Travel showdown: Vietnam vs Laos vs Cambodia

Ladies and gentleman, welcome to tonight’s main event: the ultimate travel showdown between three of Southeast Asia’s best travel destinations.

They were the first three countries visited on my epic backpacking trip through the region and, as a result, they’re the ones that I feel I know best, having had more time to travel through them extensively.

And now, imagine I’m a boxing commentator because we’re about to pit them up against each other in the ultimate grudge match.

A tourism showdown for the ages, a travel smack-down of epic proportions; it’s neighbour versus neighbour, friend versus friend in this, the boxing match of the decade, The Rumble in Southeast Asia.

Black and white boxing image
© Copyright Nathan Meijer. Reused under the Creative Commons Licence

And here come the challengers now…

In the red corner: the land of the dragon, a country of budget backpacker delights, the one and only Vietnam!

In the blue corner, a feisty up-and-coming land of backpacking opportunities, a country where time practically stands still: Laos!

And finally, in the green corner, a young country of budget travel and cultural delights: Cambodia!

Let’s get ready to rumble!!

Round 1: the best food

Hoi An's delicious fried won ton
Even better than pho: Hoi An’s delicious fried won ton

The bell for the first round rings and Cambodia comes out swinging, trying to land a solid right hook on Laos. Cambodia’s emphasis on simple but delicious food seems to have the small nation stunned.

Cambodia’s curry amok, a coconut milk curry and arguably the country’s most famous dish, is more than a match for anything Laos can throw back: sticky rice, the minced meat dish laap pork and mok paa, a dish consisting of steamed ingredients such as meat wrapped in a banana leaf.

Unfortunately for Cambodia, Vietnam is now joining the fight – landing punch after punch in the form of popular – and delicious – Vietnamese dishes. Its ubiquitous pho, a simple yet delightful noodle soup dish, wins the round for the South East Asian powerhouse.

Winner: Vietnam

Round 2: the best beaches

The bell rings and Cambodia once again takes the ascendancy, raining down a flurry of punches on Vietnam in the form of the many brilliant beaches in and around Sihanoukville – only for Vietnam to fight back with Nha Trang and Mui Ne, arguably the best beach in Vietnam.

Unfortunately for land-locked Laos, its 4,000 islands are no match for either Vietnam or Cambodia; the latter wins this round on points – but only just. Sihanoukville’s peaceful, laid-back vibe and cheap beach barbecues prove too strong for the more touristy Vietnamese beaches.

Winner: Cambodia

Beautiful, peaceful Sihanoukville beach
Sihanoukville is more than a match for Vietnam’s much busier beaches.

Round 3: the cheapest in South East Asia?

Now things are getting interesting. South-paw Cambodia boasts cheaper beach-side accommodation while Laos’ budget accommodation – cold-water showers and fan rooms – leaves Vietnam battered and bruised.

Vietnam wobbles a little bit and counters with a lower price for air-conditioned accommodation and the cheapest beer in Southeast Asia – a deadly combination. Vietnam’s wild haymaker miraculously connects with both opponents, causing Laos to kiss the canvas and Cambodia to stumble to the ropes.

Winner: Vietnam

Round 5: the best beer

Laos’ trainer must have hit the right button because the country of 6.5 million people already has Vietnam – a country of roughly 90 million people – in the corner, hitting it in the old bread basket. Cambodia tries to interject and it, too, is now on the ropes.

Beerlao is proving to be more than a match for anything Vietnam or Cambodia can throw at it. Bia Saigon, 333, Bia Hoi, Biere Larue, Angkor and Anchor are all very fine beers but Beerlao reigns supreme in this Southeast Asian contest.

Winner: Laos

Beerlao singlet and beer in Luang Prabang
The new poster boy for Beerlao

Round 4: friendliest people

The bell rings and Vietnam’s caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, paying a heavy price for its dodgy taxi drivers and unscrupulous tour operators. Meanwhile, Laotians and Cambodian rejoice as their nice-guy images seemingly put them on the front foot when it comes to Southeast Asian tourism.

But Laos may just be too laid back and friendly for its own good. Long waits in Laotian restaurants because their proprietors are a little too relaxed costs the nation dearly and Cambodia takes the points – but only just.

Winner: Cambodia

Round 6: the best cultural sights

We’re moments away from what will be the final and arguably the most important round in this contest. After all, great cultural experiences, tourist attractions and wonders is what travel – and backpacking in particular – is all about.

Vietnam's wondrous, mind-blowingly spectacular Halong Bay
Vietnam’s wondrous, mind-blowingly spectacular Halong Bay

The bell rings and Laos immediately fends off a barrage of punches – but the plucky nation is unable to get out of its own corner. The collective cultural wonders of Cambodia and Vietnam are too strong; Laos is knocked cold and now just two challengers remain.

Vietnam’s rich history seemingly gives it the advantage as we come into the final 30 seconds of this travel boxing match. It unleashes the intensity of the War Remnants Museum and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum only for Cambodia to counter with its own raw and incredibly moving monuments to its tumultuous past: S-21 and the brutal Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

In the end, it all comes down to this: the man-made wonders of Angkor Wat versus the natural mystique and wonder of Halong Bay.

Winner: Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sun rise in all its glory
Still one of mankind’s greatest achievements: Angkor Wat

You can’t put Angkor Wat in the corner, nor Cambodia’s many other wonderful backpacker delights: beautiful beaches, friendly people and a fascinating culture and history.

Cambodia is thusly crowned the heavy-weight travel champion in South East Asia – at least of the three nations competing in this contest.

Do you agree? How would you have called this contest, bearing in mind that the other four countries I visited – Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – were not invited to compete purely due to time constraints?

About Simon Petersen 281 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

44 Comments

  1. real nice post! I soon started reading this as a boxing match commentator in my head 😀
    Planning a trip for Dec. Was more into Vietnam but the southpaw Cambodia has me pinned to the wall now..Damn! Keep writing!

  2. Great post! All excellent locations for sure. Cambodia is a fascinating place! I would love to spend more time there. But for living long term, I chose Vietnam!

  3. I have been to all three of those countries twice over but the only place I want to go back now at this point is Vietnam! It’s got a vibe there like no other that I just love!

  4. As a boxing aficionado, I appreciate the hell out of this post! Not to mention, you’ve got an interesting take on these countries. Well done, Simon…well done, good sir!

  5. It was great reading your thoughts on the countries I am travelling to next week. Currently in The Maldives fly to Bangkok for 1 night then catch the sleeper train to Laos, then travel to Cambodia & onto Vietnam, maybe via road even though I have heard it can be difficult crossing the border with visa regulations etc, but this does not deter me, I’ll have to try out their beer as well.

  6. Going to spend 3 weeks there next year. Planning on travelling down Vietnam by train, then into Cambodia and up through Laos. Can’t wait. Any tips welcome!

    • Sounds great! I’m so jealous. If I could do my trip over again, I would. Sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a fairly short amount of time (but it’s very do-able!). I’d suggest you do a lot of reading first and instead of seeing absolutely everything just pick out the highlights along the way. Feel free to email me or hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions and I’ll do my best!

  7. I have three weeks, flying in and out of Bangkok.

    I have laready done Thailand so only want to re-do full moon party! In twi and a bit weeks whats my best possibly plan of action regarding Vietnam/Cambodia? 🙂

    • To be fair, while I may love Cambodia the most – Vietnam is the biggest country with probably the most to see. I’d spend more time there if I were you. How much time? I’m not really sure because we really took our time.

  8. And I thought I had a problem choosing. Interesting writeup . I was deciding between Laos & Cambodia….. although my heart actually swung slightly towards Cambodia due to fact , Angkor Wat is located there. Guess your write up here made the decision easier . And just of the record, Thailand , Indonesia , Malaysia & Singapore is different ball game.

    Reasons – I hail from southern Malaysia & pry my trades in neighbouring Singapore.

    But I have to agree with you , when it comes to backpacking – , Cambodia , Laos , Vietnam & Thailand are slightly much economical compare to Malaysia & Singapore.

    And South East Asia as a whole , there is so much to do and see.. Cheers mate!!

    • Haha, now that’s an idea! I must say though that recently I’ve met a few people who liked Laos the best so you may end up falling into that camp!

  9. Nice article. I think any country have a nice beauty.Lao has old capital LuangPhaBang, Vietnam has Ha Long Bay, Cambodia has Angkor.

    • Thanks Audrey! I really wasn’t sure if it would work – or if everyone would just think I was an idiot for trying to write that way!

  10. To be honest, I don’t think you can really compare these countries, also because half of Vietnam is culturally more East-Asian than South East Asian. Northern Vietnam feels more like China, Taiwan or Korea than like the rest of SE Asia.

    There are many factors to consider and I found Cambodia lacking culturally while Vietnam didn’t only have many temples and old ruins, but a vibrant cultural life (dozens of museums, live music, theatres…) in Hanoi and HCMC, too. Halong Bay, Sapa etc are more natural than cultural attractions. Angkor Wat and all the war memorial stuff are pretty over-hyped in my book.

    Laos didn’t do anything for me at all – much like a very very poor version of Thailand.

    • I hear ya, mate. And if the cultural differences weren’t enough between North and South Vietnam – it was freakin’ freezing cold and rainy up north while it was hot and sunny down south! It was a pretty close fought thing between Cambodia and Vietnam in particular, but Cambodia was just a nicer, friendlier, happier place overall with its highlights at least the equal of Vietnam’s.

  11. I haven’t been to any of the three (I know I need to!), but both of my brothers love Cambodia. They also said Cambodia had such warm people. I love the different areas you chose to narrow down the winner. Beer, beaches and people are very important ha!

    • Thanks Suzy! I loved Cambodia the best but I wanted also to express that each of the three had heaps going for them

  12. Have only been to Cambodia and Vietnam, but Cambodia definitely rocks! Totally agree with you: the beaches, the people, the children, the sights…I could go on and on. Have been living here for 8 months now and loving every minute of it.

    • It’s a place that really surprised me, considering the hell it went through not that long ago. I don’t know whether they’re just putting on a brave face but Cambodia feels like a country that’s definitely on the up!

  13. I had been to Vietnam and Cambodia but not to Laos! I wanna see Laos first, then dip at Sihanoukville as well as ferry around Halong Bay so I can join the boxing match! I love this post mate!

    • Thanks Wends! Just trying something a bit different. Really I love all three of these countries but I just liked Cambodia a tiny bit better!

  14. I think for the first time I FINALLY agree with somebody on their views of other countries. Feelings and experiences in a country are so personal that no two people could like the same countries – but alas – I think we have similar tastes because Cambodia reigns supreme for me as well!

    • Great minds think alike! But I know what you mean – no two travel experiences are ever exactly the same.

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