Words: Sarah Clayton-Lea
Hiking through rice fields, hand-feeding rescued elephants, and sailing through an ancient bay filled with thousands of karst islands, may seem like the holiday activities of the rich and famous, but exploring new countries, in particular, the South East Asia region, can easily and enjoyably be done on a budget. Here’s how to spend 14 days in Cambodia and Vietnam without having to take out a second mortgage!
DAY 1: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Arrive in the infamous temple town, Siem Reap. Check out the town’s Old Market for some souvenirs and relax with a 60-minute jasmine body scrub (€11) at Namaste Spa. Try the Cambodian speciality, Fish Amok, a fragrant fish curry cooked in banana leaves, in any family restaurant on Pub Street. Spend the night at Angkor Secret Garden Inn (€13), run by the friendliest couple in town.
DAY 3: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Visit the Choeung Ek Killing Fields just outside the city, to learn about Cambodia’s mass genocide in the 1970s led by the Khmer Rouge. Afterwards visit the Genocide Museum in the grounds of former S21 Prison, where each day one of the prison’s only survivors, Chum Mey, sells his autobiography,‘Survivor, and talks to tourists. Try the wonderful baked clams at La Marmite, a tiny, yet amazing inexpensive, French restaurant. Get cocktails in Phnom Penh’s coolest and most secret Speakeasy bar, Bar Sito, with a great sleep at Monsoon Boutique hotel (€32).
DAY 2: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Rise and shine! It’s a 4.30am start for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Take a Tuk-Tuk around the temples, making sure to see Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, the infamous ‘Tomb Raider’ location. Have a rest (and maybe a Pina Colada!) at the shaded pool in Frangipani Spa. A 90-minute flying yoga class at the outdoor studio of Green Angel Yoga will stretch your tired muscles out nicely. Take the overnight sleeper bus (€12) to the city of Phnom Penh.
DAY 5: Mondulkiri, Cambodia
An 8 am pick up by local elephant sanctuary group, the Mondulkiri Project, for a day in the jungle. A full day’s trek costs €45, with the money going directly to the project’s conservation efforts. They look after six rescued elephants.
The project works closely with local tribes in the forest to prevent logging of the area and ensures that the elephants have space to roam freely. The elephants will approach you for bananas, and if it’s hot out, three of them will even allow you to bathe them in the river.
DAY 4: Mondulkiri, Cambodia
On the move again with a five-hour bus ride north to Mondulkiri province, rich in vegetation and countryside life. For local food, the Greenhouse Café doesn’t disappoint with its €3 Khmer chicken curry dish. Have an early night in Sen Monorom town at Sokcheav Guesthouse (€9).
DAY 6: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Say goodbye to Cambodia as you cross the Seoul border into Vietnam, followed by a bus to the motorbike city of Ho Chi Minh. Make a quick stop off at Com Nieu Saigon for a bowl of their corn and crabmeat soup (€6) before hopping on the sleeper train to Da Nang, where you can spend the 16-hour journey catching up on some reading.
DAY 7: Hoi An, Vietnam
Climb up the Marble Mountain for an unbeatable view before settling into Vietnam’s prettiest town, Hoi An. Stroll around the colourful lantern-filled Old Town and get some clothes tailored if you feel like a treat. Morning Glory restaurant is the best in town, with their White Rose dumplings, €3, showing off the town’s culinary reputation. Stay in luxurious Vinh Hung hotel (€40)
DAY 8: Hoi An, Vietnam
Ms Vy’s bicycle and cookery tour, €40, is the perfect way to spend the morning. Cycle to the countryside and see the town’s main herb garden, water buffalo and a local beansprout farm. There is a guided tour of the food market before a two-hour cookery class to hone your skills. Laze around the pool for the afternoon, venturing out if hungry for a Banh Mi, a local snack of ham, pork, pate and spices in a French baguette.
DAY 9: Hanoi, Vietnam
Fly from Da Nang to the capitol, Hanoi. Try the tasty northern Vietnamese speciality, egg coffee, to perk you up. For an interesting perspective on the country’s history, visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Overnight sleeper train €40, to the mountain area of Sapa.
DAY 10: Sapa, Vietnam
Take a two-day trek through the rice fields with Sapa O’Chau, a locally founded tour group, €55. Hike uphill into the mountains, passing through several local villages before arriving at Ta Phin, where the Red Dao tribe live. The women are experts in herbal medicine, and you can enjoy an evening herbal bath. Expect a family feast of pork and rice wine at your overnight homestay.
Day 11: Sapa, Vietnam
Wake up to fresh chrysanthemum tea and banana pancakes cooked by your host. Trek down towards Sapa town and browse the local embroidery at the market before the afternoon bus back to Hanoi.
DAY 12: Halong Bay, Vietnam
Splash out on a two-day boat cruise, (€120) with Halong Imperial Cruises, to Halong Bay, where the mystical waters are dotted with limestone islands. Kayak in between caves and try your hand at night time squid fishing, followed by a seafood buffet on the deck.
DAY 13: Halong Bay, Vietnam
Sail over to a floating pearl farm before getting a speedboat to Nam Cat Island. Soak up the sun and swim in the private bay. Freshen up for the BBQ dinner overlooking the beach and settle down for a comfortable, if somewhat rustic, sleep in a beachfront wooden bungalow.
DAY 14: Halong Bay, Vietnam
Get a boat to Cat Ba Island, the bay’s largest island just twenty minutes away. Spend the day at Cat Co Beach 3, where the beach bar prepares fresh coconuts to sip from and glorious fruit platters.Walk down along the pier to Green Mango restaurant for a passionfruit martini and some grilled octopus. Stay in the luxurious Cat Ba Sunrise Resort, €85 for your last night of paradise, before leaving Vietnam.