Vietnam, Cambodia Laos August 2019 (and a IRL DIS meetup)

DCPhotoGal

Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
Joined
Mar 4, 2011
We just arrived back yesterday from our Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos ABD. I won't do a trip report here because there is already one in progress from this season--although I may do a writeup on my blog later.

I did, however, want to share a little of my overall thoughts about the trip.

First a photo of fellow DISer Tracy and I. We first discovered we were on the same trip here on the DIS boards and then got to spend time together on the trip. Our daughters ended up really getting along and they hope to meet up again this fall.

emily and tracy.jpg

Ok here's my thoughts for future travelers:

HCMC: Upon arrival we were met *before immigration* and taken straight through a special gate, skipping all of the lines. This felt like a very VIP experience, and it was not as described in the materials we had received from ABD, so we almost missed the guy holding our names.

The Park Hyatt was a nice hotel and we enjoyed our "welcome back" drinks each afternoon, but the hotel and much of the nearby neighborhood was under construction making walking around on your own a little bit of a challenge. The streets are hard to cross and sometimes the motorbikes even drive on the sidewalks, so you have to take a lot of care to navigate your way around. We went to the big market to do some shopping on our day one free day. This was by far the worst shopping experience on the trip and I would recommend saving shopping for later in the trip. Vendors would grab my arm as I tried to walk away and said nasty things about us if we chose not to purchase items from them. The markets in all of the cities later in the trip were much better experiences.

The weather/clothes packing: it was HOT and HUMID and you are outside, not in air conditioning most of the trip. Couple that with the fact that you need to be in "temple-ready" attire most days, which means covered shoulders and pants/skirts to your knees. We sweated more on this trip than we have on any other trip. I usually plan to wear a pair of capris a couple times on a trip, but you sweat so much each time you don't want to put them back on. There were 2 laundry opportunities on the trip and we took advantage of both of them because we hadn't packed as many "temple ready" outfits as we needed. When packing, leave the tank tops, skirts, or shorts behind as you rarely can use them. Pack shirts with sleeves, capri pants (or long shorts for men) and sneakers. Almost every day we were in sneakers and they will get muddy. All Birds sneakers were popular in our group and worked well since they are washable.

Weight limits for suitcases were an issue for some people on our trip. I think the limit was 22kg for the internal flights. We flew Vietnam Airlines, so if you have a Delta FF number, be sure to bring it and you can get additional miles.

Hoi An: The hotel is very nice and we enjoyed the activities here a lot. Again, it was hot and humid the whole time, so that was the only concern and made it a little difficult to enjoy the outside activities. But they do try to use fans and stay in the shade for the open air experiences like the lantern-making and cooking class.

Hanoi: I enjoyed Hanoi as a city much more than HCMC. I was really impressed by how filled up the parks were of people being active. Our schedule here was much different than the itinerary, so it was a challenge to schedule the OYO time. We were trying to meet up with some school friends of my daughter and ended up having to miss the Hanoi Hilton visit to do so. The hotel there is lovely, but this is the only place I got sick. I'm still not sure what I ate or drank, but had some really bad stomach pains/cramps for both days here.

Laos: We really enjoyed the pace of Laos as compared to the big cities in Vietnam. The market here was very pleasant, but don't expect to buy tops--we mostly saw pants and dresses. We didn't see t-shirts again in the markets until Cambodia. The hotel is lovely and we enjoyed the activities. This is when the kids started to get a little "templed-out". We let our girls skip the last optional temple on the last day here and turns out most people did as well. The waterfalls were amazing. The guides recommended sneakers for this and I opted for flip flops because I didn't want to get my sneakers muddy and wet. Tevas or some kind of hiking/water shoes would have been the best option there. There are nippy fish in the water. They didn't bother us too much, but just something to be prepared for.

Cambodia: The hotel here is also great, but much bigger and less "just our group"-feeling than the one in Laos. The markets here were my favorite, and my daughter got a fish pedicure there, too. The t-shirts are pretty much all $2, and the pants $4-5. I loved riding around in the tuk-tuks and wish I would have realized that earlier during our time there. On the last day we had drivers take us around all morning (staying with us at each stop) and it was only $10 about 3 hours. We tipped generously because $10 seemed too little for all of their time.

For our ONO time on the past day we visited the APOPO visitor's center and learned how they are using large rats (ROUS, anyone?) to detected landmines. It was a very interesting visit and I'm glad we went.

Happy to answer any questions anyone has.
 

DCPhotoGal

Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
Joined
Mar 4, 2011
Oh and I forgot to add: regarding elephants at Angkor Wat: we learned that they are being phased out and will no longer be available as of the end of this year.
 

OKW Lover

Retired and living 2 miles from The Castle.
DIS Lifetime Sponsor
Joined
Apr 29, 2004
Thanks for the mini-review. I've occasionally considered this ABD but it never seems to raise to the top of the list. Perhaps because I was there almost 50 years ago I'm avoiding the place now.
 
  • RSM

    Mouseketeer
    Joined
    Mar 9, 2009
    For our ONO time on the past day we visited the APOPO visitor's center and learned how they are using large rats (ROUS, anyone?) to detected landmines. It was a very interesting visit and I'm glad we went.


    [/QUOTE]
    The APOPO center was part of our tour with Thomson. Pretty fascinating, and the efficiency of the rat versus a human with a metal detector was eye opening. We even sponsored a rat. During our tour, we met a lot of locals in Cambodia including someone who lost a limb to a landmine. I can't imagine having to worry about your children out playing and stepping on a landmine or unexploded ordinance.
     

    CaliforniaGirl09

    DIS Veteran
    Joined
    Dec 4, 2009
    Thanks for the mini-reports. So nice to see reports for this trip. It's always been high on my list, but I think I'm leaning toward Thompson now. How many were on your trip?
     

    DCPhotoGal

    Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
    Joined
    Mar 4, 2011
    Thanks for the mini-reports. So nice to see reports for this trip. It's always been high on my list, but I think I'm leaning toward Thompson now. How many were on your trip?
    We had just about 30, but no little kids, so everything seemed to work seemlessly even with a slightly larger group. All of the kids were teens, mostly 14 and above.
     
  • CaliforniaGirl09

    DIS Veteran
    Joined
    Dec 4, 2009
    We had just about 30, but no little kids, so everything seemed to work seemlessly even with a slightly larger group. All of the kids were teens, mostly 14 and above.
    30 would be fine--especially with teens/older kids. I worry about 40+. We want to go during holidays in December, which is best weather time, but I think those trips fill up.
     

    Skylarr29

    <font color=blue>Oh Darn it, I was 'forced' to buy
    Joined
    Oct 8, 2003
    Thanks for the info! We are booked for this trip next October so I’m trying to gather as much info as possible. Our itinerary looks significantly different than the current one I’ve read trip reports on so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
     

    DCPhotoGal

    Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
    Joined
    Mar 4, 2011
    30 would be fine--especially with teens/older kids. I worry about 40+. We want to go during holidays in December, which is best weather time, but I think those trips fill up.
    I think the weather will be *much* nicer that time of year. I think the only downside is that we were told that the temples in Laos are much more crowded in the dry season (we were in the wet season, but that really seemed to mean that it rained 15 minutes each day).
     
  • cschaaf

    DIS Veteran
    Joined
    Oct 19, 2013
    Thank you for your summary! It was nice hearing the thoughts of someone who had pretty much the same itinerary we had.

    Weight limits for suitcases were an issue for some people on our trip. I think the limit was 22kg for the internal flights. We flew Vietnam Airlines, so if you have a Delta FF number, be sure to bring it and you can get additional miles.
    We were surprised that only a few people had carry on bags. We packed 8 changes of clothes each plus a few extra pieces here and there just in case. And we each had a checked bag, a carry on, and a personal bag. The latter two were never weighed anywhere, so we were easily able to meet the checked bag weight limits.

    Cambodia: The hotel here is also great, but much bigger and less "just our group"-feeling than the one in Laos. The markets here were my favorite, and my daughter got a fish pedicure there, too. The t-shirts are pretty much all $2, and the pants $4-5. I loved riding around in the tuk-tuks and wish I would have realized that earlier during our time there. On the last day we had drivers take us around all morning (staying with us at each stop) and it was only $10 about 3 hours. We tipped generously because $10 seemed too little for all of their time.
    We really enjoyed the tuk tuks, too! I think initially, I'd be on the air conditioned bus looking at peopel in the tuk tuks and being happy I was in the AC. While doing the tuk tuk ride to Bayon and Ta Phrom, I was feeling sorry for the people on the buses. lol The tuk tuk was so much better!

    For our ONO time on the past day we visited the APOPO visitor's center and learned how they are using large rats (ROUS, anyone?) to detected landmines. It was a very interesting visit and I'm glad we went.

    Happy to answer any questions anyone has.
    I wish we would have had later flights. We wanted to go to APOPO to check that out. But I REALLY wanted to go to Banteay Srei. That would have taken a good chunk of a day, but it looks like an amazing place - and the tuk tuk ride would be fun. ;)

    ETA: About the elephants - the ABD guides told us ABD stopped doing the rides because an elephant had died while giving a ride a few years ago (not during an ABD excursion). Most trip operators eliminated that from their itineraries.

    There were a few on our trip that wanted to do it and they asked the local guide if it was ethical. He answered something like, "It's been ethical since 2015" or something like that, but didn't get into any details. I took that to mean that there was some oversight instituted then or something.
     

    lovetotravel

    Mouseketeer
    Joined
    Sep 23, 2005
    We were surprised that only a few people had carry on bags. We packed 8 changes of clothes each plus a few extra pieces here and there just in case. And we each had a checked bag, a carry on, and a personal bag. The latter two were never weighed anywhere, so we were easily able to meet the checked bag weight limits.
    How strict is Vietnam airlines with carryon size (I have a 21 in)? Are they measuring the sizes?
     

    cschaaf

    DIS Veteran
    Joined
    Oct 19, 2013
    How strict is Vietnam airlines with carryon size (I have a 21 in)? Are they measuring the sizes?
    No one even looked at our carry on bags. My wife has a hard sided carry on, I'll have to measure it. I use a duffel bag, so I can squeeze it into small spaces if needed.

    I don't think overhead space was ever an issue on our internal flights. Most of the planes loaded from both the front and back which actually helped with overhead space. In the US, a pet peeve of mine is people in row 40 getting on the plan and taking the first available overhead space they see. Doesn't matter if it's row 8 or not.

    The only issue with loading both front and back were that some people chose the wrong way. We were in something like row 20 so we loaded from the front. We were almost there when a old lady shoved past us headed in the opposite direction. I watched her shove her way up to about row 12.
     

    DCPhotoGal

    Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
    Joined
    Mar 4, 2011
    No one even looked at our carry on bags. My wife has a hard sided carry on, I'll have to measure it. I use a duffel bag, so I can squeeze it into small spaces if needed.
    On our flights from HCMC to Denang they did weigh/inspect each of our carry-on bags. For the subsequent flights they did not.
     

    DCPhotoGal

    Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
    Joined
    Mar 4, 2011
    ETA: About the elephants - the ABD guides told us ABD stopped doing the rides because an elephant had died while giving a ride a few years ago (not during an ABD excursion). Most trip operators eliminated that from their itineraries.
    They are being phased out from the park entirely by the end of this year.
     

    Disney Meg

    Earning My Ears
    Joined
    Aug 19, 2019
    Love your report. We must have been the trip right before yours. Some things you mention match exactly with our experience, but others are different. Instead of starting another trip thread, I’m going to add my comments here.

    Saigon (HCMC):
    We, too, almost missed the pick up at the airport. Same situation— guy with sign before passport control, “fast-pass lane”. The hotel construction didn’t bother us and we didn’t notice much construction around the hotel. It took a little to adapt to the traffic in Saigon and how to cross the streets (don’t step in front of busses or cars, stick together, and just go— motorbikes will move around your group as if you were a rock in a river.) We also visited the big Ben Thanh market, but thought it was fun to see everything. I agree the shopping experience is less pleasant; vendors kept grabbing at us saying “madame” or “sir.” We did go to the art museum (interesting, but not fully air conditioned) and to restaurants on our free day: Lemongrass and Heart of Darkness Brewery— both good and just a few blocks from the hotel. I think the Park Hyatt might be our favorite hotel on the trip; at a minimum, they had the best breakfasts.

    Hoi An: A few months prior to our departure, we were notified of a change to our itinerary that resulted in one less night in Hoi An and a slight rearrangement of activities. It might have been nice to have the BBQ dinner on the beach (initial itinerary item we missed), but this was my least favorite stop. The hotel property was stunning, but the rooms were smaller and felt dated in comparison. We had a lunch and dinner planned at the hotel restaurants and service was super slow— an annoyance on the day we were leaving for the airport after lunch. The opportunity to send our laundry out for $3 / kilo and have it return washed, pressed, and folded was great.

    The activities in Hoi An were generally good. (I feel the trip kept getting better as we went.) We all got clothes at the tailor’s. My daughter and I got shoes. I wouldn’t have thought of getting shoes before we left, but these are the most comfortable shoes I own and at $75 a pair for suede flats, I was thrilled. Husband is loving his shirts ($55 ea). So the custom clothes are not dirt cheap, but we enjoyed the experience.

    Our least favorite activity of the entire trip was the guided tour through the market before our cooking lesson. It was hot and crowded. The market ran along streets, so we were having to dodge moving motorbikes and walk single-file. The group of 27 got pretty spread out and we were so far back we couldn’t see what our guide was talking about. We could have skipped that entire experience. The outdoor cooking class was a lot more fun and a lot more hands on than we expected. We remembered making pasta in Italy with ABD, but here we actually ate what we prepared. Lantern making was quick and fun and left us with a nice souvenir to take home. The lantern release (different lanterns) was beautiful— a real highlight.

    Hanoi: The hotel is very French in feel. We had dinner in the hotel’s French restaurant our first night and it was amazing— highly recommend. Our only full day in Hanoi started with tai chi in the park. No provided uniforms which was probably more comfortable, but different from what I expected.

    That morning we had the only rain on the entire trip (pretty amazing for the rainy season— but it has been unseasonably dry this year.) The humidity in Hanoi after the rain was oppressive. We are from Houston and used to hot and humid summers, but this day was brutal. OP is correct that most of this adventure is outdoors, so if heat or humidity really affect you, the summer dates aren’t for you.

    The real surprise in Hanoi was how fun the green cart tour was. These are basically large (3 bench) golf carts that took us around for about 45 minutes to see the streets of the old quarter at eye level (not the bus.) It was thrilling.

    Laos: We felt that Laos was the most pleasant market experience of the entire trip, definitely our favorite. Unlike the OP, we found a ton of t-shirts here. We probably could have bargained better, but got enough good deals that we didn’t want more when we got
    to Cambodia. Our guides gave everyone, even the kids, the equivalent of $5 to shop in the market and we did a white elephant exchange the next night. It was so much fun to shop for someone else and to see all the gift “steeling” in the exchange.
    The hotel was stunning, but the only place where families couldn’t get adjoining rooms. Our kids are 13 and 18, so we don’t care and they got a kick out of having their own non-connecting rooms here and in Hanoi (available, but we didn’t have them.) We had a chance to send out laundry here too, $2.50 / Kg, but it returned folded, not pressed. Had I known I could send laundry out twice at reasonable rates, I would have packed a lot less.

    Hands down the rice farming experience was the highlight of my husband’s trip. It was a well-paced, hands-on activity at a place that has a great story and commitment to the community. I wish our guides had told us to change into swim suits at the rice farm (or just wear them under clothes for the morning.) The public bathrooms at the falls were pretty gross. And it isn’t easy to get into a bathing suit when you are hot and sweaty and trying not to let any of your belongings or body touch the walls or floor. Yes, be prepared for the nippy fish in the water— freaked my son out. Also, the water is cold, but at that point, very refreshing.

    Templed-out— I agree. Our guides did a nice job making some of the visits optional and easy to skip. I skipped the hike up Mt. Fusi because by this point in the trip my knees needed a break. Our son skipped the optional temples later that morning to catch up on sleep.

    We didn’t know what to expect in visiting Laos, but we would definitely come back. Luang Prabang has a very laid back feel (almost like a beach town, but in the mountains) and everything was incredibly affordable.

    Cambodia: Beautiful hotel, and one of the top breakfasts. My only complaint was the beds were extra firm, uncomfortably firm in my opinion.

    Here’s where our altered itinerary worked in our favor. The evening of our arrival, we ate at the hotel restaurant. The next day we visited Ankor Wat in the morning then had lunch at a traditional Khmer restaurant before walking down the street to a temple for our water blessing. That evening we did the gondola ride— one of my son’s favorite experiences. That night we were on our own to shop / eat and most of us visited Pub Street— a lot more night life than in Laos. The next day we were picked up in tuk-tuks to see the Bayon Temple (the one with the faces) and Ta Prohm (one with overgrown trees). I really enjoyed breaking up our Angkor park visit into two days. It meant we didn’t need to use free time to go back on our departure day. Second temple day we had lunch at Kroya (instead of the Foreign Correspondents Club) then our farewell dinner by the pool.

    We really had very little OYO time in Cambodia until check-out day.

    Meals: A lot of meals were pre-ordered. We ate at many of the hotel restaurants, some surprisingly good, a few just ok. Our best meals of the trip were on our own: Manda de Laos (guide recommended), Mammashop Italian in Cambodia (small, but incredible food), and Lemongrass (guide recommended in Saigon.) By the end of the trip our 13 year old was wearing thin on Asian meals and our guides did a great job getting him more “kid foods” even though we had pre-ordered more authentic options days before when we made meal selections.

    Clothing: We had a different experience than the OP. Yes, some in our group were caught by surprise when we were told “temple-ready” could no longer be met by using a scarf. But we tend to be a family of Bermuda short wearers, so our shorts passed inspection. Our daughter had to use her longer shorts and leave her Nike shorts for other days, but it wasn’t an issue for us. Just make sure your shorts touch the top of your knee and avoid sleeveless shirts.

    Because we only had about an hour of rain in Hanoi, we never encountered the muddy shoe issue. I alternated between running shoes and Chaco’s for the whole trip and regret packing extra “nice” shoes because a few of our dress up nights became more casual due to internal flight delays.

    Internal flights: This was like secret fast-pass service. We frequently sped through lines. No one checked the weight or dimensions of carry-ons. (I used my slightly smaller roller bag and a large under seat weekender.)

    Mosquitoes: We had visited the international travel health docs before our trip and read the CDC info. We came loaded with mosquitoes spray, wipes, bracelets— all completely unnecessary. I don’t think we saw a single mosquito on our trip. We did use bug spray / wipes at the Cu Chi tunnels and a few other places, but our guides provided bug spray, so we brought home everything we packed. (And we made the decision not to take the Malaria pills we were prescribed.)

    Kids: Our tour had the most lovely group of kids. We had kids who were 6, 7, 9, 9, and 12, plus some teens and older “kids” (21 & 28) traveling with parents. The little ones were real troopers and all were brave eaters. We were lucky that they all were so well behaved and got along so well together.

    Flights home: Living in Houston, we are spoiled with our direct flight options most times. It is relatively easy to fly into Saigon, but flying home from Siem Reap, Cambodia is harder. At least a few families on our trip, us included, detoured to Bangkok for a day or two because it was easier to get flights home.

    We really loved this trip and highly recommend it. This was our first experience in Southeast Asia and now feel we could return to these locations on our own.
     

    cschaaf

    DIS Veteran
    Joined
    Oct 19, 2013
    Great recap, thank you!

    Hoi An: <snip> We had a lunch and dinner planned at the hotel restaurants and service was super slow— an annoyance on the day we were leaving for the airport after lunch. <snip>
    The restaurants that that place were unbelievably slow. Our guides said, "... and they are faster than they used to be. They are getting better."

    Our least favorite activity of the entire trip was the guided tour through the market before our cooking lesson. It was hot and crowded. The market ran along streets, so we were having to dodge moving motorbikes and walk single-file. The group of 27 got pretty spread out and we were so far back we couldn’t see what our guide was talking about. We could have skipped that entire experience.
    I could see that for sure. We were lucky to be up front and really enjoyed the market experience. You kind of get in your own world and don't think about it. About half way through, I looked behind us and saw some of our group was really far away. I wondered if the audio devices even carried that far. It would be nice if they were able to add a few more guides for that part, because it was really interesting and something I wouldn't have done on my own.

    The real surprise in Hanoi was how fun the green cart tour was. These are basically large (3 bench) golf carts that took us around for about 45 minutes to see the streets of the old quarter at eye level (not the bus.) It was thrilling.
    We loved that activity, too!

    We didn’t know what to expect in visiting Laos, but we would definitely come back. Luang Prabang has a very laid back feel (almost like a beach town, but in the mountains) and everything was incredibly affordable.
    We enjoyed Luang Prabang too, but felt like there wasn't a lot more to do there. Manda de Laos might be worth going back for, though. ;)

    Cambodia: Beautiful hotel, and one of the top breakfasts. My only complaint was the beds were extra firm, uncomfortably firm in my opinion.

    Here’s where our altered itinerary worked in our favor. The evening of our arrival, we ate at the hotel restaurant. The next day we visited Ankor Wat in the morning then had lunch at a traditional Khmer restaurant before walking down the street to a temple for our water blessing. That evening we did the gondola ride— one of my son’s favorite experiences. That night we were on our own to shop / eat and most of us visited Pub Street— a lot more night life than in Laos. The next day we were picked up in tuk-tuks to see the Bayon Temple (the one with the faces) and Ta Prohm (one with overgrown trees). I really enjoyed breaking up our Angkor park visit into two days. It meant we didn’t need to use free time to go back on our departure day. Second temple day we had lunch at Kroya (instead of the Foreign Correspondents Club) then our farewell dinner by the pool.
    I can't even imagine having to do all three of those temples in one day. This was a great change in the itinerary.

    Mosquitoes: We had visited the international travel health docs before our trip and read the CDC info. We came loaded with mosquitoes spray, wipes, bracelets— all completely unnecessary. I don’t think we saw a single mosquito on our trip. We did use bug spray / wipes at the Cu Chi tunnels and a few other places, but our guides provided bug spray, so we brought home everything we packed. (And we made the decision not to take the Malaria pills we were prescribed.)
    I got two mosquito bites in one day on the trip. I can't remember where. The tai chi morning was very buggy, but Drew was quick with the bug spray.

    Flights home: Living in Houston, we are spoiled with our direct flight options most times. It is relatively easy to fly into Saigon, but flying home from Siem Reap, Cambodia is harder. At least a few families on our trip, us included, detoured to Bangkok for a day or two because it was easier to get flights home.

    We really loved this trip and highly recommend it. This was our first experience in Southeast Asia and now feel we could return to these locations on our own.
    We always have poor flight choices where we live, but Siem Reap was particularly tough. To avoid an overnight somewhere, we had to take a morning flight out and had 3 connections. It was something like a 37 hour travel day for us.
     

    DCPhotoGal

    Photographer and Mom to 2 Princesses
    Joined
    Mar 4, 2011
    We always have poor flight choices where we live, but Siem Reap was particularly tough. To avoid an overnight somewhere, we had to take a morning flight out and had 3 connections. It was something like a 37 hour travel day for us.
    I didn't even go into the mess that getting home was for us, and we live in Washington, DC. There were problems with all three of our originally booked legs, so we went a completely different route home in the end. The unrest in Hong Kong was contributing to the issues with flights, although my issues were a last minute schedule changed with Jetstar and a missing plane on United. We were able to reroute and get home only 3 hours late, so that wasn't bad, but we lost the upgrade we had done with miles and ended up with separate middle seats in economy the whole way home.
     

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