Because this was an entirely new part of the world for me, I didn’t know what to expect. The languages were so vastly different than what I am used to that it made it more overwhelming to plan as the names of the various places just sort of blended together. But plan I did, and I think I did a pretty damn good job.
Angkor – Seriously, such a magnificent place. I was honestly worried that I wouldn’t get much out of it, and especially that I wouldn’t be entertained by temples for three days. But I needn’t have worried. It’s impossible to not be impressed visiting. And while I will never be one of those people who could spend forever checking out every single temple, there was plenty to keep me occupied and happy for half a day those three days, and then balance it out with swimming in our pool and going out to Pub Street.
Even after my research, the complex was so much larger and more spread out than I had imagined. The main temple, Angkor Wat, was arguably the most impressive, but if we had just seen it, we would have missed out on all my favorites – Ta Nei, Preah Khan, Banteay Srei. Actually, I almost feel like I’m cheating by putting all of Angkor as one highlight.
And the details. The carvings and sculptures were so immaculate, and the stories behind them just absolutely fascinating. Which is why I would encourage everyone to hire a guide for at least one day like we did to really learn about what you’re looking at. Happy Angkor Tours added so much more depth to our visit.
Kayaking in Ha Long Bay – Honestly, all of Ha Long Bay was great. I didn’t know what to expect since depending on who you ask, it’s either a “must do” or it’s not worth it. Our experience put us on the “must do” side of the equation. The views are gorgeous, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the cities and roads of Vietnam.
Sitting up on top, relaxing while passing by gorgeous karst landscapes. Having big, delicious meals served to us. Sleeping on the junk in a peaceful lagoon. But kayaking was definitely the best part. Kayaking through the caves themselves was really cool, but coming out to these calm, quiet lagoons, having them all to ourselves while listening to the wildlife… that was amazing.
I also like to stay active while on vacation. Relaxing on top of the junk is wonderful, but without the kayaking and swimming intermixed, I would have gotten bored. And strangely, the sun seemed to always come out for us once we got in our kayaks, which was much appreciated.
Motorbiking around Ninh Binh – What a way to see the countryside! I enjoyed the activities in Ninh Binh, too – Cuc Phuong National Park with its primate rescue and turtle conservation and Cave of Prehistoric Man, Trang An, Bai Dinh, etc. – but really, what stands out the most was just riding on those motorbikes, taking in all the beautiful landscapes and all the unique culture, smiling at the children and seeing their faces light up, seeing the water buffalo pop out from their ponds, being mesmerized by the flat fields of blowing green rice paddies, with their dramatic karst mountain backdrops. There wasn’t a single part of that drive that wasn’t lovely.
The food – Yum! I’ve traveled to a lot of places not known to have the most remarkable local food, notably Central American countries and Iceland. Vietnam, on the other hand, is indeed known to have good food, particularly in regards to its street food. And while it’s not known to be terribly vegetarian friendly, I managed to have no issues whatsoever in finding delicious, vegetarian Vietnamese food.
The real surprise for me, though, was how much I liked Cambodian, or Khmer, food. Anthony preferred Vietnamese, but I loved the sweet and sour sauces and curries, and the hot soups. It seemed to be this wonderful fusion of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indian influences. So now I know to keep my eyes open for any Cambodian restaurants in the States.
What I Would Do Differently
Trade out time in Hanoi for Highlands – This makes it sound like I didn’t like Hanoi, which is not the case. However, it was probably my least favorite, and it’s where we spent the most time. Hanoi is a bustling, crazy city packed with culture that I would enjoy immensely for one day, and then I’m ready to move on. And I had oh-so-badly wanted to be able to fit in somewhere in the northern highlands, such as Sapa, or Ha Giang, or Mu Cang Chai, with their gorgeous terraced rice paddies, mountains, and abundance of cultural ethnic groups. If I were to do it over again, I would make that happen.
Bring mosquito repellent – I made the assumption that I would easily be able to find bug spray once we arrived in Vietnam, but I ended up not finding any until our first day in Cambodia when we specifically asked our guide if they could take us somewhere where I could buy some. And then I wasn’t able to bring that giant thing of bug spray back to Vietnam with me, so I had mosquito repellent for a whole 2.5 days of our trip, resulting in over 30 bites. Bugs. Love. Me.
I would guess most people would not have as hard of a time finding some bug spray as we did, but it’s probably wise to just go ahead and bring some with you. Fortunately, my bites only resulted in itchy discomfort, but depending on where you are going, it is possible to get dengue, malaria, or Japanese encephalitis.
That’s honestly all I can think of. Everything went surprisingly smoothly, we enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we came in well under budget. What more could we ask for?