Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos Packing List + What NOT To Bring

From temples to beaches to UNESCO World Heritage sites, Southeast Asia has something to amaze any kind of traveler. Three unique neighbors in the region are Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — great options to visit as part of a larger, longer trip. Whether you’re backpacking or looking for a bit more upscale experience, there are some travel essentials you shouldn’t leave home without. Here’s our suggestions on what to pack for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, plus what not to bring and some tips for trips around the region.


1) Walking shoes – Whether you’re climbing the stairs of Angkor Wat and surrounding temples in Cambodia or meandering the streets and shops of Hoi An in Vietnam, you’ll be doing a lot of walking. It’s function over fashion when you’re covering miles upon miles, so make sure you pack some comfortable shoes. If they’re rain-resistant, even better.
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2) Backpack – There are some must-do overnight trips, including Halong Bay in Vietnam. A small backpack or daypack makes it easy to pack light with some essentials, like a change of clothes (with some warmer layers), sunscreen and bug spray. Generally, I would advise using a backpack-style bag instead of traditional luggage for all of your packing if you expect to do more than a couple stops on your trip.
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3) Passport pouch – Keeps your passport, cash and other important cards hidden and safe, especially if you’re doing an overnight bus or train. Another option is a cross-body bag, but make sure that wear it as such. It’s become common for thieves on motorbikes to snatch bags off the shoulders of unsuspecting tourists while still in motion. If you’ve rented a bicycle, continue to wear your items in a pouch or cross-body. Bags in the front basket are easy to grab on the move.
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4) Layering clothes – While much of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is warm year-around, it can cool off during some seasons and locations. Sites like Halong Bay can be chilly and wet in the morning before the mist burns off. It’s good to pack some sweaters and a jacket just in case.
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5) Sunscreen and Moisturizer – The sun was so strong in Vietnam, I got sunburned through an umbrella. Make sure you bring a high level sunscreen with you — at least 50 SPF. Some creams and moisturizers sold in the region have whitening agents in them, and it can be hard to tell from the label. Best to bring your own.
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6) Sunglasses/Hat – Guard yourself against the powerful rays in more ways than one. There’s a lot of outdoor activities to enjoy — from snorkeling to Mekong river cruises — but the sun is not always your friend. In addition to wearing sunscreen, sport a hat, sunglasses, or both.
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7) Aloe & Chapstick – Plan for the sun’s aftermath. It’s strength cannot be overstated, and for fair skinned “falang” (foreigners) it can do some damage. Aloe can be hard to find in these countries, so if you’re prone to burn, bring your own.
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8) Flashlight – Losing power is not uncommon in these countries. While living in Laos, we’d lose power almost on a daily basis, sometimes for mere minutes, other times for hours. In Vietnam we stayed in a beautiful eco-lodge that cut the power at night. You need a flashlight, whether the power loss is by choice or not. A small one that fits in your daypack is all you need.
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9) Crisp US dollars – If you require access to certain websites during your trip, it’s best to have a VPN ahead of time just to be sure you’ll be able to log on. Many U.S. networks block streaming in foreign countries, while others limit access for security reasons. Keep in
mind that hacking can be common in developing countries like Laos and Cambodia.


10) VPN – In Cambodia, you can use U.S. currency almost anywhere. In Laos, you pay for your visa in dollars and many shops catering to Westerners accept cash. It’s good to keep a stash with you — but no more than you’d be willing to part with in the worst case scenario. Keep in mind, some places require them to be crisp and new — no folds or creases are accepted.


11) Hand wipes and packs of tissues – Toilet paper is not a given in these countries. Many times you’ll be facing a squat toilet to boot. Carry you own tissues — plus hand wipes — as a sink with soap is not always available.
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12) Visa requirements – Make sure you have all the necessary visa requirements prior to arriving. Bring extra copies of your passport photo. Vietnam requires an approval letter for U.S. citizens. Vietnam Visa requirements; Cambodia Visa requirements; Laos Visa requirements.


13) Over-the-counter medications (stomach, cold, pain) – No doubt one of the highlights of visiting these countries, especially Vietnam, is the food. However, no matter how tasty, it can wreak havoc on the unfamiliar stomach. Keeping a stash of OTC meds is a good plan, as trying to translate to a foreign pharmacists can be a challenge.
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14) LifeStraw – You’re unable to drink the tap water in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, but it’s easy to grab a few bottles of filtered water from a nearby convenience store along the way. If you’re trekking in remote areas and find yourself in an emergency situation, a LifeStraw could be a good tool.
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15) Electrolytes – See #13. Stomach issues aren’t uncommon due to hygiene or simply because of the spice level. If you find yourself dealing with food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea, it’s best to stay hydrated with powdered electrolyte packets.
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16) Comfortable pants – I hope you bring an adventurous palate when traveling in Southeast Asia. The tastes are unlike any other. Food tours are popular — which allows you to try all the local favorites with a helpful guide. But pack some stretchy pants…you’ll need the room.
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17) Bathing suit – The beaches of Vietnam and Cambodia, while not as well known as Thailand, are some of the most beautiful in the world. You can find secluded stretches of island all for yourself, or take a snorkeling trip complete with fresh-caught sea urchin.
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Other packing list items to bring


What not to bring:

1) 🚫 Valuables: Leave all but essentials at home. Don’t bring anything that you can’t bear to ever see again. While violent crimes are rare, crimes of opportunity — petty theft, for example — can occur.

2) 🚫 Unneeded Books: Besides a trusty guidebook , I’ve found ebook readers incredibly helpful in lightening the load. Many times you’re restricted by a weight limit when flying on smaller planes, a likelihood when traveling within this region.

3) 🚫 Hair dryer: Western hair dryers are too much for outlets in this area. You’ll short out in no time flat. Save the space and stick with a provided dyer, or just air dry.

4) 🚫 Cold weather clothes: While it can get cool, the temperatures likely won’t get down low enough for the need of a true heavy coat. Stick with layers, including at least one jacket, and you should be good.

5) 🚫 Offensive or revealing clothing: From visiting templates to walking ancient streets, you’ll want to stay classy in these modest cultures. Most temples have clothing requirements — long pants for men and no shoulders or legs showing for women.

6) 🚫 A computer or bulky electronics: Again, only pack things that you’re willing to live without in case something happens to them. If you want to run the risk, I’d check into an insurance policy that covers.

7) 🚫 Local currency with you (use ATM for best rate): Most international airports will have an ATM within them or nearby. It’s always my first stop upon landing. You’ll likely get a better exchange rate than ordering it before you leave.

FAQ


1) Can I drink the water?

It is not safe to drink the tap water in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam. Bottled water is easy to come by. Some accommodations even have a water dispenser if you bring along a reusable bottle.

2) What type of accommodations are there?

Accommodations range in style and price. Guesthouses are common budget options. On the higher end, look for hotels or resorts. If you’re doing a Mekong River cruise or Halong Bay tour, overnight boats are usually a bit pricier but most include meals.

3) Do I need additional health insurance on top of my own?

Make sure your health insurance covers emergency evacuation before you leave. If not,
you should look into travel health insurance. Additionally, it’s a good idea to cover your
trip as well, in case of last minute changes due to emergencies.

4) What’s the best time of year to go?

Cambodia and Laos have similar rainy seasons — from May or June to September or October. For Vietnam, fall and spring are the most popular times to visit for international tourists. I encourage you to look outside of those times though — low and shoulder seasons can have better prices and small crowds.

5) Do people speak English?

While English is more common in major cities, don’t count on everyone you meet to speak it. Have a few key phrases on hand, and be sure to print out all your travel information with the local address (in the respective language) ahead of time.

6) What vaccinations do I need?

This depends on your itinerary and length of stay. Visit a travel health clinic for the most
accurate advice.

Tips


1) Is Angkor Wat worth it?

Yes. While crowds are crazy, especially at sunrise, it’s worth scoping out a spot away from the main lake for a good view and fewer people. As the sun comes up, you can wander around to different locations to get a variety of photo angles. Most people will visit for sunrise, head back to their hotel for breakfast and a nap, before returning at a later hour. If you can power through starting at daybreak, you’ll be able to see the inside quicker and easier. We opted for a half-day tour guide who showed us through different temples, including Angkor Wat. It was helpful to hear a local’s perspective.

2) What’s the best way to pick a Halong Bay tour?

Tours on Halong Bay range from budget party boat to luxury high-end getaways. Start with what fits your budget and go from there. Most pick you up from your Hanoi hotel, drive the four hours (or so) to the docks before setting off.

3) What’s the best day trip from Luang Prabang, Laos?

While it’s better for a long weekend, I highly recommend Nong Khiaw just north of Luang Prabang. It’s about 3.5 – 4 hours ride via minibus. You can either book one in town or take the public bus from Luang Prabang’s northern bus station. The town has a laid back vibe, with many options for activities, including visiting nearby caves, kayaking and trekking.

4) What’s a food tour?

While it’s often a debate among travelers, “which Southeast Asian country has the best food,” Vietnam gets my vote. Its street food is truly unique. An easy way to sample all the fare is by booking a food tour. You’ll hop on the back of a motorbike and get a quick tour of the city while you’re at it. If you’re adventurous enough, try the fertilized duck egg — tastes like a hard boiled egg, with a few almost-formed feathers.

Other tips:

  • Get off the beaten path: whether it’s a remote island or a day or two in the hills for a homestay, it’s always best to allow for a bit of flexibility in your schedule. These countries are the perfect place to unplug.
  • Extra packing space: Make sure you leave yourself some extra room in the luggage. If you’re visiting Hoi An, Vietnam, you might be tempted by the custom-made suits and dresses. Or if you’re in Laos, handwoven silk and cotton textiles are a great memento to bring home with you.
  • Mekong trips: If you have the time, one unique way to see Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is by boat. The Mekong River is a lifeline for villages and communities throughout the countries — not to mention a beautiful, scenic journey. No matter how long you’re in the region, I highly recommend spending at least a portion floating down this majestic river.

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