TAKE A TRIP
Captivated by Cambodia & Vietnam
Planning a trip to South-East Asia’s mesmerizing destinations.
India to Cambodia and Vietnam for ~90,000 INR
If history, tradition and culture excites your spiritual DNAs, you must experience the eternally charming destinations of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia and the grappling ancient, imperial, dynastic, republican eras of Vietnam. May your reason for travel be learning, escaping, relaxing, adventure, celebrating, appreciating life, challenging yourself, expanding your perspective about things in general, either way these countries have a bagful to offer. Nevertheless, it is always important to plan when you have a limitation on time and budget, unless you have set forth on an endless voyage.
No. of days is quite critical while planning because that will help you decide whether you can do Vietnam only or Cambodia+Vietnam together. While we explored only Siem Reap in Cambodia (especially because that’s where Angkor Wat, our main interest was), we travelled 5 towns/cities from South to North in Vietnam. On a tight schedule, a good 3 days is sufficient to deluge oneself in the history of Siem Reap in Cambodia. However, an extensive Vietnam trip will require 10–12 full days.
We planned for 13 Days (including travel days).
Cambodia: ~4 Days
Vietnam: ~9 Days
Cambodia primarily has these 2 cities: Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, and Siem Reap, home of the Khmer Empire. While Phnom Penh is indeed a beautiful destination, Siem Reap’s historic significance was a better proposition for us and hence with 4 days at hand, we opted for Siem Reap in Cambodia.
However, Vietnam is vast and you can look at the numerous landmarks and attractions of each city and decide accordingly. We set our base in the south in the capital of Ho Chi Minh City, then in Da Nang in central Vietnam, and ended with Hanoi in the north. But there are other amazing places like Ba Na Hills, Hoi An, Halong Bay, Hue, Cham Islands, Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels, Tay Ninh, Dalat, Nha Trang, Ninh Binh, Sapa, Hai Phong, which travellers usually visit. Understandably, we distributed our 9 days across 3 days/base city in Vietnam.
Out of these few, Cham Islands, Ba Na Hills, Hoi An & Hue are in close proximity to Da Nang; Halong Bay, Sapa, Ninh Binh & Hai Phong are closer to Hanoi; Tay Ninh, Cu Chi Tunnels & Mekong Delta is easily reachable from Ho Chi Minh City; cities of Dalat and Nha Trang are closer to each other.
Seemingly, it is not possible to explore all the places in Vietnam within 9 days and hence we selected these 5 main towns/cities Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hoi An, Halong Bay & Hanoi and the nearby landmarks.
3. Travel Modes?
Deciding on the mode of transport can be integral when the schedule is tight. Travelling by surface transport (bus/train) internally in Vietnam is a common practice, but to save more on time we opted for air travel and flights are reasonably inexpensive in Vietnam. However, when it came to operations, some flights didn’t prove punctual; we apparently lost 8 hours in Ho Chi Minh City as our flight from Siem Reap got delayed at the last moment, but probably that’s not consistent.
Suggestion: Internal flights in Vietnam and Cambodia don’t have free check-in baggage limit, like we have in domestic Indian routes. So buy your (excess) baggage limits online, before hand, as rates are very high if purchased at the check-in counters at the airport.
Tip: Vietnam/Cambodia is 1.5 hours ahead of Indian Standard Time (IST) and 7 hours ahead of GMT. So plan your flight timings accordingly so that you can use the day time nicely. Also, have enough flexibility with your travel schedules as low cost flight timings can change at the last moment.
After several suggestions from friends and acquaintances, who had previously travelled to Vietnam, we set a cap of 70000 INR, considering we were covering 2 countries, and kept a further buffer of 15000 INR since we weren’t really confident about the various possible expenditure. Also there wasn’t much content on the internet about someone who travelled Cambodia+Vietnam. For other critical situations, credit cards were our fall back option.
Tip: Though it comes at an extra cost, check with your bank authorities and activate your credit cards for international transactions before travelling as they prove very useful at places who accept online payments whenever you are running out of FOREX, and it is likely to happen.
We rely a lot on map navigations for going around today, and connectivity is paramount to any traveller’s needs. You need not pay for International Roaming for your Indian SIM cards because getting connected to the internet in Cambodia/Vietnam is quite simple. The airports have SIM card counters at the exit terminals of various telecom companies who offer various plans like 7-Day plans, 15-Day Plans, 30-Day plans. One can quickly compare and opt for a network and get connected. We opted for Smart Axiata SIM cards in Cambodia and Vietnamobile SIM cards in Vietnam. Both the cards and data packages were very inexpensive and since both countries operate a dual currency system, all prices were quoted in USD as well.
Smart Axiata - 6 USD (25.000 KHR) for 7D Plan + 25GB Data
Vietnamobile — 9 USD (180.000 VND) for 30D Plan + Unlimited Data
Tip: While Indian SIM cards mostly have Incoming pre-enabled during intl. roaming, for emergency situations while travelling you can keep your SIM cards active on dual-SIM phones but take extra care that mobile data is not enabled for that SIM during intl. roaming.
Finding a stay in Cambodia and Vietnam is quite easy as you can choose from a extensive list of affordable properties across Airbnb or Booking.com or Hostelworld or Hotels.com or Agoda. While hostels are plenty and situated mostly in the city centres, Airbnb/home-stay listings are spread across the city and are slightly higher priced than hostels. However, understandably hostels aren’t as comfortable as any Airbnb listing.
Suggestion: One can obviously do way with all hostel or all Airbnb bookings but its better to have a mix of Airbnb and hostels in your accommodations. Airbnb listings, though expensive, are secure, gives you a chance to relax, be in your own space, and arrange your luggage comfortably. On the other hand, hostels are very cheap, have free beers, can meet new people, pub crawls, fun parties, but you don’t get much space to gather and organize your stuff, is quite crunchy and isn’t secure enough. We had alternate Airbnb and hostel bookings to save expenses and balance our needs.
Tip: Live in a hostel when in Ho Chi Minh City, especially around the Bui Vien Street, the central city area, to experience the late night party scenes and street food. It’s the most lively and happening zone in the city. While most of the hostels have these add-ons but check for free beers, free breakfasts, pub crawls, free walking tours, tour guidelines, while booking one.
Both the countries operate a dual currency system, i.e., they accept payments in USD (US Dollars) and also in KHR (Khmer Riel) in Cambodia or VND (Vietnamese Dong) in Vietnam. However, it is recommended to have local currencies handy as 1 USD is a considerably big amount in their local currencies and also there are some places which strictly doesn’t accept USD. We carried 400 USD/head and got it exchanged at the airports. You can also find FOREX counters in the city centres as well. While FOREX charges differ at every outlet, we realized airport charges were slightly higher. Also, there are FOREX counters at Post Offices (Bưu điện) in Vietnam.
Suggestion: 400 USD cash was slightly insufficient for 2 countries as Khmer Riel (KHR) was comparatively bigger than VND, but might prove enough for a Vietnam-Only trip. Although cash-handling might feel slightly difficult but carry approx. 400–500 USD for a 10–12 days trip and FOREX cards are anyway a big NO for these destinations. Also, try to maintain ledger notes to record your expenses as it gets crazy with the calculations and any USD-KHR or USD-VND conversions will generate numerous currency notes of varied big denominations.
A simple math equation, to remember and apply, which the locals also follow
(based on May 2019 FOREX rates but not exact):
1 USD ~ 4000 (4k) KHR
1 USD ~ 20000 (20k) VND
Tip: Whenever you are converting KHR-to-USD or VND-to-USD, just remove the last three 0s from that price and make divisions easier. Say for example, a 360000 VND = 360k is equivalent to 360k/20k = 18 USD; while a 48000 KHR = 48k is equivalent to 48k/4k = 12 USD.
Nonetheless, all the best with abundant currency notes. 😅
8. Going Around?
Going around landmarks within a city is pretty effortless with Grab rides. Also, there are local public transport which we felt tourists apparently don’t opt for but are super cheap and effective. Although in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we didn’t really spot any public transportation but there were numerous Tuk-Tuks and Autos around to opt for and they happily accepts USD. However in Vietnam, there was a substantial presence of public buses and Vinasun/Mai Linh metered taxis around, especially in Ho Chi Minh City but strangely, at times buses weren’t running on schedule. For every other last mile travel, there is Grab (in both countries) and GoViet (only in Vietnam), but trip payments were mostly in their local currencies.
Suggestion: In Siem Reap, the drivers tend to ask inflated rates from tourists as they accept USD, but it is important to bargain and get to a reasonable rate. Wondering how to find a reasonable rate? Quickly open Grab app and check the price for that mode of transport from A to B, and Bingo! but I would still suggest to rely on Grab rides.
Tip: Opt for a GrabBike ride, though adventurous in the crazy SE Asian traffic, it gives you a beautiful experience of the city roads. Also, walk through the market areas to get an essence of the local livelihood.
9. Food & Drinks?
When in Cambodia/Vietnam, food and drinks are amongst the last things to worry about. There’s plenty of street food, local cuisines, continental dishes, Korean and Chinese food to choose from, spread all around the city. While, dine-in is slightly expensive but one must try the traditional dishes, street food, abundant sea food, in some of the outlets. A proper meal typically costs around 4–5 USD including a beer. Unlike India, water isn’t a free commodity across Cambodia and Vietnam and understandably, while travelling you must opt for packaged drinking water which typically costs 4k KHR~1USD per litre in Cambodia but 15k VND~0.75 USD per litre in Vietnam.
Suggestion: If you can carry water bottles, most hostels provide water fill-up for very cheap rates 5500 VND for a 1 litre bottle in Vietnam, which is an economic practice and comes in handy during distant sight-seeing spots. Also check if your Airbnb provides free water bottles.
Tip: Try Angkor Beer and Draft Beer in Siem Reap, Cambodia; Biere Larue Gold, Saigon Beer, Bia Hanoi Beer, Craft Beer in Vietnam. While all pubs and restaurants in Vietnam sell them, buy your beers from the supermarkets like Circle K where you get a beer can for 12000–18000 VND, sold at 50000 VND ~ 2.5 USD at any pub, and save a ton. Don’t miss the street foods of Cambodia and Vietnam: Banh Mi (HCMC), Gỏi Cuốn and Phở (Hanoi), Bánh Canh Cá Lóc (Da Nang), and the famous vietnamese coffee: Cot Dua, Sua Nóng and Trứng Cà Phê at Cong Cà Phê outlets.
10. Mustn’t Miss?
Apart from the must-try foods of Cambodia and Vietnam,
In Cambodia, one mustn’t miss the world of Angkor Wat.
In Vietnam, one mustn’t miss Ancient Town: Hoi An and Halong Bay Cruise.
In the present context of planning the trip, one of the most beautiful, enthralling and recommended experiences in Vietnam is the Halong Bay Cruise, one thing you surely mustn’t miss. Book a cruise for 1D or 2D1N or 3D2N from a list of several cruise companies on booking.com or hotels.com or through direct links if you have recommendations. Cruise rides on Halong Bay are probably amongst the cheapest of cruises in the world with a heavenly experience. There are plenty of cruise ships that ply in Halong Bay like the Glory Legend Cruise, A-Class Stellar Cruise, Dragon Legend Cruise, Athena Royal Cruise, Lavender Cruise, Imperial Classic Cruise, Golden Star Cruise, etc. to name a few, but, truly speaking, it becomes extremely difficult to decide the right option with all cruises offering different activities and deals. So, you end up either booking a cruise through recommendation or putting enough effort to compare all the available deals and finalize one which obviously would require a lot of time and planning. Sharing a few leads on how to finalize a cruise:
- First decide on a 1D/2D1N/3D2N cruise based on your schedule. We opted for a 2D1N cruise.
- Fix a budget because you will find cruises from 6000 INR to 20000 INR for 2D1N. We set a budget of 8000-9000 INR per head for the cruise.
- Look for the landmarks and activities in the package like Sung Sot Caves, Kayaking, Cat Ba Island, Tuan Chau Beach, Thien Cung Cave, Cooking classes, Tai Chi classes, Squid Fishing, Floating Market, etc. based on your likings.
- If you are commuting from Hanoi, check if they have pickup and drop services to Hanoi. We travelled from Hanoi and hence it was important for us to avail the pickup and drop services.
- Compare rates of the same cruise across platforms and if available communicate directly from their website to avail any offers. Also, check with your hostel/Airbnb accommodation at Hanoi if they have partnerships with any Halong Bay cruises and can offer you good deals. We actually got a good bargain through our hostel at Hanoi as we cross-checked there quote for a partner cruise with booking.com rates and got a good concession.
- Finalize all cruise bookings before travelling as last moment/on spot bookings can be very expensive and also may not be available depending on the season.
- Check if cash/online payments are accepted on deck.
*We had to pay 50 USD upfront and the remaining 74 USD on arrival.
We booked A-Class Legend Cruise for 1N2D through Babylon Garden Inn hostel for 124 USD~8400 INR per head, which included pickup and drop to Hanoi. It was later upgraded to A-Class Stellar Cruise due to some operational reasons at same cost. It was definitely worth every penny.
Where’s the Plan?
We travelled as per:
Bengaluru ›› Siem Reap ›› Ho Chi Minh City ›› Da Nang ›› Hanoi ›› Bengaluru.
We didn’t find favourable deals on outbound flights for India from other cities apart from Hanoi or otherwise one can plan it in reverse as well, or as feasible. Mostly, based on our interaction with other travellers, people tend to start from North Vietnam, i.e., Hanoi and end in the south, Ho Chi Minh City but it wasn’t really integral. Below is a summary of our travel itinerary:
Total Travel Expenditure ≈41500 INR per head.
Total Accommodation Expenditure ≈14500 INR per head.
Apart from the mandatory VISA expenses, there are a bagful of other charges one will eventually end up paying like the various entry fees at each tourist spot which normally aren’t mentioned anywhere and hence the in-hand FOREX often proves inadequate. Listed below are expenses based on some activities which will be almost inevitable:
›› In Cambodia
eVISA = 36 USD
SIM Card = 6 USD
Angkor Wat 1-Day Short Tour = 37 USD (There is also a 3-Day Long Tour)
Angkor Wat Tuk-Tuk Rent Full Day = 15 USD
Angkor Wat Tour Guide = 20 USD (Irrespective of Group/Individual)
Floating Village (Kampong Phluk) Guided Tour = 19 USD
Total Inevitable Expenditure in Cambodia ≈133 USD per head.
*Some of the common vehicle expenses were shared by the two of us.
›› In Vietnam
eVISA = 25 USD
SIM Card = 9 USD
Cu Chi Tunnel Guided Tour = 20 USD
Cu Chi Tunnel Entry Fees = 110.000 VND ~ 5.5 USD
Vietnam War Museum = 40.000 VND ~ 2 USD
Hoi An & Da Nang Sightseeing Half Day Trip = 37.5 USD (Dinner included)
Hanoi Airport to City Centre = 2 USD (Hanoi airport is 25 km outside city)
Hoa Lo Prison Entry Fees = 3 USD
Ho Chi Minh Museum Entry Fees = 40.000 VND ~2 USD
Imperial Citadel Entry Fees = 60.000 VND ~3 USD
City to Hanoi Airport= 35.000 VND ~1.75 USD
Total Inevitable Expenditure in Vietnam ≈110 USD per head.
*Some of the common vehicle expenses were shared by the two of us.
*Both Cambodia & Vietnam has eVisa/Visa On Arrival facility for Indians.
If we look at the expenditure covering the most obvious ones, excluding food, it already amounts to more than 70k INR which clearly overshot our initial budget and hence the buffer.
Total Obvious Expenditure (Travel+Accommodation+Inevitable) =
41500 INR + 14500 INR + 9100 INR(133 USD) + 7500 INR(110 USD)
= 72600 INR
Our miscellaneous expenses included GrabBike rides, tuktuk/taxi/cab rides within city and to-n-fro airports, street food, a few fine-dining and drinks, gifts and souvenirs, which exhausted the additional buffer and predictably our credit cards came to the rescue.
Miscellaneous Expenditure ≈20000 INR per head.
Evidently, it is highly unlikely someone can have a more economical trip to these destinations of Cambodia and Vietnam, without compromising on anything we experienced. To conclude,
What we did?
2 countries • 13 Days • 90000 INR Spent (includes 400 USD FOREX Cash)
What you may do?
2 countries • 14 Days • 95000 INR Budget (includes 500 USD FOREX Cash)
- An extra day is recommended for further ease of travel.
Witnessing the journey of Hinduism to Buddhism in Siem Reap was among one of the most fascinating experiences I have ever had. It is further enriched when you start relating to all the mythological stories of India and find its footprints in another country which has adapted to a different religion but still holds relation to your own history. Quite mesmerizing was to discover the sculpting familiarities drawn with the rock reliefs of Unakoti (7–8th century), an ancient Shaivite place of worship in Tripura, India, and the Bayon Temple (12–13th century), a Mahayana Buddhist temple in Angkor Thom region of Siem Reap, Cambodia, both sculpted in bas reliefs with similar carving styles, dating 5–6 centuries apart. An hour’s drive away from Siem Reap, in the Tonle Sap Lake the livelihood of the hill-tribes in the floating village of Kampong Phluk was equally amazing. The creativity of the locals and the power of community based livelihood are in full exhibition here. Their houses are built on tall wooden stilts, which makes it accessible during rainy season when the water level rises and yet they have community schools, markets, work, functioning seamlessly in both wet and dry seasons. A dry season may not be the most picturesque time to visit Kampong Phluk but it provides another dimension to the livelihood of these fishermen families.
Take a 90 minutes flight from Siem Reap and you reach one of the most devastated countries of recent colonial wars and yet find the country prospering in big leaps; Yes, you are in Viet Nam. The amount of hatred, destruction, helplessness, property and human loss, this country has faced is unimaginable. A visit to the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City portrays the atrocity inflicted by the US Army during the dreaded Vietnam War till 1975. Literally crestfallen after learning about all the cruel exhibits of the US, you walk out on the road and meet a local who happily greets you and engages in a quick conversation. In spite of surviving through those agonizing times, the energy and positivity emitted by these local Vietnamese people is so powerful that its a wonder in itself. This country, Vietnam, is an apt portrayal of Perseverance. The struggle for freedom from the French, the Americans, the Thai, their internal wars with North and South Vietnam, has been relentless and exhaustive, and yet they stand today regarded as one of the fastest growing GDPs in the world. Traveling northwards to the capital city of Hanoi, is like traveling 100 years back to a significant ancient city of age-old kingdoms. With its landscape having close resemblance to the ancient cities of India, Hanoi has its strong communist links to India as well. If Vietnam sounds all about destruction and war, the ancient town of Hoi An is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, right out of a fairy tale, the City of Lanterns. A rich history of traders from India, China, Japan, French, Dutch, define the beauty of this town. Down northeast, 150 km away from Hanoi is the emerald waters of Halong Bay filled with 1600 monolithic limestone islets. An astonishing creation of nature, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Meanwhile a new religion was born far away from the regular, called as Caodaism, an amalgamation of Buddhist, Catholic and Confucius ideologies in Tay Ninh. Amidst all these overwhelming experiences, I can’t stop mentioning about the richness of food the country has. Naturally, Vietnam never ceases to amaze you.
I’m sure the trigger question “Worth it?” stands immaterial by now but whatever plan you end up with, trust me, Cambodia & Vietnam is definitely worth the deal!
Get, Set & Go to Cambodia & Vietnam. Claps now, thank me later. 😃
By the way, the temperatures were often relentless during the month of May in Cambodia and distributed rainfall sets in across Vietnam in that time. So the best time, as most recommends, to visit might be from November to April but understandably prices will be more during any peak holiday season.
If you have reached do far, appreciate your patience and enthusiasm for reading through my experiences. I hope it helps you plan your travel to these charming destinations. Thanks to SAMIK BHATTACHARYA for planning this wonderful trip and related finances alongside me. Meanwhile, for all my travel stories, you can follow my Instagram handle @driftingmeridians. Please clap and share this story with your network. Cheers!
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