I leave in just a couple days... I was hammering things out on Lonely Planet's website, but they put the kibosh on that whole thing. I have about 35 days. Here's my basic itinerary, and then I have some questions...
1) Leave the US
2) Arrive in Bangkok
4) Bangkok w/overnight train to Chiang Mai
5) arrive Chiang Mai
6) Chiang Mai
7) Chiang Mai
8`) begin transport/slow boat journey to Luang Prabang
10) ----/arrive in Luang Prabang
11) Luang Prabang
12) Luang Prabang
13) to Vang Vieng
14) Vang Vieng
15) to Vientiane
17) to Bangkok
18) to Ko Chang
19) Ko Chang
20) Ko Chang
21) Ko Chang
22) to Siem Reap
23) Siem Reap
24) Siem Reap
25) to Phnom Penh
26) Phnom Penh
27) to HCMC
33) fly to Singapore
34) Singapore TET/CHINESE NEW YEAR
36) Day in Singapore, flight home leaves late at night
Okay then, I have some questions.
1) This is about 4 (5 counting Singapore) countries in as many weeks. Some have told me that this is way too much, others say that this should be fine. The unfortunate truth is that I will probably never be able to come back to this part of the world ever again and I want to see the things I want to see so I am okay with it if it means a little more running around than others might prefer. I have a huge helping of music I want to catch up on and I'm a pretty quick moving traveler in general (I get antsy sitting still). So what do you think about this aspect?
2) I have almost an entire week allocated to HCMC... and to be honest I truly have no desire to spend an entire week there. Ideally I would like to get up to Hoi An in that stretch. But I don't know if it's too cluttered in that time frame. If it is, I can allocate plenty of those extra days to other parts of my schedule, staying extra days here or there with some flexibility. I have no problem with only a day or two in HCMC and then using it to get to Singapore from.
3) This Tet/Chinese New Year thing has been aggravating me. This aspect makes question #2 difficult because booking specific transportation might be packed at this time, right? Or will I be okay since it is still a bit before Tet?
4) Chinese New Year in Singapore. Will there be even a thing to do?
5) Vientiane gives me the creeps. All I hear about is vicious stray dogs and a city completely infested with bed bugs. I have zero interest in even spending one night here if it can be helped... if I take a bus in from Vang Vieng earlier in the day, do you think a night train to Bangkok that night will still have availability?
6) A number of these border crossings/visas require passport photos. There is oftentimes a small fee if you do not have a photo. However, that small fee is still much less than what they charge you for passport photos in the U.S. ($7.99 for two? No thank you). Am I fine just paying the fee? Or at the least are there places in Bangkok where I can do it for much cheaper?
#1 SaltwaterGem has been a member since 4/1/2013. Posts: 22
I certainly can't answer all your questions, but I can feedback on Singapore at Chinese New Year (having been there myself at that time, two years ago).
I was expecting disruptions (lots of restaurants and shops shut, for example) but found this didn't happen - very little that was relevant to me as a tourist seemed to be shut, so I wouldn't worry about that aspect. I would say that you'll need to prebook long-distance transport, though - if you haven't yet booked your flight from HCMC to Singapore, I'd do that ASAP.
I agree that 5 full days in HCMC is quite a bit, compared to the rest of your schedule - normally I'd recommend you adding an extra day or two to other legs of the trip, to slow down the pace a little, and give you a bit more time to explore other places.
It also seems a waste to go to the trouble and expense of getting a Vietnamese visa for such a short hop, but if you're dead-set on fitting in some of Vietnam as well, you could (instead of allocating extra days to Laos or Cambodia) fly from HCMC to Hoi An to save yourself a long journey. Honestly, though, you're trying to fit in an awful lot.
While I understand your perspective on wanting to see as much as possible, and your happiness at a fast pace, you might want to think about what "seeing as much as possible" actually means for you. The time you spend rushing from city to city and country to country isn't really experiencing the country, it's sleeping as it goes past the train or bus window.
Is it better to visit 10 cities in 5 countries for 2 days each, and barely brush the surface of any of them, or spend a few weeks in one country and be able to see the different elements of their culture, history, landscape, people, etc.? For me, this would qualify as seeing more than a whistlestop tour, but only you can decide what is right for you. Just something to think about.
Let's suppose I was going to cut off 3-4 days off of HCMC (even with the visa, flights to Singapore from HCMC are cheaper than anywhere else plus it gives me a day or two in HCMC)... do you have any suggestion on where these days would be better allocated? Are there places on this list that deserve more time than I've given them or anything places on this general route where I could spend the time?
#3 SaltwaterGem has been a member since 4/1/2013. Posts: 22
MODS: I accidentally 'flagged' that last post trying to figure out how to edit it... please ignore.
I was thinking more about what you said... scratching the surface vs. whistle-stop tour.
When I'm traveling by myself (this is going to be a solo run) I like moving a lot faster. I like seeing a lot, intensely, always being somewhere new, always looking ahead to the next place, etc. I was stranded in Panama City last March for a week... far longer than I'd prefer to stay in any one place. I loved the hostel I was in and the people I was with... but it was one my worst times traveling. Maybe that's a reflection more on Panama City, but I don't feel any more closer to Panama, the culture, or the city, other than drastically improving my Spanish. I know it's against what everyone says, but I feel I get more out of things by moving around a lot. Truthfully, whether a whistle-stop tour or a 4 month jaunt, both will only have superficial understandings of the culture and people.
#4 SaltwaterGem has been a member since 4/1/2013. Posts: 22
If you wanted to break up your Saigon time, you could grab a flight to either Phu Quoc Island to the south or Con Dao Islands to the east - the former is pretty gorgeous and while I've never been to the latter I've only heard great things about it. Flights are quite reasonable in both cases. Hoi An overland wouldn't be my choice - too much travel... ANother option would be two days in the Mekong Delta -- Can Tho is pretty cool.
Itinerary otherwise covers a lot of miles but is totally doable.
#5 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,766
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You could also consider a flight to Da Lat from HCMC. Due to its altitude of 1,500 meters above sea level, it remains a pleasant 18C - 25C all year round.
The city is a little odd too and was built during the time when Vietnam was a French protectorate. They even built themselves a mini Eiffel Tower in the city centre. Wikitravel as a good article on the city: http://wikitravel.org/en/Da_Lat
Vietnam Airlines has regular flights between the two cities: http://vietnam-airline.org/flight-from-Da-Lat-to-Ho-Chi-Minh-City
Some good suggestions above on places to visit from Saigon - never been to the Islands myself (they sound lovely) but can second suggestions of Can Tho (nice town from which to explore the delta) and Dalat (which struck me as like a Vietnamese version of Niagara Falls - without the falls, obviously, but it has the same cheesy honeymooner vibe).
Can Tho is about 2 hours by bus from HCMC, if memory serves. Dalat is about 7 hours by bus, if you don't want to fly.
I agree that you have too much time in HCMC - but also concur that if you're going to the trouble of getting into Vietnam (and the pre-arranged visa situation that requires) then you might as well enjoy a little more of it. One concern I have though - is from the look of your schedule you'll be in Vietnam in the days leading up to Tet, only arriving in Singapore the day before Tet officially starts (February 10th). For a few days before Tet transportation can be a major hassle.
My first suggestion would be to save money and skip the flight to Phu Quoc as the place will probably be busting with locals on holiday and I'm sure many places have already been booked up since November. Hoi'an is also too far away for what it offers - when you've got Can Tho (as somtam suggested) and I really enjoyed two nights there, a break from the bustle of HCMC and you can charter a small boat for a morning cruise, check out the markets (read my review of the place on this site if you like).
Sorry can't give a very clear answer, the final option you mentioned seems good to me too, just book your flight out of HCMC and pre-book a room for two nights in HCMC for the days before the departure . . . then play loose with those extra days as you go through the rest of your travel. From what you've said, I could see you easily wanting to catch a boat for a night or two over to Ko Wai off Ko Chang or angling off for a long bus ride back-and-forth for two nights in Phonsovan to check out the Plain of Jars (a rewarding trip if you like history).
I'm sure Rufus on this site could dispel your feelings on Vientiane, but I've been to Laos twice and never made it there myself - still have it on a wish list though as I've heard it is a very interesting experience as far as capital cities go.