Indochina: Three’s a crowd

They have their key differences but Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are often grouped under ‘Indochina’. Jo Gardner looks at the contrasts and selling points of each

“I don’t know how to thank you,” I say to the lady on the phone after I offer her a monetary reward. 

“You’ve made my Christmas.” 

I’m in Vientiane, the largest city in Laos, where I’ve been for two weeks. 

Unlike the rest of the country – which consists of quaint towns that are as easy-on-the-eye as they are easy going – this capital means business. 

Broad, tree-lined streets house a juxtaposition of shiny Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture, including the British Consulate which I’ve visited several times since losing my passport.

In the days that pass, my hunt takes me off the beaten track to family-run cafes for pitstops, through local parks for short cuts and past incredible buildings that I’d never have spotted on the tourist track. 

I’ll never forget the impromptu game of table tennis with an officer at the Police Station whist waiting to register my loss, or the kind man who brought me here on his motorbike after I took a wrong turn.  

Now, on the phone to the mum-of-two who came across said passport and handed it in, I realise how much I’ve fallen for this city and its kind-hearted people – a city that revealed its itself slowly yet surely, and became my holiday highlight.  

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Less is more

Despite being neighbours, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos share few similarities, making a ‘trio tour’ both varied and exciting – if a little frantic.

But these countries have more than enough to enthral visitors for a holiday in their own right, with plenty to experience beyond the major attractions. 

Did you know that Cambodia’s island resorts have beaches to rival those in The Maldives, for example? Or that Vietnam is establishing itself as a place for spa and wellness? Or that Laos is attracting families with school-aged children?

“Laos tends to appeal to the curious traveller rather than the beach-focused tourist,” says David Kevan, Tour Operator Spokesperson for PATA UK & Ireland. 

“It’s incredible in its scenic and cultural variety, with experiences that can be easily tailored to individual requirements. 

“Most of the clients heading to Laos are couples or families with older children.” 

Trần Trọng Kiên, CEO of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, told us that health and wellbeing is now a focus for the country. 

“We are seeing more resorts opening to support wellbeing, with fantastic spas and dedicated spaces for meditation,” he says. 

“Sport enthusiasts are also seeking out our hiking/cycling trails and running tracks.”

Cambodia in 2023 is focused on getting its hospitality groove back after Covid, with new hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, including a new Banyan Tree property set to open in Q4 2023. 

“We seek out destinations that are steeped in architectural heritage, history and culture for our properties,” says Adhi Goen Group Head of Communications. 

“A hotel in Siem Reap resonates with our brand’s desire to create authentic, local experiences in the form of accommodation.” 

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Vietnam 

Of the three countries, Vietnam could be considered the ‘big sister’, spanning a massive 1,025 miles from north to south, with long periods on the road, by rail or internal flights necessary to cover it all in one trip. 

The capital – Ho Chi Minh City – is a hectic, buzzing place with high-end shops, historic sights, gleaming hotels and a revered International food scene.

Smaller Saigon seems no less hectic on the ground but with its French colonial architecture and large parks is softer around the edges. 

Visitors looking to escape the hubbub can head up north for lush green rice terraces and the lofty peaks of Sapa, which is great for hiking, or south for swaying palms and beautiful beaches. Cam Ranh is the beautiful, up-and-coming beach area that could easily rival the best beaches in Thailand.

In the tiny town of Hoi An, with its cycling locals, winding canals and dressmakers, you can get beautiful clothes made for a song.

Top tip: For a special occasion or a high-spending client, suggest booking business class seats on Bamboo Airways direct from London-Gatwick to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. This new airline operates a fleet of Dreamliners with lie-flat beds, silver service dining and huge screens for entertainment in business class. The airline also flies within Vietnam.

bambooairways.com

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Cambodia 

Visitors primarily heading to Cambodia to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat will be surprised by what’s on offer in this little sister of the Indochina family. 

From dense rainforests and private islands to bustling cities and endangered wildlife, no two areas are the same – guaranteeing a fun and varied break.

To fully appreciate Angkor Wat – a complex of temples so vast The Guinness Book of Records considers it the world’s largest religious structure – a tour guide is a must; a motorbike tour is a good idea if lots of walking is an issue.  

If time is short, build an itinerary that combines time in Siem Reap – the starting point for Angkor, and Cambodia’s second largest city – with the southern islands, of which there are 16. 

Suggest Koh Rong Sanleom for couples, Koh Rong for party goers and Koh Tatong for the eco-conscious – all have a barefoot laidback vibe with beaches often voted amongst the best in the world.

If time allows, there’s also Dolphin spotting along the Mekong River, all the modern culture you can fathom in Phnom Penh and species-rich rainforests in the Cardamom Mountains.

Sell it: Wendy Wu Tours offers a 15-day Around Cambodia tour taking in Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh and Tonle Sap from £2,890pp, including flights, transfers, 13 nights’ in four-star accommodation, all meals, tour guides and sight entrances. The tour also includes a Cambodian Circus Show and a visit to a Kampott Pepper Farm. 

wendywutours.co.uk

Laos 

Landlocked Laos is often overlooked in favour of its beach-oriented neighbours, but Indochina’s middle child more than makes up for it with its quaint villages and abundant nature. It is also known as the Land of Elephants with the gentle giants still roaming wild in parts of the country. 

Laos has a spiritual pull thanks to a large Buddhism population, so trips should include a visit to a Tak Bat, an alms-giving ceremony where meditating, saffron-robed monks collect food offerings from local people at dawn. 

The ancient city of Luang Prabang is home  to colourful night markets, terraced bars and restaurants and towering waterfalls. 

Mountainous Vang Vieng is another beauty spot where hot air balloons dot the sky as the sun sets. 

Meanwhile the tiny village of Pak Beng or Sainyabuli, a province in northwest Laos near the Thai border, give a taste of rural life. 

Or suggest a serene boat trip through jungle scenery and past the tribal villages of the Mekong River, where Indochinese tigers, Asian elephants and the Irrawaddy dolphins reside alongside crested gibbons, forest pheasants and box turtles. 

After a day exploring the temples of bustling Vientiane, dine at a typical night market, with its hole-in-the-wall bars vying for custom, before retiring to one of the many new hotel offerings typical of a thriving metropolis.

Foodies can learn how to create national dish Laap – minced chicken cooked with mint and chilli, and served with sticky rice – by signing up to an educational cooking course.

Sell it: Bamboo Travel offers a 16-day Legends of Laos tour, priced from £3,780pp and based on two sharing, including flights from London-Heathrow with Thai Airways via Bangkok, 13 nights’ accommodation, breakfasts and all transfers. 

The tour will make stops in Luang Prabang, Muang La, Nong Khiaw and Vientiane.

bambootravel.co.uk