After enduring what has felt like an interminable amount of time unable to leave Australia’s sandy shores, I jumped at the opportunity to travel to South East Asia last month on a journey hosted by our travel partners based in Vietnam. They had put together a fabulous itinerary showcasing some interesting new hotels, excursions and destinations. Given that our ethos here at Epicurious is to always personally experience the services and destinations we recommend, it was an easy decision.
I knew very well that international travel was back on the radar for many across the planet. Australians however seemed to be divided; either desperate to get back out and see the world to make up for time lost, with the confidence that quality service providers would take care of them, or hesitant to dip their toes into that particular body of water. So I saw it as my duty to not only test the process & dispel any myths but to also do my bit to provide employment opportunities for guides, luggage handlers, hotel staff and the myriad other personnel one comes into contact with when travelling.
Overall my journey was utterly delightful. Everywhere I went I was greeted with smiling faces, enthusiasm, care and a genuine optimism that the darkness was lifting. I genuinely felt safe as I moved around the different locations, even at busy airports, as many people either observed mask directives or wore masks as a self-imposed precaution. I travelled as part of a small group and took a number of flights; none were delayed, luggage appeared at the conclusion of each leg, and whilst all were filled to capacity, everyone moved in a courteous and orderly fashion.
Siem Reap was the perfect place to start this journey, and because there’s no crossing of the international dateline from Melbourne, the time difference and jetlag are negligible. I had heard much about Cambodia and the gentle nature of its largely Buddhist population and I was not disappointed. Days were hot, so staying at the oasis that is Zannier Hotel Phum Baitang was an absolute treat. A sprawling property dotted with Khmer inspired villas around working rice paddies, bicycles at hand to make the sojourn from pool to villa to reception, restaurant or bar effortless, it was so easy to immediately relax into village life. The chorus of frogs at dusk or the solemn grazing of the resident water buffalo were the only sounds to be heard amongst the convivial clink of glasses and cutlery.
The Angkor Wat precinct, with its crumbling, millennia-old Hindu & Buddhist temples, is exactly as remarkable as one would expect, covered with bas-reliefs telling stories of key events from another era. Our guide Peach was generous with her considerable knowledge but also kept things fun, which minimised any chance of ‘temple fatigue’ in this UNESCO World Heritage region of 72 temples. Memorably, Peach addressed us collectively as ‘Family’ and had the experience to accommodate our other impertinent requests, so we found ourselves strolling along local food markets as well as visiting the Apopo demining complex. I developed an appreciation for the breadth of Siem Reap’s appeal.
Fast forward a few days and I have heard unforgettable stories of both cruelty and resilience at the S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, retold sensitively by our passionate guide who has lived experience of this dark time in relatively recent history. Sokros – whose deliberately chosen name means ‘stay alive’ – was the first to admit that a visit to the site may be too traumatic for some, and took great pride in introducing us to Chum Mey, one of the 7 survivors of the prison. Our visit to the Killing Fields was a time for quiet contemplation as we respectfully listened to more incredible stories in what are oddly quite beautiful surroundings. A brisk walk along the Sap River boardwalk in downtown Phnom Penh is in stark contrast, with its abundance of street vendors selling everything from popcorn and beer to children’s toys with the sounds of laughter and family chatter filling the air.
Vietnam is where I spent the bulk of my travels, and from south to north offers the full gamut of swampy mangroves, sandy beaches, verdant coves, crazy but courteous traffic which somehow ‘works’ and cities which are alive with the promise of prosperity. Our hosts were determined to show us all the best that Vietnam has to offer and did so in spades. Getting around was straightforward, the climate was sensational and the impeccable restaurants and hotels provided some of the most consistently flawless service I have ever experienced.
Ho Chi Minh city – still affectionately referred to as Saigon by most – is a true melting pot; not the nation’s capital but certainly its commercial centre. There is an intoxicating blend of centuries old structures sitting comfortably alongside new builds, workers come and go busily on their scooters whilst families of 3 or 4 also use scooters to move about their day. Hanoi – to the north and with its low-rise centre and wide boulevards surrounding the maze that is the Old Quarter – may be the Capital, however the footpaths are often overrun by vigorous games of badminton [why use a racquet when you can use your feet?] whilst seniors practise Tai Chi around Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of town.
Combining the more energised city stays – exhilarating Vespa tours, interesting city walks and historic museum and citadel visits – with some rural time is a great way to experience Vietnam and inject a little r&r into what could become a hectic itinerary. It only takes an overnight Halong Bay cruise, with the very gentle movement of the gorgeous yacht Ginger almost imperceptible during our fabulous 5-course dinner, to completely switch gears. Of course we had earned the decadent meal by participating in a short bike ride on Cát Bà Island. Those not comfortable on a bike are not forgotten, with the option of an electric vehicle enabling full inclusivity. Next day, early morning tai chi after a glorious sunrise was the perfect prequel to a laughter-filled kayak adventure into a quiet cove where it was possible to immerse yourself into the stunning surrounds. Highly recommend!
A decadent 3-nights at Zannier Hotels Bãi San Hô, located on a secluded white sandy beach in Phu Yen, is an opportunity to see a part of Vietnam largely undiscovered. Although somewhat isolated, guests can do as little or as much as they like, as there are numerous activities and excursions available. Our stay enabled me to sample each of the 3 fabulous in-house restaurants, an indulgence softened by the challenge of a 12-km bike ride through the local fishing villages led by a team of very competent hotel staff. Again, those not keen to cycle could ride pillion with a guide. An energetic RIB boat adventure amongst the curious bucket boats and brightly painted fishing vessels was terrific fun. A peaceful shallow-water snorkel to see the colourful fish & coral and a dip in the delightful infinity pool were perfect complements. Did I mention the 2-hour body scrub, mud wrap & full massage? The various well-stocked bars? Next time I vow to attempt to stand-up paddle board & complete the cliff-top walk …
This journey has left me with lasting memories; funny anecdotes from my various guides, important history lessons to keep in my heart, the simple pleasure of a wok-tossed piece of freshly caught fish, babies sleeping soundly in their mei tai wraps amid energetic street markets, happy interactions with locals, traffic scenes which on second glance actually play out like a symphony and a feeling of open space which I had not expected. I am richer for this experience and am already planning a return with a small group to these most mesmerising yet relaxed and hospitable destinations where travel revealed itself to be seamless. Epicurious is putting together an itinerary for October 2023, which you will find on our website soon.