How should you plan your visit to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia? This quintet of itineraries of different durations covers a range of themes and landscapes
A short trip will require careful planning and prioritising. Either take internal flights or limit yourself to just one area.
In Vietnam, start in energetic Ho Chi Minh City to visit the war relic of the Cu Chi Tunnels – subterranean hideouts dug by the Viet Minh from the late 1940s – and the fantastical Cao Dai Temple. From here, fly to Danang and explore the ancient town of Hoi An, admiring its historic Japanese covered bridge, assembly halls and Chinese merchants’ houses which remain little altered for 200 years. Add a day trip to Hué, with its royal Forbidden City and imperial tombs. Next fly north to historic Hanoi, visiting its beguiling Old Quarter, peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake and Tay Ho Pagoda. Magical Halong Bay, with its picturesque karst outcrops, can be seen in an overnight trip from Hanoi, but in order to venture north into the mountains to visit Sapa, known for its dramatic scenery and hilltribes, you’ll need to set aside three days.
The Mekong Delta can be visited briefly in a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, but with a couple more days you can travel more slowly through the delta (visiting the floating markets at Can Tho) and cross to Cambodia and Phnom Penh – the ‘Killing Fields’ of Choeung Ek provide a sombering insight into the murderous activities of the Khmer Rouge regime – adding a day’s detour either at the laid-back beaches of Sihanoukville or in colonial-inspired Kampot south of the capital. From Phnom Penh, fly or travel overland to Siem Reap, spending up to four days exploring the exceptional ruins of Angkor, visiting some of the outlying ruins such as Koh Ker and Beng Melea. Then fly from Siem Reap to Pakse to visit the Angkorean temple Wat Phou near Champasak, the sublime Tad Lo and Tad Fan falls, and the ‘Four Thousand Islands’ of Siphandon, or across to Vientiane to access northern Laos.
Start in Vientiane before heading north to wonderfully preserved Luang Prabang, with its golden-roofed wats (Buddhist temples) and serene riverside setting, via the backpackers’ paradise of Vang Vieng, where you can lol by the Nam Song River amid dramatic karst scenery. Alternatively, fly from Vientiane to Luang Namtha, from where you can access great trekking in this ethnically diverse northern region, before overlanding back south to Luang Prabang. After visiting Luang Prabang, fly to Pakse for a trip to the tranquil, laid-back Siphandon (‘Four Thousand Islands’) in the south.
If you have more time, take things slowly and explore places in greater depth. Explore northwest Vietnam, visiting Sapa, Dien Bien Phu (site of the decisive defeat of the French by the Viet Minh in 1954) and the area around Mai Chau to trek between White Thai stilt villages. Then take an overnight train from Hanoi down to Dong Hoi for the caves of Phong Nha, or head on to Hué. From here, you could either travel west into central Laos or take the splendid train journey from Hué to Danang, visiting nearby Hoi An. Next, travel to coastal Mui Ne for some beach lounging, then continue on to Ho Chi Minh City. Those with the budget for an extra flight could take a side trip to the islands of Con Dao, a beautiful archipelago with sandy beaches and coral reefs bustling with marine life.
From Ho Chi Minh City, either take a flight to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap or travel by bus and boat through the Mekong Delta. Visit Angkor and then, from Phnom Penh, go south to Sihanoukville and explore the beaches and islands. A day or two can be spent at Kampot and the seaside town of Kep, famous for its tasty crab, as well as exploring the eerie Bokor Mountain National Park.
Continuing from the itinerary above, from Phnom Penh you could travel overland to Siphandon in southern Laos via Stung Treng – kayak out on the Mekong here and, if you’re really lucky, you might spot Irrawaddy dolphins. Continue to Pakse and, before heading north through Laos, take a side trip to the lush Bolaven Plateau, with its coffee plantations and waterfalls. Overland north to Thakhek past the charming riverside town of Savannakhet, with its French colonial architecture, then travel a loop around the limestone scenery of central Laos, visiting the Kong Lor River Cave. From here you can continue to follow the meandering Mekong to Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Alternative, from Pakse you could catch a flight to Phonsavanh and explore the mysterious Plain of Jars, then overland to Xam Neua to see the Pathet Lao caves at Vieng Xai. A long but interesting overland route will take you west from here via increasingly popular trekking region around Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang, from where you can head north to the trekking areas of Luang Namtha, Muang Sing and Phongsali, or catch the slow boat up the Mekong towards the Thai border.