Last month I visited Vietnam (Ho Chi Min City aka Saigon, Danang, Hoi An and the Mekong Delta) and Cambodia (Siem Reap and nearby temples including Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm). The visit allowed me to form new, first-hand impressions to displace the media-informed memories from my youth (i.e. images of anti-war protests, flag-draped coffins, and Life magazine photo spreads of American GIs in steamy jungles…)
Here are my top 5 travel tips for this area of the world:
1) Read up before you go. My two favorites are The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Price and the National Book Critics Circle award, this book is a blend of memoir, fiction and collected short stories about the experiences of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam) and Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of American’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall (Pulitzer prize winning book about how and why America went to war in Vietnam).
Warning: having read these two books, I felt as if I was walking and boating in the shadow of American GIs while on my tour. The experience was eerie and upsetting, but I really appreciated the perspectives added by these excellent books (which are particularly insightful if your travels include visits to the Cu Chi tunnels and canals along the Mekong).
2) Get out on the water. The Mekong flows between Cambodia and Vietnam, and provides a view of both countries that is unlike anything you’ll see from the air, a bus, or a motorbike. There are multi-day river cruises or day trips. Whatever you choose, the sights are unique (and the breezes are a refreshing change as well).
3) Bring something for the kids. In Vietnam and especially Cambodia, many children go to school for only a few hours a day in classrooms with dirt floors and few supplies. Your guides (don’t try to do this on your own) can help you find local schools that would appreciate a visit and any donations you can carry over in your suitcase (crayons, pencils, paper). Or, if you are looking for a more established organization to help children, check out Cambodian Children’s Fund.
4) Enjoy the food. For me, the cuisine in both Vietnam and Cambodia was a highlight. Fresh, clean tasting, spicy if you want it to be spicy. Try pho (noodle soup) for breakfast. Some favorite restaurants from my visit:
Saigon: Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur Ben Nghe, Quan 1, Ho Chi Minh City (a collection of top street food vendors under one roof, with a supervised and consolidated menu so you know you are getting food that’s safe to eat, fresh and authentic). The setting is a beautiful colonial house with a courtyard garden…kitchens are along the perimeter of the restaurant so you can see the various vendors making their specialties.
Hoi An: Ancient Faifo Restaurant, 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc St., Minh An Ward, Hoi An City, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Traditional Vietnamese cuisine in the famous and beautifully preserved port city of Hoi An. Located in an ancient house that also includes an art gallery and a lounge and café, the restaurant is upstairs, and specializes in a blend of traditional and modern culinary techniques. Results are delicious. Private cooking classes are also available.
Siem Reap: Sugar Palm Restaurant, Taphul Road Siem Reap Authentic Khmer cooking in an open air setting on the second level. Fresh, tasty dining. When I returned home I found this YouTube video of Chef Gordon Ramsay’s visit to the Sugar Palm.
5) Buy the best insect repellent you can find (in my opinion): UltraThon (34% Deet). Others in my group visiting Southeast Asia used other types of insect repellent (“natural” varieties and others), but in my admittedly unscientific assessment, I was the only person who did not get one insect bite during our travels. Enough said.
BONUS TIP: Plan your next visit. As I learned during my 10-day journey, there is far too much to see and do than can be covered in a 10-14 day trip. Next up on my list: Myanmar (formerly Burma), Hanoi and the UNESCO World Heritage sites Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Luang Prabang in Laos. I think Thailand deserves a visit all its own.