The ancient civilisations of south-east Asia have lured curious travellers for centuries. And none contrast more than bustling Vietnam and pastoral Cambodia.
Each country encases a rich culture embedded into centuries of torrid and intriguing history. And the locals are gentle, friendly and obliging to share it with the humble traveller.
Ho Chi Minh City
A great place to start your Asian adventure is Ho Chi Minh City, at the southern end of Vietnam. Here the old and the new intermingle at every turn. It is an ancient city, but the average age of the population is 30 so don’t expect a sedate pace.
Founded in 1690, the city was known as Siagon for a hundred or so years from the mid 1800s when it was the capital of French Cochinchina. This influence is evident in the elegant colonial architecture and wide boulevards.
Those boulevards are now jam packed with traffic and navigating the bustle and excitement is all part of immersing yourself in the culture. Learn about the Vietnam War through different eyes at the Reunification Palace, and spot the French influence in the General Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel (of tower fame), and, across the street, the twin-towered Notre Dame Cathedral, built entirely with materials shipped from France.
Not all attractions of this diverse city is above ground however. Check out the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside the city to marvel at how people lived in this extensive network of booby-trapped tunnels during the Vietnam War.
Escape the craziness of the city streets by setting sail up The Mekong, a mighty river that starts in China before flowing through Tibet, Myanmar and Cambodia before draining into the South China Sea just south of Ho Chi Minh City. While you won’t hear too many car horns, you will still be enthralled with the variety of life along a river that supports Vietnam’s rice bowl as well as providing a major transportation and trade route for around 60 million people who live and work beside its waters.
A cruise is a great way to head travel from Vietnam to Cambodia as you can sample village life along the way. Head to Vinh Long, a busy town which is the gateway to Cai Be, a major distribution point for agricultural products. Board a sampan to enjoy the lively floating markets (if you’re looking for a specific product look up: each seller’s product will be attached to the top a tall bamboo pole) and ensure you visit the local workshops where products such as rice paper and rice wine are made.
Another village worth visiting is Sa Dec. Watch daily life as you weave through the narrow canals then wander through the markets in town – if you see yourself as an adventurous diner your tastebuds will be put to the test here (snakes’ blood anyone?)! Sail to nearby Gieng Island which boasts a rather unexpected array of Catholic churches and monasteries, hinting at its past as the largest Catholic parish in Vietnam.
Tan Chau is an interesting village where you can watch baskets and mats being handwoven from reeds grown on the delta, and you can also check out a floating fish farm. On nearby Evergreen Island, you’ll want to take photos of the traditional houses built on stilts for when the Mekong rises in the rainy season.
What better introduction to Cambodia than its capital Phnom Penh, founded in the 15th century. It stands at the juncture of three rivers and is divided into three distinct districts: the French colonial area, a handsome residential district and a rapidly changing Old Town.
The jewel in the city’s crown may be the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Royal Palace, commonly known as the Silver Pagoda. Be dazzled by a floor-covering of 5,329 silver tiles, and an emerald and a gold Buddha statue (the latter of which is studded with nearly 10,000 diamonds).
Contrast this with a place on the outskirts of the city called Choeung Ek, more commonly referred to as The Killing Fields. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, 17,000 men, women and children were slaughtered and buried in mass graves here. At the museum you’ll discover that these people were just a small fraction of the almost two million Cambodians who died during three years in the late 70s.
Restore your faith in humanity with a visit to nearby Angkor Ban where you can help children practice English at school. Then travel up to Wat Hanchey where, from the temple on the hill, you can gaze at wonderful views of the Mekong River before receiving a traditional water blessing from the local monks.
It is impossible to visit Cambodia without at least a day in Siem Reap. While a fascinating city in its own right, it is also the gateway to the famous Angkor Wat, a gigantic religious complex that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built 900 years ago, the largest religious monument in the world is just one piece of an enormous complex at the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire (which ruled this region between the ninth and 12th centuries), most of which has now been hidden by the jungle. The name means City of Temples: it is said the central five towers represent the five peaks of the mountain and the surrounding walls and moat symbolise the ranges and ocean. Take in the extensive bas-relief friezes, the stunning stone construction, and the general complexity of its design.
While you are in the region, pay a visit to the spectacular remnants of Angkor Thom, the royal city. It has been mainly left as it was found: a tangle of tree trunks and roots curling over the stone structures. You can still see the pyramidal temple of Bayon, with the enormous carved heads that have become an iconic symbol of the Angkor archaeological area.
The capital of Vietnam works well as a final stop of your travels; the diversity of buildings and culture provides a fitting backdrop for you to revisit the engaging blend of people, scenery and history you can enjoyed across two countries.
Add to your memories with exploration of Hanoi's pagodas, temples, gardens and lakes. Some say the 1000-year-old city it is the most beautiful in Vietnam and caters for architecture enthusiasts, history buffs, shoppers and gourmands alike.
South-east Asia is a symphony of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. It is also a place where insider knowledge can make a huge difference to your experience, so find an operator who knows how to layer all those elements to create a fantastic holiday for you.
This story was sponsored by Hunter Travel Group.