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Culture vultures

A journey through Vietnam and Cambodia - discovering Far Eastern gems

Sophia Purcell July 19, 2019

Combine the two fascinating countries of Vietnam and Cambodia in one trip to experience temples, beaches, delicious cuisine and hill-tribe culture. 

Bustling streets of Hanoi

Hanoi is simply mesmerising. Its city streets are filled with buzzing scooters and bicycles. Crossing the road is a completely new experience. According to our guide, you must walk at a confident and constant pace and allow the traffic to find their way around you. Easier said than done.

Our time in Hanoi was short but we managed to explore the many side streets and promenades where locals play football and exercise. With such a friendly busy vibe, you feel safe to go off and explore. There is a vast choice of places to eat, from tempting fine dining restaurants to tantalising street food stalls. We opted for the in-between and ate at MaM, which is a cosy eatery with a fantastic menu of soup, springs rolls, noodles, rice, chicken and much more.

Junk boats on Halong Bay

The journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay is about four hours by road, but it’s truly worth the trip. After arriving at the UNESCO World Heritage site that is this beautiful marine landscape, you set sail and travel through the limestone towers, the scenery is so remarkable you feel as though you have journeyed a million miles from home.

There are many junk boats all making the same journey but once you reach your anchor spot it seems that you are the only boat in the bay. Emeraude, our junk boat had quaint cabins, a large sundeck, bar and a nautical -style restaurant serving a buffet of local dishes.

To experience Halong Bay from a different perspective, we hired kayaks and explored the waters at sunset. After returning for dinner and enjoying a cookery demonstration, we relaxed on deck watching King Kong, where the movie was filmed (which was surreal). Participating in a sunrise Tai Chi deck class and later climbing 400 steps to the top of Titov Island marked a panoramic end to our stay on Halong Bay.

Sleeper trains to Sapa

Arriving at Hanoi station with a sense of excitement and anticipation ahead of our overnight journey to Sapa, felt like stepping back in time. Travelling through Vietnam on a sleeper train will possibly not appeal to everyone, but if you are happy with a rickety train journey, then this is a great local experience. Pulling into the border to Yunnan at Lao Cai at 5am, we were met by our guide who would be with us for the next two days.

We made our way to Sapa, which is 1,500 metres above sea level. Travelling up the winding mountains presented us with stunning views of photogenic rice fields, and an occasional beautifully dressed tribesman. Sapa village feels like a summer alpine resort. It is centered around a square with lots of little shops and a local market selling fruits, vegetables and handicrafts.

Over the next two days, we trekked through the villages of the Tonkinese Alps. On our first day we visited the Black H’mong village of Lao Chai, experiencing the daily life of the villagers, then onto Ta Van village, where the Zay hill tribes live. Our second day of trekking took us to Suoi Ho village with its tea plantations and cardamom gardens, following the buffalo trails to visit the hospitable villages of the Black Hmong minority people in Ma Tra. After passing a school and scenic views en route, we had lunch in a local restaurant with stunning views across the mountains, then continued trekking to Ta Phin village where we met Red Dao people who are famous for their weaving skills.

Temples and palaces of Phnom Penh

If history and culture is your passion, then Phnom Penh is a perfect place to spend a couple of days. We stayed at the amazing Palace Gate Hotel, which overlooks the Royal Palace. Admire the architecture of the palace with sundowners from the hotel’s tranquil roof garden. A visit to the Royal Palace should be on your wish list. It was built by King Norodom in 1866 on the site of the old town and includes the Silver Pagoda, which gets its name from its floor; made of 5,000 silver tiles. The treasures found inside include a solid gold Buddha encrusted and weighing 90 kilograms and a small 17th century emerald and baccarat crystal Buddha. From here, we then drove the short distance to the National Museum, also called Musee des Beaux-Arts, which a French archaeologist and painter, Georges Groslier, designed in Khmer style in 1917.

Journeys through Cambodia

With the international airport in Phnom Penh, to get to the beaches of Cambodia means a five-hour road trip, however, there are so many things to photograph or visit along the way to break your long journey up. We set off from Phnom Penh after breakfast and our first stop 30 minutes away was the Genocide Museum. In 1975 Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This visit was a very moving experience. From there we travelled south stopping next at the 13th century Ta Prohm temple. Located down a seven mile bumpy track, the journey alone is enchanting, passing many villages and experiencing how the beautiful people of Cambodia live. At the end of this journey you arrive at this stunning ancient temple. We also visited the 12th century Yeay Peau temple and the 10th century Prasat Neang Khmao, temple of the Black Virgin, along the route. Nearer to Kep, four hours further into our journey, we had a pit stop at the local Pepper Farm, Sothy’s, famous for its black, white and red pepper.

Far East inspiration

For more exciting destination ideas, browse these Far East pages and start planning your next adventure. 

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