Planning Southeast Asia travel can be really daunting.
There are a million places to see and things to do, and if your time and budget are limited it can be tough to pick and choose where to go and when.
That’s why I’ve laid out this year’s Southeast Asia circle tour in detail. If you’re feeling overwhelmed while planning your trip, you can simply follow in my footsteps!
Below I’ve listed
- Which city/country I visited
- What hotel/hostel/guest house I stayed at
- The best thing I did/saw in that city
- How much time I spent there
- What to watch out for
- How I traveled between each city (bus/train/plane)
1. Vientiane, Laos
Where I stayed: The Funky Monkey Hostel – private room for $12/night. This place definitely had a hostel vibe, but the private rooms are on a different floor from the dorms so they’re pretty quiet.
The best thing I did: Visited Buddha Park
How long I stayed: 6 days – if you’re not working as you travel, you can easily see all there is to see in Vientiane in 1 or 2 days.
Watch out for: The Lonely Planet Guide to Laos, which says you can take a bus to Buddha Park. In fact, you can only take a bus to the Friendship Bridge. From there you have to take a 50,000 kip tuk tuk to Buddha Park.
Also, don’t buy electronics (ear buds, cell phone chargers) at the “Apple Store” in the Talat Sao mall. They’re shit quality and will break as soon as you buy them.
How I got out: 12+ hour bus ride to Luang Prabang.
2. Luang Prabang, Laos
Where I stayed: Central Backpackers Hostel – very hostely, private rooms from $12+/night, thin walls, noisy, friendly staff, slow WiFi, free breakfast but it’s pretty gross (and I’ve had a LOT of free hotel breakfasts on my journey).
How long I stayed: 2 weeks.
Watch out for: Flies at food stalls in the day market, scammy tuk tuk drivers, women on the street who ask you to “come talk to my daughter, she just happens to be leaving for college in the town you happen to be from, won’t you come have dinner at our house?” (SCAM! RUN!)
How I got out: Mini-bus to Nong Khiaw (3-4+ hours)
3. Nong Khiaw, Laos (and Muang Ngoi Neua)
Where I stayed: The Sunrise Bungalows ($10/night for a private riverside bungalow. Beautiful, bare bones but your own bathroom and balcony. Pray your neighbors are quiet because you’re basically sleeping outside and can hear everything).
The best thing I did: Hiked to “the Lookout Point” – it’s a tough hike up the main mountain in town and may take you a good 90 minutes to reach the summit, but the stunning views are more than worth it.
How long I stayed: 6 days. There’s not much to do here but relax. I could’ve stayed longer.
Watch out for: Noise. The set up couldn’t be more peaceful (picture yourself lounging in a hammock on a balcony that overlooks a sweeping river gorge below), but there is constant thumping music coming from the boat dock and noisy boats passing by all day.
How I got out: Mini-bus back to Luang Prabang followed by a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.
A note about Muang Ngoi Neua: This is a tiny river village about an hour’s boat ride north of Nong Khiaw. I stayed here for one night at a bungalow owned by a Swiss guy named Gabriel. (He’ll be the only white guy waiting at the boat landing and he’ll walk you to the bungalow himself). It’s definitely worth a visit but keep in mind that it’s off the grid completely – Lonely Planet says there is WiFi but THERE IS NOT. There is barely cell reception.
4. Hanoi, Vietnam
Where I stayed: Lakeside Hostel and Hanoi Hostel on several different occasions. Both were around $12/night for a private room. Lakeside has smelly rooms without windows and unfriendly staff. Hanoi Hostel has friendlier staff, good free breakfast, and large (if a bit dusty) private rooms.
The best thing I did: Walked around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area. There is so much to see in Hanoi simply walking around – the colors, the people, the sites and smells are simply brilliant. Seeing Tet fireworks over the lake on Vietnamese New Year’s Eve was stunning too.
How long I stayed: 5 days, then two weeks, then on and off again for a day or two here and there. Hanoi is a travel hub so if you’re journeying to Cat Ba, Sa Pa or southern cities you’ll probably have to stay here and depart from here.
Watch out for: Scammy taxi drivers, scammy street vendors. Do your research on what things should cost before you go, and don’t be afraid to bargain and/or walk away if the price is too high.
How I got out: Bus/boat/bus combo to Cat Ba Island.
5. Cat Ba, Vietnam
Where I stayed: Ali Baba’s Hotel and Restaurant
The best thing I did: Boat tour of Ha Long Bay and the floating villages surrounding Cat Ba
How long I stayed: 6 days initially, then I went back later for 6 weeks
Watch out for: Slow WiFi, no computer shops, nowhere to get a bikini wax.
How I got out: Bus/boat/bus back to Hanoi, followed by a 16-hour bus ride to Da Nang.
6. Da Nang, Vietnam
Where I stayed: Sea Wonder Hotel near the beach – $14/night, semi-private balcony, walking distance to the beach. Friendly staff, the food in the downstairs restaurant is decent but overpriced.
The best thing I did: Hiked to the big Buddha statue at the base of Monkey Mountain – the views of Da Nang from here are simply stunning. The Cham Museum in town is also worth a visit. There are also beautiful bridges lining the river that leads to the ocean – at night they are lit up in stunning electric.
How long I stayed: 8 days. You may not stay as long if you want something more touristy. Da Nang has beautiful beaches, great coffee culture, and amazing seafood, but it is very much a ‘local’s town’ – not many tourists, simply a shining, modern city where regular Vietnamese people live and work. I loved it here.
Watch out for: No menus in English depending on where you go, less English spoken here than in Hanoi or HCMC. Also, if you stay by the beach you should rent a motorbike b/c it gets pricey taking a taxi to and from the ‘downtown’ part of the city (where you’ll want to go for dinner, museums, etc).
How I got out: Motorbiked down to Hoi An, returned by motorbike then flew to HCMC.
7. Hoi An, Vietnam
Where I stayed: Jolie Homestay – $16/night for a huge private room in a house with a very kind Vietnamese family.
How long I stayed: 4 days initially. I’m actually back in Hoi An for the summer because I loved it so much (at the time of writing I’ve now been here for 5 weeks).
Watch out for: Scammy food vendors (a baguette should NOT cost 15,000 dong, it should be 10,000 or less!) My friend got pick pocketed here by way of a very common ‘coin scam’. If someone wants to show you their coins or see your coins, run.
How I got out: Motorbike back up to Da Nang then flew to HCMC.
8. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Where I stayed: The Spring House Hotel in District 1. $17+/night. Very much a hotel. Nice enough room, no free breakfast, good location across from the park and a block away from some seriously astounding nightlife.
The best thing I did: Visited the War Remnants Museum. I can’t begin to express how moved and shaken I was by this experience.
How long I stayed: 5 days. You could easily go higher or lower, the city is positively massive and I didn’t begin to explore all it has to offer.
Watch out for: Motorbike pick pockets. Hang on to your stuff and make sure to utilize zippers.
How I got out: Bus to Sa Dec booked through the hotel.
9. Sa Dec, Vietnam
Where I stayed: Thao Ngan Hotel. $11/night. Pure hotel, windows that looked out onto a brick wall. Close to the market and the bus station.
The best thing I did: Enjoyed the best pho I had in Vietnam. The restaurant is called Pho Hien. From the hotel, walk across the bridge back toward the bus station and it will be on your left, set back away from the street.
How long I stayed: 4 days. The only thing “to do” here is to see the The Lover house – a local one-story abode made famous because it used to be owned by the nameless lover featured in Marguerite Duras’ novel.
Watch out for: Scammy cab drivers and scammy transpo in general. The taxi driver that took me from the bus station to the hotel tried to charge me about 10x what it should have cost. The hotel also massively overcharged for a bus ticket out of town.
How I got out: Local bus to Chau Doc.
10. Chau Doc, Vietnam
Where I stayed: Trung Nguyen Hotel across from the main market in town. $15/night. Balcony. Free breakfast and transpo to the boat to Cambodia (which is why you stay in Chau Doc – to catch the fast boat to Phnom Penh).
The best thing I did: Walked along the riverfront. It’s amazing to watch people living their lives on the water – eating dinner on their tiny wooden boats, paddling across the wide waters standing upright, living their lives on floating structures.
How long I stayed: 1 night
Watch out for: Not much English spoken here – if you need help ask at your hotel before leaving the building. Tuk tuk drivers will ask for tips for taking you 100 yards.
How I got out: The fast boat to Cambodia arranged through my hotel.
11. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Where I stayed: The Mad Monkey Hostel. Friendly staff. Privates from $13/night. Overpriced Western food in the downstairs restaurant. The first floor is a bar and the music pumps all day and night and can be heard in the upstairs rooms.
I was so irritated with this I changed to the Salita Hotel in the central part of the city. Three times the price but much, much nicer (and quieter!).
The best thing I did: Feasted in the night market near the river. There are a lot of different markets to see in Phnom Penh and lots to do. By the time I got here I was beat and could only manage to gorge myself on street food.
How long I stayed: 6 days.
Watch out for: Oppressive heat, pollution/car exhaust, pick pockets, traffic, diarrhea, and – say it with me now – scammy tuk tuk drivers.
How I got out: Mini-bus to Siem Reap.
12. Siem Reap, Cambodia
Where I stayed: Sam So Guest House. Best free breakfast of them all, incredibly friendly staff, $12/night for a private ($17/night if you want air-con).
The best thing I did: Angkor Wat was incredible, but I really loved taking a private motorbike tour with my friend Ratha who showed me the surrounding villages and countryside outside the city. (If you’re in Siem Reap and want to see “the real Cambodia,” email me and I’ll put you in touch with Ratha).
How long I stayed: 3 weeks. You can do Angkor Wat in a day, or in 3 days, or in a week. The area is enormous and the ruins seem to never end. But Siem Reap is a lovely river town, a great place to live and work. I found it to be a fantastic resting place to relax at the end of 3 months of hectic Southeast Asia travel.
Watch out for: Theft. I never had anything stolen but have heard countless stories of people getting their phones jacked. Also, watch out for “the milk scam” – if a kid comes up to you begging for you to buy her milk (for “her baby” or “her sister”), don’t do it.
She has a deal with whatever store she takes you to where she can sell the milk back to the store for cash. Cash that she then gives to her “keeper” (like a pimp for begging kids) so the child you think you’re helping does not benefit in any way.
How I got out: Flew to Hanoi because one month was not enough time in Vietnam!
Where will you go on your Southeast Asia travel itinerary?
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