This is one of my favorite parts of the world!!! If you are thinking of visiting here, I suggest you stay a minimum of three weeks and see all three countries. I was there for 5 weeks in 2015 and that worked pretty well. It was a bit rushed but doable. Six weeks would be an ideal minimum. Fly into Bangkok Thailand then after touring Thailand fly into Siem Rep, Cambodia and after touring Cambodia, fly into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and after touring Vietnam fly out of Hanoi. Be sure to try to travel to Thailand in late November so you can attend the remarkable Chiang Mai Lantern Festival.
Hotel -Phranakorn Norn Len Boutique Hotel
http://www.phranakorn-nornlen.com/ Neighborhood based, great food, smart helpful staff, eclectic décor, has free cooking classes/field trips and is fairly quiet.
Massages – While in Bangkok and Thailand in general be sure to get lots of massages which average about $5 an hour. Thai massages are amazing and we got one almost every day. Thai massage reminds me of a combination of yoga, dance, chiropractic and Swedish massage. Its established formula and its movement ritual process takes about 90 minutes and is done with you clothed in a loose pajama like outfit.
Touring – Take a basic city Tour to get the lay of the land.
Below is the itinerary of a 3 day Bangkok visit. (I actually got there 2 days before my much younger travel pal so I could rest up and acclimate to climate, overcome jet lag and time difference.
Day 1 – Our first day of touring happened to be on a weekend so we went to the weekend Floating Market, the one outside of town, where Thai people go (we saw very few foreigners there). I think it was called Khlong Lat Mayom. Along with a great selection of food and a nice atmosphere, another reason I think Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market (ตลาดน้ำคลองลัดมะยม) is one of the best floating markets in Bangkok is because of its boat ride tour. At the center of the market along the canal they offer long tail boat tours, which are communal, and very affordable. We visited a temple community, saw local villages and an orchid farm.
Next stop the Chatuchak Weekend Market – my fav market. It massive. Bring lots of money and energy. You could buy all your souvenirs and keepsakes here and mail them home. Its a real slice into Thai life!
Day 2 – Phra Chan Amulet Market is a massive and fascinating place and gives you an interesting insight into Thai culture. In Thai society, amulets remain very important sacred objects, believed to ward off negative events, illness, evil spirits, and other misfortunes, as well as bringing the owner prosperity and good fortune. Visitors to Thailand will see the amulets hanging from vehicle rearview mirrors, or on dashboards of cars, and buses. Thais also wear them and/or collect them.
- Massage at the Wat Pho School of Massage which was founded in the 1500’s and has remained faithful to the ancient principles and techniques of massage
- Afternoon Cooking Class @ Phranakorn hotel (the hotel offers a number of free classes and excursions – just ask their staff about them
- Jim Thompson House which is the former home of an American businessman and adjoining silk fabric store.
Thanon Khoa San Market –stroll through the centre of the backpacker’s universe in Bangkok
- We took a water ferry and a Tuk Tuk for a tour of the Grand Palace. A tuk tuk is a is a three-wheel motorcycle open air car type taxi. Beware of con artists tuk tuk drivers telling you that the place you are going to is closed and that they will take to a sight that is open which will end up being their friend’s store.
- Old City Bangkok’s Flower Market (Talad Pak Klong). It was hard to find but worth the effort. It was fascinating to see the arrangement, leis, the unusual types or flowers and the sheer volume of flowers. They are obviously a big part of the culture.
- Afterwards we checked out the Yodpiman River Walk which is a lifestyle mall focusing on a heritage theme inspired by the architecture of Thailand’s Ayuthaya period. The River Walk is directly behind the Flower Market.
- We then walked to China Town and also saw Golden Buddha temple (Wat Traimit). Located at the end of Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road, near Hualampong Railway Station, it houses the world’s largest massive gold seated Buddha measuring nearly 16 feet in height and weighing five and a half tons.
- Walked around Silom Rd. (gem area), great place to buy precious stones
- Then we visited the Banyan Tree Hotel for their ab fab moon bar sunset happy hour. A must do!!!! Its conveniently located in the Sathorn/Silom area and it is one of the best roof top bars in Bangkok with 360-degree view of the city atop the hotel’s 30 floor building. Can be crowded, noisy and expensive but worth it. OMG we were there on a full moon night!!
- Then we visited the Patpong area, internationally known as the main red light district at the heart of Bangkok’s sex industry. They also have a night market.
- MBK Mall – Bangkok’s largest indoor mall
If time permits, consider checking out the restaurant/resort – “Cabbage and Condoms” a business set up to make money to help buy condoms and do sex education for Bangkok’s sex workers.
Consider taking a day trip to the historic City of Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, which flourished from the 14th to the 18th centuries. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you are there you can also visit the King’s summer palace. Its just 52 miles from Bangkok.
CHIANG MAI – 3 days (Northern Thailand) minimum
Day 1 – flew there via Thai airways, got situated in a hotel. Wish I could have gotten one inside of the moat.
Went to the Loi Krathong parade and lantern festival which was one of the most fascinating events I have ever been to in my life. It is held every year on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai Lunar Calendar. (late November)
This Thai Festival is held all over the country, but the epicenter is in Chiang Mai. I have been to Thailand 3 times and this was my most fun experience yet. If your schedule permits, I would strongly recommend that you schedule your trip to include attendance at this amazing festival. Monks, commoners and tourist place thousands of floating lanterns in the river the day after the famous Sky Lantern Release where they release thousands of air born lanterns into the sky. Imagine sky covered with thousands of lanterns. The lantern releases are done to show respect to Buddha and to the ancestors. There are also fireworks and cultural performance in open air pavilions. The scene is festive and big fun. Check it out on google images for the wow factor.
Day 2 – Spent a 1/2 Day in an Elephant Park – try to find an Ethical elephant encounter. Some advertise that they are but are not really.
In the evening we attend part two of the Loi Krathong Festival night and went to the Night Market
Day 3 – We took a full day cooking class at smartcook thailand. smartcookthailand.com – The experience was fabulous and included a trip to the local market to buy food. We learned to cook four different dishes then got to eat them afterwards. Big fun.
In the evening we went to the Open mic night at the The Tea Tree Café and hung out with lots of expats.
Day 4 or more. If you have more time available be sure to take a tour/trek to see the hill tribes. If you have even more time, visit the nearby Doi Sut Hep national park, visit the city of Chiang Rai and consider even getting a day pass to the border town of Tachileik Burma/Myamar.
KRABI – 3 days (Southern Thailand)
Day 1 – Flight on Bangkok Airlines from Chiang Mai to Krabi then a bus and van to Ko Lanta’s Mermaid boutique hotel – http://www.lantaresort.com/hotels/lantamermaidboutique/
Ko Lanta was too far and complicated to travel to and was not worth the effort. As much as I didn’t like touristy Phuket, it is easier to get to and you can just take boat excursion to the Krabi area.
Day 2 – Four Island Tour from Ko Lanta, Massage, Dinner
Day 3 – Tour of Phi Phi Island. We did not like the Phi Phi tour bc it was way too touristy and the other islands we visited as part of the tour were too busy and crowded. That night we went to the night market in Ko Lanta and I worked on getting my online visa to Vietnam.
If you have more time, I wish I had volunteered at the local animal shelter instead. They have a shelter that welcomes tourist volunteers and after a day of service you get shelter t-shirt. Its like a badge of honor around the country. You see people with the t-shirts everywhere. What a win-win situation. If I had a lot more time I would have like to have visited the Ko Sumai area.
Vietnam – Flew from Krabi to Bangkok to Hanoi. Getting the online visa to Vietnam was a borderline nightmare. (pun intended) Don’t wait until the last minute and try to find a reputable company. It would make more sense to fly to Cambodia first from Thailand but I was meeting a friend in Hanoi so I ended up going to Vietnam then Cambodia.
I absolutely loved being there. The friendly people, amazing culture, varied terrain, magnificent food, wonderful beaches and great adventure opps were amazing.
Hanoi – 3 days
We stayed at the CALYPSO SUITES HOTEL and really liked it. The rooms were super clean and modern, Be sure to ask for a room on the back side of the hotel to avoid the street noise. They not only have a fabulous breakfast but also their staff planned our whole northern Vietnam excursions and they went off without a hitch. I know it sounds touristy but sometimes it just makes more sense to be a tourist instead of an adventurer. This was a case in point.
The hotel had excellent and friendly service. Its in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, also known as the “36 Streets.” Its near the Hang Be Market and Hoan Kiem Lake. Great shopping around that area and there is huge night market on Friday nite.
While in Hanoi we visited the following:
- Temple of Literature, built in 1076 and Vietnam’s first national university. Happened upon a massive high school graduation ceremony that was a wonderful cultural immersion experience.
- One Pillar Pagoda.
- French/Vietnamese restaurant, Hoa Sua, a training place for Vietnamese disadvantaged youth. The food is wonderful and the service delightful.
- Women’s museum on Ly Thuong Kiet Street, near the central Hoan Kiem Lake and the old quarter. It is a fascinating look into the role of women in society and their history.
- Art district where we went to numerous galleries and fashion designer near Ly Quoc street,
- The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is a museum which showcases the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam. It is located in the Cầu Giấy District. Bought lots of stuff in their gift shop.
- Went to water puppet show which we hated – be sure to avoid it at all cost.
- Be sure to pick up lots of cute pop greeting cards!! They are on many corners!!!
- Consider taking a food tour. The food is soooo delicious there. Hanoi Street Food Tours is a good but expensive tour, we saw lots of groups being let by their staff or try the Hanoi cooking center tours and an art tour – perhaps check out sophie’s art tour, art and fashion are a big thing in Vietnam so be sure to make time to check them out.
Hanoi Side trips – 6 days Hanoi is launching pad for visiting two amazing northern regions – Ha long bay and the Sapa region. Unfortunately, you can go from one to the other, you have to come back to Hanoi before you can get to the other.
Ha long bay – Our two day trip there was planned by the hotel and we toured the area via their sister boat – halong flamingo cruises -http://la-beautehanoihotel.com/en-us/hotels/vietnam-tours/tours/detail/flamingo-cruise-recommended/88.html
Hay Long Bay has towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ and legend tells that this mystical seascape was created when a great mountain dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouging out valleys and crevasses. As the creature plunged into the sea, the area filled with water leaving only the pinnacles visible. The geological explanation of karst erosion may be more prosaic, but doesn’t make this seascape any less poetic.
Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, Halong Bay’s spectacular scatter of islands, dotted with wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam’s number one tourism hub. Magnificent. You will see rock formations with such names as Sail, Dog and Dinh Huong (incense pot). Toward the end of the day, you will anchor for the night as the sun sets and then have a cooking demonstration and dinner on board the boat.
The hotel made plan for our taxi and bus travel there and the cruise provided meals and tours, including a hike into the Surprise Cave one of the widest grottoes in Halong Bay, so large that the Viet Cong used this as a hiding place during the American-Vietnam War.
Back to Hanoi for a day or so then off to the Sapa Region for a 3 day two night experience. http://la-beautehanoihotel.com/en-us/hotels/vietnam-tours/sapa-tours/1.html
We traveled from Hanoi – Lao Cai via sleeper train and then a mini-bus to Sapa.
The hotel Sapa Lodge was top-knotch. http://sapalodgehotel.com. You can also try the Sunny Mountain Hotel (http://sunnymountainhotel.com) Be sure to get a mountain view room.
Sapa is northern Vietnam’s premier trekking base where hikers launch themselves into a surrounding countryside of cascading rice terraces and tiny hill-tribe villages that seems a world apart. Once you’ve stepped out into the lush fields you’ll understand the Sapa area’s real charm. We trekked for a ½ day on first day and a whole day on the second in the rain and didn’t mind it a bit. Totally fascinating. The hikes were relatively hard so you need to be fit and hardy. No whiners allowed. The guide was phenomenal and prepared us wonderfully for both of our hikes – ½ day and a whole day hike. She even took us to her hillside home and introduced us to her family and village folks. One of our meals was hosted in their community center. Unfortunately, the local women can be aggressive sellers and it can mar your experience if you guide does not protect you. She helped us with our negotiation so that everybody ended up happy and the third day she actually took us a souvenir warehouse so we could stock up at an affordable price. It located near the china border. The dry season is from January to June with March to May being the best time to visit. We were there in early December and it was raining a lot but there was cheap raingear to rent/buy and guides to help us so.
Hanoi to Hoi an (Central Vietnam) – 4 days
Hanoi for the night and then took a sleeper train to Danang. It was a long hard 14 hour trip but the amazing scenery of the South China Sea made it worth it. Be sure to pack your own food and water because the food on the train has the reputation of not being safe to eat. Once in Danang you can arrange for a taxi to take you to Hoi an or you could luck up and get there in time for a public bus. Great place to stay in Hoi an is the Hanging Garden or if money is no object stay right in town at the Hoi An Historic Hotel.
Day 1 – Start your Hoi An visit with a walking tour of the central area. Discover the charming, old-world trading port of narrow streets, traditional houses, former merchants’ homes, the town’s iconic 400-year-old Japanese Covered Bridge and the colorful market where an array of fresh ingredients are on offer. Love hanging out in the food market and eating at the stalls with the locals.
They also have a fun night market but mainly resellers and not a lot of actual artisans.
Not sure if its every Thursday night or if it was a special holiday but I was totally amazed at the elaborate ancestral altars that people put in front of their homes and businesses when we were there.
Day 2 – consider taking one of the country day tours that includes a visit to a rice paddy, a ride on a buffalo, cooking class and boat ride with net toss. That might require different two tours or perhaps you can find one with all of that. I only took the ½ day boat trip and cooking class with ba tran eco coconut cooking tour. Another popular one is jack tran eco tours.
Day 3 and 4 were relaxing ones. We actually rented bikes and road to the beach and hung out at the beach all day. You have to pay to park your bike and then walk the beach. Super relaxing scene. You can rent a chair for the day and get yourself a fresh coconut. Get a chaise lounge away from the restaurant noise.
We went to an amazing seaside restaurants, one that catered to the locals. One of those evenings we went to Morning Glory restaurant in town for their famous white rose dumplings. Utterly amazing. Yummo.
You can also take a cooking class at Morning Glory that includes a market tour and an overview of ingredients common in Vietnamese cuisine. The class ends with each participant making their own multi-course meal. It is a great way to see all the nooks and crannies of a Vietnamese market and understand the secrets behind Vietnamese cooking.
You can also check out a special tour with the Lifestart Foundation and enjoy a fun, interactive workshop learning traditional Vietnamese painting and lantern making. Lifestart Foundation is a non-profit charity that helps the disadvantaged create a community, learn life skills and obtain vocational livelihoods through handicrafts.
Be sure to check out the store called Chula. Beautiful clothes by a Vietnam based designer.
Hoi An – Danang – Ho Chi Minh City (Southern Vietnam) – 5 days
We took a taxi to Danang Airport and then flew to Ho Chi Minh City. I think it cost about $38 dollars.
I don’t have a recommendation for a hotel in Ho Chi Minh or a lot of general recommendations for Ho Chi Minh City because we only stayed there two days. We were busy figuring out how to do a Mekong delta tour.
In Ho Chi Minh city be sure to check out the:
- Ben Thanh Market area – they also have a makeshift food scene and night market that is created after the brick and mortar market is closed down. Really good food and lots of locals.
- Vietnam Designer house – an amazing collection of clothes by Vietnamese fashion designers
- Bihn Jazz Club
- See what’s playing at the Opera House. Its rarely opera, we went to dance performance that gave us a fascinating insight into Vietnamese culture.
- Cu Chi Tunnels
Ho Chi Minh City to Mekong Delta excursion
- We took a 3 day 2night tour and I think the name of the company was Viet fun travel (http://vietfuntravel.com/mekong-delta-tours) which included bus and boat travel and hotels. You can also get a type of tour where you stay on boat e.g. Cai Be Princess Boat Cruise.
On our trip we took a bus to the city of My Tho and a boat ride to visit a bee farm, coconut candy factory and also got a canal tour. At some point we got bikes and cycled on tranquil winding lanes, through villages and crossing canals to a sacred forest site. I think we overnighted My Tho and next day took the bus to Can Tho were we got a chance to visit the region’s largest floating market (Cai Rang). It was utterly amazing to see the plethora of boats laden with fresh fruits/vegetables as well as traditional sights such as rice barges, wooden ship building yards and even fruit drying along the Mekong’s banks. Then we went to rice noodle factory, which was fascinating and went somewhere for lunch were we got a chance to hear a variety of traditional Vietnamese musical performances and get some locally caught and freshly prepared fried fish. Yum. Got a chance to walk across a traditional hand made bamboo bridge and then went to a totally boring crocodile farm. Then off to Chau Doc where we spent the night and I left there and took a boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia but my travel buddy stayed for the 3rd day of activities and loved her experience where she visited sam mountain, cave pagoda and Tra Sue forest then the bus brought them back to Ho Chi Minh city.
- Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, Capital of CambodiaI traveled from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh via speed boat and it took four hours with stops for immigration. Again I recommend flying into Thailand then going to Cambodia then visit Vietnam and fly home from there. The only reason I went from Thailand to Vietnam was because I was meeting an experienced southeast asia traveler in Hanoi who was going to let me tag along with her.Phnom Penh to Siem RepI did not tour Phnom Penh bc I was recovering from food poisoning. I pretty much just stayed in my hotel and then took a bus to Siem Reap (Mekong Express or Giant Ibis) for 5 hour trip for about $15. You can also take a boat during certain seasons $35 and a flight is about $100.Siem Rep – The hotel where I stayed was modern, quiet, cheap and near the action – sonyn retreat.Recommended itinerary for Siem Reap. I have listed them in order of importance so if you only have 2 days do 1 and 2, etc. I used siem reap shuttle company for my tours and was very satisfied. www.siemreapshuttle.com.
Day one: Angkor Wat, ta phrom, bayon temples and the south gate. I recommend that you take a tour otherwise you may not know what you are looking at. It is the largest religious monument in the world, 402 acres). It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman in the early 12th century.
Day two: Kulen Mountain Tour where you will see an amazing waterfall, fascinating sacred sites and river of a thousand lingas. The place where King Suryavarman launched his plan to create Angkok Wat.
Day Three: Floating Village Tour, you will also see Sap Lake
Day Four: Visit Banteay Srie also called the “Citadel of Women” which remains one of the best-preserved temple in Cambodia. A 10th-century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and the only one not created by or for a monarch. It is called the Citadel of the Women because the carvings are so intricate that it is said that only a woman’s hand could have carved them.
Day Five – take a cooking class at Cassia Restaurant which begins with a guided trip to the local market where we will learn about Cambodian vegetables, herbs and other ingredients before returning to the classroom for a hands-on culinary experience. Another cooking class I read that was good is Cooks in Tuk Tuk.
Then you could visit: Golden Silk Farm and Artisans d’Angkor.
After returning from your tours be sure to check out the three different Night Markets, Old Market, The Siem Reap street food tour, and Cafe Central. My third night there I actually found a night market that had lots of local artist selling their wares at reasonable prices and not just resellers as most of the night market vendors are. It was kind of hard to find because it was behind one of the most popular night markets, down an street and around a corner or two…keep trying until you find it!!!
Siem Reap had lots of good and cheap massages.
Another fun evening activity – take an Angkor Gondola paddleboat at the moat of the Angkor Thom compound, while watching a spectacular sunset at Prasat Chroung Temple. Cocktails, champagne, canapés and soft drinks will be available on the boat.