2 Month Southeast Asia Itinerary
Southeast Asia has a special place in my heart. As the first trip I ever backpacked, I have a special bias towards this region because it’s where I was introduced to backpacking culture, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone to this day. Southeast Asia is a beautiful mix of countries, cultures, cuisines, and landscapes that look like something straight out of a fantasy book. Lush jungles, bioluminescent water, craggy limestone mountains & easily some of the best food on the planet -- Southeast Asia has pretty much everything for the adventure seeker, all wrapped up in a safe and affordable region of the world.
Please note, for this route, I’ll only be focusing on the Southeast Asian countries I visited on this trip: Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia.
To see my two-week itinerary for Thailand, click here.
To see my two-week itinerary for the Philippines, click here.
Why 2 Months?
I chose two months for my Southeast Asia tour for one major reason -- it’s simply too big to see in any less time. How could I possibly span all 5 countries in any time less than two months? And frankly, that didn’t even let me cover the entirety of it (sorry Malaysia, Myanmar & the Philippines -- I’ll be back for you). However, I loved this travel route because it made for an adventurous first trip filled with absolutely everything I wanted to do without feeling overly rushed or pressed for time.
Long story short: if you’re trying to hit up all 5 of these countries in anything less than two months, you’ll miss out big time on some of the amazing lesser-known sights in this region.
Budgeting in Southeast Asia
One of the biggest draws to Southeast Asia for me was the price. Notoriously affordable, the exchange rate from US dollars to every Southeast Asian currency is hugely in our favor here in the west. It’s not uncommon to spend $1-5 USD on a meal, $5-15 for a hostel bed, and $10 on a border-crossing bus trip. Simply put, Southeast Asia is a great place to stretch your dollar, whether you’re a millennial just out of college or a late-twenties adventure seeker.
The way I rationalized it was this: Why would I spend half the time elsewhere when I could comfortably travel Southeast Asia for the same price? The most expensive part of the trip is the flight, the price of which can be easily managed by booking way ahead of time.
For more tips on how to make your trip more affordable, see my Trip Budgeting page.
Overall Safety in Southeast Asia
Another thing that makes Southeast Asia a perfect destination for a first-time traveler is the fact that overall, it’s quite a safe place to travel. Thailand is easily one of the safest countries in all of Asia, and incidence of tourism crimes are low in most of the countries in the region. However, it’s worth noting that most of the countries mentioned on this list have very strict and severe punishments for drug possession and trafficking (some of which include the death penalty), so leave the goods at home, folks. Southeast Asia is notorious for having some of the most intense drug-related punishments in the world, so don’t mess around with this. A wild night out is not worth your life.
Other than that, I personally didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any point during my two months in Southeast Asia, and the women that I spoke to said they also ran into virtually no issues on their trips as well. As always, just be street smart, courteous to your host country, and abide by the cultural norms of the land. When in Rome, right?
Visas in Southeast Asia
As with anywhere else, visas in this region vary by country. At the time of my trip, a free visa-upon-arrival was available in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos, which required no additional work on my part. You just simply arrive and go through customs & immigration. Vietnam, however, does require a pre-purchased E-Visa. The process is relatively simple and can be done online. There are dozens of websites that will walk you through it for a fee. They will all look like spam sites, but don’t worry, they’re often pretty legitimate (I’d recommend this one). You’ll also need to send in copies of your passport and a few passport-sized photos, which you’ll want to bring with you as well when you land. Don’t forget these, because without them, there’s a chance you may be denied entry.
Don’t worry, though, I’ve got all the visa documents you’ll need covered in my packing checklist, so you shouldn’t have any issues.
Know your Passport
Also, it’s important to understand your immigration status based on where you’re coming from. Most countries won’t give you an issue, but there are some countries (in particular Indonesia & Malaysia) who, for instance, won’t admit people with Israeli passports because of political reasons. The last thing you want to do is plan a whole trip, fly there and be told at the gate that you can’t get in because of where you live. Do the research to make sure you don’t waste your time and money.
Two Month Southeast Asia Itinerary
Country 1: Indonesia (Days 1-11)
$1 USD = 14,259 Rupiah (as of March 2020)
GMT +8 hours (Central Indonesian Time)
GMT +9 hours (Eastern Indonesian Time)
Dry Season: June - September; Rainy Season: December - March
Indonesia is a fascinating country. Almost the entirety of it is Muslim, except for tiny, little Hindu-based Bali. An ecologically rich archipelago with more beaches and volcanoes than you can imagine, Indonesia is a fantastic introduction to Southeast Asia, as it’ll give you a mix of highly tourist-heavy spots and completely off-the-grid backroads. Beginning in the tourist haven of Bali, you’ll navigate west into the more untamed and authentic island of Java, seeing both sides of this marvelous and underexplored country.
Days 1-5: Bali
Bali has become somewhat of a traveler & digital nomad haven ever since Eat, Pray, Love put it on the map back in 2010. It’s a tiny island off the east coast of Java that is absolutely overflowing with beautiful rice terraces, lush jungles, white sand beaches and active volcanoes. It’s easy to make Bali an entire trip of its own, and it's truly no wonder why so many nomads set up shop there and live remotely. However, you’re on a schedule, so let’s distill the best things to do on this paradise island into five days.
What to do in Bali:
Check out some Seaside Hindu Temples (Uluwatu & Tanah Lot are Crowd pleasers)
Have a Beach Day at Padang Padang Beach
Check out the Tegalalang Rice Terraces in Ubud
Take a Dip in Ubud’s Tirta Empul Water Temple
Check out the Ubud Monkey Forest
Where to stay in Bali? I loved Big Pineapple Backpackers Hostel
Days 6-7: Banyuwangi
Once you’ve had your fill of fun and sun, grab a bus to Bali’s westernmost point to catch your ferry over to Java. The bus ride should take a few hours (give or take), and the ferry over should be fairly quick. Catch a cab from the port in Java to your hostel in Banyuwangi. If I’m honest, there’s not much to see in Banyuwangi other than to be a jumping point for the Ijen Crater. You can spend your day walking around, but don’t be surprised if the locals ogle at a rare foreigner. My advice? Arrive in the evening, spend a day exploring and book your Ijen tour, and then get an early night’s sleep because you’ll be up at midnight.
Kawa Ijen (Ijen Crater) Midnight Hike
Despite having gone on dozens of hikes since the Ijen Crater, it remains my favorite hike of all time. Maybe it’s because you start the hike in pitch black or because you get to watch the sunrise from inside the crater, but the Ijen Crater is a serious crowd pleaser. You’ll get picked up at your hostel at midnight and dropped off at basecamp around 2:00 AM where you’ll grab your headlamp and start your way up the mountain. By 5:00 AM you’ll not only have reached the crest of the volcano, but you’ll have walked down into it, reeking of sulfur, overlooking the acidic crater lake and watching the men who bravely carry valuable sulfur ore down the mountain. Be ready to get dirty and smelly. It took 6 washes to get the stink of sulfur out of my clothes and 6 years to get it out of my nose.
Trek Difficulty Level: 2.5/5 (not easy, but not bad for novice/intermediate hikers)
Days 8-10: Malang
Once you’ve marinated in that pungent crater air, head back to Banyuwangi and grab the train to Malang. The ride can take up to 7 hours depending on which train you catch (there are only 3 trains a day), so be ready with a podcast or some music. When you arrive in Malang, cozy up in your hostel, but get ready for another sulfur-packed day when you check out the world famous and very active Mount Bromo. Arguably the most famous volcano in all of Indonesia, Mount Bromo sits in the middle of what looks like a lunar landscape -- surrounded by sand, dirt and red-tinted dipping valleys. Get there early for some stunning sunrise views and head to the crest of the volcano to see it in all its glory. Because it’s so active (it last erupted in 2016), it really makes for a fascinating up close and personal look at the workings of a volcano.
Other than Bromo, there isn’t very much else to see in the area. Take a day to recover, explore the city, and take in the last bit of delicious tempe before starting your journey over to Thailand.
Day 11: Surabaya & Flight to Phuket
Once you’ve had your recovery day in Malang, catch an early bus from Malang to Surabaya (only a 1.5 hour trip) and head straight to the airport. Check into your flight and wave goodbye to Indonesia. Bye, Indonesia!
Country 2: Thailand (Days 11-29)
$1 USD = 31.56 Baht (as of March 2020)
GMT +7 hours (Indochina Time)
Dry Season: November - February; Rainy Season: June - October
Welcome to Thailand! Land of jungles, islands, elephant parks and drunken noodles. You’ll notice almost immediately that Thailand is an incredibly tourist-friendly country, with many signs translated to English, tourism centers on every corner, and western food galore. But don’t worry! Thailand may be a tourist haven, but it’s not lost an ounce of its local and deep cultural charm. You’ll get to immerse yourself in stunning Buddhist temples, delicious night markets and much more in the two weeks you’re here. So let’s begin.
Days 11-12: Phuket
You made it to Thailand -- congrats! Heavily developed and teeming with tourists, Phuket is a full-on tourist beach town, with food stands, surf shops and the whole nine yards. Is it beautiful? Definitely. Is it a great place to party? For sure. Is it quiet? Nope. Grab some friends, down a cocktail bucket from your hostel bar and enjoy a night out on the Patong strip. Long story short: Phuket is fun for its nightlife and eccentricities, but if you’re looking for a quiet white sand beach or some real Thai culture, bide your time. We’ll get there.
What to do in Phuket:
Have a legendary night out on the Bangla Walking Street
Nurse a hangover on Patong Beach
Catch a Ladyboy Burlesque Show on the strip
Get your fill of Western food: it’s all they have here
Do NOT go shopping: everything here is way overpriced
Days 13-17: Krabi & Koh Phi Phi
Once you’ve had your fill of drinking and dancing, catch a van a few hours away to Krabi -- a much quieter beach town on the opposite side of the Phang Nga Bay. Apart from being a port for the dozens of tropical islands all around, this sleepy town has much quieter beaches, far tastier Thai food and the huge, sloping limestone cliffs that Thailand is famous for. Take a boat over to Railay Beach and spend the day relaxing in the sun and enjoying the quiet waters. Sip a cocktail at a beachside bar and just laze around enjoying the views. And for sunset, be sure to make your way over the Tiger Cave Temple for a climb up the 1,260 stairs to the top (it’s harder than it sounds). There are sneaky monkeys, so keep your valuables close and make way for the monks heading to the top at record speed. The view at the top of this unique temple is really mesmerizing, with the sunset poking through the limestone cliffs for miles and miles.
Where to stay in Krabi I'm a big fan of Ao Nang 88 Hostel
Koh Phi Phi
After a day or two in Krabi, catch the two-hour ferry over to Koh Phi Phi. An island known for partying and crystalline waters, Koh Phi Phi is sort of a middle ground between Phuket and Krabi -- party-oriented for sure, but with a nice tropical getaway feel, populated by young backpackers looking for a good time. Stay at a beachside hostel and lay in a hammock during the day and spend the evenings drinking and watching the fabulous beachside fire dancer shows. You definitely don’t need more than 3 days here. When you’re properly hungover and sunburnt to a crisp, catch the ferry back to Krabi and head back towards Phuket.
What to do in Koh Phi Phi:
Laze around on the beach, literally steps away from your hostel
Go diving or snorkeling! This is the perfect place for a beginner dive (I recommend Sea Frog Diving Center)
Climb up (more so walk up) to the island’s beautiful viewpoint
Get a massage...if you dare (a lot of massage parlors on the island are sketchy, so be selective and know what you’re getting ...or more importantly, what you’re not getting)
Catch a Muay Thai show
Days 18-19: Bangkok
To get to Bangkok from Phuket, you have 2 options. You can either take a 12 hour bus (I’d recommend a late one so you can sleep and save money on accommodation), or you can bite the bullet like me and fly. The flight is only an hour and generally pretty cheap, so you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank splurging on this expense that saves you 10.5 hours.
Once you arrive in Bangkok, you may be overwhelmed -- don’t panic. Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand, and as such, it’s truly a modern-day metropolis. Different from the islands in almost every way, Bangkok can have a tendency to overwhelm newcomers with sounds and smell, but once you get used to it, you’ll find plenty to do and see in this unique capital.
What to do in Bangkok:
Check out the huge reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Tour the Grand Palace
Explore Lumpini Park
Party on Khao San Road (just in case you haven’t had enough of partying yet)
Buy a suit (we thought these would be scams, but our friend got a really great, cheap suit in Bangkok)
Pig out on street food (this is a great place to try street meat)
Days 20-23: Chiang Mai
Once you’ve had enough hustle and bustle, catch a night bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The ride takes about 12 hours, so it’s best to get some shut eye. When you arrive in Chiang Mai, you’ll fall in love immediately. Also a large city, Chiang Mai is by no means a dirty or crowded metropolis. Rather, it’s a quieter and more subdued cultural haven than both Bangkok and Phuket. Tourists come here mostly for access to the nearby mountains and elephant parks in the area, but stay for the wildly delicious night market food and easygoing local vibe.
What to do in Chiang Mai:
Visit an Elephant Rescue Park (see below for a note on how to pick an ethical one)
Go cliff jumping at Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
Have fun with forced perspective at the Chiang Mai 3D Art Museum
Check out the fortress-like Wat Chedi Luang Varahivara Temple (& go temple hopping)
Pig out at Chiang Mai’s famous & cheap Night Market
Learn how to make classic Thai food in a Cooking Class (I recommend Mama Noi’s)
Where to stay in Chiang Mai? Chiangmai Gate Capsule Hostel is clean, comfortable & has tons of activity-booking options
A note on Elephant Parks & Tiger Sanctuaries
When it comes to wildlife tourism, it’s very important to do your research. A lot of local businesses that cater to wildlife lovers have a really racy record of mistreating their animals in an effort to make the experience more enjoyable for you. In fact, a recent National Geographic Exposé showed that even elephant sanctuaries that boast humane conditions just shuttle them over daily from cruel ones in an effort to appeal to well-intentioned tourists. Don’t fall for it and don’t be the type of tourist who takes advantage of the wildlife for an insta story or a selfie. Tiger sanctuaries sedate their tigers to keep it safe for tourists to take pictures with them, which is wildly unhealthy and cruel to the animals. Do your research so you wind up contributing to humane businesses and diverting money away from inhumane ones.
As a general rule of thumb: If a sanctuary lets you ride an elephant in a basket, that’s not kosher. Elephants are not meant to have that much weight on that part of their backs, and they’re often whipped with hooks to get them to move for you. Avoid at all costs.
Days 24-26: Pai
Oh boy, are you in for a treat in Pai...Grab a local bus or van and head 3 hours northwest of Chiang Mai to arrive in this sleepy backpacking haven. Potentially my favorite part of the whole country, Pai is justifiably highly regarded as the type of town you can wind up in for much longer than intended. Nestled in the lush jungles bordering Myanmar, Pai has it all for nature-lovers: beautiful hiking, refreshing waterfalls, steamy hot springs and mysterious caves. Rent a scooter for a few days and tour the countryside. Take in the beautiful views and zip along from spot to spot at your leisure.
What to do in Pai:
Rent a scooter and explore on your own (Pai is very open so there are far less things to bump into)
Go waterfall-hopping (I recommend Mor Paeng, Pambok, Hua Chang & Mae Yen)
Soak in the Sai Ngam Hot Springs (the ones outside of town)
Explore Tham Lod Cave on a guided riverboat (can combine this with the hot springs)
Check out Pai Canyon for sunset
Go White-Water Rafting
Where to stay in Pai? Check out Famous Pai Circus Hostel (if you’re looking for a wild night & some free circus lessons), Deejai Pai Backpackers (if you’re looking for a quiet spot with a social atmosphere)
Days 27-28: Chiang Rai
After you’ve lazed around at the hostel pool or got your fill of spelunking, head back to the bus station to grab a van back to Chiang Mai so you can make your transfer over to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a city in the northeastern corner of Thailand, and is the closest major entry point to Loas. Chiang Rai is where you’ll wave a warm goodbye and head over to your next country, but before you do, make sure you take a day to check out the Wat Rung Khun, or more famously known as the White Temple.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai? I liked Mercy Hostel
Wat Rung Khun (The White Temple)
I know, I know...You’re all temple-ed out. By now, you’ve already seen so many...what could possibly be so special about this one? Well, friends...the pictures speak for themselves. The White Temple is unlike any other Buddhist temple in Thailand or in Southeast Asia for that matter. It was constructed much more recently than the ones you’re used to and has a uniquely modern aesthetic. The hanging heads of iconic characters like Maleficent or Iron Man should give that away. On the outside it’s fully white with en elephant graveyard feel, while on the inside there are murals with modern characters like minions and spiderman. It’s a seriously unique spot and worth seeing before you head over into Laos.
Country 3: Laos (Days 29-39)
$1 USD = 8,900 Kip (as of March 2020)
GMT +7 hours (Indochina Time)
Dry Season: October - April; Rainy Season: May - September
Up next on our Southeast Asia tour is Laos. A beautifully cultural and historical country, Laos has had a really rough go of it in the 20th century. Colonized by the French in the late 19th century, Laos unfortunately got caught up in much of mess of the Vietnam War and still suffers today the consequences of a conflict it didn’t need to be involved in. You’ll notice as a result that Laos is far less developed than Thailand, and even its largest city is dwarfed in comparison to metropolises like Bangkok or Singapore. However, because Laos is landlocked, it’s perfectly located in a tropical savanna climate, and therefore has absolutely stunning natural sights and hidden gems that are not that difficult to find if you do a little looking. Let’s discuss what they are.
Days 29-32: Huay Xai & the Gibbon Experience
After catching the 2 hour bus from Chiang Rai and going through border control, you’ll arrive in Huay Xai. There’s no way around it -- this will likely be a bit of a culture shock. Huay Xai, other than a few hostels and restaurants, will seem a bit sparse and lacking compared to your recent destinations in Thailand. However, you’re not here for the town. You’re here for the Gibbon Experience. So grab a hostel, stay overnight and book your tour.
The Gibbon Experience
I first heard about the Gibbon Experience from a few Canadian friends that I met in Bali. I hadn’t planned on doing it and it was therefore not on my itinerary, but boy am I glad I left some wiggle room for it. Simply put, the Gibbon Experience is a three-day trek into the Laotian jungle where you’ll be zip-lining through the jungle canopy, sleeping in impressive treehouses, and hiking around the exotic and dense local forests. It’s a real once-in-a-lifetime experience, and even if you don’t see any gibbons (like I didn’t), it’s still worth the somewhat-hefty price tag. Much of its earnings goes towards preserving the national park that it helped create as well, so you can feel good about booking with them.
Safety at the Gibbon Experience
A lot of people worry about safety when it comes to zip-lining, especially when you’re zip-lining higher than the tree canopy. The truth is that there has been one reported fatality at the Gibbon Experience that the company is very transparent about. My advice? Do your research and decide if it’s for you. I personally felt absolutely safe 100% of my time there and so have hundreds of other guests, but I obviously understand the hesitancy. As always, just do what you’re comfortable with.
Days 33-35: Luang Prabang
When you’re back from your three-day trip to the Laotian jungle, book a night bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Now I’m not going to lie to you...this was the single worst experience of my entire two-month trip. The bus is rickety, the road is windy, there’s no bathroom & you have to share a small mat with a stranger. Just buck up and accept it for what it is: a necessary means to get to your next spot. But when you arrive in Luang Prabang, you’ll be glad you did.
Luang Prabang is one of the main cities in Laos. It’s located smack in the center of the north portion of the country, and is surrounded by dense forests and sweeping limestone cliffs. It’s a relatively quiet city on the Mekong River where you can unwind and stretch your legs after having fit them on that bus. Stay a few days to eat some tasty French-inspired Laotian food and recuperate from your travels before moving onto Vang Vieng.
What to do in Luang Prabang:
Walk through any of the city’s 34 temples (especially Wat Xieng Thong)
Take a day trip to Kuang Si Waterfall (arguably the most iconic spot in all of Laos)
Eat and shop your way through one of the best Night Markets in Southeast Asia
Enjoy the sunset from the top of Mount Phou Si (bring bug spray)
Have a beer or 6 at Utopia Bar
Days 36-38: Vang Vieng
Once you’ve recovered from your night bus experience in Luang Prabang, grab a 7 hour bus ride to Vang Vieng, an otherwise sleepy town somewhat overtaken by tourism. Partying and nightlife are huge here, but that’s only because of the infamous river tubing that attracted so many travelers to town. Now, the booze-fueled tubing romp is shut down (as a result of literal alcohol-induced deaths), but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun. Vang Vieng is a lovely place to relax with a smoothie or ride around the beautiful dirt roads that surround the city. Explore the truly unique and remarkable natural sights around the town. It has something for both adventurers and loungers alike.
What to do in Vang Vieng:
Go (sober) tubing down the river (hey, it’s still super fun and beautiful)
Ride a scooter over to the Blue Lagoon for some seriously blue water
Explore the dozens of caves that are 30 minutes or less away from town
Indulge in both French-inspired & traditional Laotian food in town
Party at Sakura Bar (and buy one of the shirts you’ve seen travelers wearing all over Southeast Asia)
Watch Friends at any of the dozens of restaurants that have it playing nonstop
Where to stay in Vang Vieng? I liked Real Backpackers Hostel Vang Vieng
Days 39: Vientiane; Fly to Hanoi
Had enough of Laos yet? Doesn’t matter! You’re headed to Vietnam next! Wake up early in Vang Vieng and catch the 3-hour bus to Vientiane, where you’ll make a transfer to your flight to Hanoi. I admittedly didn’t allot much time in Vientiane because it doesn’t seem like it has very much there that makes it unique from other cities I visited or will visit. If you do choose to stay here, however, feel free to indulge in some delicious French-inspired bakeries and food, meander around town, and kick back with a Beerlao. If you’re here for a flight, just make sure to arrive early (you know by now how unpredictable Southeast Asian buses are).
Where to stay in Vientiane? I recommend Dream Home Hostel
Country 4: Vietnam (Days 39-57)
$1 USD = 23,205.50 Dong (as of March 2020)
GMT +7 hours (Indochina Time)
Dry Season: November - April; Rainy Season: May - October
Vietnam. A country with an historic reputation, and a country that blew all my expectations completely out of the water. Deeply affected by the war in the 1960’s, Vietnam’s culture is a unique amalgamation of its own pre-colonial practices and the modern vibe that’s evolved since wartime. Big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are booming, and the people are warm and welcoming to tourists. The sights don’t disappoint either. From beautifully symmetrical rice terraces in the north to caves and canyons in the south, Vietnam truly surprised me at every single stop on my tour. You’re going to love it.
Open Bus Tickets in Vietnam
Vietnam’s open bus ticket system is truly a lifesaver, and the only bus-booking system I’ve seen that’s so inclusive and easy-to-use. Simply go to a travel agency in Hanoi and ask for an open bus ticket that includes all the cities down the coast. You’ll likely pay around $50 USD for it and can use it however much you like within the one-month period. The buses are pretty clean sleeper-buses, perfect for overnight travel and complete with little mini beds (somewhat small beds, but beds nonetheless). They usually have a bathroom and they sometimes have WiFi (though it probably won’t work). They’re a really fantastic and cost-saving way to explore the country, so I’d say well-worth the money.
Days 39-42: Hanoi
Welcome to Vietnam! As you land in Hanoi, you’ll notice that this starting point in the north is a skyscraper-laced metropolis comparable to Bangkok or Singapore. Tall buildings tower over the sidewalks, scooters zip by without regard for traffic signals, markets fill with vendors selling their wares, entire streets devote themselves to very particular goods (I’m looking at you, textile street). It’s easy to get overwhelmed here, especially with the population of almost 8 million people swarming the streets. However, Hanoi is a fantastic spot to get acquainted with Vietnamese food, etiquette and history, and truly makes for a lovely city to visit.
What to do in Hanoi:
Try not to die crossing the street
Explore the park around Hoan Kiem Lake
Catch up on what you missed at the National Museum of Vientnamese History & Military History Museum
Tour the grounds of the Imperial Citadel
Get a little macabre at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Catch a show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (I didn’t do this but it sounds really cool)
Eat, Eat, Eat. The best food I had in Vietnam was in Hanoi. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, & it’s easily found.
Where to stay in Hanoi? I liked AZ Hanoi Hostel
Days 43-45: Sa Pa
Sa Pa is a legitimately picturesque mountain town nestled within the rolling hills in the north of Vietnam. From Hanoi, use your open bus ticket to catch a sleeper bus 6 hours north to Sa Pa. I’d recommend doing an overnight to save a bit of cash on accommodation, but keep in mind, this will get you into Sa Pa around 4:00 AM, well before check-in at most hostels. Still, arrive in Sa Pa and prepare to be swarmed by the local hill tribe women who wait every morning for busfulls of tourists to arrive, ready to offer you the best deal on a homestay trek. Booking your homestay trek is up to you, but I’d recommend shopping around and seeing what each company has to offer so you get the best deal.
Where to stay in Sa Pa? I liked Go Sapa Hostel
Sa Pa Homestay Trek
The Sa Pa Homestay Trek was an absolute highlight of my Vietnam trip, and it’s well-worth whatever money you wind up spending on it. Essentially you’ll be guided by local tribes women down into Sa Pa’s rolling hills and valleys, surrounded by the famous rice terraces you’ve probably seen in tourism agency posters. You’ll then spend a night at a local home, complete with a home-cooked dinner, and if you’re lucky, some homemade rice wine. The tour usually lasts 2 days (1 overnight), and is extensive, wet, and rough-and-tumble. You will get muddy; your feet will hurt, but you’ll be so glad you did it. Also -- fair warning, the tribe women will ask you for an unexpected tip when you reach your destination. They may get mad if you don’t give one. Whoops.
Trek Difficulty Level: 2/5 (not a walk in the park, but not majorly difficult)
Days 46-47: Ha Long Bay
Once you finish up your homestay trek and head back to town, grab the bus back to Hanoi and transfer there for your 3-hour ride to Ha Long Bay. Now I’m not going to lie to you folks...I did not like Ha Long Bay. Was it because I had rainy weather? Probably. Was it because my particular boat tour was so strictly regimented that it was planned down to the minute? Definitely. However, I’ve heard much better stories from other travelers who had better weather or who were a bit more selective with their tour agency. My recommendation? Do your homework and make sure you book a boat tour with people your age. Some of them are geared more towards young partiers and some are geared more towards quiet retirees. This is possibly the most iconic spot in Vietnam, so don’t be like me, and make sure your tour lives up to the hype.
Days 48-49: Phong Nha National Park
Once finished with your Ha Long Bay tour, grab the bus back to Hanoi and get ready to head down to Phong Nha National Park. This will be a long one, folks -- about 10 hours -- so plug in a podcast and catch some sleep on your night bus. When you arrive, you’ll notice that the town in Phong Nha is approximately 15 buildings wide. It’s very small. However, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has earned a reputation for good reason. The surrounding limestone cliffs make for some once-in-a-lifetime cave exploring and the local cows make for some treacherous scootering around town. The best thing to do here is to explore the mud cave, so check into your hostel and enjoy what this undiscovered gem of a town has to offer.
What to do in Phong Nha:
Go cave exploring (I recommend Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave & Dark Cave)
Explore Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave (if you have a reservation & $3,000 to spend)
Check out the Botanic Gardens (which are more like a hike and swim than a garden)
Drive around the area on a scooter. This area has some of the prettiest views in all of Vietnam.
Where to stay in Phong Nha? I liked Easy Tiger’s Original Hostel Phong Nha
Days 50-52: Hoi An
No, this isn’t Hanoi. Hoi An, though just a word-scramble away from Hanoi, is an entirely different city smack dab in the center of Vietnam. Quiet, scenic, and very walkable, Hoi An is a lovely intermediary between the bustling and silent spots you’ve been to in Vietnam so far. Located on the Thu Bon River and yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this city is thought of as one of the prettiest cities in the country, and definitely boasts a more traditionally old-time-Vietnam feeling to it. It’s easy to spend days at a time walking through town munching on a banh mi, so it’s really no wonder people wind up staying here longer than they thought they would.
What to do in Hoi An:
Tour the historic Old Town
Scoot 1 hour away to the historic My Son Sanctuary Ruins
Have a beach day on An Bang Beach
Buy a hand-tailored & cheap suit
While you’re at it, go shopping! (souvenirs are cheap here)
Hit up all the local Banh Mi stands (Anthony Bourdain said Hoi An has the best in the country)
Check out the very instagrammable Lantern Market
Where to stay in Hoi An? Check out Bed Station Hostel & Pool Bar Hoi An
Days 53-55: Dalat
After enjoying a lovely few days in Hoi An, get ready for some adventure. Catch a night bus to Dalat and enjoy some zzz’s (the trip is 14 hours), but when you arrive, check into your hostel and sign yourself up for a canyoning tour. Dalat is famous for its canyoning tours, thanks to some impressive waterfalls and cliffs nearby. Now I know what you’re thinking at this point. “I’ve never been canyoning. That sounds terrifying. No thanks.” Trust me, I felt the same way (I have a huge fear of heights), but the tour guides here are top notch and ensure your safety every step of the way. Canyoning for me was a really unique experience and a top 3 highlight of the entire 2 month trip, so I recommend bucking up and giving it a shot. But if you’re still skeptical, no worries! There’s plenty of other things to do in Dalat.
What to do in Dalat:
Go Canyoning. Seriously. Go canyoning.
Explore the Crazy House (google it; you’ll see why it's got that name)
Hike over to Elephant Falls (and check out Linh Phuoc Pagoda while you’re at it)
Check out the nearby Lake of Sighs (it has a fascinating backstory worth looking up)
Play hide and seek in the eccentric 100 Roofs Cafe (made better with $1 whiskey)
Where to stay in Dalat? I loved Wolfpack Hostel
Days 56-57: Ho Chi Minh City
Catch your 7-hour bus ride from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City and arrive in the morning. Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, and formerly the capital of Vietnam before its unification in 1975, Ho Chi Minh City is steeped in cultural and political significance. It was the focal point during the conflict between Northern and Southern Vietnamese during the war, but has since grown immensely. Partially stuck in the past and partially modernizing at a breakneck speed, Ho Chi Minh City has everything you could want from a historical center, ranging from museums and monuments to sleek restaurants and new-age nightlife.
What to do in Ho Chi Minh City:
Learn about the country’s troubled history at the War Remnants Museum
Immerse yourself in the historic Cu Chi Tunnels
Do a day trip to the famous Mekong Delta
Walk through Tao Dan Park
Enjoy the nightlife on Pham Ngu Lao Street (this city’s version of a nightlife strip)
Try the food! It’s vastly different here than it is in the north
Day 57: Bus to Phnom Penh
Once you’ve had your brief stint in Ho Chi Minh City, use your open bus pass one last time to cross the border into Cambodia. The ride takes about 6-7 hours made a bit longer by border control, but is otherwise painless. Listen to some tunes and say goodbye to this lovely country you’ve been exploring for two weeks.
Country 5: Cambodia (Days 57-65)
$1 USD = 4,075 Riel (as of March 2020)
GMT +7 hours (Indochina Time)
Dry Season: October - April; Rainy Season: May - September
Finally, after a month and a half of travel you’ve arrived in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Similarly troubled with war and internal conflict, Cambodia shares a history of corruption and sorrow that transcends far beyond its neighboring countries. Despite all this, Cambodia has really developed its own specific sense of culture in the last half-century, making it a truly unique country to visit. Combine that with its stunning white sand beaches and archaic ruins, and you have a recipe for not only a fun and adventurous trip, but a sobering and reflective one as well.
Days 57-59: Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a developing city with a very somber past. As the country’s capital, it was the central point of the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970’s that separated families, imprisoned intellectuals and effectively wiped out a quarter (over 2 million) of the country’s population. It’s a solemn and reflective place that demands respect and attention.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh? I liked Envoy Hostel
The Killing Fields
I won’t sugarcoat this: The Killing Fields is not a fun day. This tragic area is the site of over a million horrifying deaths back in the 20th century, for men, women and children who wouldn’t fall in line with Pol Pot’s Khmer regime. It’s a highly emotional and sad tour, but a necessary one to fully grasp the magnitude of this historical atrocity. The tower in the center is filled stories-high with real-life skulls of victims, and when the grounds flood, bones and remnants of clothing rise out of the ground. This is really heavy stuff, made heavier by the informative and well-documented audio guide you’ll have while you visit.
Please keep in mind: this is not a place to fool around. This is not a place to wear a bar-themed tank top. Be respectful and try to be reflective while you’re here.
S-21 Prison is often combined in a day tour with the Killing Fields. This horrifying former high school was used during the genocide to imprison and torture dissidents. It housed over 14,000 prisoners in its 4-year operation and only released 7 survivors. It’s an eerie and uncanny visit to say the least, but like the Killing Fields, it’s important to learn about to keep the memory of those who perished alive. The audio guide helps out a lot, giving you a condensed history of what brutal atrocities took place here, and an old man sits outside (one of the only 7 survivors) selling his book and sharing his personal account of his experience behind bars.
Days 60-62: Koh Rong & Sihanoukville
Once you’ve learned about Cambodian history in Phnom Penh, I think it’s time for some fun. Grab a 5-hour bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and grab a ticket to Koh Rong. I personally don’t think there’s much reason to stay in Sihanoukville. Since it’s been overrun with tourists, it’s sort of turned into a dirty cesspool of cheap partying on the same vein as the worst club on the Jersey Shore. Get your ferry ticket and prepare yourself for a rickety ride over to Koh Rong.
There’s a bit of controversy over Koh Rong. When I went in 2016, Koh Rong was a deveoping paradise island with some bars and hostels on one side and a picture-perfect white sand beach on the other, separated by a dense jungle. However, I’m told that since then it’s changed dramatically and, like Sihanoukville, become an overpriced and dirty tourist trap. My advice is to do your research. It was a fundamentally incredible part of my trip, complete with instagrammable sunsets, late-night beach parties, an offbeat island vibe, and bioluminescent plankton, but I hear that may not be the case these days. Look into it.
Koh Rong Samloem
If Koh Rong feels a bit too touristy for you, you do have another option. Koh Rong Samloem is another island just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away, boasting a much more off-the-grid feel. I’m told it has very minimal WiFi, no ATM’s and as such, very few tourists. This seems like the better bet these days, but look into it yourself to see if it’s the destination you want for your island getaway.
Days 63-64: Siem Reap
After a few days on an island paradise, it’s time to wrap up your trip with Cambodia’s crown Jewel: Siem Reap. In the interest of time and sanity, I flew 45 minutes from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap (much shorter than the 12-hour bus ride) for a pretty cheap price. This gave me the maximum amount of time to explore Siem Reap before heading home, and even so, I could have done with a little longer there.
If there’s any monument that Cambodia is associated with it’s the Angkor Wat (it’s even printed on the money). This impressive Hindu archaeological site is the largest religious monument in the entire world, and arguably the best preserved and most beautiful. Built in the early 12th century, this impressive display of construction could take weeks to fully explore, but there definitely are some highlights. My recommendation? Get there nice and early (I mean 5 AM early) to see the iconic sunrise over the main entrance (there will be swarms of other tourists even that early). Then, hire a driver to take you around to all the must-see temples, as they’re not walking distance apart. These include Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom, Pre Rup, Prasat Kravan, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Poan, and Preah Khan.
It’s truly impressive how well-maintained and complete these structures are, even whilst being overgrown with vines, trees and ivys. I personally felt like a video game character meandering through the ruins, and in fact one of the temples is actually where Tomb Raider was filmed. Spend as much time as you can exploring these once-in-a-lifetime sights. And if you have time to do anything else in Siem Reap, check out the following.
What else to do in Siem Reap:
Try a pedicure at a fish spa
Do a guided hike through the Kulen Nature Trails
Let loose at Siem Reap’s Pub Street