Our first big trip of 2019 technically started in 2018. Michael and I departed for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam just a few days after Christmas. This would be our first stop on an unforgettable 2-week journey through Southeast Asia. We had been planning this vacation for months with 2 of our favorite people, Coco and Peter. We seldom get to see them now that they live in Sydney. Hopefully that will change once we convince them to move to Dallas! Like I said in my New Years post, we cherish any quality time spent with friends living far and wide. That’s why we were thrilled when Jonas and Jen also decided to join us last minute in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Perhaps the hardest part of planning our Southeast Asia trip was deciding on which cities, or even countries for that matter, to visit. The region is home to so many “must sees” and “can’t misses”, it was nearly impossible to narrow down the list. Ultimately, we settled on an itinerary that gave us a nice mix of relaxation and adventure, city life and wildlife. Our 2-week trip spanned 3 countries and 4 cities:
We spent 4 days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), 3 days in Siem Reap, 4 days in Luang Prabang and 3 days in Hanoi. Each stop was so different and unique, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. Saigon is supercharged and exhilarating; the perfect example of organized chaos. Siem Reap, home to thousands of ancient ruins, evokes a sense of wanderlust and adventure. Luang Prabang sweeps you off your feet not with breathtaking views but modest, understated charm. Hanoi is rapidly changing but embraces its history. I’ll be sharing detailed itineraries for each city over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for more!
While I’m definitely not complaining about a 2 week vacation, it was barely enough time to scratch the surface. As soon as we got back to Dallas, we were already looking towards our next trip to the region. Michael and I have even jokingly (or not jokingly) flirted with the idea of moving to Luang Prabang! So while we barely scratched the surface, I do have some advice for those of you planning your own trip to Southeast Asia:
Bring an appetite: Rule #1? Eat everything. Well, maybe not everything. One of the highlights of traveling to Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, is its rich culinary tradition. We hardly had a bad meal on our entire trip. From street food to fine dining, everything we ate was delicious and made of fresh, natural ingredients. I highly recommend joining a few food tours (Saigon Street Eats was our favorite). They taught us so much about the different regional cuisines and provided an unforgettable way to explore each city. Don’t be afraid of the street food. The best meals we had were eaten while seated on a tiny sidewalk stool!
Don’t over plan: OK, I’m guilty of this more than anyone. When traveling, I’m typically overcome with FOMO. Every minute in the hotel room is a minute wasted. Thankfully, I’ve learned to relax a little bit more and reign in my anxiety. Perhaps not entirely, but I’m improving :) 4 stops in 2 weeks may sound a bit aggressive to some, but it was actually a nice pace. More importantly, we didn’t over plan our itineraries in each city. Other than 1 or 2 “must sees” at each stop, we tried to leave a good amount of free time in our daily schedules. Southeast Asia, particularly cities like Saigon and Hanoi, can feel overwhelming at times, so it’s helpful to save plenty of time for some R&R.
Check Visa requirements: Each country in Southeast Asia has a different visa requirement for US citizens, so make sure to check well ahead of time. We applied for multi-entry visas a few weeks in advance for Vietnam as our itinerary included 2 stops in the country. Cambodia offers e-visas in advance or visa upon arrival. We opted for the e-visa, which ended up saving us 15-20 minutes of processing time at the airport. Laos offers visas upon arrival. Note that the process may differ depending on your port of entry, method of transportation, number of entries and duration of stay.
Download Grab: If you’re hoping to use Uber while traveling in Southeast Asia, you’re out of luck. Instead, the go-to ride sharing app in the region is Grab. We used it multiple times per day in Saigon, Hanoi and Siem Reap (Grab is currently unavailable in Laos). Rides were super cheap, reliable, safe and easy to schedule. Additionally, you have the option to pay with cash instead of credit card.
Brush up on your history: One of my biggest regrets was not reading up on a bit of history prior to our trip. I’m not saying that your entire trip should be focused around historical sites, monuments and memorials. Ours certainly wasn’t. However, understanding the recent history of the region gives you much greater appreciation and perspective. It’s unbelievable to think that Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are only a few decades removed from devastating war and genocide resulting in millions of civilian casualties. Each country has come so far, and everyone we met was genuinely compassionate, friendly and hospitable.
Cherish every moment: The single constant in Southeast Asia is change. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are all growing at a rapid pace. You can see that development in action, from the endless cranes in the cities to the construction of China’s massive One Belt, One Road project. It’s amazing to see such economic development in the region, but with that development comes a lot of change. Once sleepy towns like Siem Reap are now bustling with luxury hotels, fast food chains and endless tour buses. Foreign investment (particularly from China) can be felt everywhere. My only hope is that these influences don’t overshadow the rich culture and heritage that make each country so unique. As a tourist, make sure to support local businesses, restaurants and organizations whenever possible.