Hi Neil! Tell us a bit about you and your wife. I know you're an experienced traveler - what are some of your favorite destinations?
My wife and I are in our late 60’s, retired, healthy and inquisitive. Travel has always been important to us. We have been fortunate to visit 49 states (only missing Alaska), most of Central America, Chile, many Caribbean islands, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. We traveled with our children when they were younger and with other couples. We saw Australia and SE Asia on our own. I think Asia and Pacific destinations are our favorites because they are a long way from home and not choked with tourists.
You describe yourself as a "fiercely independent traveler" — what made you decide to seek some local help for your Vietnam and Cambodia trip?
I really enjoy researching and planning our trips. Friends joke that I should have been a travel agent. We are far away from joining groups and being herded from place to place, but Vietnam seemed a little tougher to research and navigate, so I reached out to kimkim for assistance.
I know you're all about history and culture as a focal point of your travel experience. What specifically put Vietnam and Cambodia at the top of your travel list?
Everyone we know who has been to Vietnam and Cambodia gushed about it. At our age, I don’t know how many more 22-hour transit trips I can talk my wife into, so we decided on Vietnam and Cambodia. And I was very interested in the history of the two countries post-WW2 and America’s involvement.
What part of your time in Vietnam stands out as a favorite?
We were so emotionally moved by the country and the incredible people. I think it is critical to approach Vietnam without using your "occidental" eyes and see the country for what it truly is. I think Hanoi, Trekking in Sapa and Phu Quoc were our favorites.
Do you have any memorable moments from Cambodia you'd like to share?
Cambodia is so peaceful and so Buddhist. The temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom are spectacular. Local folks capture small birds in the countryside and bring them to the temples. You pay a small fee and they give you a bird to hold in your hand and release with a prayer. Kate and I let our birds go with a prayer for a friend who just learned she had cancer.
You were able to take part in some cool local experiences, like visiting the Ma Tra village and taking the Hoi An cooking class. Tell us how cultural experiences enhanced your trip.
Cultural experiences make the trip for us. Bicycling across rice fields and learning to garden in Ma Tra Village was very special. The genuine hospitality of the local villagers was so welcoming. I don’t know if we would have known about the side cultural excursions (dining with locals, paper flower making, etc) without the help of kimkim.
Did anything about the trip or the destinations in general surprise you?
I think we were surprised by the size and energy of Saigon. 18 million people and 12 million motor scooters! Negotiating those streets was a challenge. Thank goodness for Uber!
We were blown away by the warmth and hospitality of the Vietnamese and Cambodians. Being from my generation, I had some concerns how Americans would be viewed and treated after our involvement in the war. But the war is almost ancient history to the young and vibrant country. No guilt or shaming, and both countries felt very safe for tourists.
What was crossing the border like?
Crossing the border was easy and fun. They take care of your visa at the border. We went by boat up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. I would recommend that method over flying.
What advice do you have for travelers interested in this itinerary?
I would highly recommend the itinerary. I might take a day off here and there (3 nights in Saigon and 2 in Hue would be enough). I would add a day or two in Hoi An and the beaches. Being retired, we have the luxury of spending more time in each locale. I would not try to rush through this itinerary in two weeks. If a visitor had less time, spend it in fewer places—don’t rush or you will only be another tourist who barely scratches the soul of the country.
Neil's trip was planned through kimkim by Andy Carroll, our local travel specialist based in Hanoi.