Ask an Expert: Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos?
Butterfield & Robinson has spent the last twenty years exploring some of our favourite countries in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, making friends along the way.
From teeming cities to serene sunsets over ancient temples, seaside resorts to endless fields of rice paddies, you could spend a lifetime immersing yourself in the culture, traditions and getting to know the locals…and indeed, the possibilities for travel are endless.
Deciding Where to Go
When B&R travellers and friends ask me where they should go on their first trip to the region, I often mention that Southeast Asia is a Pandora’s box of never-ending possibilities. Once you learn more about all the amazing things you can do here, you’ll want to take a 45-day trip—something that is, let’s be honest, neither relaxing nor feasible—so start small. Most of our Southeast Asia trips centre around the wonderful country of Vietnam. With its welcoming locals and diversity of options, it’s the perfect country to start in.
Planning a trip to Southeast Asia can be overwhelming, as there’s so much to see. My recommendation is to first decide whether you want to explore one country in depth or make your way to a few countries with short stops, with the expectation of returning again to add to your memories.
Don’t pick one country: do them all
If you’re pressed for time and are looking for the ultimate adventure, I recommend hitting the ‘once-in-a-lifetime button’ to spend time in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, particularly during February or March. You’ll encounter everything from Vietnam’s friendly locals to its history, the jungle-strewn and awe-inspiring ruins of Cambodia, to the sleepy traditions and colonial charm of Laos. One key stop is Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, where you will find its very own Forbidden City, once home to Vietnam’s emperor and his court.
Best for families
On the occasion that you’re bringing the whole family along, do not skip Cambodia! Upon approaching the sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat, you’ll feel like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider in one. These incredible stone structures and carvings are a prime example of Khmer temple architecture, and form the largest religious monument in the world.
When to Go
Depending on your schedule, here are the trips and destinations I recommend for the following times of year.
October-November: Vietnam to Laos Biking
November-December: Vietnam and Cambodia
January through April: This is one of the best times of year to visit, so I recommend our classic Vietnam trip, adding in Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam Walking trip, or Mekong River Biking trip.
April through July: Mekong River Biking, or our Vietnam Family trip.
August-September: Go to the Amalfi Coast and plan your visit another time! (You’ll thank me for this decision!)
Where to Stay
Phum Baitang, Siem Reap, Cambodia
A gateway to Angkor Wat, this lush resort is set amidst eight acres of gardens, including lemongrass meadows and rice paddies.
Amantaka, Luang Prabang, Laos
Located on a historic garden estate, this airy, French colonial resort feature high-ceilinged suites, an on-site spa, all surrounded by palm and mango trees.
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, Vietnam
You’ll feel as if you’re on your own private island here in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually situated on a remote peninsula north of Nha Trang. It’s got a luxurious Robinson Crusoe feeling with a barefoot luxury, ‘I just paddle-boarded to breakfast’ vibe. And who doesn’t want that?
Amanoi, Nha Trang, Vietnam
Also located in Nha Trang, which has a Mediterranean climate, the Amanoi is situated in an out-of-the-way national park on the coast. It feels secluded and private here, and the food is excellent (it’s good to know, as there is nothing else nearby), with a cute little beach. The hiking in the national park is phenomenal.
Okay, this isn’t a traditional hotel per se—it’s a boat, but what a boat! It’s luxurious, with large rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows for the best views of the Mekong River, an outdoor pool, and with its smaller size, you’ll get great access to some hidden-away bike paths—a superb combo to get around Vietnam. You’ll be staying here on our Mekong River Biking trip.
The best way to see Southeast Asia: by bike!
I’d be amiss to skip over B&R’s favourite way to explore the world, by two wheels, so here are a few of my favourite routes and rides. If you’re trying to decide where to go, ask yourself what your activity level is, or what type of ride you’re seeking – hilly, flat, scenic, or with a lot of spots along the way to stop at?
If you want a mellow ride that’s relatively flat, my favourite ride in the Mekong Delta features a jaunt through local markets, rice paddies blowing in the breeze, and sometimes even joining along in the commute with local kids on their way to school!
For something hilly that will challenge your legs further, one of my favourite climbs is in Luang Prabang, Laos, as well as along the Hai Van Pass between Hoi An and Hue, Vietnam. The Hai Van Pass is particularly scenic with its twisting road, and was of strategic importance in Vietnamese military history.
Biking the terrain in Northern Vietnam is also something I’m particular to: you will cross rivers, pass through rural villages, and even travel amongst towering limestone peaks. Feel like an adventurer and supplement your rides by taking a local boat through tunnels or hiking dramatic ‘dragon spine’ mountains for the full experience.
I’ve already touched upon this if you head to Cambodia, but the loveliest scenic bike routes are, unsurprisingly, found when you leisurely pedal from one splendid temple to another. The roads are flat, and you’ll find some nice 10 to 15 km stretches that will give you some room to open up and speed up. (Also, there are less chickens along the road to slow you down!)