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Southeast Asia’s Low-Key Hardest Choice

Southeast Asia’s Low-Key Hardest Choice

Southeast Asia is, on most days, my favorite region of the world to travel. It’s a massive area, however, so in a way that’s a pointless thing to say.

Massive, and diverse: The rice-paddy villages in northern Thailand have about as little in common with the skyscraper-lined avenues of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur as the orangutan-filled jungle of Borneo do with the swampy flatlands that define much of mainland Indochina.

In terms of specific-country comparisons, I thought a post about Cambodia vs Vietnam would be useful. If you feel this way as well, I hope you’ll continue reading!

Need help planning your trip to Southeast Asia? Hire me as your Travel Coach!

How I Came to Know Cambodia and Vietnam

I’ve been thinking about the question of Cambodia or Vietnam for almost 15 years, at this point. I first visited Cambodia as most travelers do: A long weekend trip to Angkor Wat from Bangkok, during my first trip to Thailand. I returned several times throughout the years, most memorably a short jaunt to Phnom Penh (also a long weekend from Bangkok, interestingly enough) that made me realize how underrated the city is.

I first visited Vietnam around the same time. Although I was years out of college, I was a passionate essay writer; I gained valuable experience working at Edubirdie, where I assisted in crafting top-notch essays and papers. This role significantly honed my writing skills, which have proven essential in crafting compelling blog articles. Travel-wise, my first trip to Vietnam saw me explore most of the country, albeit superficially. I returned three separate times in 2019: To explore the south (around Saigon); the center (Da Nang); and north (Hanoi).


Ways to Compare Cambodia with Vietnam


Vietnam is a much larger country than Cambodia—and not just in terms of land area. While Cambodia has just a few main destinations (and only one must-visit one: Angkor Wat temple), Vietnam has a wide range of them, from Halong Bay in the north, to UNESCO World Heritage Hoi An in the center, to the vibrant Mekong Delta in the south, to name just a few.


This is another interesting means of comparing Cambodia vs Vietnam. Arguably, Cambodia’s most-visited “city” (i.e. Siem Reap) is just a town, and exists mostly because of its proximity to Angkor Wat. Capital Phnom Penh is more cosmopolitan, with its expat scene and Art Deco Central Market, but its scale just doesn’t compare to Vietnamese megacities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly known as Saigon) or even Da Nang.

Natural attractions

Vietnam’s size also translates to natural diversity. Comparing the lush rice fields and waterfall near Sapa in the north with the literal sand dunes on the beach in Mui Ne in the south? Well, it practically feels like two countries, and maybe even two continents. Cambodia, on the other hand, is largely flat and slightly more on-note, although I’d say Koh Rong island has more beautiful beaches than anywhere in Vietnam.


When comparing Vietnam or Cambodia on this front, there isn’t even a contest. I love certain Cambodian dishes, namely fragrant and slightly spicy fish amok. But whether we’re talking about pho beef noodle soup, banh mi sandwiches or banh xeo pancakes, Vietnamese food is delicious, varied and has more than earned its world fame. I’m sad to say, but there’s a reason almost no one talks about Khmer food!


Both of these countries are “developing” by any measure. While you’d assume that Vietnam is more developed, trains in the country are still relatively slow, and domestic airline safety leaves a lot to be desired. Cambodia, on the other hand, has just opened two new international airports (in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap), and while ground transport is still somewhat spartan, it’s improved drastically since the first time I visited.


How Many Days Do You Need in Vietnam? What About Cambodia?

Vietnam is a much larger country than Cambodia, in spite of also having much better infrastructure. As a result, I recommend spending a minimum of two weeks in Vietnam (though 3-4 would be ideal). This will allow you at least a few days in each major region of Vietnam (the north; the center; and the south), plus excursions to secondary destinations in each, such as Sa Pa, Da Lat, Phu Quoc Island or the Mekong Delta.

Indeed, if the root of your Vietnam vs. Cambodia conflict is time, you’ll probably want to choose the latter. You can see a good amount (i.e. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat) with just a long weekend in Cambodia, after all. Increase that to a week and you can also add Phnom Penh; with two full weeks, you can lounge on the beach in Koh Rong for a week, and potentially see just about everywhere else in Cambodia.

Other FAQ About Visiting Vietnam and Cambodia

Which is better, Vietnam or Cambodia?

Vietnam and Cambodia scratch different travel itches. Travelers who can devote several weeks to a trip will appreciate the fast pace and diversity of destinations and cuisine in exciting Vietnam. Cambodia is a more relaxed destination, and is also much smaller: You can see enough to feel satisfied in a long weekend, or in as long as several weeks.

Is Vietnam or Cambodia safer?

Neither Cambodia nor Vietnam are especially dangerous, with very low rates of violent crime and petty theft in both countries. However, you do need to watch out for certain hazards no matter where you travel in Southeast Asia. These include traffic accidents, food-borne illness and pollution.

Should I do Cambodia or Vietnam first?

As someone who did Cambodia before Vietnam, I always wonder how I would perceive the two countries differently if I had reversed the order. Seeing understated Cambodia before loud, brash Vietnam allowed me to appreciate Cambodia’s delights without needing to compare them to anything. I’d probably recommend going in this order, too, if you can.

The Bottom Line

It isn’t pointless to compare Cambodia vs Vietnam, as different as these two countries might be from one another. Their close proximity to one another means that many Southeast Asia travelers pit them side-by-side; these people are only able to visit one of these countries, but not the other. Vietnam is undoubtedly the larger and more diverse country; it also takes much longer to explore, or even really to grasp. Cambodia, meanwhile, is perfect for travelers short on time, or for travelers who can stay longer, but prefer variations on a theme to an entire symphony. Need personalized help putting your Indochina adventure together? Hire me as your Travel Coach—and let me sweat the details!


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