from Dalat, although expensive are really good fun and a great insight into the country. This is the only way I managed to get of the tourist trail. Best way to eat and drink is on the street, just look for child size chairs. In general, Vietnam is a very safe place, with low levels of violent crime and a low threat of terrorism or other dangerous activities. Theft, however, is becoming increasingly common, and visitors should take precautions, especially with small electronics which are easily "misplaced.”
I came across your site while searching for a packing list are prepared for a trip to SE Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia). It was very useful and then I enjoyed browsing the rest of the site. I wanted to report back on Vietnam as I got kind of a negative vibe - yes, there is a well-beaten tourist trail and yes, the hassle in places along it can be a pain, but with a little effort you CAN get off the beaten path, and it is very rewarding! We travelled up to Ha Giang and Cao Bang provinces in NE Vietnam - absolutely amazing scenery and western tourists are still few. Other less-travelled spots include Phong Nha Ke-Bang in central Vietnam (and from what we heard, the beaches in nearby Dong Hoi are blissfully quiet and cleaner than most). The Mekong Delta outside of places like Can Tho/My Tho also don't see many tourists. Our visit there was so enjoyable that we really want to go back - next time perhaps NW mountains and on into Laos.
Guide book: Rough Guide. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please (including war reading material) click here
Locals: In Saigon and the south, hassle is less, no is taken for an answer and locals are polite. However this is contrasted in the north where voices can be less welcoming. Very tourist weary feel in many places.
Other travellers: Loads of tourists from all walks of life.
Tourist factor: 8/10
Counterfeit goods: Buy music and software in Hanoi, books in Saigon and clothes in Hoi An
Accommodation: Accommodation can be fairly grim concrete block type cells, but nicer rooms can be found in many parts of the country.
Books: Huge choice of cheap pirated copied books in Saigon (buy them there, the choice is limited at best in the north). Many great books on the war, highly recommended are 'Dispatches' by Michael Herr and 'Chicken Hawk' by Robert Mason
Wi-Fi/TV: Plentiful and fastest Wi-fi in most places, cable TV in mid-range hotels, cafes play latest release films
Food: Loads of excellent choices. The 'Banana Split' Cafe in Na Trang highly recommended, but which one? (The lack of copyright law in Vietnam sometimes makes life complicated). Marvelous fruit and variety, delicious Dragon fruit alone makes a visit worthwhile.
Vegetarians: Lots or seafood. It is recommendable to memorise "no meat" in Vietnamese. Count on a diet comprised of baguettes, fried rice with vegetables and fried noodles with vegetables. In Saigon in the touristy area there is a street with many (good and cheap) vegetarian restaurants. In Hanoi vegetarian restaurants are more fancy and expensive.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Difficult in the flustered south, a real pain in the north. Crossing the road is great fun and a good challenge for the day!
Women alone: Fine
Local poisons for the body: Party boats in Na Trang top even the 'all you can drink' Zambezi trips in Victoria Falls. If excess is your thing don't miss taking one. On the illegal side, grass as the US army discovered is normally available.
The best source of planning information is Trailblazer's 'Asia Overland'. Although the Cambodia (and some others) chapter is very out-of-date, the rest is superb. There is a new version of this book out that focuses just on South East Asia. It is a fantastic guide made up of hand drawn maps packed with great information. It's called South-East Asia: A Graphical Guide and is by the same author as Asia Overland - Mark Elliott.
For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
"From a certain point onwards there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached"