From the evening markets and golden temples of Luang Prabang to glittering boat lights reflecting off Halong Bay at dusk, Southeast Asia offers memories to last a lifetime. But this exotic region of ancient ruins, serene rice paddies, and bustling cities can be difficult for Western travelers to figure out. From finding the best hidden spots along Halong Bay to ordering in Laotian restaurants, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions from our guests.
What kind of weather can I expect in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia?
All three countries have a tropical climate, with temperatures in the high 70s or low 80s. We avoid traveling during the rainy season, which runs from May to October, when it can get quite humid, but occasional short rain showers can occur year-round. Typically rain falls at night during the drier winter months. Be ready for warm temperatures in Siem Reap, where the highs can get up to 90 degrees in November.
What’s Southeast Asian food like?
With its fresh herbs and pungent spices, Indochine cuisine delivers a delicious punch of rich, complex flavors and delicate aromatics. Many elements are common throughout the region. Pho, for instance, is found in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. This wonderfully healthy rice-noodle soup, comes with varying amounts of vegetables and many types of meat. Of course, rice is a way of life here and can be found cooked in different ways—sticky, steamed, or fried. But there are differences from country to country.
Vietnamese food has an amazing variety of sauces, dips, herbs, and spices. One of the most popular dishes is spring rolls. Expect an abundance of fresh seafood, as well as French baguettes, a legacy of the French colonial period.
Laotian cuisine is based on the fresh tropical fruit, vegetables, and rice that grow in its fertile plains and hillsides. Flavorful salads mix savory and sweet, and the national dish of laap is a mixture of ground meat (usually pork), vegetables, and herbs.
Khmer cuisine, as it’s known in Cambodia, is most similar to Thai cuisine, but less spicy. In fact, a red curry in Cambodia is mild and made with sweet potatoes. The staple of the diet here is rice and freshwater fish, and tropical fruits are abundant and usually included for dessert at every meal.
What’s the best way to explore Halong Bay?
Fantastical Halong Bay is 600 square miles of water studded with almost 2,000 jutting, lushly forested limestone islands, or karsts. It’s spectacular, but most travelers who journey to see it never get beyond the shore. That’s why we made a point on our itinerary of spending three days and two nights aboard a luxury junk sailing through this unique region. Traveling this way, you can visit the floating fishing village of Vung Vieng and learn about its inhabitants traditional culture. Journey to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the bay, and walk trails through its craggy, jungle-filled backcountry. Sung Sot Cave, or “the Cave of Surprises,” is the largest grotto in Halong Bay. Adventurous souls will love passing through its two immense chambers on their way to a “royal garden” at its center, with a clear pond and a fascinating landscape of mountains.
How should I dress in Southeast Asia?
Though it gets pretty warm outside, it’s important to dress modestly throughout Southeast Asia. Shorts are generally fine as long as they are not too short. When visiting temples or pagodas, however, your knees and shoulders should be covered. Our suggestion? Women might consider bringing a sarong or wrap that they can put on or take off as desired. Both men and women might consider zip-off pants that can convert to shorts. Also keep in mind that footwear and socks must be removed in pagodas, private homes, and also some temples.
What should I do to make a good impression? I don’t want to commit a faux pas!
Public displays of affection between men and women are considered shocking throughout the region, so please save that kiss goodnight for the hotel room. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal for a pair of men or women to link arms or hold hands. Upon meeting someone for the first time, it’s typical to simply nod or shake hands—using both hands is a warm gesture of respect. When generally greeting someone (say, on the street or in a restaurant), hands are put together in a prayer-like position at the chest and the head is slightly lowered. Avoid putting your feet up and inadvertently pointing them at someone, which can be interpreted as being disrespectful. Likewise, touching someone’s head, such as a child’s, is also considered improper in Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian culture.
How can I avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat?
Angkor Wat, the enormous and intricately carved Khmer ruins constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries, is one of the world’s architectural wonders. Strolling its extensive alleys and courtyards, you’ll see countless fine carvings, statues, and small shrines still in use by the local residents living near the ancient site. And, if you go during the middle of the day, you’re likely to see crowds.
We avoid the tourist throngs by getting there early. To maximize your alone time in this beautiful spot, there’s no beating arriving at sunrise. Our expert guides pick a route through the complex away from the crowds, often starting from the East gate and finishing at the more popular West.
Of course, another way to avoid the crowds is to visit other Khmer ruins, and Cambodia has plenty. Near Angkor Wat, the mysterious royal city of Angkor Thom offers beautiful terraces, narrow alleyways, and an awe-inspiring 50-tower temple. Our guests love exploring there on our tour, as well as the vine and tree-covered ruins of Ta Prohm.
What are some cultural highlights of the region?
There are so many memorable ways to engage with the beguiling cultures of Southeast Asia. Here are a few we love. In Lao, Baci (pronounce Bah-see) is an important ceremony practiced to celebrate major events and occasions. The ritual, involving tying strings around a person’s wrist to preserve good luck, has become a national custom. We arrange for our guests to participate in such a ceremony during their time here.
The ceremony is typically performed by a senior person of the community who has been a Buddhist monk at some stage, and special arrangements are made for the occasion. The practice involves preparing the pah kwan(or flower trays) and placing them in a central location for people to gather around in reverential prayer. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a feast of food is offered to all guests, with bowls of rice wine. This is followed by revelry of Laotian dance and music.
We’d also suggest the wonderful Thang Long Water Puppet Show—which we include on our tour while in Hanoi. This amazing art form originated more than 1,000 years ago in the Red River Delta. The performers who operate the puppets spend more than an hour in the water, and the result is an intriguing show full of local tales about ancient legends, romance, farming, fishing, and children playing.
What should I bring back as a souvenir?
Travelers bring back many different kinds of souvenirs from Southeast Asia, including lacquered wooden boxes, straw hats, and colorful fabrics. However, it’s important to make certain that your keepsakes were created ethically. That’s why we stop by places like the Ock Pop Tok textile co-op in Laos. Touring the facility with the owners, you’ll come to understand exactly how their hand-woven, naturally dyed goods are made. And if you choose to bring an item home with you, you can be certain that it’s benefiting the communities you visit.