17 of the best things to do in Cambodia and Vietnam

Taking a train through postcard horizons of paddy fields. Tasting the fire of sizzling street food. Sorting that stylish tailor-made suit. Vietnam and Cambodia in southeast Asia make a popular twin-country trip, but where to start? Right here. They’re easy to travel to — and travel through — and there’s never been a better time to visit. Here are the must sees, the maybes, and a few surprises.

Main photo: a vendor heads to market in Hanoi (Getty Images)

This article contains affiliate links.

Our travel journalism is written and edited by independent experts to inform, inspire and advise our readers about the best choices for your holidays. We also feature properties and itineraries from a specially selected list of trusted operators. These buttons and adverts are clearly signposted, and provide direct links through to external sites. If you click and buy a product, we may earn revenue.


Show more


Show less

Cambodia

Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of the best things to do in CambodiaWatching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
Sunrise at Angkor Wat (Alamy)

1. Watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat

First comes the chorus of the birds across Siem Reap. Then the dark sky brightens, silhouetting the stupas of Angkor Wat on the horizon. And then the sun breaks, the day warms, butterflies fill the air and the fatigue of that 4.30am start fades from your mind. Angkor Wat is as ancient as the great cathedrals of Europe, part of a ruined city nearly twice the size of modern Edinburgh, protected by a forest park. You’ll need at least two days here — and it’s really worth waking early on both. On the first day, join the throng at the West Gate for that iconic silhouette view. Next day, go to the East Gate to see the morning light burnish the temples. For a magical half hour, you’ll almost have the buildings to yourself.

A visit to Preah Vihear Temple is one of the best things to do in CambodiaA visit to Preah Vihear Temple is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
Preah Vihear Temple (Alamy)

2. Visit Preah Vihear Temple in the Dangrek Mountains

Reaching the ancient gates of Preah Vihear Temple involves a long, vertiginous climb. But the sprawling complex of grand winged walls, balustered windows and slender galleries, busy with carvings of gods and warriors, is worth the hike. Crowning the Dangrek Mountains in northern Cambodia, it’s the highest shrine of the Khmer Empire era. Brushing the border with Thailand, Preah Vihear was inaccessible for years, due to an ownership dispute between the two nations. With the issue settled, you can wander peacefully through ancient archways, taking in eerie views across Cambodia’s rainforested lowlands. Bring your passport; it may be checked on the way into these remote borderlands.

The beach and pier at Sihanoukville - visiting the country's beaches is one of the best things to do in CambodiaThe beach and pier at Sihanoukville - visiting the country's beaches is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
The beach and pier at Sihanoukville (Alamy)

3. Lounge on the beaches

Cambodia certainly has beaches — on the mainland around Sihanoukville and on the half a dozen small islands a few kilometres offshore. Unlike in Thailand and Bali, where concrete buildings clamour for space, here the sands are empty, with resorts just sparsely scattered, and on the islands, almost no crime — leaving you safe to wander at will. Why not take a boat to the coral reef, to swim with languorous turtles and darting fish? Or maybe go on an afternoon hike through the forest, to a fishing village where wooden houses stand on stilts over the water, and people pray in a wooden temple. That’s if you don’t want to stay on the sands — watching for hornbills and monkeys in the trees, or just curling up with a book in your hammock.

tourismcambodia.com

The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek - a visit to the Killing Fields is one of the best things to do in CambodiaThe memorial stupa at Choeung Ek - a visit to the Killing Fields is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek (Alamy)

4. Visit the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

Rising amid the Killing Fields is the imposing memorial of a Khmer-style Buddhist stupa. The silence hangs heavy as you step inside to find tiers of human skulls, testament to the unimaginable horror of the 1975 to 1979 Cambodian genocide. The Choeung Ek camp is surprisingly small, the fields reduced to memorial gardens. Their history is signposted — otherwise you’d have no idea the deep, overgrown pits here were formerly mass graves. A visit is almost unbearable, but essential all the same. The audio guide (included in your ticket) is moving, but locals resent it for taking guides’ jobs. Consider a full day with a guide instead.

Shopping and eating in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh is one of the best things to do in CambodiaShopping and eating in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
Eating in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh (Alamy)

5. Bargain for souvenirs in Phnom Penh

The Cambodian capital is filled with incredible sights, such as the Royal Palace and the Independence Monument. But one of its greatest treasures is the the Russian Market (Street 155). It’s a rock-bottom-priced emporium buzzing with waspish traders, who’ll flog you curios, silks, and high-street knock-offs for the price of a rice bowl. Remember to bargain hard — it’s expected. When it comes to evenings, ignore the overcooked boat trips and dinner cruises that leave with tourists from Sisowath Quay. Instead, take a bench on the thronging riverside promenade to see the same blood-orange sunset, but in the company of off-duty monks, local couples and ice cream vendors.

The Gibbon Suite at Shinta Mani Wild - going on safari is one of the best things to do in Cambodia The Gibbon Suite at Shinta Mani Wild - going on safari is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
The Gibbon Suite at Shinta Mani Wild

6. Go on safari in the Cardamom Mountains

Set in peaceful, elephant and gibbon-spotting territory in the Cardamom Mountains, tented camp Shinta Mani Wild is designed to thrill guests while protecting its cutest neighbours. At about £2,000 a night, it isn’t cheap — but that does bag you a five-star suite, transfers, ethical wildlife-spotting, butler, spa treatments, meals and drinks.

wild.shintamani.com

A visit to the at the Elephant Valley Project is one of the best things to do in CambodiaA visit to the at the Elephant Valley Project is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
Visitors at the Elephant Valley Project (Alamy)

7. Meet Mondulkiri’s retired elephants

In less-visited eastern Cambodia, the Elephant Valley Project is a splendid example of ethical conservation. In cahoots with mahouts, it rehomes overworked or injured elephants in a gorgeous, 3,700-acre mountain-valley sanctuary. Forget inconsiderate rides; instead visitors can saunter through the forest with these tame pachyderms — learning about their behaviour plus the surrounding forest ecology and local, indigenous Bunong culture. You’ll need to book well in advance — before helping to wash under a waterfall.

elephantvalleyproject.org

The Teuk Chhou river In Kampot, Cambodia - paddleboarding near Kampot  is one of the best things to do in CambodiaThe Teuk Chhou river In Kampot, Cambodia - paddleboarding near Kampot  is one of the best things to do in Cambodia
The Teuk Chhou river (Getty Images)

8. Paddleboard the ‘Green Cathedral’ near Kampot

Between pepper-producing fields near Kampot, a handsome colonial city, flows the Teuk Chhou river. Stand-up paddleboard tours explore its palm-fringed islets, mangrove forests and fishing villages, focusing on a narrow channel known as the “Green Cathedral”, as the higher-altitude Preah Monivong Bokor National Park looms lushly ahead. A different stretch offers white-water rafting for those seeking a faster-paced activity.

supasia.org

Vietnam

A tailor at work at the Meo Vac market in Ha Giang Province - getting a tailor-made outfit is one of the best things to do in VietnamA tailor at work at the Meo Vac market in Ha Giang Province - getting a tailor-made outfit is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
A tailor at work at in Meo Vac in Ha Giang province (Alamy)

9. Shop for a tailor-made outfit in Hanoi

In fashionable Vietnam, you can get a catwalk-worthy outfit run up for the price of a Michelin-star main course. In Hanoi, whole neighbourhoods are given over to tailors — of varying quality. To find the best, look for shops that have their own tailors on staff (the others send your measurements out to factories). You should be able to see them snipping and stitching away. Most have a stash of outdated fashion magazines for you to peruse for ideas, but, unless you want to look like an extra from Dynasty, it’s best to bring a photo or two of your own.

vietnam.travel

Exploring Ho Chi Minh City on a scooter is one of the best things to do in VietnamExploring Ho Chi Minh City on a scooter is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
Exploring Ho Chi Minh City by scooter (Getty Images)

10. Whizz along on a scooter in Ho Chi Minh City

The whole of Ho Chi Minh City is on the move and there’s no better way to blend in and see the sights than weaving through tight alleys on a scooter tour. You could hire your own for a reasonable price a day, but the traffic can be deadly, so play safe and join a fully guided trip. Your hair will be dishevelled by the end, but you’ll never forget the ride. Want to take things at a slower pace? Head out to one of the stunning national parks on two wheels.

A trip by rail on the Reunification Express is one of the best things to do in VietnamA trip by rail on the Reunification Express is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
Aboard the Reunification Express (Alamy)

11. Take the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

There’s no better window to life in Vietnam than from a carriage aboard the Reunification Express, the service that runs the full length of the country. And while the train is hardly Pullman-plush, don’t believe talk about the lack of creature comforts. It creaks across iron bridges and drifts into stations, slowing past cloth-swaddled monks on their way to temple; a bustling fruit and veg market; and school kids rushing out of class like a flock of busy starlings. If you choose to go the whole way, embarking in Hanoi, you’ll click-clack for more than 1,700km, past the ancient capital of Hue, through the craggy Annamite mountains and across the broad plains of southern Vietnam, into Ho Chi Minh City.

railwaytraveller.com

A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels is one of the best things to do in VietnamA visit to the Cu Chi tunnels is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
A meeting room in the Cu Chi tunnels (Alamy)

12. Squeeze into the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City

With your knees under your chin, you squeeze through the manhole into the darkened chute, disappearing from view and back in time. Around you are some 250km of tunnels, honeycombed beneath the ground where Vietnam’s revolutionary army, the Viet Cong, concealed living areas, storage depots and landmine factories — even hospitals operated here during the “American War”. With the flutter of bats, it’s claustrophobic, and as you breathe the bitterly thick air, the brutality of the Vietnam war truly hits home.

 Cai Rang floating market at Can Tho on the Mekong - shopping at a floating market is one of the best things to do in Vietnam Cai Rang floating market at Can Tho on the Mekong - shopping at a floating market is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
Cai Rang floating market at Can Tho on the Mekong (Alamy)

13. Shop in a floating market on the Mekong

They’re not peaceful or brochure pretty, but Vietnam’s Mekong river markets are a photographer’s dream, brimming with life and colour. Canoes piled with cucumbers battle on the currents with tugs carrying tomatoes; busy vendors in conical hats brandish steaming baguettes while steering tiny dugouts with bare feet. It’s a miracle no one falls in. They are easily visited on a two-day tour from Ho Chi Minh City, or en route down the Mekong, between Vietnam and Cambodia.

A visit to Ha Long Bay is one of the best things to do in VietnamA visit to Ha Long Bay is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
Ha Long Bay (Getty Images)

14. Cruise Ha Long Bay

Invaders pour in from the north. The battle is all but lost. Then . . . there be dragons. From their mouths, infernos erupt and emeralds spray like cannonballs. Victory is won, Vietnam is free and Ha Long Bay is born. Or so goes the legend, which doesn’t seem that outlandish when you first glimpse this mesmerising Unesco world heritage site — just squint to obscure the 8,000-plus visitors who arrive every day. One way to do so is to arrive by seaplane: Hai Au Aviation is the only operator. While this may be something of a splurge, it’ll spare you four hours of dreary road travel. And that dragon’s eye view of Mr Whippy clouds over velvety mountains will stick with you for as long as you live.

Eating street food is one of the best things to do in Cambodia and VietnamEating street food is one of the best things to do in Cambodia and Vietnam
Eating pho in Hanoi (Alamy)

15. Gorge on street food in Hanoi

The street food here is divine — and even better, it counts among the world’s healthiest eating. Make for the twisting streets of old Hanoi, between Hang Da and Dong Xuan markets, where every second doorway reveals a simmering cauldron of pho (a translucent, noodle-filled soup) and maybe a noodle master, pulling strands from lengths of dough that will feed diners seated at pavement stools. Makeshift cafés brew java frothy with egg yolk, while streetside canteens serve fish seared with fresh herbs. It all oozes a craftsman’s passion. Don’t be deterred by crowds — high turnover equals freshness.

A visti to Hang Son Doong cave is one of the best things to do in VietnamA visti to Hang Son Doong cave is one of the best things to do in Vietnam
Hang Son Doong cave (Alamy)

16. Explore what might be the world’s largest cave

At more than five miles long and up to 150m high — equivalent to a typical 38-storey building — it’s no surprise that Hang Son Doong is reckoned to be the world’s largest cave network. You’ll find it in the cave-riddled, jungle-swathed province of Quang Binh, near the border with Laos. Numerous wonders await anyone who joins a tour: huge, complex stalactites, subterranean rainforest and an underground river whose end hasn’t yet been located. Factor in its own weather patterns and ecosystems, and this extraordinary place is ultimately another world altogether.

sondoongcave.info

A voyage by sampan on the Mekong is one of the best things to do in Cambodia and VietnamA voyage by sampan on the Mekong is one of the best things to do in Cambodia and Vietnam
Aboard a sampan on the Mekong (Getty Images)

17. Voyage on the Mekong

Aboard a wooden sampan, you cast off in a soft-focus haze, the light slowly beginning to fade, the rice paddies wrapped in mist. As you glance at the swarm of boats departing the wharves, it seems the whole delta is on the move: cigar-shaped water taxis, warped wooden ferries, dugout fishing canoes, all weighed down with every kind of cargo, human and animal. Ahead lies a vast, half-drowned bowl of stilted villages, waterlogged fields, and the great river lands of the Mekong Delta, beneath a smoky sky.

Take me there

Inspired to visit Cambodia or Vietnam but yet to book your trip? Here are the best packages to Cambodia from Expedia and Vietnam from Tui.

link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *