Westerners often think of mainland Southeast Asia as a lush paradise of emerald-hued mountains overlooking tranquil villages, terraced farmland tilled by plow-pulling oxen, and French-flavoured cities frozen in time and buzzing with bicycles and motor scooters.
It is, indeed, all of these things. And two nations on this vast peninsular region south of China — Vietnam and Cambodia — stand out as the undeniable cultural core. Each is brimming with ancient sites that have had a dramatic influence in the region, natural beauty found nowhere else and rich traditions that celebrate an enduring heritage.
Vietnam North to South
A profound sense of humanity and harmony infuses every aspect of Vietnam. This mysterious and beautiful country boasts 2,140 miles of coastline, bays crowded with a maze of limestone towers, stunning French-colonial architecture, soaring mountains and a river and delta system that hosts a rich array of wildlife and supports an ancient rural way of life. Gate 1 travellers witness it all in the most enriching manner possible.
Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000th birthday. For much of its history, it has been the political and cultural capital of the country. During the nation’s more turbulent times, it was the capital of French Indochina (1902-1954) — during which its elegant colonial-era buildings were constructed — and of North Vietnam (1954-1976). More than 50 ethnic groups have shaped Hanoi and the surrounding region; many of their stories and cultural relics are on exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology. But perhaps nowhere is the nation’s heritage more dramatically represented than in the world-renowned water puppetry that originated here. These fascinating shows are performed over a pool of water, depicting ancient folktales and long-cherished lore set to traditional music and Cheo, a form of opera.
Nearby, more than 3,000 islands rise from the shimmering waters of Halong Bay, many of them several hundred feet tall. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is shrouded in myth and legend. According to one tale, the gods sent dragons to this coastline to protect the country and they spat out jade and other jewels into the water. These precious stones protected the land from enemies approaching by sea. Gate 1 takes you sailing through this breathtaking archipelago of karst cliffs on a traditional junk. Floating fishing villages and inviting sandy beaches cling to the shores and vast echoing caves have been carved within the hulking rocks over millennia.
Though Hue was the capital of Vietnam for only 143 years, from 1802 to 1945, its cultural influence on the region has been immeasurable. This may be because the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled from here constructed such a vast and imposing complex of palaces and fortresses. Their Imperial City has undergone remarkable restoration. Its most notable structures are the 1.5-mile wall that surrounds it, the Imperial Enclosure, Thai Hoa Palace (or the Hall of Supreme Harmony), Hall of the Mandarins and the Forbidden Purple City, named after its Chinese counterpart.
For a stroll through Vietnam’s past, there is no place in the world like Hoi An, a remarkably preserved trading port. The buildings and streets of its Old Quarter remain much as they were more than 500 years ago. As far back as the 8th century, a thriving spice trade brought unprecedented wealth into the region. Much later, a vibrant trade with Japan, China, India and Holland lured settlers here from those countries. With such a rich past, it’s easy to understand why Hoi An is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spirit of its origins live on in the fascinating Old Quarter, as artisans fashion paper lanterns and residents carry goods in wicker baskets hanging from sticks slung over shoulders.
Like in Hanoi, the city’s French colonial influence is prevalent in the glorious architecture and wide boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City. The twin-spired, neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Basilica was built with materials imported from France. The Saigon Opera House carries echoes of the Petit Palais in Paris. Even the Post Office was designed by a Frenchman, one Gustave Eiffel. The true Vietnam here lives in the city’s lively and mesmerising markets. Dong Khoi Street captures the pulse of the city with its colourful shops and aromatic food stalls. At the intoxicating indoor emporium of Ben Thanh Market, all things Vietnamese can be found, from handicrafts to ao dai, the traditional silk tunic worn by women. And at the city’s fascinating floating markets, ancient houses and canal-side stalls are orbited by traditional longboats laden with all manner of goods and produce plucked from local farms.
Legacies of Cambodia’s Ancient Past
The centerpiece of any visit to Cambodia is the ancient city of Angkor, 40 square miles of stupendous architectural treasures unrivalled anywhere in the world. Its famous temple, Angkor Wat, took 25,000 workers 37 years to complete. Many historians call it the largest single religious monument in the world. Its five lotus-style spires are said to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of deities from Hindu mythology. Its walls and moat symbolise Meru’s surrounding mountains and ocean. Remarkable in scale and design, it is considered a perfect example of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.
The bustling and laid-back city of Siem Reap is the gateway to this spectacular site. Its streets lined with colonial and Chinese-style architecture are a delight to explore, and the city’s artful Apsara dancers cast their spell on all who attend a performance.
The city is also a launching point to one of the region’s most fascinating natural phenomena: Tonle Sap Lake. Loosely translated as “Great Lake,” Tonle Sap has an unusual geographic feature that affects village life on its shores. The flow of water exiting the lake changes direction twice a year. The lake empties into the Tonle Sap River, which later spills into the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta. During most of the year, the lake is fairly small and just three feet deep. But during monsoon season, the delta backs up. The resulting backwash reverses the Mekong’s flow and pushes water up the Tonle Sap River into the lake, enlarging its size six times and increasing its depth to 27 feet, setting in motion the fishing season for surrounding villages.
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is the nation’s historic and cultural centre, and its capital. One of the prettiest French-built cities at its colonial height, it was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was named for 14th-century Wat Phnom, still the city’s tallest structure. Elegant architecture and gracious boulevards set a sophisticated tone here and the city’s stunning temples are simply spellbinding. The Royal Palace, especially, boasts magnificent treasures such as the Silver Pagoda, with its floor of 5,000 shimmering tiles and bejewelled Buddha statues. On a more sobering note, the city commemorates a dark chapter in its history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, set in the former high school used as a security prison by the Khmer Rouge, the notorious regime that sent millions to their deaths in the late 1970s.
Explore the River that Connects Cultures
Vietnam and Cambodia are inextricably linked in so many ways, not the least by the Mekong River. Gate 1 Travel’s cruises along this fabled waterway are the most awe-inspiring way to connect with this forgotten world of stilt houses, narrow sampan boats, and locals sporting traditional straw hats.
Along the river’s banks in Cambodia, hilltop temples at Wat Hanchey and Kampong Cham overlook stunning landscapes. Tiny villages welcome you into their communities and schools. A call on Phnom Penh allows for exploration by 3-wheeled cyclo and a chance to pay homage at the Choeung Ek “Killing Fields.” As the river flows into Vietnam, small riverside towns open up to you, revealing long traditions of handmade mat-weaving and floating fish farms in the Cao Dai region. French influence lines the Mekong’s shores further downstream toward Sa Dec, lined with old mansions and merchant homes. In and around Cai Be Harbour, more than 500 vendors gather in boats and at dockside stalls to sell fruits, vegetables and handmade wares. It’s an intoxicating atmosphere, all unfolding in the shadow of the massive French Gothic Cathedral.
So Many Ways to Explore Vietnam and Cambodia with Gate 1 Travel
Gate 1 Travel shows you the best of these remarkable countries and their captivating cultures. You’ll enjoy comfortable accommodations every step of the way, the expert and welcoming services of our Tour Managers and generous features that bring the local culture to life – all at the Gate 1 value you know and love.
We hope to see you in Vietnam and Cambodia!