Vietnam and Cambodia tour review: Five-star luxury on any budget

The part of the world the French colonists called "Indochine" was the peninsula between India and China, now Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. It's long been a popular low-cost destination for travellers,  certainly since 1989, when the last of a number of turbulent wars fought there concluded.  These days, though, Cambodia and Vietnam are far from being destinations most suited to backpackers. 

Yes, Cambodia in particular, is wonderfully affordable (although a little less so at the moment as all transactions are done in US dollars) but it is a kingdom full of luxuries, both simple and extravagant, to please the most discerning traveller.

Bargain your way to a lovely silk scarf for  $5 at the Phnom Penh Russian market or you can pay almost  $255 for a silk wrap at the Siem Reap boutique of local couturier Eric Raisina, who also has a boutique in Paris. Enjoy world's cheapest massage at $8 an hour at a dusty parlour on Siem Reap's main drag. Or, if you choose, pay 10 or 20 times more in the two-level spa in Ho Chi Minh City's new high-rise extravaganza, The Reverie Saigon.

Glam up poolside at the colonial Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh with Jackie Kennedy's favourite Femme Fatale cocktail or don your walking sandals and spend days trekking through the many serene temples of ancient Angkor. Whether you like your comforts five-star or are happy with simple elegance, here it's not difficult to find something of beauty wherever you look.

On this, my first trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, I did it in style with luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, following a bespoke itinerary, which focuses on the unexpected comforts of the region, including new five-star hotels and a much-anticipated cruise on the new river ship, the Aqua Mekong, concluding the journey with some zen downtime at the beautiful Amanoi resort on the southeast coast of Vietnam overlooking Vinh Hy Bay.

Of course, you can do travel freely and easily through these two countries yourself, but I enjoyed having the trip curated for me, including well-chosen local guides, comfortable transportation on call and some superb private tours, such as a Khmer cooking class or historic walking tour of Saigon, with flexibility in the itinerary for our group of five to follow their own paths, such as making an emotional detour to the moving Genocide Museum housed in the old S-21 jail in Phnom Penh.

Once you pass the stroppy border guards, Cambodia unfolds as the most gentle of destinations, despite the collective trauma that gripped the country from 1975-79 when the murderous Khmer Rouge regime inflicted a bloody civil war on the nation, and the later occupation by Vietnam, which ended in the early 1990s. 

It's not surprising that the emerging democracy (effectively a one-party state ruled by the Cambodian People's Party) is still pockmarked with incidences of corruption, although these are anecdotal, and the traveller is unlikely to come across much of it.  But Cambodia's overall progress, and the positive mood of its people, seem miraculous in the face of what it has experienced in its so recent history. 

We begin our 12-day tour in Siem Reap, the dusty Cambodian city which is the gateway to one of the world's most remarkable historical sites, the Angkor Archeological Park, which stretches over  500 square kilometres and includes the famed temples of Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument, Angkor Thom and Bayon.

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I struggle to absorb the magnificence and scale of the elaborate lichen-covered temples, some still emerging from the jungle, others, like Tomb Raider-famed Angkor Thom, wrestling with the gargantuan roots of strangler figs that have encaged them for centuries. One visit is clearly not enough.  Our guide, Sam, has been to Angkor Wat more than 5000 times and still finds  something new on each occasion.

After visiting three temples in a day, we're blessed by a young Buddhist monk before retiring to the cool halls of the new Park Hyatt to recover. Fuelled by Khmer martinis (with lemongrass and kaffir lime), we dine on Khmer cuisine at Asian Square restaurant and visit the night markets, where gorgeous handwoven and handloomed blankets can be bought for about  $38.

The next morning we visit Artisans of Angkor, an important local charity where young people, many with disabilities, are trained to become skilled in traditional crafts. In the workshops, you can watch the artisans painstakingly creating fine-quality silk paintings, silverwork, soapstone carvings and lacquering, and purchase their work in the chic boutique attached, which showcases beautiful, fashionable silk clothing, jewellery and ceramics. I wish I'd bought more as it was all so beautiful,  although I've discovered you can shop for Artisans of Angkor online.

After a cooking class by Khmer chefs at a rustic restaurant on the banks of a lake in nearby Srah Srang village, we have time for those $8 massages, followed by dinner the Foreign Correspondent's Club, in the former French governor's residence. Shops stay open in Siem Reap until 10pm, so after dinner we rush downstairs to visit Eric Raisina's boutique and other high-end stores in the complex.

The next day we fly to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, a city of two million people that's modern and frenetic in some ways, but delightfully laid-back in others. Staying at the colonial-era Raffles Hotel le Royal, we spend a day exploring the city, including shopping at the Russian market for inexpensive clothing and homewares. (A head's up: do your shopping in Cambodia, which offers better quality and prices than similar goods in Vietnam.)

Before lunch at The Common Tiger, where young South African chef Timothy Bruyns, creates sophisticated dishes sourced from local ingredients at low prices we Australians can only marvel at, we spend a couple of hours combing the city's best shopping streets, 240 Street and 178 Street, for more treasures, including covetable contemporary silver jewellery at Garden of Desire and some cute paper goods at Friends 'n' Stuff, which supports local street children.

We leave Cambodia and sail into Vietnam on the stylish new river ship, the Aqua Mekong, which is equipped with two skiffs that can take us on excursions down the water-hyacinth-choked rivers and inlets of the Mekong Delta, where we can glide up to villages, visit markets, such as the chaotic floating market at Binh Thanh, or take a rickshaw ride through the town of Tan Chau, where we tour the fascinating produce market (silk worms anyone?) and sample delicacies such as pickled papaya and coconut candy.

The Mekong, with 18 million people living across the delta, is calmer than I expected, despite the many old fishing boats, river ships and sampans that plough through its brown waters, often with one distinctly industrial bank across from verdant fields of rice paddies and fruit farms. The luxury here is sitting on a daybed on the ship's deck (or in the plunge pool) as the scenery goes by. There's an inherent advantage to small ship cruising, where we travel in small enough groups to visit a family at home for a Vietnamese-style backyard barbecue and a bonus musical performance from the grandparents.

Forty years after its fall to the North Vietnamese and the frantic evacuation of the US embassy, Ho Chi Minh City (still widely known as Saigon) is modernising at an alarming rate. Long associated with America and the West, there seems to be little respect for its history from the governing Central Committee, and a heritage walk with Tim Doling reveals the tragic, ongoing destruction of the colonial architecture. ("Goodness, there was an old building there yesterday", he tells us as we pass one construction site.)

However, on a brilliant art tour with curator Sophie Hughes, we visit the beautiful 1934 Fine Arts Museum, which fortunately has been preserved, although across the road a city block of shop houses has been sacrificed for what will be the tallest tower in Vietnam. 

But Saigon is also young and vibrant and a hair-raising and exhilarating four-hour tour on the back of a vintage Vespa takes us on a culinary exploration of the justifiably famous food stalls of the city, with a nightcap at a music venue where a band is fronted by a dynamic rock chick with Tina Turneresque vocal skills. There are seven million two-wheeled vehicles in the city and I think we almost collided with every one of them.    

We've been staying at the glitzy new Reverie Saigon, where there's hardly an object that hasn't been ornately decorated, so the tranquility of Amanoi, Aman resorts' first Vietnam property, which is less than an hour's flight away on the southeast coast, is a stark contrast.  My pavilion is set among boulders and cacti on a magnificent headland overlooking Vinh Hy Bay where dozens of fishing boats set out at night, illuminated by lamps.

The magical scenery, gentle staff dressed in white linen bringing you white pots of ginger tea, a yoga pavilion set on a lake, and kilometres of bracing bush walks provide, in the most elegant  way, the reflective time necessary to digest the surprising luxury of Indochina.  

FIVE-STAR ALL THE WAY

AMANOI, VIETNAM

Set in the rocky, dry forest of the national park that overlooks lovely Vinh Hy Bay and the East Sea on the south-east coast of Vietnam, this marvellous retreat consists of 31 beautiful pavilions spaciously arranged around a pristine, 29,000-hectare property, with a white sand beach and beach club below and two infinity pools. The central pavilion has restaurant, bar, library, and cliff-hanging terrace. The spa is situated on a tranquil lake with yoga pavilion, luxurious gym, and hydrotherapy rooms. Doubles from  $968 a night; see amanresorts.com

AQUA MEKONG, RIVER SHIP

The Mekong River's newest river ship, which can be booked via an Abercrombie & Kent itinerary (see below), is a sleek, modern beauty, which accommodates just 40 passengers in spacious, eco-sensitive cabins created from local materials, some with balconies, featuring generous deck areas with daybeds and lounges, an outdoor plunge pool, indoor spa, library, media room, and free (if inconsistent) wi-fi. A highlight is famed chef David Thompson's superbly tasty shared-dish menus from the freshest, most delicious local seafood and produce. See aquaexpeditions.com

PARK HYATT, SIEM REAP

Perfectly situated in downtown Siem Reap, walking distance from the night market, this stylish new art deco-style resort hotel, built on the site of the old Hotel de la Paix, is a beautiful retreat from the heat, a perfect escape when you've spent the day exploring the temples of ancient Angkor. Highlights include are two swimming pool areas set in gardens and a fabulous French patisserie serving macaroons filled with ice-cream. Doubles from $250. See siemreap.park.hyatt.com

RAFFLES HOTEL LE ROYAL, PHNOM PENH

The grande dame of hotels in this fascinating city, Raffles is the place to stay if you love the style of old colonial buildings, ceiling fans, rattan chairs, gracious service and atmospheric bars where diplomats and spies alike once lingered. The classic hotel also contains one of the most magnificent swimming pools anywhere, set in lawns surrounded by graceful old frangipani trees. Doubles from $220. See raffles.com

THE REVERIE, SAIGON

Ho Chi Minh City's dazzling new hotel is brilliantly situated on upper floors of the new Times Square Building in District 1, with major shopping on its doorstep. The spacious rooms with fabulous views are supremely luxurious, the two-level spa is a knockout and the elegant Cantonese restaurant, The Royal Pavilion, serves up some of the finest Chinese cuisine we've eaten.  Wonderful service, but the opulent decor, created by a consortium of Italian designers, is not for everyone. It's like Versace on acid. Doubles from $370. See thereveriesaigon.com

FIVE MUST-DO INDO-CHINA EXPERIENCES

KHMER COOKING EXPERIENCE, SIEM REAP

Chefs from Asian Square, one of Siem Reap's most popular eateries, which specialises in Khmer cuisine, relocate for lunch to the small village of Srah Srang to conduct a cooking class under the trees at a local restaurant. We learn how to cook traditional specialities such as chicken amok curry and play ai rice ball dessert, while farmers bathe their cattle in the cows in the lake below. See asiansquare-restaurant.com

SOPHIE'S ART TOUR, HO CHI MINH CITY

Young English curator Sophie Hughes' compelling Art Tour is not to be missed, not only for those interested in contemporary Vietnamese art, but for her lucid retelling of the Indochina wars through art. The tour starts at the Duc Minh Private gallery, moves to the war art collections at the historic Museum of Fine Art and concludes in a contemporary gallery for young artists. See sophiesarttour.com

VIETNAM VESPA ADVENTURE, HO CHI MINH CITY

The Saigon After Dark tour starts every night at 6pm, when the company's Vespa driver will pick you up at your hotel, hand you a crash helmet, and pop you on the back.  What ensues is an enthralling four-and-a-half hour long, hair-raising ride around the city, stopping to try street food, bars, cafes and Saigon nightlife. It's pitched as 'the ride of your life' and it may very well be. Brilliant fun. See vespaadventures.com

HERITAGE TOUR, HO CHI MINH CITY

Historian, author and arts administrator Tim Doling's four-hour long heritage walking tour of Saigon is a little distressing, given the rapidity of the destruction of beautiful old colonial buildings in the city, but at least Tim is there to talk you through the story of those that remain.  Perfect for those interested in architecture and history, as Tim's knowledge is profound. See historicvietnam.com/tim-doling 

SHOPPING IN  STYLE IN CAMBODIA ARTISANS OF ANGKOR, SIEM REAP

Workshop and showroom dedicated to preserving traditional Khmer skills in handicrafts. A few notches above your usual souvenir shop. See artisansdangkor.com

SAM ORN SILVER HANDICRAFT, SIEM REAP

A few generations of one family work together in this backstreet silver factory/shop selling traditional and contemporary silverware, sold by weight. Beautiful, inexpensive cutlery, jewellery and some amazing boxes in animal shapes.

FRIENDS 'N' STUFF, PHNOM PENH AND SIEM REAP

Maybe it's not luxe but it's feel-good. Profits from this charming shop of fun homewares, clothing and jewellery made out of old magazines and other disposable products goes towards supporting street children from 0-24 years of age. See friends-international.org

GARDEN OF DESIRE, SIEM REAP

Fabulous contemporary silver jewellery from Ly Pisith, who worked with Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck before returning to Cambodia in 2008. See gardenofdesire-asia.com 

ERIC RAISINA, PHNOM PENH AND SIEM REAP

This Madagascar-born, Paris-trained Cambodian couturier is a master of haute texture using organza, raffia and silk fur. Superb. He has three stores in Siem Reap, including one at the FCC, and one in Phnom Penh. See ericraisina.com 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

abercrombiekent.com.au

TOURING THERE

Luxury travel specialists Abercrombie & Kent's 10 day/9 night Journey on the Mekong itinerary, including most of the featured hotels, tours and cruise, is priced from $11,219 per person twin share (travel between July – November this year). To book website above or call 1 300 851 800.

GETTING THERE

Vietnam Airlines operates daily services from Melbourne and Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City with same-day connection to Siem Reap (with Vietnam Airlines) and Phnom Penh (code-share with Cambodia Angkor Air). Vietnam Airlines operates six daily services between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap and three daily services between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. See vietnamairlines; comcambodiaangkorair.com

GETTING IN

Cambodian E-visas can be obtained online at evisa.gov.kh though it's possible to purchase them on arrival at the major airports. Visas for Vietnam can be purchashed on arrival, however the Embassy of Vietnam in Australia recommends that they be arranged before departure from Australia. See vietnamembassy.org.au

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