Visual Itineraries’ marketing coordinator, Andrea Zenn, recently returned from a 3 month trip through southeast Asia. Here’s the story of her adventure…
I flew into Hanoi and stayed overnight to adjust to the time, weather and cultural changes. The biggest culture shock came from the traffic, which would be so dense with cars, buses, and mopeds that people would drive on the sidewalks.
My number one piece of advice: when crossing a busy street in the city, watch what the locals do. The traffic is not going to stop for you so you have to just start walking very slowly into the street while the cars and motorcycles go around you. It definitely got my adrenaline going every time, but there is no other way to cross the street. Hanoi is an extremely dense city so I took the first chance I got to leave the city and head for Halong Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage site is worth the three hour bus ride from Hanoi. I booked an overnight cruise through my hotel which included a hike around Cat Ba Island, and a kayaking trip. When I returned to Hanoi, I stayed one more night and then booked a hop-on/hop-off bus ticket heading south down the narrow country. This was definitely the cheap way to travel, and only recommended for the adventurous soul.
The positive side of this was that I got to meet some other awesome travelers and gather tips from them. For the less adventurous, I would recommend hiring a car. From Hanoi, I made stops in Hue, Hoi An (one of my favorite towns in SE Asia), Nha Trang, Da Lat (another one of my favorite towns) and Ho Chi Minh city. Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, is another big city but it is a utopia for those interested in the history of the Vietnam War. From Ho Chi Minh, I booked a cruise around the Mekong Delta and had the opportunity to stay with a host family and visit the floating markets, which I highly recommend if you get a chance.
Continuing clockwise around South East Asia, I made my way to Cambodia.
Make sure to hire a guide who takes you all the way across the border as it is fairly common for drivers to take you five miles from the border and then ask you to either pay double or walk. Thankfully this did not happen to me.
Another tip is to always have American currency on hand. Even though the countries in South East Asia are so close to each other, they will often not accept currency from a neighboring country.
In Cambodia I stayed in a treehouse hotel in Kep, just outside of Kampot. Kep was the ultimate relaxing oceanfront town, if you want to spend a couple days in a hammock in the rainforest, than this is the town for you!
After leaving Kep I headed to Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh has a fascinating history and I would recommend everyone to educate themselves about the Pol Pot regime before going. Other recommendations for Phnom Penh would be to visit the Central Market, Evergreen Vegetarian restaurant and Friends the Restaurant (a non-profit restaurant that offers training for local youth to get involved with the hospitality industry).
From Phnom Penh, I headed to Siem Reap to visit the world famous Angkor Wat. Depending on your interest in ancient ruins, you could spend three to seven days just walking around temples. My advice is hire a local guide to take you around in a Tuk Tuk (a bicycle powered carriage).
Get there early to see the sunrise over the temples and beat the heat (and crowds) of the afternoon. From Siem Reap, I returned to Phnom Penh and flew into Bangkok, Thailand.
Bangkok was a world wind of western influence and ancient South East Asian culture. If you like to shop than you’re in luck! While I was there I visited the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the famous Khao San Road, the Grand Palace, and Wat Pho. I then booked a trip to Kanchanaburi where I visited an elephant sanctuary, the Tiger Temple, Erawan Falls, and stayed in a floating guesthouse.
I decided to continue further north-west to Sangkhlaburi (on the border of Myanmar) to get away from the tourists.
From there I returned to Bangkok and took an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai was beautiful, and a great opportunity to do some outdoor activities. If you have time I would also recommend a trip to Pai, a quiet little mountain town, but remember to bring some motion-sickness medicine with you for the winding mountain roads.
After about a week of exploring Chiang Mai and Pai, I got on a bus and headed east towards the Laos border. I stayed overnight in Chiang Rai before making the 3 hour trip to the border and then a short boat trip to Huay Xai in Laos.
To get to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai, you have to options 1) go by bus; or 2) go by “slow boat.” There is also a third option for a speed boat, but these are extremely dangerous. I chose the slow boat (which takes two full days) because I was not short on time and I was tired of riding on buses. If you go this route, make sure to get to the boats early because they can get crowded. I thoroughly enjoyed floating along the rainforests of Laos, but you may want to bring a book for the trip. At night you stop at a riverside town whose main source of income are travelers from the slow boat. The ETramping Adventure Travel site has this great guide to things to see and do in Luang Prabang.
After another full day on the river you arrive in Luang Prabang which was my favorite town in all of South East Asia. The entire town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and is filled with old French Colonial buildings and Buddhist temples. While I was there I did some kayaking down river rapids and visited the night market. From Luang Prabang I took a bus back to Hanoi, if I did this trip again I would have preferred to fly directly into Hanoi instead. If you have more time (and money), I would recommend exploring northern Laos as I hear it is beautiful and there are a lot of eco-tourism options.
In Hanoi, I spent another day wandering the city and then decided to spend my final week in Sapa, which you can get to by train. If you get to visit Sapa, watch out for tourist companies who advertise homestays as they often exploit the local populations.
I met a local woman named Kuli who offered to be my guide and invited me to stay with her family for a fraction of the price that the tourist companies were offering, (enough to provide her family with dinner that night). Kuli was the highlight on my trip, she taught herself English so that she could walk 10 miles a day to sell her handmade goods at the market. She was an extremely knowledgeable guide and was happy to teach me about her culture. She introduced me to some of the other women in the village and explained to me what life was like for her and her husband, her children and grandchildren, and relatives in other villages.
Overall I had an amazing trip, met a ton of fascinating people, learned a great deal about the different cultures, and gathered enough memories to last a lifetime!