Five years ago, the furthest I traveled to was Europe and that alone lacked freedom since it was a family trip. Last Month, I had the chance to backpack to South East Asia. I only had 28 days to travel with my boyfriend through Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a short trip and it went by quick, but it brought out the best memories.
While these memories are still fresh in my head, I thought it would be a good idea to share my tips on how to succeed your next backpacking adventure to South East Asia.
My first destination was the capital city of Cambodia, Pnom Penh. We spent a few days wandering around the city visiting temples and mostly eating. On average, the weather hit 36 degrees. As of January, Cambodia is currently in its winter. Strangely enough, it is a perfect time to travel there and avoid the monsoon season – which runs from May to October. For a Vancouverite who just left a snowed-in city, it was quite a challenging adjustment.
Next, we spent a week in Siem Reap where we visited one of the ten man-made wonders: Angkor Wat. The temples of Angkor are a city of its own. The neighboring temples stretch out for miles and are worth seeing for its breath-taking detail and its grand scale. I strongly recommend spending a minimum of 2 days here.
After Cambodia, we bussed to Saigon, Vietnam –also known as Ho Chi Minh City. A giant vibrant city buzzing with eateries, shops, markets, and hidden alleyways weaving in and out –the best gems were found here. I only had 36 hours till my flight to Hanoi. Even with time being an enemy, I was lucky enough to experience both the nightlife and foodie life with the time I had.
Next, we flew 2 hours north and landed in Hanoi –the capital city of Vietnam. The streets flooded with scooters in every direction. “Jaywalk with caution and confidence,” was my motto for the time being. The first day we visited a very scenic lake in the center of the city called Hoan Kiem Lake. That day, the streets closed off all traffic and we were lucky enough to indulge in Chinese New Year festivities. Most of our days here consisted of meandering around the city and eating. On our last day, we decided to book a 3 day/1 night homestay in Sapa.
Sapa is a beautiful hill station further up north and just a 6-hour bus ride from Hanoi. It is a popular destination for travelers to come trek through highland villages and spend a night at a homestay. The town is filled with locals dressed in colorful traditional clothing and red headscarves. I was surprised with how good their English was! Past the mountain town, I saw the lush green rice fields rolling endlessly over the hills. With our trekking group, we hiked for 6 hours down and up to two villages, Lao Chai and Ta Van.
We spent a night in Ta Van with one of the local families where they fed us with a traditional highlander dinner then finished with a grand toast of happy water. “Happy water for happy people,” they’d say. It was a strong 40% spirit of rice wine. 4 shots later and I was ready for bed! Thinking about this adventure makes me want to go back.
Our very last destination was Cat Ba island, the biggest island in Ha Long Bay. Took us 4 hours, with a mix of bus and boat, to journey from Hanoi to Cat Ba. As an outdoor enthusiast, this was by far my favorite destination. And least touristy place. We spent a week exploring every end of the island. The hidden beach coves, lush jungles, and spectacular views were all worth staying for.
My partner and I are avid climbers and had the chance to climb both on land and in water (deep-water soloing). We ate delicious fresh fish in the floating village.
Then, kayaked to a few neighboring islands and claimed a private beach to ourselves.
Lastly, we visited the national park of Cat Ba and hiked to the tallest peak. I was happy to leave this destination as our last one.