Jacada Travel Journal: Vietnam & Cambodia
I have just returned from an amazing trip to two of South East Asia’s most vibrant and interesting countries, Vietnam and Cambodia. From touring the buzzing streets of Saigon on a vintage Vespa to watching sunrise from a deserted ancient Angkor temple, I loved every minute of exploring these awesome countries…
Day One: Saigon
After arriving in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City is still generally known by its old name), we don’t waste any time before heading straight for brunch at the Intercontinental, where we kick off the trip in style by feasting on lobster, crab, prawns, spicy soups and fois gras, all topped off with free-flowing champagne.
Saigon is a really buzzing city, with a fantastic nightlife of live jazz music and airy, cool rooftop bars. We polish off day one with espresso martinis in the Park Hyatt, which is absolutely stunning.
The traffic in the city is unreal and crossing the road is quite the experience. The streets are heaving with a never-ending flow of bikes and the only way to cross is by slowing walking straight into the traffic, which feels quite strange to say the least. Consistency is the key – Vietnamese drivers are experts are weaving around pedestrians, much like water around a stone, so it’s crucial to keep moving at a steady pace, rather than suddenly stopping or speeding up. The bikes can’t move quickly, due to the sheer volume of traffic, so it’s actually much safer than it might sound!
DAY TWO: CU CHI TUNNELS
Today we travel to the Cu Chi Tunnels – by vintage sidecar, of course. This proves to be a lot of fun and during the two-hour journey we get plenty of stares and are the subjects of many a photo: definitely not a normal sight around these parts!
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a relic of the Vietnam War. These tiny tunnels were created by the Vietcong guerrillas first as shelter during French air raids, and later as communication tunnels and food/weapon storage during the American war. You can crawl through a section of the tunnels, which is not for the claustrophobic, as you will be on your hands and knees with the sides of the tunnel brushing against your shoulders. Remarkably, these tunnels have been substantially widened since they were used in the war, with really makes you realise how narrow and airless they must have been.
DAY THREE: SAIGON
Today we join the locals and explore Saigon’s street food scene, travelling by vintage Vespa (or on the back of a Vespa, at least).
Off we zip to District 4, where we sample a local speciality, snails. Frog legs are also very popular here and we are constantly offered this dish, which is apparently ‘better than chicken’, followed by a look of wide-eyed amazement when we decline: ‘better than chicken!’
More to our taste is the banh xeo, rice pancakes with pork and prawns, and the rich Vietnamese coffee.
Our last stop on our Vespa tour is a speakeasy-style bar outside Saigon’s busy city centre. We enter via an empty courtyard, passing a barking dog yanking on his chain, and climb a flight of stairs, at the top of which we find ourselves in a little candle-lit lounge with a jazz singer entertaining a crowd of people sipping iced tea and cold beers. It’s discovering places like these that make great guided tours pay for themselves.
DAY FOUR: BEN TRE CRUISE
At 8am we leave Saigon and travel to our boat in the Mekong Delta. We are lucky enough to have the whole boat to ourselves.
Once we’re on board, we are given a coconut to sip as we watch the world go by from our daybed. As we slowly cruise along the An Hoa River, we see village life along the Mekong Delta and take in the lush scenery of southern Vietnam.
We stop off at villages along the river banks to learn how coconuts are processed, and then how bricks are traditionally made by hand.
We disembark and take a tri-motorcycle trip through the winding roads that run through villages alongside the river, and arrive at a rice noodle factory; hu tieu is one of the region’s most popular breakfast dishes.
Afterwards, we board a small rowing boat and discover the maze of shaded, narrow canals that form the backwaters of the Delta, before arriving back at our boat for the remainder of the cruise.
DAY FIVE: SIEM REAP
We check in to Raffles Grand d’Angkor, which is simply divine – to the point that we can’t seem to leave, and so we spend the rest of the day by the pool sipping Singapore Slings (as a nod to the original Raffles in Singapore, at which the Singapore Sling was originally created).
In the evening, we have dinner on the hotel’s terrace by the river and watch a traditional Khmer Apsara dance performance.
DAY SIX: TA PROHM
Ta Prohm is such an amazing temple. Often overshadowed by the famous Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm (which you might have seen as a location in films such as Tomb Raider) is stunning, overrun with enormous fig trees, the roots of which have become entwined around the stones of the temple walls.
We watch sunrise here (while everyone else is at Angkor Wat) and we have the whole temple to ourselves: a really magical experience.
Later in the day we make the drive to Banteay Srei temple, which is worth the extra distance if you want to admire the intricate carvings on the red sandstone walls.
DAY SEVEN: ANGKOR WAT & ANGKOR THOM
We finally arrive at Cambodia’s main attraction, the ancient Angkor Wat. Built at the height of the Khmer Empire, between the 9th and 13th centuries, Angkor Wat is a huge, striking temple with carved hallways and tiny shrines tucked into alcoves, many of which are still in use today.
After exploring the temple, we head back to Siem Reap for some lunch before driving back into the Angkor complex to visit Angkor Thom. This enormous temple is known for the countless faces of King Jayavarman VII which look out from the stone walls and pillars in every direction.
DAY EIGHT: TONLE SAP LAKE
Just outside Siem Reap is Tonle Sap Lake, where we get a taste of rural Cambodian life. It was a bit dry when we arrived (the best time to take a boat trip out on the lake is between July and February), but we still managed to see floating markets, schools and even police stations situated around the ‘Great Lake of Cambodia’.
DAY NINE: DANANG & HOI AN
We fly back to Vietnam to continue our journey up the coast.
In the pretty town of Hoi An we take advantage of the hundreds of tailors for which this town is known and get ourselves some custom-made clothes for a fraction of the price it would cost at home.
Hoi An is beautiful, with cobbled streets and vibrant markets. A blend of French colonial and traditional Vietnamese elements, the town oozes charm, with lots of little cafes and al fresco restaurants in which to while away a morning or afternoon.
While we were visiting, it was the Festival of the Full Moon, which is a monthly celebration of street parades, ending with locals lighting a lantern in which there is a wish, and placing it in the Perfume River.
DAY TEN: HOI AN
After a day in Hoi An, we board a local fishing boat for a sunset cruise on the Cua Dai Sea. As the sun slips below the horizon, we watch as fishermen prepare for an evening’s work.
We get taught how to cast the fishing nets and taken on a traditional Vietnamese round basket boat, which is so much fun – our ‘captain’ whizzes up around as if we are on a fairground ride!
DAY ELEVEN: DANANG
We spend most of today at the Fusion Maia, enjoying our private pool, the beautiful beach and two hours of spa treatments.
DAY TWELVE: HALONG BAY
Today we travel to Halong Bay for the final part of our trip. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is absolutely sublime: an expanse of mirror-like water broken by hundreds of towering limestone karsts.
We board our junk boat, the Paradise Luxury, and settle down to a buffet lunch on the deck. Then we explore the Sung Sot grotto, which is full of stalactites hanging from the cave’s high ceiling.
Before dinner we make the most of happy hour (naturally) and enjoy the first evening on board.
DAY THIRTEEN: HALONG BAY
After breakfast, we head off to explore Cat Ba Island, half of which is covered by a national park of thick rainforest. We take the opportunity to climb into a kayak and paddle off by ourselves to explore deserted beaches for some swimming and sunbathing.
Later we return to the boat and, although it’s not encouraged by the staff, we take great pleasure in leaping off the deck and into the cool water below.
Watching the sunset from our private terrace was the perfect note on which to finish our last evening in Halong Bay: this part of the trip has definitely been a highlight.
DAY FOURTEEN: HALONG BAY & HANOI
The morning is spent exploring Luon Cave in a local rowing boat, before we sail back to the jetty for our transfer to Hanoi.
We stay in the Sofitel Legend, which has recently been upgraded. It is so gorgeous, we don’t want to leave!
DAY FIFTEEN: HANOI
We spend our last day in Vietnam exploring Hanoi, a colonial city with cobbled streets, a scenic lake in the middle of the city with a temple at its centre, and a charming Old Quarter.
Our tour takes us around Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, and the Museum of Ethnology, where we learn about Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. We also take in a water puppet show, a cultural performance of music and song unique to this northern region of the country.
In the evening, we wandered through the Old Quarter when everyone sits out on the streets on brightly coloured plastic chairs eating and drinking. A beer costs 50 pence (90 cents), the food is delicious, and there’s such a fun atmosphere: the evening is a pretty amazing way to round off what has been an incredible trip.
I’d love to organise a trip like this for you; all our tours are private and bespoke, so you can pick destinations and activities that fit perfectly with your preferences. Give me a call or drop me an email and we can start planning your amazing trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.