Trip roundup: More thoughts on Cambodia & Vietnam

We are now safely back in Toronto, getting reacclimated to the brisk temperatures and snowstorms. I’m still trying to rework my circadian rhythm to get over this terrible jet lag, so am forcing myself to stay awake by writing this blog post, with a few more random thoughts on my recent journey through Cambodia and Vietnam.

I’m glad we went ahead with our travel plans despite coronavirus news.

As you may know from my previous posts, the days and weeks leading up our trip were unfortunately racked with anxiety about the potential impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on our travels. At the time of our departure, the vast majority of cases were in mainland China and I determined that our risk of being affected was very low. Now, in retrospect, I still stand by our decision to go ahead with the trip.

Over our two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, we met several other travellers in the same position as us. A few of them also had travel companions decide to cancel, and similar to us, were facing pressure from friends and family imploring them to cut their trips short as well. Nevertheless, everyone we met agreed that they were glad they had proceeded with their plans, and I actually felt increasingly reassured as we progressed with our trip. Vietnam in particular has a fairly good record of managing infectious disease outbreaks (it was in fact the first country cleared of SARS during the 2003 pandemic), so I felt pretty good about travelling there. In addition, because of the marked reduction in tourist numbers, we indeed felt better protected by the lack of crowds everywhere we visited. Our hotel and service staff were also all seemingly vigilant with practicing universal precautions, consistently wearing personal protective equipment and ensuring we had ready access to hand cleaning facilities. We’ve made it home healthy and without any logistical problems, so everything worked out just fine. Now I am just back to dealing with the doomsday hysteria here in Canada.

Top quality protection against coronavirus 😏
Planning our own itinerary worked out really well.

Opting out of a prepackaged tour was the right choice for this trip. I am really happy with how my travel planning acumen has expanded, thanks to lots of reading on TripAdvisor and of course all these great travel blogs! Although it did require significantly more effort, planning our own trip allowed us to stay in higher quality accommodations (4+ stars) and participate in lots of activities, while spending over $1000 CAD less per person than we did last year when we went with Intrepid Travel to Thailand and Laos.

I’ll add a little plug here for Urban Adventures, who we went with for all our food tours and several day trips. This company is a subsidiary of Intrepid, based in Australia but offering tours in hundreds of destinations around the world, facilitated by local guides. They are on the pricier end but occasionally have sales; for instance, I was able to get a 25% discount with their Black Friday deal. Their tours are otherwise really well organized. We had a wonderful time with Urban Adventures, and I would use them again on future travels.

Cycling with our Urban Adventures guide in Ninh Binh
We felt very safe and never got (overtly) scammed.

Both Cambodia and Vietnam are relatively safe travel destinations. The violent crime rates in the places we visited are low, so if we were concerned about anything, it would be petty crime. Being aware of our surroundings and practicing basic street smarts was perfectly adequate for staying safe. We were forewarned about many common scams targeting tourists in Southeast Asia and I think we managed to avoid them with some general awareness and planning ahead. In particular, we pre-booked most of our tours and made a point to use the rideshare app Grab, rather than deal with potential taxi scams. If we did get ripped off, it would have been in a more insidious manner, like getting presented the more expensive ‘tourist menu’ at restaurants. We have simply accepted this as a small cost associated with being a foreigner and choose not to get too worked up about this kind of thing.

I should note that my experience may have been different if I was travelling as a solo female. After all, we do unfortunately live in a world where travel advisories still warrant a special section dedicated to safety tips for women. Mr. Chuckles was certainly a shield of sorts for me. We did notice that traditional beliefs about gender roles are pervasive here, apparent even in the casual interactions we had with locals. Throughout the trip, guides and service staff would nearly always address only Mr. Chuckles directly, despite all the bookings being under my name. Even our domestic flight tickets had his name shifted to be listed ahead of mine rather than in alphabetical order. Now that we are back in Canada, I am ready to resume my role as Boss of the Household. 😉

On a tour in the Mekong Delta
Upgrading to Premium Economy on our flight home was the best decision.

After a rough flight experience on the way to Phnom Penh and with Mr. Chuckles’ back pain acting up, we decided to bite the bullet and upgrade our return flight to Premium Economy seats. On EVA Air, about $400 USD each bought us the one way upgrade, and it was totally worth it. The increase in leg room was considerable, and it’s a wonder how much difference a simple foot rest can make. I also appreciated the extra small touches like the amenities bag, cold towels, and slippers. Both of us actually managed to get about 5 to 6 hours of continuous sleep and the flight felt like it passed by really quickly. It will be challenging to go back to taking long haul flights cramped in economy class.

Sunset on Bai Tu Long Bay
We will probably never be able to enjoy Vietnamese cuisine at home again.

The thing we will miss most about this trip is definitely the food, especially the stuff from Vietnam (Cambodian cuisine was not as appealing to our palates). Given that we went on four food tours and two cooking classes in two weeks, we obviously spent the vast majority of our time eating or thinking about food. There are quite a few Vietnamese restaurants in Toronto, but it will be very difficult to go back to those limited menus now that we have tried everything from the original source. Someone needs to popularize more Vietnamese cuisine in North America; it is a lot more than pho! Otherwise, I guess this means that we will just have to plan another trip back there one day.

One of our favourite meals in Hoi An

Overall, I would say that this trip was a success. We had lots of fun and new experiences, with only a couple mild emotional meltdowns between us. I hope Mr. Chuckles rates me 5 stars on TripAdvisor for my work as travel planner! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️