Indochina has become one of the most fascinating destinations in Southeast Asia, and is definitely a great place to visit. Comprising of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the region known as Indochina caters for all types of tourists, from the simple backpackers that roam the nations to the luxury holidaymakers that stay in the best hotels, dine at the top restaurants, and travel by private vehicle everywhere.
Planning private luxury Indochina tours is not too hard, since there are plenty of places to stay and to eat in the region, and traveling around the countries can be done easily by hiring a private car and driver in each country. The big question is, where to go and what to do.
Originally, the term Indochina was used to describe the region of the continental area of Southeast Asia, stretching from Myanmar (then Burma) to Vietnam, and south as far as the Malay Peninsula. These countries are all deemed to be within the sphere of influence of India to the west and China to the north and east. This area included Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Peninsular Malaysia, and Singapore, though today it is more usually used to refer to the area of the French colonial influence.
French Indochina, which is what is seen as Indochina today, covered the countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and was known from the early 19th century as French Indochina. The area is more popularly referred to now as Mainland Southeast Asia, though the term “Indochina” is still used to refer to the three countries that were previously under French rule.
These countries were known as “protectorates” under the rule of the French, which began in the 19th century, and lasted for more than 100 years. It was not until 1953 that the countries were consecutively recognized to have their own independence, and French dominion over Indochina was lost.
Weather and when to go
Covering three different countries, Indochina has a very varied climate across the region, with parts of Vietnam, mainly in the mountains and southern coastal areas, having very different sub-tropical weather patterns. Whilst all three countries are subject to the monsoon seasons that are predominant across the tropics, the seasons vary slightly from country to country, making it harder to match travel times for different countries with one type of weather.
The weather in Vietnam is split into three distinct patterns, from north to south, although all areas suffer from monsoon weather. In the north, the weather is colder, with the temperatures in January getting very cold and the rainy season starting as early as April. In the central region, the wet season occurs later, from late August to mid-December, with hot dry weather from January to August. In the south, the temperatures are constant and hot all year round, with the rainy season coming from May to November.
Cambodia and Laos have somewhat similar climates, and although the dry season starts in October in Cambodia and November in Laos, it ends around April in both countries. The wet season, from April to September/October, is not one that rains constantly and daily, like in central Vietnam, and occurs mainly in the afternoons and evenings, leaving the rest of the day dry and hot.
For travel that will encompass all three countries, the best time to come to Indochina would be from November to March, as this is the driest time for all three countries together. If you want to avoid the cold and the rain as well, and intend to travel the length of Vietnam, from north to south, then the only time to travel would be in February or March, before the rains in northern Vietnam start.
Top luxury places to stay
It may come as a surprise to some, but Indochina does have a lot of luxury hotels, where you can get all the service and facilities you desire, from luxurious colonial architecture to sumptuous rooms and exotic locations.
Park Hyatt – Ho Chi Minh City
A luxurious grand hotel, inspired by the old French colonial architecture, the Park Hyatt sits in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, and has all the contemporary comforts one could wish for. A former base for military operations during the war, it was the site where renowned US DJ, Adrian Cronauer made his daily broadcasts to the US forces. Made famous by the film, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, the hotel now sports top-class rooms and suites, and has a world-class spa.
The Nam Hai Four Seasons – Hoi An
The classic Four Seasons style is clearly evident in this new resort, set in its own massive grounds along the beachfront in Hoi An, with over 100 villas spread along a huge expanse of beach. The resort has three inviting and luxurious swimming pools, a full spa resort, and plenty to see and do. While it looks impressive from the outside, it still holds that level of intimacy that Four Seasons resorts are known for.
Silk Path Boutique – Hanoi
A delightfully friendly boutique hotel, set in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the Silk Path Boutique offers five-star services and stylish, comfortable rooms and suites. Lying directly opposite the Hoen Kiem Lake, the hotel sports one of the best views in Vietnam, and its rooftop bar looking out over the lake and surrounding forests is the ideal place for evening cocktails.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal – Phnom Penh
With the unmistakable air of a Raffles Hotel, the Le Royal in Cambodia’s capital exudes quality and class, and is a genuine grand dame hotel in Cambodia. The classy design of the Elephant Bar allows the aroma of the frangipani trees to blow in through the open terrace, and the art décor and French colonial architecture speak softly of style and exquisite charm. Sumptuous suites and rooms all open out onto balconies that overlook the city, and the hotel’s in-house Raffles Restaurant is second to none.
Phum Baitang – Siem Reap
A relatively new hotel set in an ancient part of Cambodia, the Phum Baitang lies just outside Siem Reap, in the lush and expansive Cambodian countryside. Sporting two classy restaurants, two bars, and a luxury boutique and spa, the hotel is made for luxury. And with a 50-meter infinity pool surrounded by local trees and lush meadows, the place is quiet and peaceful with a hint of the ancient.
Song Saa Private Island
If it is true luxury you are looking for, then a private island is the height of class. Song Saa is a private island that lies off the Cambodian coast close to Koh Rong. Laid out over two small islands, this tiny resort pays homage to the environment while offering five-star class and service. Surrounded by untouched stretches of golden sand and lush primeval forests, the island getaway is the perfect place to stay near Sihanoukville.
Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao – Luang Prabang
The first ever luxury resort in Luang Prabang, the Belmond invented revivalist Indochinese chic in the ‘80s, and still tops the lists of the hotels of choice for the connoisseur. While the city has long since become packed with resort hotels and swanky boutiques, the Belmond has retained its name as the place to be seen in Luang Prabang, and is a testament to the taste and style of the Belmond name.
Riverside Boutique Resort – Vang Vieng
Lying on the banks of the stunning Song River, the Riverside Boutique Resort looks out on the amazing limestone ridges of the nearby mountains. Known as the swankiest hotel in Vang Vieng, the Riverside offers a delightful combination of French colonial ambience with Laotian culture, while still including fantastic facilities, excellent five-star service, and an amazing Michelin-rated restaurant.
Dhavara Boutique Hotel – Vientiane
Lying close to the Mekong River, with the most stunning sunset views, the Dhavara is a refined hotel with a distinct French colonial flavor. Just a few minute’s walk from the temple of the tiny Buddhas at Wat Si Saket, this stylish boutique draws the crowds from the in-crowd. The delightful rooms are fully fitted, and most have balconies and river views. Upgrade to the suites, and you get the classic four-poster bed in stylish French design and your own living room.
Visas for Indochina
Getting the visas for an Indochina tour requires you to complete the visa requirements for three different countries, and it depends on your route as to how to go about this.
For Vietnam, it is actually easier to get the visa before leaving home, as this normally only takes 3-5 working days, and is a simple process. The Vietnamese version of the Visa On Arrival requires you to make an online application and pay online as well, and sends you an approval letter, which you need to show at the airport to obtain your visa. Get the visa beforehand, and you can skip those annoying queues at immigration.
For Cambodia, the best option is usually to apply for he visa on your arrival at the airport, as it is normally fairly fast and painless. It does require cash to make the payment for the visa on your arrival, so it pays to carry dollars with you when you get to the airport. There is an E-visa service in Cambodia, which is probably the best in Southeast Asia. It is simple to apply for online, and is sent as a .pdf document to your email address. However, it can only be used when entering through the airports at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, so unless you are entering there, the visa on arrival is the best option.
Laos has similar visa on arrival options, and they can be used at any of the airports and most of the border checkpoints around the country. There is no E-visa service, and the Laotian government has very few embassies outside Asia, so it is likely the best option for obtaining the visa. Laos is also the only one of the three countries that does not have a visa extension allowance, although you can leave and come straight back and get another 30-day visa on arrival if you wish to stay longer.[Cover image by Oliver Sjöström via Unsplash]