Hi everyone, so I'm planning my first ever (pre-college) backpacking trip to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). I've got a rough plan:
10 weeks, beginning from HCMC and then up North, crossing the Tay Trang border to Laos, down South and finally entering Cambodia through Trapaeng Kriel.This will take place end December to early March. I'll most probably be going solo, or I would have a friend join be through Vietnam.
For someone who likes to explore a country in its entirety, I know 10 weeks might be a little tight for me. But I'm not into the trekking/hiking/cycling land adventure stuff so I guess I can save some time on that. I'm looking more for a cultural experience where I can soak in the local lifestyle, learn about the minorities, spend some quiet time, hit the beaches, and of course visit those main tourist historical sites and scenic spots. Visiting off-the-track or rural areas would be a bonus! (Though if I assume they are somewhere hard to access I'm not sure how I'm going to get my lazy ass up the mountains/through long trekking paths if I'm not going to move some limbs - backpacking is enough exercise for me.)
Any suggestions on itinerary for 10 weeks, places I can forgo (considering my preferences), tips and whatnot? Will be greatly appreciated!
I think you are giving yourself a good bit of time to soak up some of the local culture. I'm wondering what your rough plan is - something like 3 weeks from HCMC to Northern Vietnam . . . then 2-3 weeks Laos and 2-3 weeks Cambodia . . . with maybe one last week to get back into Vietnam and work through the Delta back to HCMC to fly home?
Without wanting to hop on a motorbike some of your ability to soak up local lifestyle will be curtailed as you'll have to stick to the urban areas unless you go on a guided hike. Some of these can be done with relatively little effort though. For a basic itinerary I'd recommend with your time frame you think about regions rather than plan out a strict number of days per city. Also, slicing a couple days off the 3 weeks of Laos and Cambodia and applying them to Vietnam would give you a little more time to explore that slightly more diverse country.
Just to mention some highlights . . . . for culture I think you not only want to hit Hoi'an, but to get the feel of a Vietnamese city that isn't near chaos it would be nice for you to spend a couple nights in Da Nang - a great city with a great vibe. Then, of course you'll want to visit Hue. I'd recommend you use trains as much as possible to get around Vietnam as it is your only chance to enjoy them. I figure you're going out to Sapa (it'll be chilly at night and possibly damp up in Northern Vietnam and Laos so make sure to pack appropriately for that). Without getting on a motorbike I don't know how much you'll get to see around Sapa - but I've little experience with that.
As well, I hear Phongsali is more about the hiking in the area . . . so you may want to scoot more quickly down to Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi - where you'll get to relax and get a feel for life in Laos . . . if Muang Ngo has settled down a bit at least. Maybe skip heading over to Luang Nam Tha and Mung Sing area as they are more about motorbikes and hiking and you'll get more out of Luang Prabang with a side trip out to the historical Plain of Jars in Phonsovan. After that you're itinerary is pretty much set as their is but one road you'll take down to 4,000 islands to cross over to Cambodia. If you are comfortable riding a motorbike and still have the time I highly recommend going up to the Bolavan Plateau for the short loop of Tad Lo and Pak Song to get a little off the beaten path and even taking the motorbike down to Champasak. I found that town a lovely place to relax and that having a motorbike was a nice way to beat the cyclists out to Wat Phu (a nice warm-up to Siem Reap) in the early morning. Of course, you'll have to take the bike back to Pakse before catching onward travel to 4,000 islands, but I think it is worth it.
In Cambodia, for culture as you describe I just want to mention not to miss Battambang and Kampot - both nicely explored, again, by renting a motorbike for a couple days.
Enjoy the trip! From most of my previous travel experience I've visited just a region for 3 weeks - say "Northern Laos", "Southern Laos", "Cambodia -- missed a bit" . . . so you'll be stretching things a bit if you tried to fit in everything I've recommended. Less is often more if you want to get to know some locals and soak up the culture.
Hi caseyprich, thank you so much for your prompt reply! I will fly home from Phnom Penh so I was thinking of 4 weeks for Vietnam, and 3 each for Laos and Cambodia. But I'm flexible, after all I wouldn't know which country I like the most until I'm there.
About renting a motorbike, do I have to have any license of sorts? And isn't it inconvenient if I have to turn back to return the motorbike after touring a specific region? Which are the regions which are hardest and longest to cross - say I'd skip certain regions and just visit Northen Laos or Southern Laos and Northern Vietnam or Southern Vietnam as you suggest. I'll probably skip the ones which take a longer time to crossover.
Thank you again for all the recommended places! I'll research a little about them before planning my itinerary, and be sure not too plan too much too. It's a backpacking trip after all!
A lot of the motorbike areas are loops. You go into a small area actually and don't do great distances but rather swoop through a couple of days and end up back in a transport center. You would want an international drivers license so that you are covered by your insurance.
A lot of travelers give southern Laos a skip in order to hit the more well known highlights of northern Laos. In Vietnam the region is really easily split into north, central and south for exploring, with the stretch from Hanoi to Hue usually skipped, and many people jumping from Hoi'an to Dalat.