Cambodia and Vietnam are neighboring countries in arguably one of the most beautiful corners of the globe. Both countries have areas still rooted deep in tradition, with magnificent relics dating back centuries to remind us of the illustrious history that made each place what it is today. They’re also both equal in their proud offering of natural wonders and burgeoning city life, but which one suits your travel needs and wants? Let us help you decide.
|Capital city||Phnom Penh||Hanoi|
|Most popular destination||Siem Reap||Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)|
|Natural attraction||Angkor Wat||Halong Bay|
|Nightlife destination||Sihanoukville||Ho Chi Minh City|
Cambodia is a country that has seen much suffering, but is on the road to recovery with a very bright future ahead. This beautiful piece of Asia has immense charm and is attracting tourists aplenty to her many temples, natural wonders, bustling markets and city life. Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is only one of the prime tourist attractions that draw people in daily. The level of preservation of this Buddhist temple (previously Hindu temple) is astounding and one could spend days exploring its many intricacies.
While a substantial number of other temples, ruins and impressive buildings continue to beckon travellers to Cambodia, there is still so much more to this unassuming country. Beautiful beaches, with quiet corners or colourful activity, dense jungles that are seemingly untouched, fields and mountains and plenty of activities to while away the time. From hiking, to scuba diving and snorkelling, there is no shortage of things to do in Cambodia.
Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich (and also dark) history. Please make sure you educate yourself on the tragic war that destroyed Cambodia in the 70’s. One way to educate yourself is by reading the book ‘First they killed my father’ – a page turner describing the war from the eyes of a 5 year old girl.
I strongly advise against traveling to Koh Rong. Yes, this is a beautiful, paradisaical island with white beaches and turquoise waters, but looks can be deceiving. One out of every three backpackers get sick on this island, and I even got Reactive Arthritis because of it.
There are a few places really worth visiting in Cambodia:
One of the seven world wonders. Wandering through Angkor Wat takes you back hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years and watching the sunrise behind these old temples is definitely a breathtaking experience. If you want to beat the crowds make sure you don’t go to the same sunrise spot all the Tuk Tuk’s take you, but try to watch the sunrise from a different temple. Also, travel in the morning as during the day it can get really hot.
A lovely town in Southern Cambodia, located on the Praek Tuek Chhu river. There are many things to do in the surroundings of Kampot, but I strongly recommend hiring a bike and just cycling around town. Kampot also knows many lovely (vegan) restaurants and has many cute cafes where you can order a delicious latte, which are sometimes hard to find in Cambodia.
The Genocide Museum (S21) and the Killing Fields
Learn more about the dark history of Cambodia, meet people who have survived the war and hear the stories of those who haven’t. Both the genocide museum as the killing fields are MUST DO’s when in Cambodia. – Evelien, Eef Explores
Travel to: Cambodia
For party lovers, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville is an island of fun, not unlike Koh Phangan in Thailand. It’s always throbbing to the beat of the latest dance tunes, drinks are affordable and the vibe is immeasurable. Full moon parties are also becoming a thing here, attracting dancing feet in droves.
The first advice that I often give out to friends, family and even readers who are traveling to Cambodia is to have an open mind about the this charming country. Most people end up being surprised at how much the country has progressed and that there’s more modernity now in terms of infrastructure, mobile network (wifi is super fast and free everywhere), as well as transportation. Locals are the best people to direct you to the popular food places, and off the radar places to visit. – Yafieda, Travel Chameleon
The islands are incredibly beautiful and you can still find some quieter ones that are perfect for switching off – we spent 10 days forgetting about time and social media on the white sand beaches and the tree house bungalows of Koh Ta Kiev!
We visited an amazing community-based ecotourism project in the Cardamom Mountains called Chi Phat, and it was one of the highlights of our year of travel. What was a stronghold of illegal poaching and logging has now been transformed into a thriving conservation and tourism project. Local guides, once poachers, lead jungle treks to mountains, grasslands, and waterfalls, and show you a side of Cambodia few have ever seen. We even slept under the stars in hammocks in the middle of the jungle, and highly, highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique wildlife experience. – Mark & Miranda, The Common Wanderer
The people of Vietnam are so welcoming and friendly, that it’s very easy to fall immediately in love. Added to this, the picturesque settings ranging from super remote to humming with activity are all as beautiful as one could ever imagine beauty to be. Some areas of Vietnam are virtually untainted by anyone but the original, local communities, giving travellers a real taste of the true and authentic spirit of this country. Many attractions keep tourists busy and it’s easy to get completely sucked into the mystery of age-old temples, ruins and villages. Beaches are also beautiful and in abundance, as are resplendent jungles and roaming countryside explorations.
In terms of nightlife in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is buzzing with activity. Think roadside cafes aplenty, offering cheap drinks and an addictive vibe, live entertainment, bustling streets with loads of friendly people going somewhere to have a good time. Nha Trang is more your beach party type of ambiance, keeping travellers on their dancing feet.
Be prepared to go on a rollercoaster of contrasting environments. Vietnam constantly shifts from peaceful seaside village to overwhelming cityscapes packed with millions of scooters and never-ending bustle. Crossing a road can be extremely stressful, but if you follow the lead of the locals you’ll be fine. Try to visit at least 3 different areas in Vietnam to experience everything the country has to offer (and give you some reprieve from the hectic cities).
Vietnam has a fantastic sleeper bus network. If you have the time, book your internal travel on these buses; they’re super comfortable, safe, very cheap ($30 for 5 flexible stops country-wide) and you’ll get to see the countryside as you go.
Our other recommendations are to hike through the traditional Sapa region of northern Vietnam and visit historic Hoi An. You’ll get to experience completely different cultures, foods and scenery this way.
Anyone can fall in love with Vietnam. The country caters to everyone from broke backpackers to families, couples, retirees and those wanting to stay in luxury. The country is extremely safe and the locals are very friendly. We would recommend visiting Vietnam to everyone we know! – Alex & Michaela, Greeting the World
See Also: Asia’s Best Islands for Party Lovers
It was the first place I visited in Asia, and remains my favourite. Make sure you do some sort of tour that introduces you to the local people, especially in the villages and countryside. Learning a few Vietnamese words before you go is a great way to bond. It’s easy to travel around using the train network and I’d definitely recommend doing an overnight train ride at some point. Make the effort to go to Halong Bay and you won’t be disappointed!
Vietnamese is one of the best cuisines in the world. I’d strongly recommend you do a food tour in each city you go to to really get an understanding of the regional differences, and so you get to try as much food as possible. I’d also recommend you visit the beaches – the island of Phu Quoc is beautiful and just a short flight from Ho Chi Minh City. Finally for now, I’d recommend you either to a cycle or motorbike tour up the Hai Van Pass. The views are incredible, and the journey through the villages is amazing.- Vicky, Vicky Flip Flop
Food And Drinks
Cambodia is well known for a number of quality dishes, including lak, which is beef, stir-fried in a lime sauce and served with egg and fried potatoes. If you’re looking for something sweet, then sticky rice and mango is an absolute delight! Angkok draft beer is found all over Cambodia and is always served icy cold.
Here’s a short list of the most delicious Cambodian dishes:
- Fish-amok, fish mousse with fresh coconut milk and kroeung, a type of Khmer curry paste made from lemongrass
- Lap-Khmer, thinly sliced beef that is either quickly seared or “cooked” ceviche-style by marinating with lime juice
- Kdam-chaa, fried crab prepared with green, locally grown Kampot pepper
I would suggest having breakfast at one of the food stalls in Central Market (also known as Psar Thmei). They have a variety of food to choose from such as Khmer noodles, desserts, and grilled seafood among others. Take a visit visit to the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng Museum for a glimpse of history, followed by a tour with Khmer Architecture to get to know the city better through its buildings. In the evenings, you could catch the sunset on the Riverside cruise and have drinks at Eclipse SkyBar (Phnom Penh Tower) for an amazing cityscape view of Phnom Penh. – Yafieda, Travel Chameleon
Dishes such a poh – a noodle soup – and banh chung – sticky rice encased in a leafy wrapping that has been cooked for an extended period of time – are essential culinary feasts in Vietnam. Coffee is also a staple, especially served cold over ice. Beers are very affordable, making the nightlife an even more enjoyable affair.
Here’s a list of the most famous Vietnamese dishes:
- Pho, salty broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and chicken or beef
- Cha ca, sizzling chunks of fish seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric and dill on a hot pan tableside
- Banh xeo, crispy crepe bulging with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, plus the garnish of fresh herbs
The nightlife in Saigon is definitely a must. The drinks are cheap and the sitting culture is very odd but worth the experience. If you have more time, you should definitely look into staying with local host families where you will get the chance to eat, speak, live and breath a culture that is far away from yours. Most Vietnamese families don’t speak English so take this chance to be in a challenging environment. It will change your life! – Trisha, P.S. I’m On My Way
Try to visit some of the outer lying temples too like Banteay Srei, the delicate 10thcentury temple dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva and known locally as the Pink Lady Temple. – there are hundreds of beautiful temples scattered around the region. Try Khmer curry, called amok , it’s delicious – and taste bugs too if you’re game! Visit Battamabang for the bamboo railway and to watch the monks’ daily gathering of alms. Travel to Mondulkiri to spend time at an elephant sanctuary like the Elephant Valley Project which rescues and releases elephants back into the wild. And spend days on Koh Rong Samloem island, enjoying the sun, clear water and gorgeous beaches. – Evie, Mumpack Travel
Here some tips for getting around in Cambodia in the most time-effective way:
- Domestic aviation in Cambodia is improving swiftly. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville airports currently operate scheduled passenger flights. Although the flights from and to Sihanoukville are still few.
- There is also a VIP helicopter charter company, Helistar Cambodia, that operates virtually everywhere in Cambodia.
- Long journeys in Cambodia can be taken by bus, pickup truck or shared taxi. In many towns, they can be found at the local market square.
- Generally speaking, the rail infrastructure is quite dire. It’s possible to hitch a ride on the daily cargo train that runs for 111 km between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas (near Kampot).
- Remember also that several publications are freely available in hotels, restaurants and bars. All tourist guide books include information, maps and advertising.
Here some tips for getting around while in Vietnam:
- Traveling by plane is cheap and fast in Vietnam. The trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City will take about 2 hours.
- The railway is the least developed transportation infrastructure in Vietnam. Most of the network was built during the period of French colonization and since then it has not improved. There have been programs for developing it in the last decade but the network has still many deficiencies.
- Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Usually they depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains. Note that average road speed is typically quite slow.
- Foreign driving licences are not accepted in Vietnam. The concept of renting a car to drive yourself is almost non-existent, and when Vietnamese speak of renting a car they mean hiring a car with a driver.
- You may wish to visit Vietnam by bicycle. Several adventure travel companies provide tours with equipment. Most of the population gets around on two wheels, so it’s a great way to get closer to the people, as well as off the beaten path.
- While slowly being supplanted by motorbikes, cyclo pedicabs still roam the streets of Vietnam’s cities and towns. They are especially common in scenic smaller cities, where it’s pleasant to cruise slowly along taking in the sights.
- You’ll be missing a big part of Vietnamese life if you do not spend some time on a boat. Be careful though because many boats, although seaworthy, are not fit to international standards.
Whether it’s the sophisticated melding of eastern and western cuisine, the alien karst landscapes draped in green and floating on blue, or the simplicity of sunrise on a park bench, watching a strange new world awaken around you, Vietnam has universal appeal.
The adventurous will revel in the grandeur of the Phong Nha cave systems, while the French colonial streets of Hanoi are an essential destination for anyone claiming foodie status. And if that sounds like far too much effort, there’s always its sun-drenched coastal sands on which to simply chill out, cocktail in hand!
Your suitcase and a sense of humor are all that’s needed to thrive in this cultural mecca, so leave your worries behind and make Vietnam your next destination! – Andrew & Karen, Fork and Foot
Both countries are definitely cheap. Food prices start around $1US and beers cost around 50c (draught) and 60c (cans in the supermarket). About the accommodation, you’ll have no troubles in finding cheap and comfortable hotels and guest houses. In Vietnam there are many ATMs dispensing also US dollars.
Phrases and Words
- Thank you
- Sohm dtoh
- Excuse me
- Xin chao!
- Tam Biet
- Toi la…
- My name is…
- Xin loi
- Excuse me
So, which one is better?
We love both countries, but maybe Vietnam is more vibrant and has better food. Cambodia instead is a wonderful side trip: we suggest to have at least three days in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The locals are hospitable and relaxed in both countries.