Vietnam and Cambodia offer many unique historical sites, romantic traditions and a wide range of landscapes to enjoy. Our Exotic Travel Specialist, Susan Blum, recommends an itinerary featuring a mix of bustling cities, interesting cultural stops and a visit to the region’s uninhabited tropical paradise.
Arriving in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, you are immediately surrounded by streets overrun by motorbikes merging in every direction, horns honking, cyclo-carriages joining the mayhem and street market vendors selling their wares. With such a chaotic welcome, first time visitors to Vietnam may be surprised to discover very friendly people and a countryside of brilliant green rice paddies, incredible beaches and lush rain forests.
While visiting Hanoi, I discovered a tour of the Old Quarter with a cyclo-driver was a memorable and exciting way to explore the maze of old narrow streets. Dating back to the 13th century, some of the alleyways are actually named for the merchants that established themselves in the area more than 800 years ago. Actually the Old Quarter evolved from workshop villages organized by guilds and even today streets are dedicated to a single product or trade.
A highlight of any Vietnam tour is a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Complex where on September 2nd, 1945, Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately called, read the Vietnam Independence Declaration. Rather than live in the elaborate, architecturally French Presidential palace, Ho Chi Minh chose to reside in a simple wooden house on stilts. Surrounded by a garden full of fruit trees and a peaceful fishpond, a visit to this unpretentious house offers a unique view into the life of a man entirely dedicated to his people.
Following Ho Chi Minh’s death, to honor the first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a three-storied Mausoleum was built in beautiful Ba Dinh Square. Nearly every day a long, solemn line of foreign and local tourists, including young school children, wait patiently to enter the mausoleum to view his preserved body. Closed on Mondays, it is worth organizing your trip to Hanoi to include a day you can actually enter the Mausoleum.
In Hanoi, most American tourists also include a tour of Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton), used by the French colonists for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam during the American-Vietnam War. On a lighter note, be sure to attend a traditional water puppet show with performances that reflect the daily life of Vietnamese farmers and historical legends.
A three hour drive north of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in the Gulf of Tonkin. Plan at least a half-day cruise through the islands to explore hidden caves and grottos that support floating villages of fisherman. Amazingly, the shallow water of Ha Long Bay sustains 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks! Do not miss a relaxing and peaceful excursion on a traditional junk, to view some of the 1600 islands, mostly uninhabited and unaffected by human presence. I can attest that dining on seafood in Ha Long is divine!
The ancient town of Hoi An remains a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port. The architecture of Hoi An, which is almost entirely of wood, reflects traditional Vietnamese designs and techniques with those from other countries, including China and Japan. Striving to maintain a connection to Hoi An’s beautiful history, the town devotes the 14th day of each lunar month to a “lantern festival” when residents of several streets hang colorful, paper lanterns on their windows and porches. Electric lights, televisions and radios are turned off, creating a warm, romantic glow. Before traveling to Vietnam, I suggest my clients view The Quiet American, filmed in Hoi An in 2000 and staring Michael Caine. For the cerebral, read the book by Graham Greene!
Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, is the largest city in Vietnam and functions as the economic center for the country. The Reunification Palace, once known as Independence Palace, was both the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Now a museum, for locals the palace marks the end of the war when a North Vietnamese tank crashed its gates in 1975. Touring the building is an opportunity to step back in time where public rooms display sparse but beautiful furnishings in the 1960′s style. Note that I would love to have a copy of the tablecloth in the government dining room! Also worth a look is the basement labyrinth that contains the war command room with huge maps and old communication equipment.
Sixty miles from Saigon, Cao Dai Temple is the center of the Cao Dai sect which incorporates Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, along with elements of Christianity and Islam. Built between 1933 and 1955, this lavishly decorated temple is a nine-story building, part pagoda, part cathedral and part mosque. Fluorescent shades of pink, yellows, rococo walls and mosaic mirrored tiles present a chaotically breathtaking picture. Services are held four times a day and visitors are welcome to watch from a balcony that runs the entire length of the cathedral where photography is allowed. A visit to this temple should be included on every itinerary to Vietnam.
Embracing capitalism, and to promote tourism, the government of Vietnam preserved 75 miles of the long, complex Cu Chi Tunnels, creating a war memorial park visited by tourists from around the world. Visitors are invited to crawl through segments of the tunnels made wider and taller to accommodate larger people, to experience where the Viet Cong soldiers hid during combat as well as the supply and communication routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage and living quarters for the fighters. From a historic and engineering perspective, a visit to Cu Chi should be included on any trip to Vietnam because it represents innovation, human determination and resilience.
Although Cambodia is still recovering from the genocide of 25% of their population, the people you meet continue to have pride in their heritage and culture. Khmer Rouge communists, under the leadership of Pol Pot, believed that the citizens of Cambodia had been tainted by exposure to Western ideas. To eliminate capitalist influence, the Khmer Rouge persecuted anyone educated including doctors, lawyers, current or former military and police. Christian, Buddhist and Muslim citizens were also specifically targeted. Horrifying and yet fascinating, visit the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, representative of the 1.7 million people killed by the regime during its reign from 1975-1979. The burial grounds are now the site of a Buddhist memorial to the victims and a museum that commemorates the genocide.
Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, is the largest city and renowned for beautiful and historical architecture. Within the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda is the official temple of the King of Cambodia. The floor is covered with five tons of gleaming silver and is the life-sized Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds, was for me memorable and breathtaking!
No longer a sleepy little town, Siem Reap is now one of the most popular destinations on the planet! With the temples of Angkor a short drive on excellent roads, you can now stay in luxurious hotels, enjoy world-class wining and dining and, at the end of the day, relax at a lavishly appointed spa.
The primary attraction to Siem Reap is Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temple region. Hundreds of structures from the 9th to the 14th century tell the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. A UNESCO world heritage site, the structures provide an archaeological and pictorial history of an empire that ruled southeast Asia for five centuries.
In 2004, Today show host Matt Lauer, had an opportunity to visit Ta Prohm and noted, “At this temple, the jungles of Cambodia are literally swallowing up the stone structures, as the roots of the ancient trees extend their limbs. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.” Although the effect of strangulating root formations is striking, huge vines at Ta Prohm divide massive stones and crush the top of temples, destroying the carved reliefs and history of a royal city built at the end of the 12th century.
If you would like to arrange a tour to Vietnam and Cambodia, Boscov’s Travel specialist, Susan Blum can plan the perfect trip for you! For information, call Susan at 610.223.4797 or send her an email.