How to Plan an Indochina Tour for the First-time Traveler
About Indochina Tourism
While originally, Indochina included the entire Southeast Asian Central Mainland, it has since been limited to refer to the countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, the original three countries of the French rule. Since they have all struggled to secure their freedom and independence from French rule, as well as that of despots and dictators over the last five decades, tourism is not something that would have previously been thought possible.
Vietnam recovered from the war there fairly quickly, and invested heavily in tourism for the American tourists who wanted to visit the country, for a variety of reasons, though Laos and Cambodia came to the tourism industry comparatively late. However, all three are now experiencing a major upsurge in western tourism to the region, and tours to Indochina are seeing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
However, while Laos and Cambodia are seeing a major increase in tourism, Vietnam has seen a slight drop. This is mostly due to the harsh requirements of the Vietnam government of late. Both Laos and Cambodia offer visa-on-arrival options, while Vietnam is still enmeshed in the red tape of obtaining visas from their international embassies. With large taxes on tourism, and tollbooths and checkpoints all over the country, Vietnam tourism is at serious risk.
Weather and When To Go
Indochina is made up of three different countries, and they have three different and unique weather and climate patterns. In considering when to go, you are best advised to check all of the things you want to see and do first, and then try to plan the trip around that, taking into account that the rainy seasons throughout the three countries happen at very different times of the year.
Cambodia is reputed to have one of the simplest weather systems in Asia, with just two simple seasons, and very little differences when moving between regions of the country. The dry season in Cambodia runs from October to late April, while the wet season, which includes the tropical monsoon, normally starts around the beginning of May, and runs through until late September.
Peak season in Cambodia runs from November to March, when there is little to no rain, and the temperatures are at their best. The climate is often compared to the Mediterranean countries during peak season, and accommodation should really be booked well in advance.
With no coastline for the beach lovers and sun worshippers, Laos is a country of exploration and excitement, rather than relaxing on the beach and sunbathing. The climate is much simpler than Vietnam, although not as simple as Cambodia. Very similar to Cambodia, Laos has two distinct seasons, which are roughly consistent throughout the country. The wet season runs from May to September, while the dry season is normally between October and April.
The best time to visit Laos is from November to April, during the dry season, when rain is at a minimum and the temperatures are relatively moderate. In lowland Laos, November to January is best, as the daytime temperatures are comfortable, the evenings are a little cooler, and the countryside is lush and green after the rainy season.
Vietnam boasts a tropical climate with a considerable amount of sun, high monsoon rainfall, and high humidity. The climate in Vietnam is split into three distinct regions, Northern, Central, and Southern, each with its own different climate, and governed by the elevation of the area. Northern Vietnam is more like the temperate tropical countries, such as Japan, with hot summers and cold winters, while Southern Vietnam has a more tropical, two-season climate, with wet season and dry season, and both being fairly hot.
The Central Region has a varied climate, with transitions from north to south, and a different monsoon season. There is no best time to go that covers all three regions of Vietnam, and there is always something to see or somewhere to go, whatever time of year you visit. But for the best weather all around, February to April is the optimum time.
The capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi is a great place to start for first-time visitors, with many things for you to do. More traditional and relaxed than Saigon, you can wander down the city streets and get a real feel of the culture of Hanoi. Street food is one of the quintessential experiences of Hanoi (as well as many other cities, as the types of food differ from region to region), and is renowned for being the best in Vietnam. The main highlights of the city for tourists are the Hanoi Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, the Temple of Literature, the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, and the Ethnology museum.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s most up-and-coming boom-town. Akin to New York, it is a city that never sleeps, and you can find almost anything you want, day or night. This new Asian metropolis still carries a lot of traditions, and the two sides of the spectrum complement each other perfectly, making exploring Saigon an exciting experience. And for some of the city’s best street foods, the area surrounding Ben Thanh Market is the place to go.
Another feature of Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels, which run under the outskirts of the city, and all the way to the Cambodian border. The tunnels were originally dug for the Viet Cong soldiers during the conflict, and were used to hide from the American forces. Now, visitors can crawl through some of the tunnels, and learn about the struggle for life of the soldiers who spent several months underground. This impressive part of Vietnam’s history is worth a visit.
Considering the city carries the weight of the Khmer genocide on its back, Phnom Penh is slowly evolving into a city of spectacular experiences. Visiting is still considered a risky venture, more for the dangers of the traffic as you passenger on a mototaxi through the city than armed insurgents. However, the riverside shops, stunning night views, and peaceful temples more than make up for the dangers of getting around.
Covering an area of more than 240 square miles, and including a plethora of breathtaking temples and structures, the site is much too big to accomplish it in one visit, and some tourists come back year after year to explore new areas. This unforgettable temple complex, of which Angkor Wat is the centerpiece, reveals tales of Khmer history as well as their architectural magnificence.
An ancient town in northern Laos, Luang Prabang is now a designated World Heritage Site, that is considered by many to be the heart of Laotian culture. Set at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, this small town is surrounded on all sides by mountains, and was once the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until 1545. All of the old palaces are now dedicated to tourism, and includes 33 temples in the site. While the royal seat moved centuries ago, the town has remained the main center of Buddhist learning in Laos, and is ideal for a little spiritual contemplation.
Often referred to as “Southeast Asia’s biggest village”, Vientiane has little in common with other capitals such as Hanoi and Bangkok. bereft of the looming skyscrapers of other Asian cities, the central boulevard of Vientiane is more reminiscent of the Champ Elysees, a big sign of the French heritage of the region. The city is small, and can be easily explored on foot, or by bicycle that can be rented from every hotel. The pace in the city is slow, and even the nightlife is somewhat leisurely, which only adds to the attraction of the place.
How to Get There
Traveling by air is a great way to get into Indochina initially, but once there, traveling between the constituent countries is best done overland. You can get international flights into any of the three countries, and then from there make your trip an overland tour around the region.
Vietnam has three international airports: Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) in Hanoi; Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) in Ho Chi Minh City; and Da Nang International Airport (DAD) in Da Nang. Similarly, Cambodia also has three main airports that operate commercial flights, which are: Sihanoukville International Airport (KOS); Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH); and Siem Reap International Airport (REP).
For Laos, there are four international airports running domestic flights from around the world: Attapeu International Airport (AOU) in the far south; Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ) in the north; Pakse International Airport (PKZ) in the south; and Wattay International Airport (VTE) in Vientiane, on the border with Thailand.
Entry to Vietnam requires a passport with at least six months remaining and a visa to enter the country. Visa-on-entry is allowed for those arriving by air, and you can download the visa exemption document online through the Embassy website, and pay the fee in dollars.
For Cambodia, visa-on-arrival is available only at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international Airports, and costs around US$30. Passport photographs are required for the visa, so make sure you have plenty with you, as every visa will require one, including overland border crossings. In Laos, visa-on-arrival is available for all ports of entry, and requires at least six months remaining on your passport and two passport photos.
Crossing between countries overland is not as hard as you might think, with the exception of crossing from Cambodia into Laos. In recent years, the laws on tourists going back and forth between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have been loosened, and the visa-on-arrival traveling from Vietnam into Cambodia or Laos is easy, with simple requirements at the border checkpoints. Going the other way, into Vietnam, however, requires a visa in advance from the Vietnamese Embassy in that country.
Crossing from Cambodia into Laos is possible, but can take a little time to process the visas, although visa-on-arrival is permitted both ways. It should be noted that a visa scam often operates between Laos and Cambodia, with unofficial “representatives” offering to process the visas for a higher fee than the standard US$20. Remember, never hand over your passport to someone who is not in uniform at a Laos/Cambodia border crossing, and stick to the more well-used crossing points.
- What is Indochina? Which Countries Are Included?
- When is the Best Time to Have an Indochina Tour?
- How to Plan a Cambodia First-time Trip