Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for: Indochina: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
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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 Emperors.
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.
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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.
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$35 (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$35 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 sometimes onto the coast, often onto Saigon/HCMC (or the reverse).
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 $20 one
day, $40 three [consecutive]
days, $60 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. Away from the beaten track life gets very cheap, but quality drops like a stone. 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.
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.
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.
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 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: 7/10, at Angkor expect big crowds
Getting around: Take boats wherever possible, roads on the whole are some of the worst in the region, if not the world. 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.
Miss at your peril: Angkor - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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 organize 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.
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).
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. One problem is single
transactions are limited to about $125 (plus your $2.5 charge -
1,000,000 kip and a 20,000 kip fee).
However many machines don't accept international cards and problems
are common, for this reason cash (bigger bills get slightly better
rates) or travellers cheques are better to
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: Any boat is vastly preferable to land transportation. Options are pretty basic with the staples being buses and minivans, the latter might be prefered. There are plenty of 'VIP bus' tickets sold which are far from VIP. The good news now is that some roads have improved. 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 hard work if far off the beaten track.
Air: There are two airlines in Laos, the state carrier Lao Airlines and Lao Air (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 Air have a much more limited network.
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
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 ressit buying the t-shirt!
Miss at your peril: Northern Laos/Vietnam - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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 is difficult to get off (since the country is so thin). 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 tough time 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.
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.
Visa strategy: You no longer
have to specify entry and exit points as older guidebooks state and
the process is now much easier than it used to be. Different
embassies vary in regulations and complexities, the best place (in
terms of price and processing time) to pick up your visa at time of
writing is in Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh, Cambodia or the old
favourite, Bangkok (where you will find many agencies who will
arrange one for you at a small cost to make the process zero hassle). In
general, you (or an agency) will have to submit your application,
passport along with two standard passport photos, and the required
fee to apply for a visa.
Another option for those who are rushed for time or do not want to send the passport away is to pre-arrange a visa on arrival. This can be done online via a number of private companies such as http://ww.vietnamvisa.com/ and http://www.myvietnamvisa.com/ who have agreements with the Vietnamese government to collect passport details and arrange for an "approval letter". This letter allows you to board a flight into Vietnam and you will receive the visa stamp upon entry to the airport in Vietnam. These agencies charge a small fee for their service and in most case, the total works out to be equal or less than the amount charged by Vietnamese embassies and consulates. It must also be noted that visa-on-arrival works only for visitors arriving in Vietnam by air.
Citizens of Japan and South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland are exempt from a visa for 15 days. Citizens of most South East Asian nations get 30 days. Visa extensions are often available with less than 1 week on your ongoing visa, and after 3 extensions, you must get a new visa.
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. 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
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 (rual areas away from major cities), it is recommended to bring sufficient cash with you. (More info on vietnamtravelguide.com).
The Vietnamese are pretty darn organized 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.
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.”
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.
Hot water: Fine in major cities
Average cost: $10
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). Marvellous 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.
Miss at your peril: Northern Laos/Vietnam - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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"