In order to understand comparisons in this blog, the following language tip may help: ‘same-same’ = ‘same’ and ‘same-same but different’ = ‘similar.’ We have not heard anyone in SE Asia say the word ‘similar,’ things are always described as ‘same-same’ or ‘same-same, but different.’ In SE Asia, we visited Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia (in that order). Singapore is extremely developed, and we only spent 1 day in Malaysia, so this is strictly a comparison between Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Regardless of which country you travel to, there was not a language barrier, so you don’t need to be worried about not speaking the local language. It’s amazing at how many people speak English!
I think we will let the pictures talk for themselves. The first two are Jeff's street buzz in Vietnam, then Jeff and Cara in Thailand, and finally Jeff in the middle of a market in Cambodia:
Signs and Advertisements:
I’m basing the shopping in each country on the amount and quality of knock-off/possibly real name brand goods each place had available. If you look at the labels on the clothes in your closet, most things are probably made in Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia. (All pics below are from Vietnam- in the first picture Bri is admiring Marie's new 100% tailored leather boots, or her butt..not sure.)
When we landed in Vietnam, we immediately saw ‘Made in Vietnam’ stores. They sold all different versions of NorthFace and Columbia gear. Some looked better than others. You could tell the quality by how low you could bargain for. A raincoat for $5 was probably a cheap fake, but if they would only sell for minimum $10-15, you may have found a gem! Ray Ban, Louis Vuitton, Christian Louboutin, Prada, and all the other high-end bag companies for that matter, were available there. You could pick up a good looking Fjallraven Kanken backpack for less than $15.
We had a much harder time finding brand-name goods in Thailand. Thailand was all about it’s night markets though! Every night there seemed to be a different option for a night market. Some local crafts were available, but mostly they sold cute-sy tourist souvenirs.
I was holding out hope that Cambodia would have more shopping similar to Vietnam since they are geographically closer. Gap products are made in Cambodia, and we found some Gap t-shirts in the markets. Judging by the Hollister and Abercrombie and Fitch clothes we found, I think those companies make things in Cambodia as well. Here, we found some decent knock off bags, but not as many as were in Vietnam. I did buy an Anello backpack; it is a Japanese brand that is more popular in Asia than Fjallraven Kanken:
Winner: Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi in Northern Vietnam had many more quality knock-offs (I could be convinced that many were actually the real deal), than we found in Ho Chi Minh City (South Vietnam).
Spa culture seemed to be a big part of life in SE Asia. Lucky for us, massages were extremely inexpensive and I got a full body massage in each country! You have to get over the fact that you might not get any relaxing spa music- more likely your masseuse will be playing with their phone, and answer calls, in the middle of your massage. In Vietnam, we paid $6 for an hour. It was very similar to any massage you would get in the States if you went to a large chain massage place. Except for the fact that you got naked on a table with 4 other people in the room at the same time… They used oil for massaging in Vietnam. It was pretty relaxing. Right as you were about to fall asleep at the end of your 60 minutes, the masseuse lathers her hands in Tiger Balm, and then covers your face with them. (Tiger Balm is like a more intense version of Icy-Hot). Needless to say, at the end of a Vietnamese massage, you are wide awake and your sinus are clear.
Thai massage was very different to anything I had experienced before. Again, we were in a communal space (no private rooms!), but they had us change into hospital scrubs first. Since they don’t use oil, they just massage you through the scrubs. Jeff and I were laying on the same table- it was more like a large raised platform- and the masseuse was right on the table with you. A lot of feet and elbows were used, and they used a lot of pressure to relieve knots in the muscle. They also did a bit of back cracking and a lot of intense stretching.
Khmer (Cambodian) massage is same-same, but different to Thai massage. I got a full body massage for 90-minutes for $8. It was pretty relaxing, and the lady more of a pressure point technique than an all-over rubbing. Even though I changed into scrubs (no oil used), I was glad that no one else was in the room with us. I spent a lot of time trying not to giggle because this Cambodian woman definitely climbed all over me. This was not for the faint of heart; her hands and feet were all up in my lady business most of the time, and I’m pretty sure that at one point my hands were also in her crotch. Similar to Thai massage, more time was spent massaging the legs than anything else, and a lot of stretching was involved. You definitely have to participate instead of lying there like a lunk. I didn’t really know how flexible I was until she folded me up into a pretzel!
Best massage: 60-min Thai massage for just under $6. Definitely not as good as the massages I have had in the States, but for $6, I don’t care if someone just touches my back for an hour.
Vietnam was the land of fresh herbs. We seemed to be served an entire plate of fresh cilantro, basil and mint with every meal, no matter what we were eating. Bowl of soup? Vietnamese pancake? Here is your daily dose of fresh greens! It was delicious! Our favorite meal in Vietnam was in Hanoi at ‘Bun bo Nam Bo,’ and we tell everyone about it if they mention they are traveling there! Jeff enjoyed the food in Vietnam more than I did, because restaurants normally had very few choices on a menu and it didn’t take long to decide what we wanted (Jeff’s note: I also think that most restaurants that only have a couple options are really good at those options. I also really enjoy just sitting down and getting food sometimes, without worrying if that place makes that dish well or what their best option is). It’s also worth mentioning that the coffee culture in Vietnam is the best in SE Asia!
One of our favorite things in Thailand was doing a cooking class with my brother Phil. We ate as much green curry, pad thai, and mango sticky rice as we could handle while in Thailand. I enjoyed the food more in Thailand than I did in Vietnam because there always seemed to be more options. The street food was extremely plentiful and the variety was awesome. Thailand was more into tea, specifically milk tea (tea with sweet and condensed milk), than they were into coffee - but due to western tourists, you can get a decent cup of coffee anywhere.
Cambodia continued to be the land of curry, which was fine by me! Jeff is not a huge fan and seemed to have flashbacks to India every time I ordered curry, so he tried to stick to BBQ and other meat dishes. We didn’t find anything particularly amazing or unique about Cambodian food, and any sort of coffee or tea culture doesn’t really exist outside of western coffee shops. The amount of street food available fell right in between Thailand (most street food) and Vietnam (a few sandwiches available on the street).
Cara’s winner: Thailand, favorite dish: green curry and mango fruitshake
Jeff’s winner: Vietnam, favorite dish: any sort of Bun (cha (pork), bo (beef), or whatever meat they serve. Noodles, a little broth, some sprouts, a few herbs, the perfect dish!), favorite drink: egg coffee
Vietnam was a perfect place for people who love being outdoors. Ha Long Bay was amazing and we had a great time exploring caves in Phong Nha. The jungle is easily accessible throughout the country. We didn’t get to explore the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, but have heard good things. Below: Ha Long Bay, Caving in Phong Nha, and exploring the ancient temples of My Son.
Thailand has some beautiful temples, beaches and jungle that are all easily accessible. If you are looking for a trip that includes a lot of partying and beach-going, then Thailand is the place for you! Jeff and I weren’t really looking for those things during our time there, so while we did some sightseeing, we spent a lot of our time living like locals and planning our future travels. Below: Rainforest, Sactuary of Truth, and giant Buhdda in Thailand:
Angkor Wat. It’s the reason that most people go to Cambodia. And it did not disappoint!!!! Every temple we saw seemed even better than the last one - and they were all different!
Winner: Vietnam, followed by Cambodia. There is still a lot we want to explore in Vietnam, but we feel like visiting Angkor Wat once in your lifetime is completely worth it, but sufficient. We felt that Thailand was overrun by tourists and we were not able to get as much of an authentic cultural experience there as we were in the other two countries.
Ease of transportation
It is really easy, and inexpensive to travel around SE Asia. The budget airline, Air Asia, normally has flights well under $100 anywhere you want to go (once you get to the continent)!
In Vietnam, there were travel agencies on every corner in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. All you had to do was walk in and book a bus for the same or next day. It really couldn’t have been any easier! Scooters ruled the road, and we felt safe enough to rent them in multiple cities. Uber is also available here, and made getting to and from the airport a breeze.
Thailand didn’t seem to have as many travel agencies, but there was much more information online about where to buy bus tickets or book tours if you needed to. There were less scooters in Thailand than in Vietnam, but we still felt safe renting them in Chiang Mai. Uber is available here also, so that’s a plus!
Cambodia had the best tuk-tuks. They were big, the ones in Phnom Penh had ghetto-rigged gas tanks, some were obviously paid off by advertisers (see above), and I even saw one that was covered (even the outside) in astro turf. Points for character!
Cambodia had a few more scooters on the road than Thailand, but there were more cars than in Vietnam. We did not rent scooters here, but we did take tuk-tuks everywhere. No Uber in Cambodia, and taxis were few and far between. The tuk-tuks were reasonably priced, and can get you anywhere! There were quite a few travel agencies in the bigger cities, and we opted to take the nicer buses for transport around the country. The buses in Cambodia were the nicest we found in SE Asia, and the rest stops were the cleanest!
Winner: Vietnam for ease of booking, Thailand and Cambodia for cleanliness!
Cara and Jeff’s favorite country in SE Asia…DRUMROLL PLEASE… is Vietnam!
This country surprised us the most, in the best way. We already plan on returning someday. The shopping, food, and beautiful countryside are reason enough, but when you add in how inexpensive it is to visit Vietnam, it’s a no-brainer. Who wants to go back with us???