Vietnam vs Cambodia-Which to Choose for a First Asia Trip

When planning your trip to Asia, have you run into these questions?

  • 1. Which is better Vietnam or Cambodia?
  • 2. Are the travel experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia the same?
  • 3. When is the best time to visit Vietnam and Cambodia?
  • 4. Is it safe to travel to Vietnam and Cambodia?

If so, then this article will help you make your decision.

map of vietnam and cambodia

 

Both Vietnam and Cambodia are popular destinations in Southeast Asia. For those who have enough time, we usually recommend that our travelers visit both. These two destinations can be easily visited together because they are geographically close and both small countries. However, if you don’t have enough time and need to choose between the two, then which one should you pick? Here are the main 13 differences for your reference.

For a classic itinerary, travelers spend 8-10 nights in Vietnam and 3-4 nights in Cambodia (only Siem Reap).

  Vietnam Cambodia
History and culture ...Deeply influenced by China and France:
They celebrate the same Lunar New Year as China.
French buildings and food are commonly seen across the county.
...Main religions: Catholicism and Buddhism
...Strong Khmer culture, but also influenced by French culture as well as Indian religion.
...Main religions: Buddhism and Hinduism
Language ...Official language: Vietnamese
English is understood and spoken in the big cities like Hanoi, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh but is not spoken in villages.
...Official language: Khmer
English and Chinese are widely spoken in tourist areas like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Currency ...Vietnamese Dong (VND) (USD1≈VND23000)
...Street vendors prefer Dong, while most hotels and big restaurants accept both USD and Dong.
...Riela (KHR) (USD1≈ KHR4100)
...USD is used in Cambodia and is more popular than Riela.
Climate ...Best time to go: November to March (dry season).
...November to February: Comfortable weather with average temperatures of 15-25℃.
...March to May: Hot weather with temperatures as high as 38℃ during the day.
...June to October: Rainy season with daily showers, (flooding sometimes occurs in October)
...June to August: Rainy season, you can expect daily showers
...September to early November: wet and slightly cooler (heaviest rains should be expected from Sep-Oct)
...November to May: The dry season (hottest from March to May with temperatures reaching as high as 38℃)
Average Stay ...8-10 nights for the classic itinerary from north to south or vice versa.
...North
Hanoi: 2 nights
Halong Bay: 1 night
...Central:
Hoi An: 2 nights
Hue: 2 nights
...South:
Ho Chi Minh: 2 nights
Mekong Delta: 1 night
...Want more? Consider 2-3 nights in Sapa
...Siem Reap: 3-4 nights
...Phnom Penh: 1-2 nights
...Most visitors only visit Siem Reap as that is the location of the famous Angkor Wat temple complex.
Accommodation ...Diversity of hotel options from colonial and boutique to modern and homestay ...Various hotel options but the hotel class in Phnom Penh is usually lower than Siem Reap or that of the big cities in Vietnam.
Visa ...An E-visa is most convenient, but only allows single entry.
...You can also apply for a Visa in Embassy or Visa on Arrival with an approval letter issued by a travel agency.
...Both E-visa and Visa on Arrival are convenient. It is easier to obtain a Cambodia Visa than a Vietnam Visa.
Beaches ...Phu Quoc Island (highly recommended): Less crowded with high-end hotel options, 1 hour from Ho Chi Minh by flight
...Nha Trang: popular with Asian travelers, due to its value for money
...Danang: beach near Hoi An (40 minutes by driving), crowded but easy to reach
...Sihanoukville (not recommended): Suitable for young people with fewer hotel options; many casinos and Chinese travelers
Wildlife ...Not a main destination for wildlife ...Elephant sanctuaries, bird watching
Food and drinks ...Various choices friendly to travelers
Most popular local food: Pho
...You can easily find what you like.  
Most famous local Khmer dish: Prahok
Transportation ...Many affordable flight tickets and many flight options. Traveling from the north to the south of the country is only 2 hours by flight. 
...The overnight train is popular with locals. These trains are clean but very bumpy due to the narrow tracks.
...Flying is the main option.
From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: 1 hour by flight but 6 hours by road
Train: not recommended because it's slow with old facilities.
Budget ...Around USD200-220 per person per day for a private tour package based on 4-star hotel options for 2-4 people. ...You need to prepare a slightly higher budget for Cambodia by extra USD10-20 per day per person for similar service.
Safety ...Safe for travel like most Asian countries ...We suggest you avoid being out after 8 pm in Phnom Penh.

History and Culture

As neighboring countries, Vietnam and Cambodia have much in common when it comes to history. Vietnam has a bigger culture contrast than Cambodia.

Vietnam was formerly occupied by China, France, and Japan, thus it’s deeply influenced by these countries in terms of religion, food, culture, and architecture. For example, the Vietnamese celebrate the same Lunar New Year as in China (Year of Rat in 2020). When visiting, travelers can easily find temples and assembly halls built by Chinese immigrants (mainly from Fujian and Guangdong). In addition, the lifestyle in Sapa (northeastern Vietnam) is similar to that in Yunnan (southwestern China).

sapaSapa

 

In Vietnam, travelers will see European and Japanese architecture alongside vendors selling French and local food. Many Vietnamese people feel more comfortable speaking French than English.

Compared to Vietnam, Cambodia is less influenced by other countries. It has received a lot of influence from Indian religion and was possibly influenced by Indian culture in ancient times. Most Cambodians believe strongly in religion (mainly Buddhism and Hinduism). When in the country, you will see temples nearly everywhere. Angkor Wat is the most famous monument in the country and represents the brilliant ancient civilization of the Khmer.

Language

Both Vietnam and Cambodia have their own official languages. English is more widely used in Cambodia because tourism is the country’s main industry.

In both countries, you will need to be prepared for the local people to have a thick accent. When I traveled to Vietnam in March 2019, I had 5 guides. All of them spoke fluent English, but 2 of them had an accent (they still could be understood). When we were in the villages without a guide accompanying us, we used Google Translate to communicate with local villagers. Based on my experience, Cambodians speak comparatively better English.

Currency

It is easy to convert USD to Dong at the airport or in the jewelry stores in the streets. Withdrawing cash is also convenient done at ATMs. They accept most popular cards such as Visa and Master.

In Cambodia, you can use USD in most situations. After buying something you might receive Riels as change.

Climate

In Cambodia, the weather is similar all over the country. In Vietnam, the north is usually cooler than the south by 2-3℃ because there are more mountains in the north (especially in Sapa).

Generally, the best time to travel to these two countries is the same. Plan your trip anytime from November to February for comfortable weather (not too hot or too cold). Christmas and New Year (from December 24th to January 2nd) is the high season. During this time, the price of hotels, vehicles, guides, and flight tickets are usually double or even triple that of any other time. We usually suggest you make your bookings at least 3 months in advance to ensure availability and better prices.

The rainy season is from June to October. During this time, you can expect some showers without much effect on sightseeing. Traveling in the rainy season usually means more affordable travel and fewer crowds. There might be flooding in September and October in central Vietnamese cities like Hoi An.

Cruises in Halong Bay can be canceled or affected by typhoons. These tropical storms may happen in summer but aren’t too common. If you happen to encounter bad weather while in Halong Bay, your cruise company or travel agent will inform you 1-2 days in advance of the cancellation or itinerary change. You can consider Ninh Binh (also has the famous Karst landscape and is 2 hours from Hanoi by road) as an alternative.

Average stay

Vietnam has more popular places to go than Cambodia, thus most itineraries spend more time in Vietnam.

Usually, we recommend 8-10 nights in Vietnam. Trips will normally visit all regions of the country including the north (Hanoi and Halong Bay), center (Hoi An) and south (Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta). For more time and deeper exploration, you can consider adding a trip to the terraced fields and minority villages of Sapa (2-3 nights) or Hue (1-2 nights) for the ancient royal culture of Vietnam.

The most popular destination in Cambodia is Siem Reap where Angkor Wat is located. It takes 3-4 nights to see the main highlights there. We suggest taking two full days to explore the temples and one day to visit the floating villages (better from October to February when there is a higher water level). Watching sunrise & sunset, taking a helicopter ride over Angkor Wat, cycling around the temples, and taking an ox cart ride through the countryside are all popular activities in Siem Reap. If time permits, you can extend your trip to Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek), and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 prison).

S21 prison in Phnom penhTuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 prison)

Accommodation

Both countries offer different levels of hotels from luxury brands to local guesthouses which you can choose based on your interests and how much you would like to spend. Both countries offer good-value hotels.

Compared to other Asian countries, the cost of hotels in Vietnam is quite low. On average, the cost of a local 4-star hotel is around USD 60 per night, while an international 4-star hotel is about USD 100 per night. There are fewer luxury options in the Mekong Delta and Sapa, but a 4-star plus hotel is still easy to find.

Interested in trying a homestay in Sapa for closer contact with the local minority people? Just contact Asia Highlights. We will make all the arrangements for you.

The hotel cost and level in Siem Reap are similar to that of major cities in Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh). Due to less development, you might find the hotel facilities in Phnom Penh are not as good as those in Siem Reap.

Visa

Getting a tourist visa for Cambodia is easier than Vietnam. Both E-visa and Visa on Arrival are available in these two countries and can be received without much hassle.

Applying for an e-visa is the most convenient way to enter Vietnam. This can be done by completing an online application. The visa will take around 3 working days to be processed and will cost only around USD25. Please be advised that the E-visa is only for single entry and a maximum stay of 30 days. For multiple entries or for those who want to stay for longer, it is necessary to apply for Visa on Arrival or through the Vietnamese Embassy.

These countries enjoy Free Visa Exemption: Belarus, Demark, Finland, France, German, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Brunei, Myanmar, Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Chile.

To enter Cambodia you can apply for an E-visa in advance (single entry with a maximum stay of 30 days) or apply for a Visa on Arrival (around USD30). You should prepare the following documents for a Visa on Arrival. 

•      One completed visa application form (fill out on the plane or in the airport)

•      Original passport with at least 6 months validity

•      One recent, passport-sized photograph (2 inches x 2 inches or 35mm x 45mm)

Beaches

If you would like to spend some time relaxing on the beach at the end of your tour, I would recommend Vietnam more than Cambodia for a better experience and more value for money.

Vietnam has a long coastline from north to south and plenty of options for beautiful beaches. The best beaches in Vietnam include Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and Danang. We like Phu Quoc the most for its romantic sunsets, superior hotel options, clean beaches, and serene atmosphere. This is a good option if you’re looking for a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. In Nha Trang and Danang, the beach facilities are good as well, but there are more crowds and tourists from China and other Asian countries.

Phu QuocPhu Quoc Island

 

The most famous beach in Cambodia is Sihanoukville. It was considered to be pristine in previous years, however, at the moment it is hard to get to with the only available flights from Ho Chi Minh, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh. Right now the area is also under renovation (roads & new buildings) which is estimated to be finished at the end of 2020. Instead of Sihanoukville, you can consider the nearby islands (Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samleom).

Wildlife

If you’re a fan of animals and adventure, then Cambodia is a good option.

Interested in interacting with gibbons, spotting dolphins, visiting elephant sanctuaries, or bird watching? No problem, Cambodia has plenty to offer in terms of wildlife experiences. Join us for Eco-Tours in Cambodia.

Food and drink

There are many choices for drinks in Vietnam including fresh juice, beer, coffee, and tea. Vietnamese coffee is particularly famous and is made with a special slow drip filter then mixed with sweet condensed milk. Vietnam is also famous for its civet cat coffee which is worth a try if you are willing! 

Cambodian cuisine is rich in flavor and has been influenced by many different cultures. Rice, vegetables, and fruit are popular ingredients in many dishes. Some examples of typical Khmer food include Fish Amok, Lap Khmer, and Nom Banh Chok.

Cambodia is well known for its fresh fruit juices and unique local beers. As it was once a French colony, you’ll also find plenty of tea and coffee.

When traveling with Asia Highlights, we’ll provide plenty of iced bottled water in the car to help you stay cool in the summer.

Transport

When flying to Southeast Asian countries from America or Europe, you will always have a layover in China, Japan, or South Korea because of the long flight time (around 20 hours). Thanks to the development of the tourism industry in both countries, getting to Vietnam and Cambodia is very convenient from other Asian countries like Thailand, China, and Singapore. Vietnam has more choices for international flight connections than Cambodia because of its bigger airports in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi.  

If you would like to include both countries in your trip, the flight between Vietnam and Cambodia takes less than 2 hours. 

Read details about 3 ways to get from Vietnam to Cambodia: by plane, by boat, or by land

Budget

Like in most Asian countries, spending around USD180-250 per day (including hotels) is enough for a wonderful experience including a private car and guide. The price of traveling in Cambodia is higher than Vietnam by USD5-20 per day. Tailor-make your special tour experience with Asia Highlights.

Safety

Both countries are safe for travel, but you should always protect your personal belongings and never leave your wallet out or flash large amounts of money in public. Though Vietnam and Cambodia are safe countries, petty crimes like theft and scams do happen in popular tourist areas. Do not trust strangers who promise great bargains. Use reliable tour operators. Only use official taxis and transport agencies.

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