Southeast Asia Uncovered

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos call to visitors looking for a one-of-a-kind experience

By: By Laurel Delp

Thailand, Off the Beaten Path

Most of your experienced clients will already have taken in the highlights of Thailand, but there are many off-the-beaten-path spots to recommend.

One is Khao Yai National Park, where clients may be able to see tigers and one of the last herds of wild elephants, as well as rare birds. Book your clients into Kirimaya, a beautiful design resort that’s a popular golf retreat for Thailand’s high society, set on the edge of the park some 124 miles northeast of Bangkok. There are two restaurants, a spa and all the rooms have terraces or balconies. This runs from $176, unless you want to splurge on a huge luxury tent with the romance of a colonial-era safari.

Beach-loving clients who have already “done” Phuket may want to visit the lesser-known areas of spectacular Phang Nga Bay, an area of limestone islands, islets and karst towers that surpasses Ha Long Bay in beauty. The Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi occupies a prime spot on one of the islands in the middle of the bay, with rustic-chic villas, each with its own pool. On the Krabi coast, Rayavadee occupies a peninsula with three beaches, and the more than 10-year-old resort is full of monkeys, birds and monitor lizards. Also on the Krabi coast is the new Ritz-Carlton Reserve, with 54 luxury villas with plunge pools.

Few tourists go to Thailand’s northeast, which makes it the perfect escape for clients who like to get off the beaten track. Thai Airways flies several times a day to Ubon Ratchathani, and about an hour east is the Tohsang Khongjiam Resort and Spa at the confluence of the blue Mun River with the wide, rusty-colored Mekong (quite a sight in itself) bordered by Laos on the east and Cambodia to the south. From there, clients can visit national parks with petroglyphs, waterfalls, forest monasteries, silk weaving, markets and the hauntingly beautiful Khao Phra Vihan, magnificent Khmer ruins on a cliff overlooking the vast Cambodian plain. Next door to the resort is Sedhapura, four romantic riverside villas with private Jacuzzis, Wi-Fi, LCD televisions and outdoor rain showers. The resort’s riverside restaurant is nothing short of excellent.


Clients will need to arrange a visa to Vietnam in advance and should know that if they intend to take side trips out of the country, they will need a multiple-entry visa. A last-minute, on-arrival visa can be arranged via an “invitation” from a local tour company, but clients are better off arranging visas in advance. Visas to Cambodia and Laos can be obtained on arrival at the airport, with two passport photos. The visa to Laos is $50, and the visa to Cambodia is $30 (but they require an additional $30 fee on departure). Thai visas are issued on arrival at the airport.

Hanoi’s best months are March and April, when it is sunny and still fairly cool. The winter months can be gray and cold, and the summer hot and humid. Hanoi’s monsoon season starts later than South Vietnam’s. Saigon’s best months are December and January, and the monsoons start becoming heavy in July into October. Cambodia’s best months are also December and January, but it’s hot most of the time. Luang Prabang can be quite chilly during the winter months, and the best months mirror Hanoi’s, March and April. It can be very hot in the summer months, and the rains start in July.



Art Vietnam

Caravelle Hotel
Room rates start from $280 per night.

The Jewel of the Bay

Mai Gallery

Park Hyatt Saigon 
Room rates start from $320 per night.

The Sheraton Saigon
Room rates start from $295 per night.

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi
Room rates start from $493 per night.


Room rates start from $400 per night.

Hotel de la Paix
Room rates start from $185 per night.

La Residence d’Angkor
Room rates start from $175 per night.

Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor

Raffles Hotel Le Royal
Room rates start from $140 per night.


Room rates start from $400 per night.

Hotel Settha Palace
Room rates start from $180 per night.

La Residence Phou Vao
Room rates start from $254 per night.


Room rates start from $615 per night.

Room rates start from $103 per night.

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A few years ago, a traveler sent me an indignant postcard from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, accusing me of having failed to mention how hot it can get there. The sender was the only person I’ve known to be disappointed by Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia Uncovered, Ha Long Bay // (c) 2009
A Ha Long Bay cruise is an ideal way to explore
the famed site. // © 2009 Jakob Leitner
I spent a significant part of my childhood in Southeast Asia and, each time I return, I am awed by the explosion of changes taking place. In a city like Vientiane, Laos, that might mean the paving of the last of downtown’s dirt streets, while in Bangkok, Thailand, it’s having a drink at the open-air Sky Bar on the 63rd floor of Lebua at State Tower. The houses I lived in are long gone, Bangkok’s canals paved over and the flower stalls of Nguyen Hue Street in Saigon, Vietnam, are history. The road from the airport into Siem Reap, Cambodia, is now lined with hotels for Asian package tourists. But all these countries retain their unique character, and they remain as seductive as ever. I will always love writing about them.

In this age of globalization, Southeast Asia remains unique and seductively exotic, and none more so than the countries that once made up French Indochina: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. These are countries with something to offer every client — beach-obsessed travelers, foodies, art lovers, romantics or families. Pagodas, colonial villas, the stone ruins of the Khmer and Cham cultures, graceful temples, endless beaches and some of the best food on the planet make up just some of the attractions.


If I had to pick only one spot to recommend in Vietnam, it would have to be Hanoi, a madly changing but beautiful city with a lake at its heart and wide, tree-lined boulevards passing French colonial villas. In the city’s Old Quarter, 36 lanes named for the guilds that once traded on them (silk, brass, silver, fish and bamboo) retain much of their historic flavor, while the main drags, like Hang Gai, are now filled with boutiques, cafes, art galleries and restaurants.

Elsewhere, the intricately detailed towers of centuries-old pagodas vie with the Chinese-influenced 11th-century Temple of Literature, a center of Confucian study. In the French Quarter, the Hanoi Opera House is a smaller version of Paris’ Palais Garnier, and the National Museum of Fine Arts and the National Museum of History are both housed in airy colonial administrative buildings.

History buffs can visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, museum and former residence, as well as Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton” but to Vietnamese as the cruel penal complex where nationalists were imprisoned by the French colonialists.

Families will love the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, where mythic tales and historic battles are reenacted by puppets on a pool of water. Another great family spot is the Vietnam Ethnology Museum, which is dedicated to Vietnam’s ethnic groups, including replicas of traditional homes.

Hanoi is home to romantic restaurants housed in former colonial villas, tables spilling out onto garden terraces, with food ranging from sophisticated traditional cuisine at restaurants such as Emperor, to French fusion at Green Tangerine. At Bobby Chinn’s, owned by a half-Chinese, half-Egyptian chef who trained under Gary Danko, an art-filled lounge at one end of the chic restaurant sometimes hosts live music.

Hanoi is known for its art, and galleries show both edgy, contemporary artists and the expensive, hard-to-get works of Vietnam’s expressionist era. Two of the best are Art Vietnam, run by American Suzanne Lecht, and Mai Gallery, which has evolved from a salon run in an artist’s home to one of the most sophisticated galleries in Vietnam, run by his daughter, Tran Phuong Mai.

Hanoi’s most famous hotel is the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, built in 1901 and still elegant, romantic and bathed in a colonial aura that evokes the intrigues of that era, but luxurious enough for today’s pickiest traveler. The sprawling new 350-room InterContinental West Lake offers two wings built right out onto West Lake, a neighborhood that’s become the wealthiest in Hanoi. Modern rooms with LCD televisions have Vietnamese touches like hill-tribe-made headboards. The outwardly opulent-looking seven-story Hilton Hanoi Opera has a mix of business and leisure travelers in rooms that are comfortable, if not exciting.

Best Suited For: Romantics, foodies, shoppers, history buffs, art lovers and families

Famed Ha Long Bay, dotted with limestone islets and karst towers worn by rain and wind into whimsical and mysterious shapes, can be seen on a day-trip from Hanoi — it’s about a three-hour drive from the city — but that means contending with tour buses and crowds. It’s best experienced on an overnight cruise, like the stylish Emeraude, a replica of a 1907 paddlewheel steamboat fitted with teak and brass, with a formally dressed staff or the The Jewel of the Bay, a luxury junk operated by well-regarded Buffalo Tours.

Best Suited For: Romantics, photographers and families

A bucolic riverine city that was once the capital of the Nguyen dynasty, Hue offers a chance to visit the emperors’ tombs, which were constructed while the royals still lived, with rambling pleasure gardens, teahouses and temples. Unfortunately the “American War” ravaged the Imperial City, but what little remains is still very much worth visiting. Hue is also known for its imperial cuisine. La Residence is the hotel of choice here, a boutique hotel in the former French Governor’s residence built in the 1930s, with added wings, on the banks of the Perfume River.

Best Suited For: Romantics, history buffs, photographers, foodies and families

Most people fly into Da Nang and make a quick stop at the Cham Museum — a lovely museum built by the French to house artifacts from the Indianized Cham empire that once covered central and south Vietnam. But if time permits, the three-hour coastal drive from Hue south to Da Nang is spectacular and shouldn’t be missed. The legendary China Beach (an R&R spot during the war and inspiration for the eponymous 1990’s television series) begins just south of the town and runs for miles to just north of the quaint, historic fishing port of Hoi An. The city is also known for its shops and tailors, who are even less expensive than Hanoi’s, although often not as good. South of Da Nang, the Furama Resort is an island of luxury and serenity, and just outside Hoi An the Nam Hai is Vietnam’s most upscale resort. My Son is a short drive (45 minutes; 25 miles) from Hoi An, and not to be missed. It was a center of worship for the Chams from the 7th through the 12th centuries and, although it was badly damaged in the war, it’s a mystical collection of temples with Hindu carvings.

Best Suited For: Beach lovers, history buffs and shoppers

Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon) remains the entrepreneurial, raffish city it always was, but it is changing quickly — high-rises are shooting up and the city is expanding across the river and sprouting hip, upscale shops and restaurants. Saigon has some gorgeous colonial-era administrative buildings and a couple of significant pagodas, but it lags behind Hanoi in the number of museums, and there’s nothing to compare to the Old Quarter. Most visitors make a day trip to the tunnels in Cu Chi, begun during resistance to the French and enlarged during the American War to contain everything from kitchens to operating rooms. Visitors also go to Tay Ninh to visit the elaborate Cao Dai Temple and to the Mekong Delta to visit floating markets.

Saigon has a number of lovely restaurants in colonial villas, and it has always had a wealth of cafes, many of which also have live music. The city’s most upscale hotel is the Park Hyatt Saigon behind the colonial-era Opera House, and the best rooms in the house open onto the third-floor pool. The Sheraton Saigon boasts a huge pair of towers looming over Dong Khoi Street, with the better rooms in the Grand Tower. During the war, correspondents drank at the rooftop bar at the Caravelle Hotel, which has added a 24-story tower. Rooms are decent, and the Caravelle has the catbird’s seat on the corner of Don Khoi opposite the old Opera House.

Best Suited For: History buffs, foodies and shoppers


 Southeast Asia Uncovered, Cambodia // (c) 2009
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is one of the most iconic attractions in Southeast Asia. // © 2009 einalem
Phnom Penh is an underrated stop. Most people head straight to Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor Wat but, in fact, the National Museum is an important stop for anyone interested in Khmer history and artifacts. The Royal Palace and silver pagoda are well worth visiting. The Killing Fields and the skull-lined Choeng Ek monument (10 miles from town), as well as the Museum of Genocide, are chilling. There are lovely shops and cafes along the riverfront and crowded markets downtown. Hands down, the place to stay is Raffles Hotel Le Royal, built in 1929 and still oozing history.

There are now miles of package-tour hotels lining the road in from the airport to Siem Reap, but the town itself remains the same leafy, quiet respite, and the choice of fantastic hotels is endless, running from the colonial-era Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor to the mid-century modern Amansara to the ultra-stylish Hotel de la Paix or Orient Express’ wood, Khmer-style boutique La Residence d’Angkor.

Everyone has seen photographs of Angkor Wat, but nothing can prepare one for the size and magnificence of the actual temple, which takes hours to absorb. In nearby Angkor Thom, the ancient walled city, the massive faces of the Bayon stare into eternity. Ta Prohm has been left as it was when “found,” with tree roots clutching the temple stones like giant fingers. Outside Angkor, the small, pink-hued Banteay Srei (called the Citadel of Women for its many carvings) must be seen, and the more intrepid may want to visit Beng Melea, a massive stone temple complex that has yet to be restored (an improved road has made it more accessible).

Best Suited For: Romantics, shoppers, foodies, families with kids over age eight and photographers


Southeast Asia Uncovered
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most
important temples in Laos. //
© 2009 Vera & Jean-Christophe
The tourist infrastructure in Laos is still in its infancy, but in the UNESCO-protected former royal center, Luang Prabang, clients will find some wonderful boutique hotels, including the newly opened 24-suite Amantaka in the original French colonial hospital, built in the early 20th century. Another wonderful hotel is La Residence Phou Vao.

Luang Prabang itself is a small artificial peninsula at the convergence of two rivers, full of temples and the French-built former Royal Palace. Wat Xieng Thong, built in the 16th century, is spectacular. Most people take a long boat up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves, which are filled with Buddha images, or drive to nearby waterfalls. But the best things to do are enjoy some of the sublime food — both French and Lao — which is shockingly inexpensive, or sit in a cafe by the river, doing nothing. Clients shouldn’t miss the night market here as well.

The capital, Vientiane, is rapidly changing but still serene compared to other Asian capitals, and clients will enjoy the colonial-era Hotel Settha Palace and some wonderful restaurants. Wat Sisakhet and Wat Phra Keo are well worth seeing, as is Pha That Luang, the gold stupa that is the national monument.

Clients should not miss a stroll along the Mekong River at sunset, stopping at one of the many open-air, makeshift cafes for a drink, or stopping by Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles, where 30 weavers work on magnificent silk in a colonial villa downtown. The Morning Market (open all day) is also a must.

Best Suited For: Adventure seekers, artists, shoppers and foodies