Indochina: three lands linked by the mighty Mekong – Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Nick Ray leads you through ancient temples, misty mountains and tribal villages
It was possibly the moment I saw two men wrestling a cow onto the back of a motorbike in Phnom Penh. Or it could have been cruising through Mekong gorges on a Laotian cargo boat as the sun melted into the horizon. Or maybe it was that first cyclo ride through the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the streets abuzz with activity... Various moments may spark it, but a journey to Indochina will likely start a life-long love affair.
This region, comprising Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is not known as Indochina for nothing. Geographically it is the land between China and India, absorbing influences from both. China shaped the destiny of Vietnam, while India exported its great religions, language, culture and sculpture to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The border between Vietnam and Cambodia is the divide between Sino-Asia to the east and Indo-Asia to the west.
Later the French brought these entities together as Indochine, ruling for almost 70 years; later, the war in Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia and Laos, tearing the region apart for a generation.
Thankfully, times have changed: Indochina is a region on the move. Sealed off from the world for more than two decades by war, revolution and politics, it has only welcomed tourists since the early 1990s. It remains a young destination but visitor numbers have risen at a meteoric rate.
That said, the cities of Indochina are relative backwaters alongside Hong Kong or Singapore, the temples are mercifully quieter than the cathedrals of Europe, and the beaches look empty compared with the Caribbean. But for how much longer? Now is the time to plan a trip, while others hesitate.
And you can afford to come, credit crunch be damned – Indochina remains a great-value destination. Accommodation runs from well-equipped guesthouses for less than a tenner to ultra-exclusive hideaways for hundreds of pounds.
The cuisine makes Indochina a culinary tour de force and prices range from giveaway to only slightly grand: spend the sort of money a pub meal costs in the UK and you’ll be eating at one of the area’s top restaurants. Transport can be a real saving for the adventurous, with cheap buses, affordable trains and exhilarating yet inexpensive boats; renting a car with a driver won’t break the bank, either.
Across Indochina the people are irrepressible, the experiences unforgettable and the stories impossible to recreate. Whether it’s on your first dawn pilgrimage to Angkor Wat, cruising amid the 3,000 karst outcrops of Halong Bay or during one of those chance encounters with a local who’s warm and welcoming despite their humbling personal history, at some point on your journey, Indochina will enter your soul.
Duration: Ten days to three weeks
Luang Prabang (Laos) – Hanoi (Vietnam) – Halong Bay – Hué – Hoi An – Siem Reap (Cambodia) – Angkor
Fly via the gateway of Bangkok into Luang Prabang and lose yourself in the city for a few days to recover from the long flight. Wander the historic streets to soak up the spiritual atmosphere, book a massage to ease your travel-weary limbs, take a trip to the Pak Ou Caves (repository of several thousand Buddhas) and enjoy Lao specialities in the local eateries.
Fly north-east to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi (travelling overland takes four or five days) and stay in the Old Quarter for the ultimate immersion experience. Pay your respects at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, enjoy a performance of Hanoi’s traditional water puppets and indulge in dinner at one of the leading gourmet restaurants.
Drive, by private car or bus, to Halong Bay, the most spectacular natural sight in all of Indochina, and board a traditional junk for a night on the bay. After a sundowner on the deck, be lulled to sleep by the lapping waters. Then, make straight for Hanoi airport and an early evening flight to Hué, cultural capital of central Vietnam. Explore the damaged Citadel – once the nerve centre of imperial intrigue where the emperors of old plotted their political manoeuvres – before making a boat trip to the symbolic Thien Mu pagoda. Visit the final resting place of emperors Minh Mang and Tu Duc, and enjoy their fabled imperial cuisine at a Citadel restaurant.
Journey down the coast to the beguiling trading town of Hoi An, preserved in a time warp. It’s a shopping Mecca, offering tailored clothes, striking lanterns and daring art, but also considered the culinary capital of Vietnam, with superb restaurants.
Less is more on a classic tour, so skip the bustling cities of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, formerly Saigon) and Phnom Penh and make straight for Siem Reap, gateway to the legendary temples of Angkor. Plan your visit carefully to build up to the biggest and best temples, and to avoid the madding crowds. Include Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building, Bayon, one of the world’s weirdest, and the jungle-clad ruin of Ta Prohm. Don’t forget to factor in some of the complex’s further-flung sites such as Kbal Spean (the River of a Thousand Lingas), plus some downtime in Siem Reap, one of the most up-and-coming cities in the region.
Duration: Two to three weeks
Pak Beng (Laos) – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Pakse – Champasak – Don Khong – Kratie (Cambodia) – Phnom Penh – Angkor – Chau Doc (Vietnam) – Cantho – Vinh Long – Ho Chi Minh City – Phu Quoc
Explore the roads (and rivers) less travelled in an older, more authentic Asia. Fly into Chiang Rai, cross to Laos at Huay Xai and travel down the Mekong River to Pak Beng, then continue the cruise to Luang Prabang, the spiritual heart of Laos.
Next, head south to Vientiane, either by plane or land via the karst scenery of Vang Vieng. In the capital, visit the golden stupa of That Luang and the surreal sculptures of Buddha Park before enjoying a sundowner on the banks of the Mekong. Fly south to Pakse, gateway to Champasak province and island life on the Mekong. Make a pilgrimage to the Khmer mountain temple of Wat Phu, set under the shadow of Lingaparvata Mountain, and travel south to the islands of Don Khong (mid-range) or Don Khon (backpacker) to experience life in the slow lane.
Cross into Cambodia and head to Kratie, a riverside town boasting the best sunsets in the country. This is the base for viewing the extremely rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the Mekong.
Phnom Penh is the place for nightlife, but it’s also the place to explore the country’s past: experience devotion to the gods at the National Museum or witness the destruction of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng Prison Museum.
Make a side-trip to Angkor or continue to Chau Doc along the Mekong and Bassac rivers. Pass through the heart of the delta region, visiting the floating markets of Cantho and the orchards of Vinh Long. Winding up in HCMC, learn more about the legacy of war at the Remnants Museum or by digging up the past at the Cu Chi Tunnels. Wine and dine in style or grant yourself some well-earned rest on the beautiful island of Phu Quoc.
1. Dolphin spotting Encounter one of the rarest mammals on earth in the waters of the Mekong near Kratie in Cambodia – there are just 80 Irrawaddy dolphins left on this stretch of the river.
2. Market shopping It’s not just the boats that float in Vietnam’s vibrant Mekong Delta but the bustling markets, too. Visit Cai Be near Vinh Long, where hundreds of boats jostle to make a sale.
3. Island chilling Slow down the pace of travel with a trip to the 4,000 islands of Si Phan Don in southern Laos.
4. Waterfall watching Witness the most dramatic event in the Mekong’s epic journey from Tibet to the South China Sea as it tumbles towards the Cambodian border – the Khon Phapheng Falls are the Niagara of Indochina.
5. Slow boating Try the contrasts of a slow river cruise from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and the adrenalin rush of a speedboat from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc.
Duration: Two to three weeks
Danang (Vietnam) – Hoi An – Doc Let – Nha Trang – Phan Rang – Mui Ne – Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh (Cambodia) – Sambor Prei Kuk – Preah Vihear – Koh Ker – Angkor
The Chams were feisty scrappers who eventually saw their kingdom squeezed out of existence by the Vietnamese and Khmers. To learn more about this civilisation past, start in Danang (which has an international airport), a handy gateway to central Vietnam and home to the wonderful Museum of Cham Sculpture. Don’t stick around, however, as just down the road is atmospheric Hoi An, the perfect place to base yourself for a visit to My Son, the ancient Cham capital near Cat’s Tooth Mountain.
Continue southwards, combining a dose of culture with some classic coast. There are some incredible beaches along this stretch, including Doc Let and Nha Trang. Lounge on the sand, scuba dive under azure waters or take a boat trip to uninhabited islands. The Cham connection continues, with old temples dotting this region, including the Po Nagar towers in Nha Trang and the Po Klong Garai towers near Phan Rang.
Another small Cham tower on a hilly outcrop provides the perfect opportunity to pause in Mui Ne, one of Vietnam’s most inviting beaches, with high-adrenalin activities such as kite-surfing and sand-boarding on tap. Roll on into HCMC before crossing into Cambodia to discover the genius of the Khmer empire.
The Khmers were the Romans of South-East Asia, spreading the civilisation and culture of the Indian subcontinent through the region. They left temples as far afield as Laos and Thailand, and successive empires claimed their capitals as their own.
Discover the world’s finest collection of Angkorian sculpture at the National Museum in Phnom Penh before heading north-west to the pre-Angkorian capital of Sambor Prei Kuk. The first temple city built in the region, it is a spectacular collection of brick structures forgotten in the forest.
Leave the tourist trail in the dust, quite literally, with a 4WD adventure in Preah Vihear province. Visit the vast enclosure of Preah Khan, before journeying to Preah Vihear temple, perched atop a plunging cliff – the most dramatic location of any Khmer monument.
Continue south-west towards Angkor to visit Koh Ker and ascend Prasat Thom, a Mayan-style pyramid temple, to take in the views without the crowds. Angkor, the culmination of this sacred journey, might seem a little on the busy side.
Duration: Two to four weeks
Chiang Rai (Thailand) – Bokeo Nature Reserve (Laos) – Luang Nam Tha – Muang Sing – Nam Ha Protected Area – Luang Prabang – Hanoi (Vietnam) – Mai Chau – Dien Bien Phu – Sapa – Bac Ha – Cat Ba Island
Striking out from Chiang Rai, a useful international gateway to northern Laos, travel by road to the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo Nature Reserve (www.gibbonx.org). Stay in an incredible treehouse located 60m up in a mature hardwood tree and spend the day like a gibbon, flying through the jungle on a zip wire.
Continue the road journey to Luang Nam Tha, a peaceful town that is the gateway to mountain-bike adventures and trekking trips around Muang Sing, hiking and homestays in the award-winning Nam Ha Protected Area, and a mosaic of minority peoples who inhabit the region.
If the water is high enough, take a memorable boat trip to Luang Prabang. Take in the sights, but don’t forget the activities around town, including biking on forest trails, kayaking and rafting on local rivers, or learning the art of the mahout for a day at one of the elephant camps.
Next, tackle a memorable overland trip through the wilds of north-eastern Laos, passing by the enigmatic Plain of Jars and the secret wartime Pathet Lao caves at Vieng Xai (a sort of Cu Chi Tunnels in karst), then crossing into Vietnam to wind up in the lush tribal heartland of Mai Chau. Experience an overnight stay in the home of a White Thai family before tackling the ‘north-west loop’ through the Tonkinese Alps. Travel by 4WD or motorbike, depending on your zest for adventure. Continue to Dien Bien Phu, scene of one of the most decisive battles in modern military history, at which the Viet Minh defeated French colonial forces.
Sapa is the queen of the mountains, a regal old hill station set amid towering peaks and swirling clouds. Spend a few days hiking or biking the valleys below to encounter the hardy but friendly Hmong and Dzao people who eke out a living from these extreme gradients.
Travel east to Bac Ha, a bustling market town that draws colourful Flower Hmong traders from the surrounding villages; flower power lives on here, the women’s costumes delicately embroidered with colourful patterns.
Catch a night train from Lao Cai to Hanoi and travel on to Cat Ba Island, an emerging base for eco-adventures. Try rock climbing on the limestone karsts, with the option of a soft landing in deep water (www.slopony.com), or explore the hidden coves and lagoons of Lan Ha Bay (www.blueswimmersailing.com). This is Halong Bay without the crowds.
1. Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam Conveniently located between HCMC and Dalat, an extremely rare herd of Javan rhino was discovered here in the 1990s (www.namcattien.net).
2. Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam This is serious monkey business: the Endangered Primate Rescue Center is home to more than 140 simians (www.primatecenter.org).
3. The Elephant Valley Project, Cambodia Learn the art of the mahout with a visit to this elephant sanctuary in Mondulkiri Province (www.elie-cambodia.org).
4. The Gibbon Experience, Laos Live like a gibbon, flying through the jungle canopy on a zip wire and sleeping in a treehouse (www.gibbonx.org).
5. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, Cambodia See sun bears, tigers and elephants at Indochina’s premier wildlife sanctuary, near Phnom Penh (http://wildlifealliance.org).
Nick Ray writes for the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & the Greater Mekong, as well as the Cambodia and Vietnam country guides. Living in Phnom Penh, he is sometimes found enjoying a sundowner on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club