Indochina is a region of Southeast Asia. It has no fixed definition. Most narrowly, it is the former French colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which were collectively known as French Indochina during the colonial period until the Indochina wars. However, it is sometimes considered to also include Thailand, which was never colonised, and Myanmar, a former British colony, both of which share many cultural similarities with the other three countries, which include the dominance of Buddhism as the main religion. Peninsular Malaysia is sometimes included, but only rarely, as it does not share the same cultural similarities as the other five.
|Cambodia (Cambodge) |
Home of the ancient city of Angkor and other remains of the once-powerful Khmer empire, is still recovering from decades of war
The only landlocked country in the region and the most sparsely populated, mainly Buddhist Laos has stunning natural scenery and charming laid-back towns
Firmly marching down the road to capitalism as one of the world's fastest growing economies, Vietnam has a blend of Southeast Asian and Chinese values and culture, and a huge diversity of both natural and cultural attractions
- Paracel Islands – administered by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, not visitable by foreign tourists
- 1 Battambang — Cambodia's second largest city, known for the bamboo train, and as the gateway to nearby ancient temples
- 2 Hanoi — Vietnam's capital and major tourist destination, with numerous important temples, and an old quarter with well-preserved colonial and pre-colonial architecture
- 3 Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) — former capital of South Vietnam, a bustling metropolis that has become Vietnam's largest city and main economic centre
- 4 Hoi An — well-preserved ancient Vietnamese port city
- 5 Hue — capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam's last imperial dynasty, and home to its royal tombs and the ruins of its former palace
- 6 Luang Prabang — former royal capital of Laos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its numerous temples, colonial-era architecture, the former royal palace and a vibrant night market
- 7 Phnom Penh — Cambodia's capital and largest city, a city striving to reclaim the name of "The Pearl of Asia", as it was known before 1970
- 8 Siem Reap — the gateway to Angkor Wat, whose old French Quarter is a treasure trove of French colonial architecture
- 9 Vientiane — the still sleepy capital of Laos on the banks of the Mekong River at the Thai border
- 1 Angkor Archaeological Park — magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire
- 2 Ha Long Bay — literally translated as "Bay of Descending Dragons", famous for its scenic rock formations
- 3 Preah Vihear — cliff-top temple pre-dating Angkor Wat
- 4 My Son — ruins of Hindu temples built by the former Champa civilization
- 5 Óc Eo — ruins of an important port city of the former Funan empire
Indochina's culture is, as its name suggests, influenced by the Indians and Chinese, as well as its colonizers. For at least 2000 years (and to this day), Indochina, alongside other countries of Southeast Asia, has acted as a conduit for trade between India and China. Cambodian and Lao culture are heavily Indian-influenced in areas such as faith, folklore, language and writing. Vietnam is the most Chinese-influenced. All three countries have substantial Chinese influence in their cuisines, not least due to significant Chinese immigration to the region during the colonial era.
Buddhism is the dominant religion in the region, with Mahayana Buddhism being the dominant form in Vietnam, and Theravada Buddhism being the dominant form in Cambodia and Laos.
In Indochina, the seasons can be broken down into hot, wet and dry, with the relatively cool dry season from November to February or so being the most popular with tourists. The scorching hot season that follows can see temperatures climb above 40°C in April, cooling down as the rains start around June. However, even in the "wet" season, the typical pattern is sunny mornings with a short (but torrential) shower in the afternoon, not all-day drizzle, so this alone should not discourage you from travel. There are, however, regional deviations from this pattern. Northern Vietnam, for instance, has four distinct seasons, with chilly winters; a climate similar to that of Hong Kong.
English is a traveller's most useful language overall, although for longer stays in almost any country of Indochina, picking up at least some of the local language is useful, and may be essential outside the cities.
The main language groups are:
- Austroasiatic - Vietnamese and Khmer are spoken in Vietnam and Cambodia respectively.
- Tai–Kadai - Lao is spoken in Laos mutually intelligible with Thai to a certain extent.
The Chinese languages have a large influence, and due to centuries of Chinese cultural dominance, much of Vietnamese vocabulary consists of loan words from Chinese. Khmer and Lao also contain numerous loan words from various Chinese dialects due to the influence of Chinese immigrants during the colonial era. Indochina is a prime destination for China's rising tourism industry, and Mandarin is becoming more prevalent in order to cater for it.
Due to a long history of Indian influences in the region, many languages of Indochina, including Thai, Lao and Khmer contain many loan words from Sanskrit. As a result of this influence, the Khmer and Lao scripts are Indic scripts related to those of Thai, Burmese and many Indian languages.
French is still spoken and taught in Indochina, although its situation varies by country. In Vietnam, it is known by many educated Vietnamese, especially those schooled before 1975, though today English is the more preferred second language among youths. In Laos, French is widely used among the educated populace and features on most public signage. In Cambodia, French is limited chiefly to urban and elderly elites and a handful of university educated students. That said, all three languages contain numerous loan words from French, particularly when it comes to modern concepts.
The main international airports of Indochina are at Ho Chi Minh City (SGN IATA) and Hanoi (HAN IATA), which serve numerous intercontinental flights to Europe and Australia. The airports at Vientiane (VTE IATA), Phnom Penh (PNH IATA), Siem Reap (REP IATA) and Da Nang (DAD IATA) also serve international flights to other Asian destinations.
There are two railway lines into Southeast Asia; one between Hanoi, Vietnam and Nanning, China, and onward to Beijing, Russia and even Europe, and another from Kunming to Vientiane, Laos. No cross-border trains have ever run on the latter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are plans for such services in the future, while an extension of the line onward to Bangkok is under construction. There are no connections between Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries yet, although there are plans for links through both Cambodia and Myanmar onward to the existing Thailand-Malaysia network. Such plans have existed since the colonial era, but China's "Belt and Road" initiative has injected them with new vigor and capital. Laos also has a single railway station on the outskirts of Vientiane connected to the Thai railway network..
Public transport networks in Indochina tend to be underdeveloped. However, due to reckless driving habits, driving is also usually not for the faint-hearted. Most of the time, plane, bus or rail travel tends to be the best way to get around.
There are local means of transport based on converting a motorcycle, truck, van or even bicycle to haul passengers. Unmodified motorcycles also provide taxi services in various places. All these modes of transport are generally cheap and rather colorful, but somewhat uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous.
Be aware of various scams when crossing national borders. If someone offers to help you obtain a visa for the next country, or tries to direct you to a "health check", you can be certain that that person is trying to scam you. In Indochina, it is not uncommon for immigration officers to ask for bribes to stamp you in or out of the country; this is not a problem at airports, but bribes of US$1-3 per person are often demanded at land borders.
Much of Indochina is now covered by a dense web of low-cost carriers, making this a fast and affordable way of getting around. Due to the popularity of budget carriers, flights on full-service carriers are not as widespread as they used to be, with many routes now being served solely by budget carriers. Nevertheless, the respective national airlines still offer options between major cities in the region. The larger multinational budget airlines and most national carriers are respectable, but some of the smaller airlines have questionable safety records, especially on domestic flights using older planes. Do some research before you buy.
Due to the high rates of road accidents in most the region, trains in Southeast Asia are generally considered to be a safer option than buses, especially during the night, although in several cases the journey by train takes longer than by bus.
Vietnam has a line linking the country from north to south but speeds are rather low.
Cambodia's railways were badly hit by the civil war, though they are beginning to be rehabilitated since the 2010s. Passenger services now connect, the capital Phnom Penh with the seaside resort town of Sihanoukville, and takes longer to arrive than a reasonably determined cyclist. It is not possible to go all the way through Cambodia to Thailand by rail, though the line from Phnom Penh to Poipet at the Thai border was reopened in 2018 after a break of 40 years, from which you can cross the border by road to connect onto a Thai train bound for Bangkok.
A new railway line from Kunming in China to Vientiane was completed in December 2021, and with the line passing through Luang Prabang, thus making domestic rail travel possible in Laos for the first time. An extension of this line onward to Bangkok is under construction.
Cuisines differ significantly between the three countries, and often between different part of the same country as well.
As a result of the legacy of French colonial rule, all three countries share a love for baguettes, which are typically stuffed with meat (usually pork) and/or pate, as well as various local herbs.
Violent crime is rare in Indochina, but tourists have been attacked in beach resorts in a few isolated but well publicised cases. Opportunistic theft is more common, so watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your bags when travelling, particularly on overnight buses and trains. Major dangers are very poor road safety, as well as little or no oversight of physical activities such as white water rafting and bungee jumping.
Unexploded ordnance is a major problem in Indochina due to the legacy of the Indochina Wars, and locals continue to be killed or maimed by them on a regular basis. Be sure not to approach unfamiliar objects, and to not stray off the beaten path, particularly in rural areas, as these could still have uncleared mines and bombs.
In Vietnam, while public hospitals most certainly lag far behind the standards of the West, there are internationally accredited private hospitals in the major cities that are run to international standards. Laos and Cambodia generally have poor healthcare standards, so you will almost certainly want to travel to Thailand or Singapore for any major procedures; ensure that your insurance covers this.
You may be asked to take off your shoes quite often, especially when entering temples or guesthouses. Wear shoes that can be slipped on and off easily, particularly if you're planning to visit a lot of temples, and make sure your socks aren't full of holes. At Buddhist temples, the areas where you have to go barefoot differ by country. In Laos, shoes are taken off before entering temple buildings and private houses.
As in neighbouring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion in Laos and Cambodia. This means that monks are revered and are expected to take their duties seriously. Monks must avoid physical contact with females, so women who wish to offer food to a monk should place it on a piece of cloth in front of him so he can pick it up. Monks are not allowed to accept or touch money, and offering money to a monk is considered to be disrespectful in the local culture. Should you wish to donate, donate food. As monks are not allowed to eat solid food after noon, they will stop collecting alms before then. "Monks" who hang out at tourist spots and solicit donations from tourists are imposters. Some undertake a vow of silence, and will not answer you even if they can understand and speak English. It is best not to compel them to stand next to you for a photograph, or try to start a conversation if they seem reluctant.
Vietnam follows the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, meaning that monks and nuns are required to be vegetarian, and will either grow their own food or buy it using temple donations. As such, they generally do not go on alms rounds.
- China — The world's most populous country and one of the oldest civilizations, with a vast array of cultural and natural treasures among the frenzied development.
- Myanmar (Burma) — Ancient country west of Indochina with staggering ethnic diversity, whose history includes both an indigenous empire and being part of the British Empire, now emerging from isolation under a strict military junta.
- Thailand — Located at the west of Indochina, Thailand is known for rich culture and cuisine with frenetic cities, chilled-out beaches, and remains of Buddhist kingdoms, making it a very popular destination with visitors returning time and again.