Exploring the Best of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: Indochina’s Greatest Hits
Before you ever set foot in Cambodia, you know that Angkor Wat will be awesome in the original sense of the word. The epic scale, the insanely rich detail, and the haunting abandonment are almost too much to take in. Like a song that gets stuck in your head and plays on a constant loop, Angkor Wat isn’t forgotten easily. The scene only gets better as a tropical tangerine sunset kicks in and the jungle birds all go quiet as if someone flipped a switch. Just—WOW.
Though Angkor Wat is a spectacular finale to a 10-day journey that includes Laos and Vietnam, all along the way you’ll have plenty of show-stopping moments that reveal the beauties of these cultures and countries.
In Laos, you quickly come to appreciate that this is a culture that takes reverence and community seriously while indulging in fun and spirited celebration. Take a spin through Luang Prabang’s night market — what feels like the world’s largest flea market/craft festival/block party/food fair — and you’ll see there’s nothing shy and retiring about the Laos’. But by dawn’s early light, the mood shifts. Buddhist monks walk a barefoot circuit through the town in a silent alms ritual. Our longtime friend and your local guide Toubee entered the monkhood as a boy, so he arranges for you to be welcomed into the ceremony and to offer an allotment of rice to the monks. You connect with Laos’ culture and become a part of a centuries-long tradition in a way that tourists are rarely able to do.
That innate Laotian respectfulness ratchets up to elephant size at the 2,000-acre sanctuary you visit in the unspoiled Nam Khan River Valley. Dedicated to protecting native elephants, the mahouts and conservationists show a real tenderness and concern for the animals. And you? You get a super up-close look at elephants just being elephants. You can even go right into the river with them as they use their trunks for a good hose-down bath.
In Vietnam, it’s the energy of the people that takes your breath away. Picture this day: You wake in Saigon, one of the most revved up cities anywhere. Fast forward (but only an hour or two!), and you’re floating on a long-tailed boat on the Mekong River. At Cam Son Bridge, a beach cruiser bike with a cushy saddle is waiting for you. And your local guide Phong leads your low-tech pack along narrow country lanes that are completely off the usual tourist circuit. As you pedal past a rice paddy, a farmer is likely to straighten up, greet you with a “xin chao!” and wade to the edge for a talk about the weather or his family. Farther on, your new friend Hai Cu invites you to grab a fruit from one of the trees in his orchard. Back to the water, a sampan drops you off for lunch at a family house.
It’s a quiet life, but quite lively too. Case in point: a remarkable morning on Halong Bay. While you’re still getting your caffeine infusion on the deck of the luxury junk where you spent the night, the fishermen are out. Ignoring the scenic limestone crags reflected in the emerald water, they’re casting nets and calling to one another. It’s cinematic as can be, but it’s real too — the kind of moment that puts you in touch with the country (not to mention some of the inner peace that’s hard to come by at home).
Where will your “aha” moments happen? Maybe in a chat with schoolchildren in a small country school near Hanoi. Or in the Cu Chi tunnels under Saigon. Or learning how to wrap the perfect spring roll with a local cook. What’s totally predictable is that you’ll come home from Indochina with your own personal list of greatest hits … and a true feel for the rich cultures of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.