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November, 2015

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A Grand Tour of Indochina Part 4: Overall View

See also:
“A Grand Tour of Indochina Part 1: Vietnam”:
“A Grand Tour of Indochina Part 2: Laos”:
“A Grand Tour of Indochina Part 3: Cambodia”:

Our grand tour was run by Voyages Jules Vernes. In 20 days we’d taken 10 flights to visit 9 cities, stayed in 9 hotels, and had been lectured to by 8 guides in 3 countries. So by day 20 we’d had enough. A few days rest somewhere would have been very welcome, but now we couldn’t take any more local guides anxious to tell us about their history, culture, religion, tradition, or horrors. So since we hadn’t arranged a restful extension to the holiday, we were ready to come home. The trip was good value, but was too demanding for us.

My wife and I have agreed that this will be the last of the Jules Vernes Grand Tour holidays we’ll take. We found the pace difficult to keep up with, not in terms of walking with the group, but visiting so many places in the course of a day between 8am and 6pm, sometimes with few breaks to sit down. Then out again in the evening for dinner or a show. Since our return we’ve looked at the Saga offerings for Indochina. They offer two, two week holidays, one to Vietnam, and another to Cambodia and Laos. The itineraries include “day at Leisure” several times during each fortnight. We didn’t have any days at leisure on our trip, and one per week would have been nice. We were expected just to keep going every day. However, we knew this when we booked so we mustn’t complain too much, the fact is, we bit off more than we could chew.

We thought the prices for tourists in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were reasonable, the only time I felt I was being fleeced was when I had to pay the bill in our international hotel in Siem Reap. It was calculated in US dollars then converted to the local currency at a rate very unfavourable to us, but very favourable to the hotel. My protests got me nowhere. Had I been warned of the universal practice to charge tourists in US dollars in Cambodia, I wouldn’t have converted my US dollars to the Cambodian currency when we entered the country.

We travelled in November in one of the best periods for weather, we had sunshine virtually all the time. I never wore a jacket, and wore a fleece only once when we went out at 5.30 in the morning to witness the Buddhist monks walking to their temple in Luang Prabang. Otherwise it was shirt sleeves all the way. Most of the time the temperature was comfortable, mid to high 20s perhaps, but the higher humidity on both the first 2 days in Saigon and the last 2 days in Phnom Penh made the temperature seem higher.

In three weeks away we visited Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The common thread between these three countries is that they were all French colonies for 100 years between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. As such they were collectively known as Indochina. Since their independence they’ve each had very different histories with the Vietnam/American war and Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. But two of the things they still have in common are corruption, and heavy motorbike traffic in the major cities. Our guides in all three countries told us that corruption is part of their way of life, officials expect bribes to make things happen, or not happen as the case may be. For example, when drivers and riders have sufficient points on their driving licenses such that the next traffic offence will mean losing their license, they don’t sign up for training courses as we do to avoid the endorsements, they just pay cash directly to the traffic cop. And as for traffic, one evening in Phnom Penh we took a ride with friends to the Foreign Correspondents Club for dinner. All four of us went in one tuc tuc, the men facing backwards. Weaving through Phnom Penh traffic in the dark, backwards, is something of an experience. Thrill seekers pay good money for white knuckle rides on roller coasters. We got all the thrills we could take for $5 between us.

Vietnam is a small scale China, but it can’t compete with China’s attractions, for example the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Pandas, and the Terracotta Warriors. I’m pleased we did this trip, but there aren’t many places I’d want to go back to. I think the only three would be Hanoi, Luang Prabang, and Phom Penh. Hanoi and Phnom Penh because we weren’t there long enough to appreciate these cities, it would have been good to take a walk around on our own. And Luang Prabang because although we were still on a tight schedule, we found it to be the most relaxed place we visited. The highlights of the trip were the graduation ceremony we came across in the Garden of Literature in Hanoi, Tagbat in Luang Prabang and the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, see parts 1, 2 and 3 of my reviews of this grand tour.
Before this holiday, I didn’t know what a selfie-stick was. Now I do. Young people position themselves in front of whatever the interesting view or museum exhibit is without any regard for those behind them, then take ages composing a photo shot before pressing the button. I guess they then send the images to their friends back home with the tag “This is me at ”. I hope their friends hate receiving these photographs as much as I hate waiting while they’re being taken. I’ve always stood back to allow photographers time to capture their images, but my patience won’t stretch to selfies. So I’m delighted to hear that selfie-sticks are now banned at an increasing number of tourist sites and at major sporting and cultural events, around the world.

All in all, the tour worked out well. We saw lots of interesting places and learnt a good deal about the countries we visited. Our superior option hotels were good, and all of the people in our group of 21 were reasonable. We teamed up with a couple from Scotland who provided good companionship at lunches and dinners. On the downside, the coaches weren’t top class, but I’ve always seen Voyages Jules Vernes as a middle market provider, so I’m not surprised at some penny pinching. We have no regrets in taking this holiday, but we’ll certainly not book another over-long guided tour. When we book our next trip, we’ll take care to ask ourselves if the pace is suitable for us and whether there’s enough leisure time built into the schedule. And if we don’t see any temples for a while, that would be OK too.


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